Say it loud

A booming spoken-word movement has revitalised Trinidad and Tobago’s poetry scene with fresh ideas and hard-hitting lyrics from a new generation of poet-performers. Nazma Muller finds out what’s driving this surge of talent, and profiles eight popular new voices

  • Members of the 2 Cents Movement and their associates. Top row, left to right: Kito Fortune, Ariel Wolffe, Akile Wallace, Stephanie Smith, Brandon O’Brien, Karina Rodriguez, Ariana Herbert, K.C. Martin, David Lennard. Bottom row: Crystal Skeete, Idrees S
  • Amilcar Sanatan. Photography by Marlon James
  • Kyle “Skeeto” Amos. Photography by Marlon James
  • Crystal Skeete. Photography by Marlon James
  • Jean-Claude Cournand. Photography by Marlon James
  • Charnell Lucien. Photography by Marlon James
  • Derron Sandy. Photography by Marlon James
  • Kleon McPherson. Photography by Marlon James
  • Idrees Saleem. Photography by Marlon James

Ten years ago, when Caribbean Beat last highlighted the spoken-word scene in Trinidad and Tobago, a young, bearded university student was just starting a revolution. His name was Muhammad Muwakil, his revolution was strictly mental, and his only weapon was the word: the sound and the power and the rhythm of language.

They say we can’t write no love songs
Live fast and we die young
They say we doomed to fail, whoa
They say we prone to violence and a sinking silence,
They don’t know what they’re saying
Cuz this generation, man, we on a mission
A whole world to change . . .

Back then, Muwakil’s main arena was the undercroft at the University of the West Indies St Augustine campus, where he revived an open mic event called U.WE Speak. Here, and at another event called Speakeasy, he recruited a small army of lyrical slayers — chief among them Lou Lyons, a militant guitarist with his own distinctive rapping style, with whom Muwakil formed the now-celebrated Freetown Collective.

As with all revolutions, timing was everything — timing and technology. Freetown’s rise in popularity coincided with the arrival of YouTube, smartphones, and a rising Internet penetration rate in energy-rich T&T. The revolution was indeed televised, you could say. Freetown Collective delivered their “shots” via YouTube, their stirring performances captured on videos that reached thousands of young Trinis. Joined briefly by Keegan Maharaj, who is once again flying solo, Freetown has grown and moved into music and, more recently, film. Lyons and Muwakil both starred in the feature-length God Loves the Fighter, a gritty look at Trinidad’s underworld, which premiered in 2013.

And then came the 2 Cents Movement and the Free Speech Project. Among the many youngsters whom Muwakil influenced through U.WE Speak was a then–nineteen-year-old behavioural sciences major by the name of Jean-Claude Cournand. Smitten by the wordsmiths he saw and heard, Cournand performed his first spoken-word piece in a bid to become student ambassador at the University of the Southern Caribbean in 2011. At the time, he was part of USC’s debating society, formed to address a general apathy among youths whose only interests seemed to be “which party they going.” This group of young thinkers became what is today the ten-strong collective called the 2 Cents Movement.

Spoken-word poetry, as Cournand tells it, was just one element of the group’s strategy to create consciousness about important issues — to get their audiences to think, care, and act to make a positive change. But these efforts kept snowballing into what could turn out to be the most radical movement ever in the Land of Soca. 96.1 WE FM, the island’s number-one radio station for urban programming, was paying attention, and decided to feature spoken-word poets in what it called the Free Speech Project.

“Some people might say spoken-word poetry is risky for the urban format,” says station owner Anthony Chow Lin On, a.k.a. DJ Chinese Laundry. “But I thought it was important to present these views, to have these works recorded, and to have these opinions heard.” And with that, the reach of spoken-word was ramped way up. The Free Speech Project airs on 96.1 and its sister stations four times a day, Monday to Thursday. All of the poets’ videos are uploaded to the network’s YouTube channel, and many are featured on the stations’ Facebook pages.

“We’ve had three seasons already, and we’re preparing for our fourth,” says Chow Lin On. “When you see a Free Speech video having thirty thousand views, you understand that people are seeing it as a mirror. The greater story for me is the fact that so many mostly young people have voices that want to be heard. I’m just running one leg of the relay. I don’t know if people understand clearly how important it is to hear what the next generation has to say.”

The corporate world has also been listening. In 2012, the 2 Cents Movement teamed up with the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s annual literary festival, to host the first Verses Bocas Poetry Slam, sponsored by First Citizens. In 2013, Courts, the furniture chain, joined the movement by sponsoring an ambitious three-part project called the Courts Bocas Speak Out Secondary Schools Tour. Members of 2 Cents perform their works and introduce spoken-word poetry; students who think they want to try their hand are taught the rudiments of the art form in workshops; then they enter the national Intercol spoken-word slam.

“Spoken word is doing things that nobody else is doing,” says Marina Salandy-Brown, founder and director of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, “and it’s very diverse. It’s incredible how these poets are able to connect with elements in our society that literary festivals don’t often reach.” She explains that the poetry slam is a very strategic part of the Bocas Lit Fest project. The slam final, held at the Central Bank Auditorium last year, was sold out, with hundreds having to be turned away. In 2015, renamed the First Citizens National Poetry Slam, and with a top prize of TT$20,000, the event is moving to an even bigger venue, the Hyatt Regency Hotel. “That is hugely significant,” says Salandy-Brown. “And I’m very pleased to be working with the people who do it — they are inspiring.”

Salandy-Brown has a theory that spoken word will do what calypso did in the 1940s and 50s, in pre-independence Trinidad and Tobago — awaken in young people a new consciousness and awareness of their power to change their destiny. That would be a revolution in truth.


Amilcar Sanatan

Former coordinator of U.WE Speak • Facilitator on the Courts Bocas Speak Out Tour 

Boys still boys, so often misunderstood
In still of the night, come into their motherhoods
Through the symmetrical pale of open windows
They hear the cry of crackling crickets and a widow
We all cry inside for the absent father, dead
And my mother’s unseen tears, we shed . . .

—From “Into Our Motherhoods”

Perhaps best known for his tenure as president of the Students’ Guild at the University of the West Indies in St Augustine, Sanatan used his formidable oratory skills there to highlight students’ issues. From 2008 to 2012, as organiser of U.WE Speak, he developed it into an influential spoken-word space, promoting the idea of advocacy through the arts.

Currently a research assistant at the Institute of Gender and Development Studies at UWI, Sanatan counts among his influences writers like Rex Nettleford, V.S. Naipaul, George Lamming, and Derek Walcott, as well as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Paul McCartney, R&B from the 1960s, his mother and grandmother, and “bredren on the block,” who perform “poetry in an everyday way.”


Kyle “Skeeto” Amos

Founder of the One Mic spoken-word group • Free Speech Project

Speaking of credit, now that I have your ears without a phone conversation
I would like you to credit me a request, yes, credit
Please tell it to the Senate, that I feel
That we can relieve our friendly foreign companies
Of their barrels from the barrels of oil that we export overseas,
Turn it around, chisel the sound and sell it.
Make the manufacturing real,
So that we can produce
Many more orchestras of steel
Because we can’t simply think of pan in Panorama,
We need to think, Panoramic . . .

— From “Pandemonium”

“Skeeto,” as he is best known, has been organising open mic sessions in south Trinidad since 2006. He attended the very first session of U.WE Speak, hosted by Muhammad Muwakil in 2005, and motivated by his English literature studies, he was inspired to become part of the spoken word movement.

With U.WE Speak and other events like Songshine and Speakeasy taking place in north Trinidad, Skeeto felt spoken-word needed a space in his neck of the woods. Inspired by Def Poetry Jam and seeing spoken-word done internationally, he’s convinced that “the Caribbean has a voice in itself. In beginning to write, it’s a matter of exploring your voice. And letting your readers explore your voice and your perspective.”


Crystal Skeete

Winner of the 2013 Verses Bocas Poetry Slam  • Winner of Tobago Word Festival’s Speak and Compete Poetry Slam • Member of 2 Cents Movement and Free Speech Project

You now find out his exchange rate of partners like US to Guyanese dollar
Sparrow say 10 to 1 is murder, well this have to be massacre
But that is what does happen when box pleats in back seats bang bang to the blaring beat of “Bedroom Bully”
When Murray Street move to maxi seats
And classrooms move to bedrooms
And tuck shops become romping shops
When high men sever hymens and hide them like treasure
These pirates raiding the future carried in the school bags . . .

—From “Maxi Man Tracking School Gyal”

With more than 82,000 YouTube views of the video for “Maxi Man”, the poem that made her Verses 2013 champion, Tobagonian Skeete is by far the best known of the Free Speech poets. A doctor by profession, this former T&T track and field athlete proves laughter is indeed the best medicine, as she uses her pen like a scalpel. Her sharp, humorous observations about predatory maxi conductors and the goings-on in the backseats of their “rides” brought her to national attention, and she has stayed there as she cuts to the heart of the matter about social ills, from domestic violence to tobacco use.


Jean-Claude Cournand

Founder and leader of the 2 Cents Movement • Co-ordinator, Courts Bocas Speak Out Secondary Schools Tour

There are days
In my red, white, and black nation
I am green card mad with frustration
to migration
from this location
of beautiful un-sure shorelines . . .
There are days
When I so belong to this tiny spot
I imagine spending sanity to prove
Here cannot
Be anything less,
than paradise

— From “The Almost Migrated Trinbagonian”

This energetic twenty-four-year-old has been the catalyst for the 2 Cents Movement, making the non-profit organisation a household name with his commitment to youth activism through the arts. Performing since the age of ten (on the children’s TV talent show Twelve and Under), Cournand is now co-ordinator of the Courts Bocas Speak Out Secondary Schools Tour.

His guiding philosophy is to write pieces that engage the listener, not bash or blame anyone. “That’s one of my main philosophies: I ask, how can you, the person in the seat in front of me, get involved in changing things.”


Charnell Lucien

Free Speech Project

You can’t believe what hearing you
Can’t conceive what it feels like,
Cannot be called a mother feels like,
Self-conscious in public spaces
Cuz the confused faces see a no-breasted chest
As their condemnations commence and combust
Cuz without bust and a full head of hair
I’m nowhere near being considered beautiful
But who needs beauty when every day I need to fight . . .

—From “C is for Cancer”

Citing Maya Angelou as her major influence, Lucien is one of the earliest and most enduring of the Free Speech Project poets, as well as one of the most popular. “We really wanted to put the artform out there and get our voices heard, and we had messages for the nation,” she says. The university student tends to lean more towards serious pieces and writing from a first person perspective, because her writing process involves getting into character. Many of her pieces deal with family issues, such as single parenting and domestic violence, because, as she says, “I think that is the root of a lot of the problems we have going on today.”


Derron Sandy

U.WE Speak veteran • Lead workshop facilitator, Courts Bocas Speak Out Secondary Schools Tour • Member of the 2 Cents Movement

But still this girl waist still had no timing
But I know Africans who are late for everything —
there draws our commonality.
For besides the cowards that thief our common themes
This goes beyond colour and creed
We breathe and breed
Air and children
And we see and make seas of
rare coloured kindred

— From “Racist Waste”

Courting controversy from the outset, Sandy came close to the bone with his edgy ode to Afro-Indo-Trinidadian romances. “I wanted to address the stereotypes that my friends would talk about,” he says matter-of-factly of his best-known piece. Sandy’s poems focus on family life, the social condition of young black men, politics, misbehaviour in public office, and sexual orientation — but he also does what he calls “light” themes, about “coconut water, love, and just feeling good.”


Kleon McPherson

Finalist, 2014 Verses Bocas Poetry Slam • Free Speech Project

No wonder that high-powered camera acts just like a high-powered rifle
Since so-called flawless models in scanty clothes
Lingerie and swim suits, pose
In their photo shoots as shooters —
Oops, I mean photographers point and shoot
Causing life to flash before their eyes
As chambers are emptied by the sound of trigger clicks!, clicks!, clicks! 
But they don’t reload with magazine clips
Instead fulling magazines with pics, 
Taking ordinary women’s thoughts on trips, 
As they aspire to look like women on the magazines 
But the women on the magazines don’t even look like the women on the magazines . . .

— From “Skin Deep”

McPherson has performed at the Tobago Jazz Experience and Machel Monday, a massive concert at Carnival time staged by the soca superstar Machel Montano. One of his pieces, “A Hot Shh”, actually made it to number one on a local song chart. A cultural researcher with a BA in history and a masters in cultural studies, McPherson is also a trained stiltwalker, virtuoso pannist, and Carnival band leader.


Idrees Saleem

Winner of the 2014 Verses Bocas Poetry Slam • Member of 2 Cents Movement

I am the son of someone, it seems, with seams undone,
So when I try on his jacket it seems
I’m rough on the edges, where I get this one from
I doh like this tight fit . . . this cya be my ship
So before they plank me when things get overboard, I’ll go overboard
I’ll swim with these hands . . . my birthright and all I was left with
These same hands that have been left without with right
All I was left with was these hands . . . right? . . . left with right
But in class when these hands go up . . . they get shut down
In these streets when hands go up . . . they get shot down by shot gun . . .

— From “Black Poetry Have Roots”

Saleem is Trinidad’s answer to Jamaica’s legendary dub poet Mutabaruka. Militant and armed with a rapier-sharp wit and a prolific pen, he delivers deadly insights into life in marginalised communities like the one he grew up in, Maloney Gardens, a government housing project in east Trinidad. A founding member of D.M.A.D. Company (Drama Making A Difference), he is also a full-time actor, and more recently, a writer and co-director for the stage. He brings a riveting physicality to his performances, his slim, energetic frame deployed to full effect. His influences include local artistes Muhammad Muwakil, Lou Lyons, Gary Acosta, and “Skeeto” Amos, as well as US performers Amir Sulaiman and Lupe Fiasco.