Salifu: So yeah, Shaun, I’m very excited to have you here to talk about a lot of the recent developments in the Caribbean. I know we’ve talked, ahead of this, that we wanna talk about foreign meddling, we wanna talk about some of the organizing that’s going on in the region where you are in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago. But before we get into all of that, I figured it would be interesting, at least for me, ‘cause I’ve listened to you talk in other places quite a bit, but I’m curious to know about younger you. I want to talk about young Shaun, you know? Can you just tell me a little bit about growing up and what some of the things were that you saw and heard that started to shape your view of the world and eventually led you toward anti-imperialism?
Shaun: Mmm. That’s a big question. Very big question because all of us in the world, all of us are born into a society. So, the society guides us, molds us to some extent, creates our awareness, our consciousness, our thoughts, our worldview. And I’m no different. I’m just one humble youth. A humble bredren growing up in the world. So, like I said, I was born into a society. I was born in a time and place, which was significant in the 20th century. I’m a youth of the 20th century. So I was born at a time when what could be called the Pan-African movement, anticolonial movement, anti-imperialist movement, civil rights movement (If you want to call it that) was strong. It was significant in the political life of the world to some extent; if we are Reggaerding the world as, in our sense, the Pan-African World: the Caribbean, United States, United Kingdom, Western Europe. I was born in that time when the Black Power movement, the influence of the Black Power movement was on the wane. It was diminishing and decreasing. It probably had been defeated (say in, the United States) but its embers, its flames were still burning in some places definitely. There was an anticolonial movement on the continent of Africa, itself. There was an anti-racist movement in the United Kingdom. There was an anticolonial movement in the Caribbean. Many Caribbean countries had just achieved their formal independence in the late 60s. Some of them even up to the mid-1970s and all of that was influenced by anticolonial movement, anti-imperialist movement to one extent or another. I was born in that period.
So my family, my parents, the circles who were around them, were people who were influenced by that. Maybe not in what we would call a political way, but in a cultural way, in a consciousness way. So people was wearing dashikis. I notice people wearing dashikis again now. When I was born people was wearing dashikis. When my dad first went to Trinidad or returned to Trinidad in the late 1960s, in the period of the Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago, my dad went – he always tells this story– he went in a dashiki. He had dashikis to wear. This was in the late 1960s, early 70s that people was asking him whether he’s a revolutionary. So that’s the kind of period that my parents were brought up in or grew up in. And my childhood was kind of at the cusp of that era. So I grew up amongst these kinds of discussions and talks, and the clothes that the people was wearing, the music people were listening to. Very important. Reggae music was very influential. Calypso was very influential in our household. We listened to all those tunes of Sparrow, Kitchener. Those are the main ones I can think of. In terms of literature, a lot of the literature was around my house at that time. Revolutionary literature. If I could pick, this is one of the most influential books that I had:
George Jackson’s Soledad Brother. My older brother had that book in the house. I was an avid reader from a young man. I picked up that book just ‘cause it was a book to read. I read everything else. So I said, “I’m gonna read this.” I must have been about 13 or 14, at the time. So this is the environment that I was in, the terrain that I was on in terms of the cultural sense, in terms of the political and ideological things. Similarly, my real life was one of a Black youth growing up in the United Kingdom in Britain, at that time. This is a period where racism was very stark, was very overt. Where discrimination and inequality was very serious in all fields, as it is now: in education, in health, in social affairs.
There were parts of London— I’m telling you, Bredren, there was parts of London where we were encouraged or discouraged from walking because hooligans incited by the government; and it’s important to say that. There were hooligans incited by the government because is the government which is the source of the problem, is the source of racism and discrimination. But hooligans were incited by them and by the media and press talking about “Black criminals,” “Black muggers,” “Black hoodlums.” So in many places we couldn’t walk the streets safe. In fact, one of the most significant events of my childhood or my youth, 1981. A very famous incident. Been thinking about it since you were talking about my early life. They call it the New Cross Massacre. It’s akin, if I think about it now, to the Birmingham bombings of 1963.
New Cross is one part of London. Southeast London. Plenty Black people live in that area. It’s a working class area, still. A house was fire bombed. Thirteen young Black people who was around my age at the time. Teenagers, late teenagers, early twenties were killed. They were killed in a racist attack. Now, it was trivialized. People tried to pretend that it was like a hoax or an accident, it wasn’t a racist attack. But in that period, these kind of terrorist bombings, fire bombings (as well as attacks on the road) was taking place. So this is the kind of environment that I was in and there was plenty organizing going on amongst young Black people. We had Black political organizations. I wasn’t in them, but I could see them and hear them, hear of them, hear of their influence. But this was the kind of thing that influenced me, as a young man growing up.
So I was born in London. My parents are from Trinidad and Tobago. I was moving amongst people from Trinidad and Tobago, people from the Caribbean. You have to know the history of England or the United Kingdom. It’s influential in the sense that they went around the world, especially to Africa, especially to Indian subcontinent, especially to the Caribbean, and they are past masters at human trafficking. That’s what it is. It’s human trafficking. So they take people from their homelands and bring them, or encourage them to go to the “mother country.” This is why we have so much Black people in the United Kingdom. This is why I was in the United Kingdom. This is why my parents decided to go to England to find a job. Again, talking about parallels, if we wanna look at this in terms of Pan Africanism, in terms of Black experience, there is a parallel to — what do they call it now? The Great Migration of the Africans in the United States who moved from Southern, rural, agricultural environments to Northern or Western or Midwestern urban communities and created and shaped a new culture in that region.
What they call in the United Kingdom “The Windrush generation” is a similar process. Much of it is to do with how we are seen. We, Black people are seen as expendable labor, cheap labor who could be moved around anywhere to do any kind of cheap labor-style work. So this is significant in the sense of why we have Black people in the United Kingdom and also the influences on those Black people in the United Kingdom. Because we live with the racism, the discrimination. We fighting back against that, we struggling against that. So it has an impact.
Also it’s significant to say, I have to say, Trinidad and Tobago provided to the Pan-African movement from the early 20th century up to now several significant Pan-Africanist leaders. Very significant people from early 1900s up until all now, although the significance might be slightly different now or the impact might be slightly different. I’m talking about Henry Sylvester Williams. I’m talking about Kwame Ture, CLR James, George Padmore, many others. Eric Williams, himself. His seminal work Capitalism and Slavery is one of the most important books which unpacks, excavates, reveals the capitalist system for what it is, it’s emergence. It emerged on the basis of the enslavement of the African people in the Caribbean. So it’s significant in that way. So all these kind of things was going on. Historically, all these things are influencing me as a youth. And that brought me to where I am. I just happened to be one bredren who moved in a certain direction. I could have moved in other directions. I could have become a regular man. Worker doing some job. I could have become a criminal. I could have become a musician. I happened to become a revolutionary and I’ve been on that road since then and I may not even leave that road. I’m still on the road. You know what I mean? It’s the only road.
Salifu: I love it. I love it. Thank you so much for taking the time to lay that out for me. It really does really kind of paint a picture, I feel, when you have the context for where a person comes from and how they see the sort of worldview that surrounds them.
And I really appreciate the point that you made about how you are of a society. You’re of a community. We all are. That’s a very African way of thinking, very African way of being for sure.
Shaun: Yeah. Yeah.
Salifu: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about sort of the political and historical differences between Trinidad and Tobago? ‘Cause even I tend to just kind of lump them together sometimes when I talk about them. If you could just talk about that a little bit and maybe what it means for the future.
Shaun: Trinidad’s history is different to Tobago’s history. Both islands, like all the islands in the region, faced an encounter, you might say, with European conquistadors whether they were Spanish or French, Dutch or English. But they treated each island as an entity in itself, as a play thing. A colonial play thing. So talking about Trinidad and Tobago, Trinidad was only settled in the late 18th century— 1797. So yes, there was enslavement here, but it’s a difference. Enslavement only had maybe a 40, 50 year period in Trinidad. And they were bringing people from other islands. From Haiti, from Grenada, wherever. When the French were defeated in Haiti, the French ran to different islands with their different possessions. Guadeloupe, Martinique, Grenada, different places. Plenty of their people came to Trinidad. These are the planters, the slave masters and they brought plenty of their enslaved people with them. So Trinidad has a different history to Barbados or Jamaica where the enslavement was consolidated from the 1600s. Trinidad was slightly different. So the culture, the traditions, the mode of production, the relations of production is kind of different in Trinidad.
Tobago, in contrast, the British had Tobago for a long time. Although they was fighting the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, they fought over Tobago. Maybe 20 times they went to war. But Tobago is principally African people, people of African heritage. Whereas Trinidad is a much more diverse population. People of African heritage, people of Indian subcontinent heritage, Portuguese, Chinese, French amalgamated. There’s a strong African tradition in Trinidad, for sure. But it’s not the same as it is in Tobago. Tobago is much more rootical. I’m gonna call it “much more rootical” in Tobago. Whereas Trinidad has a different kind of heritage and tradition. That doesn’t mean the Trinidadians are less militant, less vocal, less people of resistance because we’ve been resisting ever since in Trinidad in all kind of ways. Political ways, cultural ways that otherwise manifests, you might say, in our independence movement and also in our Black Power movement which is under the surface, still.
And also it has to be said in 1938, not only in Trinidad, but in several English speaking Caribbean islands there were workers struggles. Struggles for our rights against Calabar, against discrimination, against the domination of the economies by the English colonials and the manifestations of that. Another significant factor about Trinidad is it’s industrialized to a much greater extent than many Caribbean islands. Trinidad has an oil industry and associated industries, manufacturing industries. So a traditional proletariat, a working class, is much more prevalent in Trinidad than it is in many of the other islands and is very different in that sense to Tobago, which is mostly agricultural and service and tourist oriented. For example, Trinidad doesn’t really need a tourist industry in the same way; well, Tobago doesn’t need a tourist industry. No Caribbean island needs a tourist industry. But in the sense that they’ve been established here and decided that that’s how they’re going to establish the economic foundation, Tobago has a tourist industry. People come here. So that’s a significant difference between Trinidad and Tobago.
Another thing that’s very important, talking about the political situation right here in Trinidad and Tobago, is like all the countries which emerged in the Caribbean, the colonialists established the political mechanisms, the political ways of being, the political structures. So everything is based on the Westminster system directly. Everything. So for example, in Tobago, they say, “we have the oldest political assembly in the Caribbean.” This is, in my opinion, not a serious assessment. That political structure was established by the colonialists for the colonialists to regulate the colonialist economic and political interests.
So, okay, historically you could say they had a political entity, they had an assembly, but it was an assembly for the planters, for the elites. There was no universal suffrage. Universal suffrage came to the Caribbean in the 1950s. In the 1940s. What is this? These people could run around and were talking about democracy and human rights. We didn’t get universal suffrage until a generation ago. So anyway, that’s more background. But another difference between Trinidad and Tobago is that the British using us as pawns, us Caribbean islands as pawns, amalgamated Trinidad with Tobago in an administrative union in the late 19th century.
So is an artificial combination in some ways because it wasn’t a people’s union. None of the islands in the Caribbean established themselves, in my view, on the basis of what would you call— well with the exception of Haiti and Cuba— establish themselves on the basis of the peoples struggle to establish a new society on a new historical basis. All of the country, all of the islands, all of the entities, all of the states in this region were established and consolidated by the colonialists. So they gave them a name, a title, in most cases a capital city, a currency, a political situation, political structures. And these are the political structures which exist up to now. So in terms of creating new societies on a new historical basis, from the thought material of the masses of people themselves, this is not something; or this is a challenge that we have yet to overcome. So talking about Trinidad and Tobago, the reason I give that kind of background, because Trinidad and Tobago — you were talking about the differences between Trinidad and Tobago so I’m trying to give you some context. Trinidad is much bigger, much more urban, much more proleterialized, much more developed in terms of its industrial, economic basis in contrast to Tobago where it’s a much smaller physically and in terms of population, we have 50- 60,000 people here where there’s a million plus in Trinidad. And we are much more rural agricultural and African society. That’s our demographics here in Tobago.
So those kinds of facts, they generate some objective difficulties, some objective factors to be overcome related to “who are the Trinis?” Are the Trinis just from Trinidad or are they Caribbean people from Trinidad and Tobago? To what extent is Tobago seen as an equal in this relationship? To what extent is the economy of Tobago dominated by Trinidad, a bigger economy? But to what extent is Tobago marginalized? Culturally, politically, economically? How does our political structures work here in Tobago in a twin island state? To what extent are the people empowered? Participating? Is there grassroots participation? These are factors that generate discussion in Tobago related to whether or not we should actually be a part of Trinidad and Tobago.
Shaun: Let’s try and get a bit more specific then about the SOUTHCOM. So they’ve divided the world, the United States Department of Defense divided the world into 11 regions. One of which is us, SOUTHCOM. And for SOUTHCOM they say that they want to collaborate with military police intelligence, security forces or entities in this region. To do what? “To protect democracy.” To deter the drug industry and the drug trade, to prevent human trafficking as they define it. So these are the pretexts they use, but another context to that can be seen in 1983 when the Grenadian revolution was defeated or fell apart or imploded. Because that was a significant period (or event or episode) which gave the catalyst for the Americans to say, “we are going to intervene. We’re going to intervene with our collaborators. We’re going to intervene with Caribbean forces and we want to prevent that kind of thing happening ever again.” So I think since 1983, although they didn’t call it SOUTHCOM in 1983, they called it Caribbean Protection Force, I believe, or Regional Forces. I can’t remember the exact term, but it’s the same process. So the SOUTHCOM is the tip of the spare which represents or exemplifies or symbolizes the fact The United States, not only the United States, but all the colonial powers, the French, the British, the Dutch (for God’s sake, you know what I mean?) are there. The French still have captured and maintain two colonial entities in Martinique and Guadeloupe. The Dutch have a colonial relationship with Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. I mean, an open colonial relationship with military bases, police forces intervening. Leaving Holland and going to those islands. The French send troops and military police to Martinique and Guadeloupe to repress resistance or to repress political protests.
So when we talking about SOUTHCOM, it’s important to identify SOUTHCOM. It’s important to indict them. It’s important to unite, to analyze what’s going on, to recognize that there’s some interference in our region and to resist that interference however we can, in whatever ways we can. But also, I think [important] to know that it’s not something that’s new. But what it does, I think, in this current period of instability in the world, it demonstrates in a way that 1) that there’s resistance, 2) that the standpoint, the strategy of the American government, the United States government is one in which they want to dominate the entire world. So we come through this period of post second world war, cold war, multipolar world, unipolar world. Now the Americans for the last 15, 20 years, maybe more, attempted to establish and consolidate a unipolar world that they dominate completely, and that all rivals are defeated. This is something as well, I think, that’s going on with the SOUTHCOM and for us in the Caribbean region to be in that kind of storm, in that maelstrom is dangerous for us because war is not fun. Intervention is not fun. Is not a nice thing. So we don’t want to be part of that.
And similarly, I believe that we Caribbean people —- I’m talking about all of us, I’m not just talking about Trinidad and Tobago. I’m talking about from north to south, from Cuba to Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, even if you want to talk about parts of Venezuela, Columbia, some people Reggaerd this as Caribbean in terms of cultural traditions and history; these are strategic places where the American government and the British and NATO countries are intervening and looking to continue domination. They hold us by a thousand strings anyway, or they ensnare us by a thousand strings anyway, and we want to extricate ourselves from that.
So the SOUTHCOM’s very dangerous. The annual exercises— they create tension in our region. They’re very wasteful. They waste our resources. They also, I think, bring our police, military, intelligence services, the ruling classes of our countries in the region (with the exception possibly of Cuba) into the orbit of American military-political-intelligence-police activities. Which is not good for anyone. It doesn’t protect our sovereignty or our independence. It doesn’t allow us, or rather it prevents us or impedes us in this region from establishing our own methods. Our own ways of organizing our societies, of dealing with our social, political and economic problems. Is another barrier block and siphon ball in front of us causing problems. So that’s how I see the SOUTHCOM. Having said that, the resistance to the SOUTHCOM is not small. The resistance to the SOUTHCOM is in the political circles. The resistance or the opposition, or the knowledge of SOUTHCOM (who it is and what it is and what they’re doing) is not insignificant either. The Cubans are waging a courageous struggle. I mean, part of their land is occupied in Guantanamo Bay by SOUTHCOM and has been for the last over 100 years. And their resistance to that (in the diplomatic and political sense) exemplifies and symbolizes the resistance in the Caribbean to that type of intervention, that type of Monroe Doctrine- type of domination and interference in our countries. So yeah, those are the kind of things I’d say about the SOUTHCOM. I dunno. Does that make sense?
Salifu: It’s helpful to hear and understand the context of the resistance to not just SOUTHCOM, but U.S. and Western intervention in the region generally, in the past and contemporarily. Because it’s quite easy, I believe, to leave the United States and buy a ticket or get on a boat and head to the Caribbean and be lured into the tourist— this kind of bubble that The United States kind of creates, that creates a stereotype about the Caribbean, as you know, full of people who are just happy and drinking and partying and not thinking about the world too seriously. And so that’s why you should go there and vacation. When we know the reality is that the Caribbean has been, for decades now, a hotbed of resistance in this region. Probably THE hotbed of resistance in this region. So thank you for that.
Shaun: Yeah. Yeah, no doubt, man. And I mean another thing to say, as well, you know I didn’t mention Haiti. If we want to talk about symbolism of resistance, you know, I always have to big up the Haitians because they’ve been resisting for 200 odd years. And it could also be said— I like to draw the parallel between the Haitian revolution and the American revolution. They took place at a similar period. They did similar things. But they were led by different class forces. One was led by slave masters. One was led by the enslaved people. One established that human beings have rights because they are human beings. And one said, “no, there’s certain categories of humans.” Subhumans. You know? So it is significant. When we talk about Haiti, it’s not—- sentimentality is important, yeah. We love them. We love what they did. They’re the first slave revolt. Makes we feel good. We read Toussaint. This is good for our consciousness and awareness. But also understand the significance of what they achieved and the punishment that they faced and are still facing and how significant they are. Because the enemies wouldn’t be going there all now, 200 odd years later, if they didn’t think they were significant. They recognize the power, the potency of the Haitian Revolution and the Haitian people. Man, that’s some deep seated kind of —- anyway— material that there.
So, yeah, important. So the resistance is like a high point. Sometimes it’s very open and militant. But most times in the culture, in the traditions of our region, we are, I believe, a component of the world movement against domination. We are part of that movement. That’s in our DNA.
Salifu: I could not have a man on the line right now from Trinidad and Tobago and not ask you a few questions about soca and Calypso because those are in a lot of ways some of my first loves. And you mentioned earlier, when we started talking, you started talking about Sparrow and a few of the other names that you dropped. And Sparrow is very much my introduction into the world of soca. And so I’m just curious about when Shawn Ajamu is digging through the crates and is going through the hits, what are some of the soca and Calypso classics that stand out in your mind?
Shaun: Boy, I mean, name tune nuff to mention. Man, my dad was a record collector. So Sparrow, Kitchener, Shadow, Calypso Rose, Barron, Explainer —-names tune nuff to mention man. Plenty. So these are the kind of musicians— did I mention Kitchener? These are some of the names that I grew up listening to. Also have to say, just to pick up my parents and my dad, I also listened as a youth man to Fela Kuti, to Isley Brothers, to Stevie Wonder, to Curtis Mayfield, and Reggae music, obviously. Reggae music is a big deal, man. Bob Marley. Although I’ve admitted to my comrades that back in the day we didn’t love Bob Marley the way we love him now. We thought Bob Marley was a commercial artist. Anyway we benefit from maturity and hindsight. We know Bob Marley was solid. But we listened to Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Mighty Diamonds name tune nuff. We have plenty that we could mention. This is like the mil, the cultural mil, the musical mil that we grew up in as Caribbean people.
But in terms of Calypso, those ones I mentioned were the most influential for me. And it’s significant they’ve been influential for the past four, five decades. And their work is still standing with the test of time. Shadow just passed recently. Calypso Rose is still on the scene in her– I’m not sure she’s in her eighties. She’s a Tobagonian, it has to be said. As was Shadow. But Sparrow is mature. Very mature. But the work that he’s laid, the foundation that he’s laid, the influence that he’s had is so significant and very important as well for what you might call “the nation building project” because all those people I mentioned, and there’s more (those ones are the most prominent but there’s more in terms of the music), they speak to the issues; the contemporary issues, but also the historical issues. Even if you go back in Sparrow’s back catalog or Shadow’s back catalog or even a David Rudder ( more contemporary) or even more contemporary, such as Machel or some of the more contemporary ones. The tempo has changed, the speed has changed, the content has changed to some extent, but they’re still coming from the heart of the people, in my view.
So if you’re looking at Sparrow, people still singing Sparrow songs now. People still draw on Sparrow’s influence. People still draw on Shadow, on Calypso Rose, on Shorty. I didn’t mention Lord Shorty, Ras Shorty I. Very well influential. His descendants are contemporary artists now. Nalah Blackman, for example. They laid the foundation, which is a sturdy, strong nation building type foundation.
Have to mention that I love the music. Music, you might say, is a cultural weapon alongside literature. And for me, with the literature, I was reading CLR James when I was a teenager. I was listening to Paul Keens Douglas when I was a young man. Paul Keens Douglas. So I dunno, maybe the sister Erica might know of him. You Salifu? I dunno, you may not. I’ll introduce him to you. Paul Keens Douglas, very influential. What would you call him? You might call him a spoken word artist. He’s a storyteller. He tells stories, but the stories are told in the vernacular colloquial language. And there’s stories of the people committed in some ways, dramatic in other ways, historical stories, stories of incidents and episodes really influential up to now. In terms of how we speak, in terms of establishing that our language, our dialect, our accents is something to be proud of, not to be ashamed of. This is important. In the literature world, there’s a struggle going on over decades over what constitutes (especially in English Literature) good literature and what should be on the Pantheon? What should be in the Canon? So people like Paul Keens Douglas, Sprangalang (Dennis Hall), Miss Lou out of Jamaica, these are (I dunno what you call them) oral artists, spoken, word type artists, poets.
Even Sparrow and them, similar kind of thing. They established that our language— Amiri Baraka talked about nation language. It’s the same process going on. We are establishing to the world that we are equal, that we second to none, we inferior to no one and we March forward together. And our culture, our traditions, our language, our music is worthy of support, worthy of celebration.
So all these kind of things when I talk about Sparrow or Paul Keens Douglas or these musicians, this kind of music, Reggae music, we establishing to the world that here we are. Now have to be said, what do the Americans give to the world? The Americans give to the world domination, racism, white supremacy, hegemony, nuclear bombs, nuclear weapons.
That’s the American elites. We of the Caribbean, what we give to. We give them Bob Marley, We give them Sparrow. We give them cricket. you know what I mean? We give them cultural traditions, powerful cultural traditions, which is known throughout the world. If you walk around London, even if you walk around some of the cities in the United States, any of the major cities in Europe, it’s not by accident that they look so wealthy, that they have these magnificent buildings, that there’s so many rich people walking, wealthy people walking around there that there’s these palaces … it’s no accident. That’s us. We provided that. We Black people of the Caribbean, we gave them that. Our labor, our free labor, our enslaved labor gave them that. That’s something that’s important that has to be said. The elites haven’t given the world anything but death and destruction. The working people of the world, of which we are an important component, we the ones driving developments for the new world they say is possible. Another world is possible. We are the ones who looking for the alternative world, for the new world. We are the ones in our work, in our day to day struggles that’s what we doing. We may not know it. We may not articulate it in that way, but when we strike out and defend our rights as collectives, as communities in whatever field of endeavor, on whatever/ in whichever environment or terrain, we striking a blow. We saying to the world, here we are. We have something to contribute to development, to progress to the advance of humanity to a new dispensation. So yeah, that’s what we do it. That’s how I see the culture. That’s where the culture, that’s how the culture manifests. Culture in social form, culture in political form, in ideological form is human culture. And, and we make a distinction. Well, I do make a distinction in terms of who’s dominating the culture at any given time.