How women are redefining soca music
As the genre celebrates 50 years, female artists are pushing it forward
As the second wave of carnival celebrations wash across the Caribbean diaspora this summer — from Crop Over in Barbados and Spicemas in Grenada to Caribana in Toronto — there’s one sound that’s dominating the road: soca.
With the pulsating rhythm of drums, powerful lyricism, and adept storytelling that inspires fêters — or partygoers — to whine up their waistlines, soca emerged from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970s. The genre is an outgrowth of calypso, African storytelling and griot traditions blended with the legacy of the country’s indentured labor era and East Indian influences. The name “soca” has various origin stories — the main theory derives from condensing the phrase, “Soul of calypso” coined by Garfield “Ras Shorty I” Blackman, also known as Lord Shorty, the “Father of Soca.” Nevertheless, an undeniable trait of the genre is the incorporation of sociopolitical commentary on affairs and experiences in the Caribbean that challenge the status quo. And female artists are leading the way.
According to Abeo Jackson, a Trinbagonian artist, producer and doctoral candidate in cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, soca is a form of creative expression belonging to the jamette class, the Black working-class population in Trinidad and Tobago that often dealt with the cyclic effects of crime, unemployment and poverty.
“Soca is rooted in direct and unrelenting resistance to coloniality, and the sound is unique to the spirit and soul of our people,” said Jackson, explaining that while other Caribbean islands were experimenting with similar rhythms, Trinidad and Tobago’s Lord Shorty was the first to brand the sound as soca. “Soca in its purest form is an expression of joy and abandon and encompasses both the sacred and the profane. Therefore, the joy expressed through the sound and movement of soca, like its predecessor calypso, continues to be a powerful form of revolution.”
Award-winning singer Patrice Roberts has revolutionized the soca music landscape. And she’s always made it a point to pay homage to the female artists who paved the way for her generation in an industry largely dominated by men.
“I have definitely looked up to Alison Hinds from Barbados throughout my career. I love her style [and] the way she just dominates a riddim, or a beat,” Roberts told Andscape. “I love her stage presence and if you really listen to my music, you would kind of hear some elements of her in my music. I’ve always hoped that one day I could become as great as they are.”
Roberts, who began her singing career at 8, has collaborated with soca heavy-hitters such as Machel Montano, Destra Garcia and her fiancé Ricardo Drue. She also recently collaborated with Trinidadian-born hip-hop star Nicki Minaj and dancehall artist Skeng for “Likkle Miss,” and she even got a mention from Beyoncé — it’s proof of soca’s growing popularity.
“I felt honored, because it means that my music is being heard and the world is opening up to soca music,” she said. “I know that me and my colleagues in the soca industry have been working tirelessly to make sure that soca is being recognized globally and touching the hearts and homes of so many people who don’t even know about soca music.”
When Nishie L.S. recorded the Bahamian soca anthem “Loose Me” during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, her hope had always been for the continuous evolution and credibility of the genre. Now that her career has taken flight, she has a clear vision for her growth and the Bahamas’ ongoing cultural development.
“I want to see a soca category in the Grammys — let’s get on that level, not just to be recognized in certain regions, but globally where we can have the same opportunities for momentum and collaboration,” she said. The performer — whose real name is Anishka Lewis — is relentless about ensuring such Bahamian musical traditions as Junkanoo, Goombay, and Rake-and-Scrape are preserved, represented and celebrated in soca music. “My goal is to continue to bring that Bahamian flair and to be original while bringing a modern touch,” she said, while noting that her biggest challenge as a new woman in the music business has been receiving respect.
“As a female in a male-dominated industry, it’s difficult to be heard and you have to work so much harder and put so much more effort in to be seen and recognized,” she said. “Now, I allow my work to speak for itself and it does all of the yelling and fighting for me.”
Valene Nedd, arguably Grenada’s best-known female soca artist, agreed with Nishie L.S.’s sentiment that soca is poised to cross over to mainstream success and recognition.
“If we receive the support from Caribbean countries, patrons, DJs and the diaspora — just as they give attention to other genres such as dancehall, reggae and even rap — I think we could make it there,” she said. Like many of her peers, Nedd is in the business of preserving the history and heritage of her culture, including making sure Grenada’s Jab-Jab culture, which originated in her home country, lives on. “I tend to use the word Jab or speak about it in some shape or form, although I lean into groovy soca with a slower beat.”
Nedd’s latest effort, “Pressure,” is predicted to be one of the crowd favorites for Grenada’s Spicemas carnival next month, and she is working toward becoming a household name beyond Caribbean communities. Besides amplifying the message of female empowerment through her music, Nedd is a boss off the stage — simultaneously playing the role of artist manager, booking agent, and vocalist. “Outside of the Spicemas period, I run my business, V’s Recording Services, where I specialize in background vocals for any genre of music.”
For Barbadian songbird Rhea Layne, representing soca music on the regional circuit is a significant honor. “I try to be as authentic to myself as possible and represent Barbados well when I am on the world stage, digitally or otherwise,” she said.
Layne’s latest singles, “See You Again” and “Arch,” have gained momentum ahead of the island’s Crop Over celebrations in August. “I always want to bring everything together in the music to give something fresh and new that resonates with people from all different walks of life,” Layne said, noting she incorporates Afrobeats and dancehall sounds into her music.
According to Layne, the industry can be tough for women who opt out of using sexual imagery. “The bar is set a lot higher for female soca artists to impress audiences compared to our male counterparts, and therefore we have to work a little bit harder,” she said. Layne’s hope for soca music in the future is continued community advancement. “We have one of the most amazing, euphoric, safe spaces to exist in — a space that celebrates our culture. I hope that this is something the world continues to see, praise and welcome into their spaces as we grow.”
As the Caribbean region continues to celebrate its contributions to the renaissance of Black music globally — alongside the 50th anniversary of hip-hop — female soca artists are raising the bar of expectations on the creative and business fronts. With women at the helm, the vibrant Caribbean genre continues to evolve, amplify and influence the diaspora.