Research examines climate justice and art in Trinidad and Tobago

Lyrical Liberation: Trinidad and Tobago and the Climate Crisis
By Zachary Spicer
I. Introduction
To organize this work, I wish to make clear that I understand the climate crisis as impending,
ongoing, and a historically manufactured result of the seemingly unending hegemony of capitalistneoliberal
power for the past few centuries. Such an understanding is not only historically accurate
once one steps outside of traditional Western thought but also illuminates the role of certain actors in
climate crisis discourse. Successful resistance to this concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands
unfortunately takes on few forms; however, music and creative expression have served as outlets of
resistance and community for civilizations for centuries. Moreover, the colliding effects of
globalization, urbanization, and the climate crisis lead me to believe that our cities will be the
battleground for further waves of climate injustice. In order to confront this injustice, we must
develop new forms of communication and activism. Thus we must consider that artistic expression, be
it spoken word or song, "becomes essential for urban theorists and activists because it recognizes
conditions that are widely felt but remain inexpressible through available categories," (Heatherton,
2020, p. 2).
Whether understood in a "Global North, Global South" dichotomy or a framework that
highlights the implications of racial capitalism on the colonized versus colonizing world, the exploited,
often racialized group that sits in the "victim slot," holds a vast amount of potential for action against
the climate crisis; these solutions draw not from science or rational thinking per se, but rather from the
bonds of community and creativity needed to imagine our liberated futures. I argue this future
liberation may not be the case for Trinidad and Tobago, unless we bring greater attention to the
government using its role to prey on those outside of the circle of elites and its connection to larger
forces of global capital. For example, while artists like Fela Kuti and Midnight Oil have been successful
in creating space for popular music to effect social change in different parts of the globe, I believe there
exists a limit to which this can happen in places such as Trinidad and Tobago due to competing
histories and the power of the state. This paper will establish that an erasure epistemology should be
used to understand the international dimensions of climate justice resistance and futures for liberation
in Trinidad and Tobago, and perhaps around the globe. From this epistemology we can emphasize the
need for solidarity networks that transcend geographical and ideological boundaries to create a unified
stance against capitalist hegemony.
This paper represents an ambitious undertaking, seeking to combine post-colonialism in
Trinidad and Tobago, Marxist theories of class struggle and racialized labor, and the liberatory
potential of music with the realities of the climate crisis and its presently occurring and future effects
on Trinbagonians. However, without any of these pieces, my argument, and an accurate
understanding of climate justice, would be incomplete. I hope that this can illuminate potential
avenues for change without entrenching us in a state of hopelessness. These avenues are necessarily
global, the workings of colonization, capitalism, and the climate crisis, make it such, although I intend
to limit specific discussion to Trinidad and Tobago. I begin with an overview of Trinidad and Tobago,
followed by an exploration of Clyde Woods' blues epistemology, then the history of exploitation on
the islands. Next, I move into the historical role of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, and case studies
on the liberatory role of music in Nigeria, Australia, and El Salvador. Finally, I bring these pieces
together to discuss Trinidadians' attempts at addressing the climate crisis and suggestions for the
future. Through these sections I intend to explore how, if at all possible, citizens can make space for
resistance and activism against the fossil fuel industry in a country that is (seemingly) necessarily
dependent on it.
II. Trinidad and Tobago - Overview
While the complicated relationship between Trinbagonian citizens, the state, and the workings
of Western capital since colonization will take up most of this paper's discussion, it first ought to be
described succinctly-"Trinidad and Tobago's climate maneuverability is awkward because the
economy is based on fossil fuels but as a small island developing state (SIDS) the country is uniquely
susceptible to the ravages of climate change" (Bridglal, et al., 2020, p. 1). The tension between the
interests of the state and its people are more than "awkward," they have the grounds to be considered
outright antagonistic. Trinidad and Tobago consistently ranks as the wealthiest country in the
Caribbean and has one of the highest GDP per capita in the Western Hemisphere. Surprisingly, or
perhaps unsurprisingly due to capitalism's reliance on environmental degradation, since the mid-
2000s, it has been the second largest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide in the entire world.
The vast majority of this wealth has been generated by the extraction and refinement of
Trinidad and Tobago's oil and natural gas reserves. Fossil fuels saturate the history of the dual island
nation; as far back as 1595, Europeans in Trinidad extracted them for personal usage. Pitch Lake,
located along the southwestern coast maintains the status as the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the
world. Throughout the 1800s, British colonizers questioned the nature and potential usage of Pitch
Lake before eventually beginning extraction in 1857. In the century between this initial drilling and
later independence for Trinbagonians, both American and British interests cashed in on the
abundance of oil. Trinidad's first economically successful endeavor, Trinidad Oilfields Limited, had to
cede property to the United British Oilfields Trinidad Limited, which later became Shell; not to
mention in the decades prior to independence, British Petroleum and Texaco acquired the Trinidad
Petroleum Development Company and Trinidad Leaseholds Limited, respectively. These profitable
producers of oil effectively represented a continuation of the colonial legacy of the United Kingdom
and the United States into the economic foundation of the newly independent state ("The History of
Petroleum Exploration in Trinidad and Tobago").
At the same time, the nation's natural gas reserves propped up another side of the deep
relationship between fossil fuels and state development/economic progress. From the 1950s through
the 70s, the state began to popularize natural gas, using it to power steam generators and provide
electricity for the nation. In their eyes, natural gas presented an opportunity to continue developing
the nation's economy without relying solely on crude oil, despite the two overlapping in their danger
to the environment in the short and long term. So, from two directions, the government and
economically powerful actors have chosen to further projects that extract from nature and feed a
global market that ultimately disproportionately harms Black and Brown people, Trinidad's largest
racial groups. These extractive projects act as a harmful continuation of the history of labor,
immigration, and racialization that has been seen in Trinidad and Tobago since the abolition of slavery
and the subsequent forced entry of South Asians into the labor market. How then do we move to
unite these seemingly disparate groups, especially given centuries of tension? To understand the
possibilities of an imaginary future, we must first look to the past. Across the globe, generations of
Black and Brown communities have based their relationships with nature on reciprocity. One of the
many horrors of colonization includes severing this relationship, as endured by the victims of white
hetero-patriarchal capitalist development such as enslaved peoples and indigenous communities. As an
iteration of the British plantation empire in the Caribbean, people of various backgrounds were taken
advantage of in the name of "development" and "prosperity," paradoxically causing a fraught
relationship between the non-Europeans residing on the islands. To understand more about the
plantation economy and methods of resisting it, I turn to geographer Clyde Woods, whose study on
the Mississippi Delta region has been integral to this work
III. The Blues Epistemology - Place Matters
The understanding of the plantation as an individual body of land, as well as a wide-ranging
system with social and economic consequences, will guide how we view Trinidad and Tobago
throughout its colonial past through its modern development. I will use Clyde Woods' concept of the
blues epistemology to interpret the lasting effects of the plantation on Trinbagonian society. The site of
the most intense enactment of plantation slavery, found in the Mississippi Delta after the 1830s, in
some ways inevitably produced the fiercest opposition to capitalist hegemony in the U.S., particularly
as it related to the southern regime of agro-capitalist production and the planter class. An historical
analysis of the region reveals centuries of accumulation of land and exploitation of Black and Brown
people--and subsequent resistances--to produce vast inequalities of wealth, at times home to the
wealthiest landowners in the world and the poorest citizens of the "most prosperous" nation. My
argument is that a similar framework can be applied to race, labor, and resistance inT&T and perhaps
other regions since I view the regional and global fossil fuel industry as an extension of the plantation
Clyde Woods' work on the blues epistemology and the development of the Mississippi Delta
analyzes the ways in which African-Americans utilized the liberatory potential of music to counter the
hegemonic power of the plantation bloc and its affiliate allies in the region. Throughout Development
Arrested, Woods' work that defines and analyzes this epistemology, he emphasizes the spatial
importance of the Mississippi Delta, where the blues originated as an amalgam of African musical
forms and..., and its role in historically constituting the conditions that necessitated the blues. The
Lower Delta, made up of counties along and near the Mississippi River in Louisiana, Arkansas,
Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and, of course, Mississippi, has been one of the poorest and
Black-est regions in the Americas for centuries.
Woods explains that "although small in size this region is known nationally and internationally
as a center of tragedy and schism; of extreme levels of poverty and wealth; [...] and as the center of both
plantation culture and the blues," (Woods, 2017, p. 2). He further sets forth a critical understanding
that the plantation exists "as both a military form of agriculture and as a capitalist settlement
institution having extensive land requirements, intensive capital and labor requirements, and internal
forms of governance." He continues that "slavery, sharecropping, mechanization, and prison, wage,
and migratory labor are just a few of the permutations possible within a plantation complex," (Woods,
2017, p. 6). For the ruling class, the conditions of the Delta were exemplary, they were able to produce
twice as much cotton as the rest of the South due to the soil quality, and could trade up and down the
length of the nation (Woods 2017). For enslaved people and later, free Black people, the region and the
associated pitfalls of profit-oriented development appeared as mass murder, repression, and division
not only from white America but also eventually urban Black people too. From this, Black residents
created the blues.
An enslaved person living in the Mississippi Delta during slavery lived a life that I could not
begin to imagine. Work began once there was daylight, which meant having to be awake before the sun
was up. And it continued, through the heat of the day, under the watch and abuse of an overseer, at
least until the sun had set. Following emancipation, one still lived in terror, under the watch of
plantation owners that could not wait to find an excuse to reduce you to a cog in their machine or
whites that sought to end your desire for enfranchisement by ending your life or terrorizing your
community. So came the blues. After/during lifetimes of subjugation and forced quietude, the blues
gave people a voice. Blues musician Willie Dixon explains that "had it not been for the blues, the black
man wouldn't have been able to survive through the humiliations and all the various things going on
in America… he had nothing to fight with but the blues… the blues is the facts of life," (Woods, 2017,
p. 25). As much as they grieved and lamented the sadness they withheld, they did so while celebrating
the occasion of life, the very fact that they could complain and express themselves.
The blues stood firmly in the face of the plantation system described above and were forged by
African-Americans seeking escape from the system they were entrenched in. While Woods goes further
into the historical implications of the plantation complex and the blues epistemology (his whole book
is about it), what I have explained provides a basis from which we can move forward. Now, we turn to
the plantation system and its exploitation as forced upon the diverse populations of Trinidad and
Tobago. And, following this, explore the ways that other forms of music and artistic expression might
form the basis for resisting climate injustice.
IV. Exploited Labor on the Dual Islands
As a Trinidadian, I'm familiar with the diversity the nation offers due to its deep history as a
former British plantation colony. The street that I lived on growing up had many Black families,
alongside Chinese, South Asian, White, and mixed-race households. Up until recently, I failed to
realize the stark absence of indigenous communities in the historical and contemporary life of
Trinidad and Tobago; while I've assumed that my ancestors entered as enslaved people or indentured
workers, I never encountered discourse about the populations that preceded them. What I found
during this research provided a clear answer to this erasure, while problematizing visions for a liberated
future. I imagine that this future will be reliant on a return to the past–past relationships with the
earth and previous methods of arranging societies around reciprocity and the commons. However,
when this history has been erased, drawing from it for the future becomes much more difficult.
To make this story come clear, consider the various imperial powers that fought to dominate
the dual island state as well as the different laborers they brought with them. Modern nations typically
represent communities that were constructed via colonization; few places demonstrate this as clearly as
Trinidad and Tobago. The islands officially entered the dominion of the British Empire in 1797 and
1802, respectively, and the latter maintained control until the former's collective achievement of
independence in 1962, nearly 200 years after Britain's conquest of the islands. In the late 1700s,
following the transfer of control from Spain to Britain, members of the French mainland as well as its
island colonies immigrated in droves, "developing the island as a plantation economy and a slave
society, and [becoming] the main local landowning elite in the nineteenth century," (Brereton, 2007,
p. 178). In his work on the islands' history, Trinidad and Tobago's first prime minister, Eric Williams,
characterizes the three centuries of Spanish colonialism that preceded this transfer and the prevalence
of Frenchpersons, as a failure (Williams 1962). Describing Spanish colonialism as "bankrupt," he
details the ways in which both neglect and attempts to "civilize" those in Trinidad failed time and time
again to bring about the riches the Spanish desired. Ultimately, he explains, Africa (in the form of its
enslaved citizens) came to the "rescue."
So what does this have to do with indigeneity? Spanish interactions with Trinidad's
indigenous inhabitants were incredibly violent, ranging from kidnapping to genocide (Williams 1962).
By the nineteenth century, the indigenous population had largely disappeared; during the following
centuries most discourse about them reified their physical absence as well as their transience in relation
to the development of the islands' culture and history (Brereton 2007). Most of the remaining
indigenes fled from Trinidad to the South American continent to escape the horrors of the Spanish
(Brereton 2010). As a direct result, most of Trinidad and Tobago's history has been defined in light of
competing historical narratives–Spanish vs. French vs. British; Black vs. white; South and East Asian
fitting somewhere within the ends of the spectrum. While mindful of unwarranted romanticizing of
indigenous lifeways and cosmologies, returning to indigenous histories and practices can be
understood as a necessary step for reformulating a relationship with the earth based not on extraction,
but reciprocity. How can this be accomplished in Trinidad and Tobago, where the resurgence of
indigenous culture that began in the 1990s has had little material impact on the national
culture/attention? Beyond the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community Facebook page, and a website
that does not seem to be regularly updated, the past few decades have not, by any measure I could
conceive, resulted in a greater national awareness or recognition of Trinidad and Tobago's native
history. It is clear that a new approach is needed to draw connections along the lines that have
historically divided the islands' racial groups, one that does not effectively erase peoples and cultures.
Such a connection could be formed based on the realization that the racialized groups both
served the same purpose in relation to white Brits, providing free, exploited labor that historically
financed British accumulation of capital during the colonial period. The dependence on this labor so
heavily influenced British operations that at one point sugar refiners in Bristol "petitioned Parliament
in 1789 against the abolition of the slave trade on which 'the welfare and prosperity, if not the actual
existence, of the West India Islands depend,'" (Williams, 1994, p. 74). Following the abolition of
slavery in Britain in 1833 and its decreased usage in the region, former slave-owners turned to
connections in other British colonies, seizing primarily South Asian (as well as some East Asian)
citizens and bringing them to continue the work formerly reserved for Black people. As it stands,
South Asian Trinidadians are around 40% of the national population, just barely surpassing the
amount of Afro-Trinidadians (Brereton 2007). Since the arrival of Indo-Trinbagonians in the mid
1800s, the two classes have been pitted against each other, each believing themselves to be in a more
beleaguered position than the other, which some deem "competitive victimhood." Obviously, this is to
their detriment and the benefit of the capitalist class. While some accountability should be taken for
this divide, it should be understood that this competition among the races likely came at the behest of
the British, who realized the potential power of the united exploited populations that likely
outnumbered the Europeans on the islands. To this day, tensions between racial groups on the islands
run deep, highlighting the need for an acknowledgement of their shared histories that have been erased
by domineering Western-colonial thought.
The dimensions of this conflict, in the context of this paper, question the following–in the
U.S. we are used to a capitalist class mostly constituted of a white majority, which is not the case here.
Also, the racialized class that is suffering the worst effects of racial capitalism in the form of the climate
crisis remains the same, despite different controllers of production. Understanding the specific context
of Trinbagonians' relationship to each other and the state lays the foundation for envisioning an allencompassing
path to liberation. If there exists a unifying feature of Trinbagonian culture that crosses
racial and ethnic lines, it would certainly be the annual Carnival celebration, celebrated widely by the
islands' populations. Carnival, in my view, represents a possible avenue for artistic/political expression
similar to the blues epistemology.
V. Carnival as Resistance
In imagining the potential futures for socio-political expression in Trinidad and Tobago, one
of the first areas that came to mind was music and Carnival, with April Baptiste (2019) describing the
latter as "arguably the most salient and significant manifestation of Trinidad and Tobago popular
culture" (p. 4). Carnival provides a lens through which we can analyze Trinbagonians' attitudes
towards almost anything. Riggio (1998) writes that "the history of Carnival is essentially the history of
the peoples of Trinidad and Tobago-embedded in the stories of conquest, enslavement, resistance, and
indentureship, and in commercial, cultural, and ethnic exchange" (p. 9). While music and art are basic
tenets for creating and analyzing culture in communities around the world, it has been made clear over
and over that Trinidad, perhaps due to its size, perhaps its colonial history, stands out in terms of its
potential for music as a method of producing knowledge. While music's liberatory potential
transgresses territorial bounds (see next section), I want to focus here on that which is most pertinent
to residents of Trinidad and Tobago.
Carnival's history in Trinidad, akin to other phenomena, comes with a complicated,
conflicting past based on the experiences of different groups competing for power and control within
the society. For our purposes, we will understand that Carnival arose from the Afro-Trinidadian
calypso music tradition. In 1881, the "Carnival riots" saw canboulay bands of calypso musicians,
performers, and families join together against the police, who looked down on the event and untamed
revelry of the colored masses (Riggio 1998). People celebrated Carnival, in part, as a modification of
the dominant Catholic rituals of the time, as a way to celebrate African rituals and traditions within
the purview of the state. Under this guise, Carnival was policed due to the connection between
Catholicism and the popular (but not ruling) French class, and the desire for dominance by the
Anglican Brits. The lack of control over the masses of enslaved laborers made "Carnival masquerade
consistently perceived in British colonial Trinidad as a threat to public order and safety," (Dudley,
2002, p. 149). It would be remiss to think of this opposition as something solely fostered by the
European colonial government, Carnival has faced censorship for decades since. As recently as the
1990s, Trinbagonians celebrating Carnival were silenced due to racism in the event; in the 70s for
criticizing the government, and in the 40s for singing what the government considered "smut,"
(Riggio, 1998, p. 9). However, the construction of Carnival as tied to resistance has not lasted
throughout independence, leading to an inspiration and celebration some say stems from the wealth of
the petrostate post-independence .
Over time, the Caribbean diaspora has further adopted Carnival celebrations on their islands,
although Trinidad and Tobago still stands as the "Mecca of Carnival." However, the commodification
of Carnival that we will interrogate in Trinidad has also travelled throughout the Caribbean. As Riggio
(1998) explains, "many islands appear to identify with the diasporic Carnivals that recall elements of
the history of resistance and affirmation that they bring with them [...] even though the aspects of the
festival that travel do not retain the culture-bearing traditional characters or folklore that most reflects
the process of resistance," (p. 17-18).
Since achieving independence, the increased propensity of a "consumer culture" in Trinidad
and Tobago has resulted in a Carnival that is geared more towards attracting tourists and their wealth.
Baptiste directly connects this phenomenon with Trinidad's economic prosperity from the oil and gas
industry after independence. As she says, the improved economic position of Trinidad's citizens
"meant a reduction in the inclination to protest against social, political, and economic inequality and
injustice," (p. 7). As a former resident, this is almost unsurprising. When I introduce myself as having
spent part of my life in Trinidad, residents of the U.S. or Latin America almost immediately make the
connection to Carnival, even before the island's picturesque beaches or popular music. Furthermore,
Carnival's deviation from its origins can be attributed to a wide-spread cultural shift in music in
Trinidad and Tobago. Carnival is much more than the music that is played at it; yet, the fact that soca
music (associated with partying and easy, repetitive lyrics) has become a staple in the islands since the
1970s has contributed to the different vibe felt during the annual festival. As such, the distinction of
Carnival as a resistance activity has been overshadowed by the enjoyment of the music now played,
contributing to the dilution of its liberatory potential.
I believe that this shift speaks to a larger one associated with a transformation from a
plantation system (beyond the physical maintenance of agricultural production) to an industrial
capitalist mode of production. The latter is arguably even more profit-oriented and exploitative,
hidden by the allure of neoliberal development popularized from the 1970s throughout the 21st
century (Harvey 2019). Within the neoliberal state, the market is idolized as a panacea, maximizing
social good through increased transactions, often in the form of wealth. In Trinidad and Tobago,
Carnival has undergone a process of commodification to make it appealing to foreigners, who are
often unfamiliar with the nation as a whole. In other words, Carnival has been made "into an object of
exchange," (Green, 2007, p. 206). The market extends beyond the cultural tourism that Carnival
invites; as is the case with neoliberalism, it has expanded further than its expected boundaries to
include costume designers, souvenir makers and sellers, and other participants in the consumption of
capital. It has also invited a "professionalization" of Carnival to make it appear more attractive to
foreigners. All of this results in a Carnival less genuine than originally intended, while pouring money
into the hands of private owners and the elite, leaving behind the majority of Trinidad and Tobago's
Both Carnival and the Blues have been created to serve as an outlet for people experiencing
pain and frustration. They have enabled people to express their anguish and simultaneously unite
around a shared vision of their futures. In the face of apparent hegemony, resistance takes on many
forms, music and cultural production as expressed through the Blues and Carnival both represent the
beginnings of a longer process of achieving liberation. However, in other places around the world,
"success" has been achieved to a certain extent. While Woods' blues epistemology cannot simply be
taken out of context and placed into understanding a different space, the larger phenomena of using
music to resist violence can be studied elsewhere to understand why or why not it may not apply to
Trinidad and Tobago.
VI. Music for Resistance - Nigeria, Australia, and El Salvador
Turning to spaces beyond the Caribbean and the United States widens our view of
ethnomusicology to more successful tales of the power of music to strengthen communities against
adversaries. Specifically, we will look at the artist Fela Kuti, popular in the 1970s; the Australian band
Midnight Oil, whose work with Indigenous Australians shocked the world; and finally, the musicians
and radio stations of El Salvador that demonstrated resilience in the face of overt repression. Through
these examples, I highlight the potential impacts of cultural production on the socio-political while
elucidating the importance of communally-created knowledge and resistance akin to the blues.
Fela Kuti grew in popularity during the 70s, although his work drew from the unrest and
ambitions of Black people during the decade prior. Having grown up in Nigeria and attended school
in London, he forged his connection to the U.S. when he visited Los Angeles in 1969 with his band at
the time. However, since he was not an American, he felt it more relevant to transfer his own
revolutionary struggles to his own society (Labinjoh 1982). As I've tried to make clear, methods of
resistance cannot simply be copied and pasted from one place or time to another. Fela Kuti acted as a
geographer in his own right–taking the struggles he'd encountered personally in Nigeria, those he
learned from members of the Black Power movement in the U.S., and incorporating them in not only
his music but also the formation of a communitarian society independent of Nigerian military rule at
the time (Labinjoh 1982).
Living in Nigeria, another petrostate, former British colony with a majority Black population,
through the transition from colonization to independence, his actions represent the best of what I
envision for Trinidad and Tobago. Of course, the situations are not entirely analogous–Kuti faced
military oppression far worse than the difficulties activists in Trinidad see today; and at the time of his
peak popularity and advocacy the climate crisis did not appear as significant as we consider it today.
However, during the transition to independence in 1960, Nigeria's middle class saw a similar
indoctrination in supporting the state and status quo due to the perceived shared prosperity derived
from the sale of fossil fuels. In response, Fela Kuti formed Kalakuta Republic, a commune that treated
"individualism and freedom as necessary prerequisites to innovation and development," and sought to
empower people to have a strong sense of identity and purpose, within a community (Labinjoh, 1982,
p. 133).
For any young person, these concerns are at the forefront of the mind. Who am I? How do I
find the people I want to surround myself with? Can I make a difference? These questions weigh on
one's consciousness, and Fela Kuti (and his commune) spoke directly to them. Nigerian youth saw his
club, Africa's Shrine, as a clearly defined space where youth could "command the stage of public
attention and assert a collective identity" (Labinjoh, 1982, p. 131). The importance of having a
physical space attached to shared visions of the future cannot be minimized; while theory remains
important for formulating ideas, there must be the ability to tangibly experience the world we seek to
create. Against an overtly military state committed to protecting its newfound wealth and capitalist
interests, Kuti chose to cleave a section of the nation for himself and his people. It is no surprise that
the commune was raided multiple times before being burned down by the military in 1978 (Labinjoh
Turning to Australia, we will see the highlights (and shortcomings) of a band that used their
privilege to bring attention to causes that the public would normally overlook. Midnight Oil's
members, all white Australians, partook in activities ranging from antinuclear protesting (an
environmental justice issue) to the explicit support of Indigenous Australians in their music and
worldwide platform. At the 2008 Olympics hosted in Sydney, they used their position at the closing
ceremony to apologize to Indigenous Australians for their historic mistreatment and the
contemporary government's continued atrocities against them. While one could view these actions as
performative (after all the band's job is to perform), Midnight Oil brought a new level of sincerity to
musical activism. They were incredibly consistent–over a quarter of a century and sixteen albums, the
band maintained an overtly political stance that criticized capitalism, warned about global warming,
and brought the realities of colonization to an international audience alongside the demands of
Indigenous Australians. In the 80s, the band was invited to tour indigenous settlements alongside The
Warumpi Band, an Indigenous group (Bonastre 201). Rather than shy away from the limelight,
Midnight Oil took every opportunity they had to make Australians, and later, a global audience, think
critically about the problems facing the world, or at the very least acknowledge their existence. A
measurement of their "success" is beyond this paper, yet their work is useful for imagining the future I
seek to put forward.
In a different light we find El Salvadoran musicians and protesters who utilized music to
inspire action, raise awareness of their plight, and forge community in the face of repression. The
Salvadoran Civil War, fought for over a decade between the U.S.-backed government and Salvadoran
left-wing groups, included atrocities like the regular mass murder of civilians and eventually the
bombing of radio stations as a method of censorship (Thomas 2015). In the face of these atrocities, as
well as the strong monetary/military support of the U.S, Salvadorian insurgents successfully stood
their ground. A large part of their success can be attributed to the spirit of unity fostered as well as the
difficulty of suppressing lyrical subordination.
The musical resistance of El Salvador also demonstrated the wide range of communal activism
with groups like Cutumay Camones singing overtly about resistance and the power of the people
while Los Guaraguao used their lyrics to describe the difficulties of everyday life (Thomas 2015). The
musicians of El Salvador aroused emotion in its people, striking a chord with them while singing about
historical injustices or mourning those lost to the war. Yet, while some groups stand out, truly across
the country, there wasn't an overarching dominance of one or a few groups over the rest. Throughout
Salvadoran history, rural communities have utilized music to document their lives and surroundings,
often with an ancestral connection connected to justice (Thomas 2015). This is only one way in which
residents of El Salvador have emphasized the importance of their history and connected with each
The success of Salvadorans in creating, distributing, and safeguarding knowledge points to the
various unique qualities of music as resistance, especially when created communally. Music was
precious because it could be created by anyone. It did not necessarily require an instrument or a
unique rhythm, many were sung to the tune of popular songs unrelated to the conflict. In the context
of the civil war, music was unique because it could not be destroyed like a pamphlet or newspaper
might be. It would be nonsensical to find every person that knew a song and kill them, so its spread
was almost always limitless. While the government did destroy the radio stations used to distribute
music, these were certainly not the only way for music to move through the populace. Furthermore, it
has been documented over and over that music held information about specific events as well as
methods of collaborating against the government that were known even by generations far removed
from the civil war. Of course, music is also especially useful for reaching portions of the population
that are not able to read, providing yet another level of inclusion that can bring people together.
The popular, mass resistance that Salvadoran music encouraged provides a blueprint for a
potential avenue of resistance I envision the climate justice movement taking. El Salvador's liberation
movement faced the worst atrocities, from their own government, and still persevered, connected by a
strong emotional connection forged through music and a shared understanding of their position.
They were forced to innovate, and in doing so drew on known traditions of producing knowledge
through song. I find the work of their musicians similar to that of the Blues and Carnival in that all
three have historically been produced communally. While some people stand out, ultimately, it
remains available to all members of the community and culturally has been a symbol of democratic,
popular participation. Unlike Fela Kuti and Midnight Oil, who were exceptionalized by history, as
well as the media, the music of Salvadoran resistance was drawn from all corners of the country, at
once representing a wide breadth of people, yet still linked by similar experiences and visions for the
future. Drawing from the Salvadoran example of musical resistance we see the success of using music
to "identify a problem, propose a solution, and then rally support in order to enact change," (Thomas,
2015, p. 10). Within Trinidad, an attempt to create knowledge around the climate crisis ought to be
done in a similar manner to avoid the trappings of individualizing the problem and its solutions. The
point of the music, as mentioned above, is to provoke widespread emotion and support, not to just
draw attention to a singular person or problem.
VII. The Power of the Petrostate
But the possibility of this kind of movement will also hinge crucially on the role of the state
and the citizens' relationship to it. Understanding the state as it relates to popular resistance as well as
its entrenchment in fossil fuel production is necessary for deciding how to work against it. As detailed
above, despite being a multi-ethnic society with a diverse history, the legacy of Trinidad and Tobago is
one of exploitation masked by the economic prosperity of the post-colonial state, ironically reliant on
the fossil fuels whose extraction, sale, and export spells doom for both islands. In recent years, this has
been made clear by the (lack of) actions taken within the realm of civil society to produce solutions to
the climate crisis. For years I've learned that the presence of a strong civil society can be a bellwether for
a democratic and engaged citizenry… the lack of such in Trinidad and Tobago, at least as far as climate
change, is more than concerning. A 2018 report by Montoute, Mohammed, and Francis, titled
"Prospects and Challenges for Civil Society and Climate Change Engagement in the Caribbean: The
Case of Trinidad and Tobago" makes this clear. Most civil society work, conducted through nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs), or more broadly civil society organizations (CSOs), around the
climate crisis focus appears within the umbrella category of "environmental work." Herein lies a
crucial issue–energy and resources are not devoted specifically to the pressing issue of the climate crisis,
rather the latter often appears as a small part of the work done by CSOs focused on things like water
quality or forest conservation. Activity regarding the climate crisis typically funnels into educational
campaigns that often raise awareness about problems and potential solutions such as renewable energy
and its feasibility in Trinidad and Tobago (Montoute et al. 2018).
While public awareness of the causes/effects of the climate crisis remains theoretically
necessary, the attributes of neoliberalism and the global workings of capital often halt civil society
participation from going any further. Neoliberal thought highlights the importance of the individual
and their ability to enter the realm of capital, the market, transforming the life/death reality of the
climate crisis into something that will be solved "if only people knew." Given the increased numbers of
disastrous climate events that have taken place in the Caribbean alone, I believe that it's safe to say
people know. Yet, funding for NGOs still goes to awareness campaigns over the implementation of
renewable energy and dismantling of fossil fuel machinery. In a similar vein, governments such as
Trinidad and Tobago's sign on to high-profile climate agreements that "prove" their commitment,
while simultaneously continuing to extract and sell their fossil fuels. Within this individualistic system,
even nations fall into a trap, promising to work alongside other nations towards a singular goal, yet
ultimately accountable to themselves and the decisions they choose to make.
Montoute et al. (2018) make this clear–their paper outlines various challenges that civil society
in Trinidad and Tobago face. Primarily, the culture has led to CSOs working "in silos," where
organizations are often working towards a similar end, but doing so separately, causing inefficiencies
and selfishness, especially considering that the second challenge outlined was "competition for
funding," (p. 98). The next four challenges, in my opinion, go hand in hand: 1) apathy regarding
change due to the nation's dependence on oil; 2) limited opportunity to influence national or regional
policy; 3) lack of formal avenues for participation of CSOs; and 4) lack of trust and accountability
with policy makers (Montoute et. al 2018). As discussed above, fossil fuels have seeped into almost
every crack of Trinbagonian culture, bringing with them legacies of exploitation and capitalism that
leave those outside of the elites helpless.
At every turn, it seems like the hegemonic fossil fuel, neoliberal, plantation system rears its ugly
head. In October of 2020, the nation's Ministry of Planning and Development announced a climate
action training program for the islands' public and private sectors. While an inch in the right direction,
credit should only be given where it truly is due. The program, a series of six webinars over six months,
"is especially geared to the public and private sectors of T&T to mobilize private investments for low
carbon actions," (Doodnath, 2020, p. 3). Later, the Ministry discusses the plan's focus on
"development," the same term used to describe the actions that destroyed the Mississippi Delta and the
lives of its Black and Brown, as well as poor white, populations. The fact of the matter is that time is
running out, and what's needed more than "private investments" or "low carbon actions" are solutions
that move people out of danger, make their housing more resilient to the changing climate, and
transition the economy away from something toxic and soon-to-be obsolete.
However, this power cannot hold forever, and has started to erode in some areas. In January of
2021, the High Court ruled against the Environmental Management Authority, effectively forcing
them to provide full copies of Environmental Impact Assessments to the public (Polo 2021). In its
decision, the court turned favorably towards those that brought the suit against the EMA. They
described the latter's actions as a "shame and disgrace" and reiterated that the EMA ought to "protect
the environment and its voiceless communities," perhaps indicating a shift in at least one
governmental body (Polo, 2021, p. 2). While the inner workings of government may find a way
around this ruling, I'm hopeful that there seems to be some support from within the state. However,
looking to the state remains an imperfect solution; ultimately, the ability to effectively resist is
incumbent upon the citizens.
VIII. Conclusion
"The role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible." How do we escalate to the level of
consciousness and solidarity necessary to make something like a revolution understood as imperative,
let alone "irresistible"? When the revolution is for climate justice, and indeed all of the other justices
that intersect with differentiated climate impacts, against a decades-long established petrostate, is it
even possible? The trajectory of history and current failures at mobilizing sufficient populations across
the globe in stopping the climate crisis would lead us to believe that the answers lean towards a cynical
view. However, despite the deep inequities confronting citizens of the "developing" world, there is
space to imagine potential futures for activism, while acknowledging that every day, time is running
Throughout the development of my argument, I returned to Katherine McKitrick, Clyde
Woods, and others in the field of Black geographies. A common thread to their work is the idea that
neither ignorance of the past nor relentless optimism towards the future and present will offer
solutions for people of color today. Instead, it is in remembering and acknowledging our past, present,
and future that we realize, as McKittrick (2006) writes, being erased does not mean being incapable of
producing space. Trinidad and Tobago's is a history of erasure–from the indigenous civilizations that
fought the colonizers encroaching on their territory to millions of Brown and Black bodies responsible
for creating the country we know today, the state has easily glossed over that which made its existence
possible. Today, the voices of the youth are co-opted and spoken over as they attempt to draw
attention to the government's role in destroying their future, an erasure in its own right. Regardless of
if our erasure is relegated to a colonial past, or is a constant contemporary mental violence, or a future
crisis against our communities, "the site of memory notes that erasure is livable and therefore creates
new sites of being and a different sense of place," (McKittrick, 2006, p. 33). In acknowledging the
difficulty of reproducing space for the erased, simply beginning a discourse serves to empower those
that have had their voices stifled. I hope to have done so.
Music and cultural expression serve to create knowledge and can work against the erasure
constantly enacted by the Trinidadian state. First, there needs to be an agreement, or at least a shared
understanding on what is being created and by whom. While I have highlighted the importance of
indigeneity and genuine connections to the land, for Trinidad and Tobago, such a path to liberation
will look different than imagined. Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians ought to realize that they
were responsible for co-creating the nation we know today, with neither group dominating the other.
This pluralistic historical understanding brings us back to Woods and the Mississippi Delta, as well as
Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Both understood and emphasized the importance of solidarity networks of
people in different geographic regions against the hegemonic bloc dominating them. For Woods this
was the joining together of Black people, white sharecroppers and tenants in the South, and Northern
industrial unionists against the Southern plantation owners. For Gramsci, it was a union between the
proletariat of Northern Italy and the peasants of Southern Italy against capitalists of the nation
(Dawson 2013). Dawson explains that "in order for transnational links to be forged, new forms of
empathy and solidarity need to be fostered that extend our political imaginary beyond the dominant
geographic scales [...] without collapsing into a sweeping and abstract planetary universalism. Such a
process of rewriting will entail an ability to see established geographies as the product of social
struggles, as ways of imagining the world in order to cement or to contest hegemony" (p. 34).
Through this lens, I view Trinidad and Tobago as a geographical area ripe for developing this
process of rewriting, with music as a potential tool. The divide between Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-
Trinidadians, while not outright violent, remains contentious enough that the forging of some
alliance, especially against the capitalist petrostate, could serve as a blueprint for climate justice
globally. Given the fact that the state is no longer ruled by Europeans, such an alliance would almost
necessarily also fall along class lines, further strengthening it. After centuries of erasure due to
colonialism across the globe, we must enter an era of creation, before it is too late and even more is lost
to unrelenting extraction.
While seemingly convoluted and an attempt to connect disparate areas of study, I believe that
this kind of approach to creativity presents one of the strongest ways forward, not only for Trinidad
and Tobago's citizens but also for people of color, those that have suffered under capitalism, and all of
us facing the effects of a climate crisis we did not cause.
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