Leroy Calliste had the most fitting calypso name, Black Stalin, but he was nothing like the ruthless Russian dictator who terrorized his subjects. Black Stalin used his power to celebrate the Caribbean history, culture, and music. He strived to build unity in the region. He never demanded respect. He was decades ahead of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Born during World War II on September 24, 1941, Stalin grew up on Coffee Street in San Fernando. His father worked for Texaco oil company, and Stalin counted labor leader Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler as one of the first heroes to visit his home. Stalin often visited the Free French panyard with his older brother Dennis. The panyards left indelible images of Caribbean music, history, struggle, brotherhood, and social injustice that would surface in his calypsoes, but first, Stalin made a name for himself as a limbo dancer.
When calypso became his calling, Stalin crafted upbeat, uptempo narrative calypsoes with catchy melodies that occupied a fine line between calypso and soca. He tackled prickly subjects like colonialism and Caribbean unity, always in an uplifting way. Stalin earned five national calypso monarch titles and remained a roots man with dreadlocks.
His first calypso crown came in 1979 with Play One, a nostalgic look at calypso and Steelband as a history of struggle and Caribbean Man that celebrated his perception of a typical West Indian heritage. Stalin never exploited an ethnic divide. Instead, he sang of “one race from the same place… that is the Caribbean man.” He stressed the importance of knowing the history and what unites us. Stalin was a champion of women’s rights and addressed women with respect in his calypsoes, which was never the norm for the art form.
Stalin’s calypsoes empowered common people to stand up for what is right. In 1985, he became calypso monarch for the second time with Wait Dorothy Wait, a humorous social commentary about trying to please his fans who requested a smutty calypso from him.
“Four verses and chorus is too much of lyrics to sit down and write in this moment of crisis,” he sang. “My head says yes, but my heart says no. My pleasure comes second to my duty.” Wait Dorothy Wait was a moving statement about duty and sacrifice to make this country better. Stalin’s second offering that year, Ism/Schism, warned that all politics is the same. “You must have a nuclear weapon to hang onto your ism,” he sang.
His third calypso crown in 1987 featured Mr. Panmaker which paid homage to pan as a social force and called for Trinidadians to be more protective of its instrument. In Bun Dem, he envisioned himself at the gates of heaven begging for a job to assist St Peter in tossing nefarious characters in the history of slavery and colonialism into hellfire. This was not revenge, it was sanctioned religious justice in the hands of black people. Thunderous applause in the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain, on the night he dethroned David Rudder caused many people to refer to that performance as causing a near riot.
A more upbeat Stalin became the calypso monarch in 1991. He elevated women to a special place in Black Man Feeling to Party, a celebration of marriage, culture, and aging. In an atypical calypso narrative, Stalin tells his wife, whom we can all imagine to be his wife in real life, Patsy, to put everything aside and get dressed up to go dancing. They will show all the youngsters how feteing is done. In The Bright Side, he sang, “Our day will come. The bright side is where we’re going.”
His 1995 calypso monarch title was a Tribute to Sundar Popo, a celebration of chutney music encased in a playful picong about the promised song Sundar Popo never delivered to Stalin. In response, Stalin wrote his own chutney. Stalin’s pieces always offered a solution to a problem. He described his second song, In Time, “as a message of love and hope.”
Stalin maintained his humility and open-mindedness throughout his career. He knew no racial, religious, or ethnic boundaries.
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