Judges Jump to Conclusions

Posted: April 5, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,


People around Shadow have heard him speculate for years that the Calypso judges just don’t like his looks, and by that he has never meant his macabre skeleton costume or the ominous persona he has built around his black suits and hats. Rather, in a career spanning over forty years, one in which he has been crowned Calypso Monarch only once by judges of either the old CDC (Carnival Development Committee, or the “Carnival Destruction Committee” as Black Stalin once called them) or the new National Carnival Commission Shadow has been wondering whether it is because he is “ugly” that the judges have repeatedly snubbed him. He has mentioned the ugliness issue in many Calypsos, not always directly naming himself. In “Winston” (1973) a relative tells him ‘francoment’ that he’s ugly but in “Deceiving” (1978) he admonishes us not to judge books and people by their unattractive covers. Direct or indirect, Shadow has considered in song that people think he is ugly.

Bukka Rennie confirmed it in 2000 when he mentioned in his “Shadow’s Lament” article that, “There is a quite special home in Maracas where we “lime” every year on the day of the calypso semi-finals and this year as we viewed the TV broadcast, Shadow came on and began this song [“What’s Wrong With Me?”] and there was this lady who sat up front, a distinguished professional, quite petite, brown and dainty, who unconsciously answered Shadow’s question, “Am I ugly or what?” with the following utterance: “Oh most definitely, you are!” (http://www.trinicenter.com/BukkaRennie/2000/Mar/Shadowslament.html)

With Shadow’s constant use of the question as his philosophical mode and with the sneaking perception (whether his or that of brown, dainty others) of his “ugliness,” it is hard not to draw parallels between him and Socrates, pioneer of the famed, questioning Socratic method, denizen of Athens not at all famous for his handsomeness.

“Standards of beauty are different in different eras, and in Socrates’s time beauty could easily be measured by the standard of the gods, stately, proportionate sculptures of whom had been adorning the Athenian acropolis since about the time Socrates reached the age of thirty. Good looks and proper bearing were important to a man’s political prospects, for beauty and goodness were linked in the popular imagination. The extant sources agree that Socrates was profoundly ugly, resembling a satyr more than a man—and resembling not at all the statues that turned up later in ancient times and now grace Internet sites and the covers of books. He had wide-set, bulging eyes that darted sideways and enabled him, like a crab, to see not only what was straight ahead, but what was beside him as well; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and large fleshy lips like an ass. Socrates let his hair grow long, Spartan-style (even while Athens and Sparta were at war), and went about barefoot and unwashed, carrying a stick and looking arrogant.”

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (First published online Fri Sep 16, 2005; substantive revision Wed Mar 19, 2014,http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socrates/)

The description of Socrates echoes Shadow’s own description of an ugly man in the song “Deceiving,”

A man walking in town

and he have a nose bridge like King Kong

People will watch him scornfully

To me that is stupidity.

He was born with his features

So don’t give him no horrors.

Just take it light

The man aint ugly for spite.


So don’t let the looks deceive you

No no no no no no no

Looks might keep you far from what’s true

Yea yea yea yea yea yea yea


The cover of the book could be so scornful to your eyes

Yet the letters on the pages form the words to make you wise


That is the truth

and the truth is the fact

You could try like a brute

but you can’t get away from that.

Socrates’ appearance was judged by the physiognomic standards of his time. The ancient Greeks were among the first cultures to approach eugenics on a national level, trying to breed themselves into superior health, intelligence and beauty. Mostly unscientifically, the popular imagination of the Athenians especially associated a person’s physical features with certain aspects of their personality. In that way the length of your chin or the breadth of your forehead, the thickness of your lips or the shape of your nose was believed to say something about your character. The 19th century pseudo science of phrenology[i] (which purported to predict/decipher traits like criminality and sexual promiscuity from the shapes of heads and faces) has its roots in the arbitrary catalogue of human features provided by Greek physiognomy.

Greek statues still embody these physiognomic aesthetics from their high nose bridges to their full but small lips. Even those expressionless Classical faces and conspicuously tiny sculpted penises have something to say about the elevation of the intellect over the bestial urges that was aspired to in Greek art, society and genetics. But in bronze and marble statuary, these seem far more innocuous than the prejudice and ridicule a person with Socrates’s flat, broad nose and large eyes might have suffered on the street.

One wonders if the philosopher did not develop the arrogant demeanour for which he is infamous to cut down on the number of direct confrontations he might have sustained otherwise upon simply entering the agora, that famous marketplace of ideas. My own experience as a ‘black male’ in America is that if I walk around acting like I own the place, I am harassed less often by police. Other people’s prejudice is tempered just a little by one’s own arrogance or pretence thereof. Of course the down side of this “don’t you dare” attitude is that once your detractors have been denied the opportunity to insult and humiliate you in public they start plotting behind your back to ‘get you good, once and for all,’ and this is precisely what happened to Socrates. He would face increasingly serious accusations from people in power.

In the Apology Plato speaks to some of these accusations brought against Socrates:

“dangerous are these, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause. These are the accusers whom I dread; for they are the circulators of this rumor, and their hearers are too apt to fancy that speculators of this sort do not believe in the gods.”

From the Apology by Plato (transl. Benjamin Jowett, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html)

The accusers’ panicked concern that a person who interrogates everything on earth or in heaven is a threat to state and religion is the dark side of these ostensibly contemplative Athenians betwixt their marble colonnades. And their manic response to Socrates has sometimes earned them a place as the errant theocracy in literature and art, including the famous painting, “Death of Socrates” by neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David. In the painting Socrates has chosen to administer his own execution rather than trying to escape or letting an executioner carry out the killing. He is about to drink the poison proffered him at the behest of the Athenian judges, but not before he delivers one last exegesis. After this final lesson the scheming clerics and politicians finally get their way and the wise, “ugly” seeker they could countenance no longer dies in the arms of his students and colleagues (a despondent Plato pictured at the foot of the bed). Yes, the ancient Greeks sometimes didn’t know what they had, and sometimes they even killed their philosophers.

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787 Oil on canvas 129.5 cm × 196.2 cm (51.0 in × 77.2 in)

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787
Oil on canvas
129.5 cm × 196.2 cm (51.0 in × 77.2 in)

The relationship of the philosopher to authority is not always predictable. Some philosophers such as Aristotle and Confucius align quite nicely to the state’s (including the theocracy’s) concerns. But the great questioner is very predictably the recipient of either benign neglect or a public hanging or something in between, depending on when and where they live.

Shadow lives in a highly plural, cosmopolitan and fairly prosperous republic, one built, fuelled and subsidised by deceptively ‘endless’ fossil fuel resources, so his battle is not for his life. He doesn’t even have to defend his musical life, because as long as there are audiences (and if I am not mistaken about him, even if there aren’t) Shadow will keep on making music. But on stage on Dimanche Gras night, he has usually lost the fight for his due recognition. This is not to say that in a society where “every creed and race find an equal place” (as our national anthem concludes) that there aren’t a myriad of prejudices regarding race, gender, religion and a host of other socially constructed/inflected categories.

With little doubt, we can imagine that Shadow has internalised certain popular notions about features such as his own. In a tragicomic Calypso from the very earliest part of his career, Shadow recounts being insulted, harangued and tortured as a child by family members. As he goes running from his mean nenny (which can be a grandmother, aunt or godmother depending on how a family uses the word) to his grandfather, the old man rebuffs him:

Go from me,

yuh so ugly,

you lookin’ like a blight,

get away from my eyesight

From “Winston” (from the album Bassman, 1973)


Calypsonians and comedians are known to treat their ugliest biographical details as so much raw material atop which they apply varying layers of poetic license. So the precise level of truth in this pathetic childhood autobiography remains a little uncertain. We do know that the young Winston Bailey grew up in Tobago with his grandparents.[ii]

Everyone in T&T has seen this country’s physiognomic version of ‘tyranny of the majority.’ Who do we consider beautiful? It’s a compliment to be called “red.” And in the end, that reddish brown is the majority colour in the nation. If you’re too black they’re going to call you “tar baby” and all kinds of nonsense in school. And having gone to at least one elite school in Trinidad, I can attest that I have seen white children occasionally get some of the same treatment for their ‘ghostly’ pallor etc., though it is never as vociferous as what the dark children get. After all, there is a massive propaganda machine, namely American movies, that counterbalances any excessive criticism of Caucasitude by presenting millions of glamourous images of the European phenotype to Trinbagonians. In fact the only group that gets teased (in childhood) and stigmatised (in adulthood) nearly as much as darker people are the Chinese in Trinidad. There is a rainbow of Chinese nicknames, insults and innuendos.

Brown is best in T&T. It is the Trinbago version of Greek eugenics, much like the mestizaje that Latin Americans celebrated in the 19th and early 20th century during their periods of independence—an elevation of racial mixture above racial ‘purity’ that sounded well enough, except that it always privileged European institutions as rational, above First Nations and African ones, even when the cultural boons from these darker ancestors was staring them in the face…in their religious, artistic, musical and other cultural foundations.

So it is quite possible that Shadow’s West African phenotype has indeed had something to do with the benign neglect he has received from Calypso judges and some other captains of culture. Judges might have seen him as a unique voice, a classic in his own little sub-genre, but they were not going to honour him with the Calypso Monarch crown if they could help it. Wasn’t there some more accessible, marketable, sweeter, prettier singer to be the face of Calypso for the next year?

In 1974 when the crowd was convinced that the relative newcomer, The Shadow!, had won the Calypso Monarch competition, when even Sparrow himself was prepared to bow out gracefully after he saw Shadow work the crowd, the judges gave the crown to handsome, sweet-voiced, and somewhat surprised Sparrow anyway.[iii] There are people who do not recognise the Calypso judges as political players, but just like saying you don’t like or follow politics is itself a political position, not recognising the politics at the Savannah doesn’t magically make the politics disappear.

Every Calypso monarch has been a political appointment, as the very term “monarch” might imply. And in 2000 when Shadow finally won the monarch, it was after he had, like Gandhi with the colonial British, shamed the judges into doing the just, right and overdue thing. They practically had no choice but to make him king that year—because Shadow had stopped threatening them with infernal tortures like in “Jump Judges Jump” (1976) and “Tell Them” (1981) and resorted instead to his most sage lyrical tactic, the question.


Am I ugly or what?

Bad lucky or what?

I have rabies or what?

Do I eat babies or what?


What’s wrong with me?!


At the end of each verse Shadow repeats the question “what’s wrong with me?” four times, with the four-woman chorus on stage answering in call and response “We don’t know” to each interrogation. In the second half of the performance, Shadow begins to hold his mic out to the audience (and the judges) after each “What wrong with me?” so that they might answer…or consider the question more deeply.

It seems the judges stopped “eatin’ their chicken and drinkin’ stink rum” (from “Tell Them, 1981) just then. It was time to get back to work!

A sidebar here: note all the references straight back to the biographical “Winston,” as Shadow mentions running away from home, and as he asks whether his birth was a blight or a mistake. So from “Maybe I was unwanted, I don’t know” in “Winston” to “Maybe my birth was a mistake” in “What’s Wrong With Me?” Shadow returns to the question of why “people in authority” don’t seem to know what to do with him and cannot seem to appreciate what he has to offer. It is a sentiment well known to philosophers.


“The people in general are happy as if enjoying a great carnival.

Or, as climbing up a tower in spring.

I alone am tranquil,

and have made no signs,

Like a baby who is yet unable to smile;

Forlorn as if I had no home to go to.

Others all have more than enough,

I alone seem to be in want.

Possibly mine is the mind of a fool,

Which is so ignorant!

The vulgar are bright,

And I alone seem to be dull.

The vulgar are discriminative,

and I alone seem blunt.

I am negligent as if being obscure;

Drifting, as if being attached to nothing.

The people in general all have something to do,

And I alone seem to be impractical and awkward.

I alone am different from others.

But I value seeking sustenance from the Mother [the Tao].”

From Chapter Twenty of the Tao te Ching/Dao te Ching, by Lao Tze (I have combined my favourite English translation by Ch’u ta Kao with the Arthur Waley version here)

Like Shadow’s occasional trips into melancholy, Lao Tze’s twentieth chapter (or the ‘Lao Tze Blues’ as I have taken to calling it) has a completely different tone than the rest of his famous book. He seems sad and a little self-pitying, but in the end he tells us it is because he is not easily satisfied by what satisfies other people. He seeks bigger answers to questions the people don’t even ask (or might be discouraged from asking so they have festivals instead).

Shadow’s plight is that he practices an art that is celebrated mostly during one such escapist festival. And this has been a major source of the tension between him and the judges, his music and that of others in a competition, and between him and those judges. Judges are perfectly ready to hear a song with a “message.”[iv] But if Shadow’s music can ever be said to have something as quaint as a “message,” it is a message judges cannot understand.

In fact, at the Calypso competition of 2000, Shadow was asking this question “What’s wrong with me?” in earnest. He was not just being Socratic. As a gifted person he has had trouble putting himself in the tiny shoes of the essentially conservative and somewhat technocratic Calypso judges, people charged with recognising and, some would say, preserving the merits of the musical form. Certainly it’s enough to make you doubt your own value if year after year you put in a Herculean effort on your compositions, arrangements and performances and receive little official recognition, sometimes not even making the Calypso finals. The judges have been a constant vexation for Shadow as he has sometimes wondered whether he should even return to the Savannah to submit to the apparent whims of these experts.

But does Shadow suffer from low self-esteem as a result of the judges’ repeated snubs? He certainly gives in to speculation and doubt in some of his lyrics, and the angst has made for good, sometimes darkly hilarious poetry and music (I’ll be posting about ‘gizzards and coconut shells’ in the future). But in Shadow’s “very consistent,” indeed stubborn, adhesion to his signature style in music and dress, to his philosophical interests and supramundane fascinations, and his return on most years to the rigours of the competition, we see a bard quite assured of his musical mission. And it is no secret that Shadow shows up on any stage first and foremost for the fans. He is not the disinterested modern genius who couldn’t care less (or pretends to not care less) whether people appreciate his contribution or not. Shadow thrives off the energy of his audiences. But he has always been haunted by the judges’s lack of wisdom.

The whole reason I brought up Socrates today is because across the ages from each other here are two men who have had some serious problems with judges. One was executed. The other has spent his career in a kind of exile (and let us not forget that official recognition comes with great sums of money with which one can pay musicians and buy studio time). The two philosophers here have been regarded by the arbitrary standards of their times as nuisances for not looking right, not acting right, for asking too many damned questions and for not having a clear “message.”


For it’s concern with Shadow’s 2000 “What’s Wrong With Me?,” this post has ridden in on the coattails of Bukka Rennie’s article “Shadow’s Lament.” I dedicate this post to Bukka Rennie, for since the early 1970s he has been an unparalleled connoisseur and herald of Shadow’s genius.




[i] For the wild and wacky world of faces, races and theories without bases, you can peruse the nicely illustrated Wikipedia pages on Physiognomy and Phrenology (some would say a Wiki is all they’re worth): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physiognomy and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrenology).

[ii] For convenience see Debbie Jacob’s 1995 Caribbean Beat article on the then “Uncrowned King” of Calypso: http://caribbean-beat.com/issue-16/shadow-uncrowned-king#axzz2y1EJY7is

[iii] For a very brief account of that and other similar episodes, see the online article “Shadow: The Man and His Music” from the Tobago News: http://www.thetobagonews.com/news/Shadow___The_man__and_his__music-118628809.html

[iv] For the controversy over Shadow winning without a “message,” see Bukka Rennie’s aforementioned 2000 article “Shadow’s Lament: Am I Ugly?” online, http://www.trinicenter.com/BukkaRennie/2000/Mar/Shadowslament.html

  1. …and as for that verse in “What’s Wrong With Me?” about Shadow bringing Soca’s essential ingredients down from the hills of Laventille?….well that is a fight for another day, and one I need to sharpen my cutlass for…we go talk


  2. merepamphleteer says:

    Indeed I like your linking Shadow with Socrates, the Great Seeker. For Shadow, too, I think his work has not just been concerned with seeking meaning but positioning or facilitating the finding of meaning thru seeking. “Deceiving” is a classic example: Is he simply suggesting don’t judge a book by its cover or is he also critiquing–rather questioning– fake prophets (those with ‘degrees in stupidity’) not unlike Socrates who exposed deceivers, the aristocrats of knowledge and upholders of social conventions? I wonder too if in “Deceiving” Shadow wasn’t naming his/the world while embracing the frame of the Silenus Figure—a Socrates-like type who may appear foolish, noisy, and ugly while being wise, serene and admirable inside. Shadow’s “What’s Wrong With Me”, with the refrain ”Am I ugly or what”, may be more sound not for the answers Shadow does not provide but in the question he asks there and elsewhere. I often wonder, like you, how much of Shadow’s verse is–or flows from—biographical… or given his continuous search if he may not be exhibiting the things other people say (a kinda negative capability) to get people to pay closer attention to the welfare of their souls by ‘telling’ them what many may not want to hear, or even imagine.
    Interesting exposition on ‘colorism’ and in that respect I found “The Incredible Myron B’s” vision of the “First Black Prime Minister” to be a telling commentary.


    • I like this idea of Silenus, wise old grandfather of the satyrs. In Shadow’s DeCoteau years, he was particularly unafraid to cast uncertainty over the inevitability and wonder of our/his birth in the manner of Silenus, the perennial “to be or not to be,” or as Shadow put it in 1983’s “Going Off,” “I didn’t ask to born.” And then in 2000 again Shadow muses about errant births. Yet we are compelled by our peers to judge every birth a success, a blessing. The alternative is “unthinkable”… Or rather, we’re not allowed to think it…but that never stopped Shadow.

      As for showing people things they don’t want to see/hear/think about, why do I feel like you’re already talking about the masterpiece “Conscience”?


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