Lilly Singh, the YouTube megastar-turned-late night talk show host is (once again) appropriating my Trinidadian culture–and she’s not even doing it well.
Singh has been a regular at Carnival since 2015, when she became friends with Machel Montano, Trinidad’s reigning king of soca. This February, she devoted a segment of her talk show to the reasons she loves it so much. Then, she Instagrammed her adventures at Carnival in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad’s capital city. And on Tuesday, she posted two vlogs, one purporting to explain what Carnival is, and the other taste-testing Trini snacks(most of which weren’t Trini snacks at all, sigh).
You’d think a major celebrity bringing attention to one of the biggest celebrations in my culture—one which is rarely seen on TV, let alone understood by mainstream audiences—would be a good thing right? Because doesn’t #RepresentationMatter?
Sure, but that’s not what this is.
My family moved to Canada when I was four, so I’ve only actually been in Trinidad for a few Carnivals. But even if I’m not physically there, I’m following along—something made much easier by social media. I take note of the prettiest costumes when Mas Bands release their designs for the coming year, something that happens months in advance. I start listening to Carnival playlists on Spotify and/or YouTube in January at the latest. And when Carnival actually arrives, I look forward to the inevitable conversation in our family group chat about the costumes (usually too scandalous for the older generation) and this year’s songs (never as good as the calypso from their youth). Carnival is an indelible part of my culture, and I love it.
Singh, on the other hand, keeps talking about “Carnaval,” which is how you pronounce the name of the Brazilian festival, not the Trini one. I know that seems like a tiny thing, but it actually means a lot. If you can’t even pronounce the name of the event correctly, why should I trust you as an authority? And of course, that’s the bigger problem. In what world is Lilly Singh, a Sikh Punjabi woman from Scarborough, an authority on a Trini cultural event, and by extension, Trinidad itself? No world. No way.
When Singh talks about Carnival, she says she grew up “within Caribbean culture.” But what she actually means is, she grew up around Caribbean people. She’s familiar with Caribbean culture. That doesn’t mean she’s part of it, or that she has the right to profit off it. But that’s exactly what she’s doing. As Ryan Persadie, Darrell G. Baksh and Aruna Boodram wrote in their 2019 paper, The Politics of Brown Mutuality: Reflections on Lilly Singh, Cultural Appropriation and Queer Amnesia, “Singh continually speaks in Caribbean languages such as creole and patois, dons Afrocentric hairstyles, and appropriates Caribbean song and dance as cultural capital to circulate a popular image that appeals to a wide multicultural and global audience.” But when she appears on magazine covers, her own talk show or other people’s shows, she’s back to the stylish Desi woman—at those times, she’s not wearing boxer braids (which are just cornrows; let’s stop pretending they’re a different thing), nor is she speaking in patois.
It’s, as usual in these types of conversations, the difference between appreciation and appropriation—something Singh has been criticized for in the past. I’m not irritated with her because she feels a connection to Trinidad; I want people to love my country the way I do. And Carnival is super fun—you should go, you should play mas, you should engage with the culture. But I don’t want anyone who’s not Trini to profit from Carnival, which is what Singh is doing, indirectly by appropriating our “cool” culture and directly via YouTube monetization and those sweet, sweet NBC ad dollars.
To be fair, the video did include interviews with Montano and his manager, Che Kothari, who did most of the heavy lifting when it came to explaining Carnival’s history. But the video began and ended with Singh positioning herself as an expert on the festival, culture and even wining—it was very much “Lilly explains it all,” even though she doesn’t have the right to position herself as an authority.
There’s also another dynamic at work here. Singh is a handy surrogate for the erasure I feel as a mixed Caribbean person. I acknowledge the privilege my ethnic ambiguity affords me, but I don’t talk as much about how it feels to wonder where I belong. To be clear, it feels bad. My brown skin and dark hair comes from my East Indian ancestors, but I also have European, Black, Carib and Chinese ancestors (that’s where my last name comes from; I know you were wondering), and I’m Christian—so, I don’t feel like I fit into any one group of people. Other Caribbean people don’t make me feel isolated, but since I rarely see Trinis who look like me in mainstream media or pop culture, it’s still easy to internalize a message about who belongs—and who doesn’t.
I’m also often told that I “don’t look Trini,” by white Canadians, which is weird because according to the 2011 census, people of East Indian descent are the largest ethnic group in Trinidad (35.4% of the population), followed closely by people of African descent (34.2%). And that’s not even counting the other ethnic groups represented in the population—Chinese, Syrian/Lebanese, Indigenous, white. And almost 23% of Trinidadians are mixed! So… what does a Trini look like, exactly? And what do you suppose people are really saying when they tell me I don’t look like one? (Spoiler: they are saying I’m not Black, because many white Canadians think everyone from the Caribbean is of African descent.)
None of this is Singh’s fault, of course. But it still hurts to see an outsider take up space that I, as a Trinidadian-born Canadian, am often denied.
And make no mistake, she is benefiting from a problematic dynamic. As Persadie, Baksh and Boodram point out, “Indo-Caribbean brownness is not the same as Desi/South Asian brownness. This conflation is dangerous, and feeds into a larger ‘multiculturalism’ narrative that conflates communities into large groups of sameness and mutuality and does not address the very real and complicated nuances that occur between South Asian and Indo-Caribbean peoples in diaspora.” They go on to explain that Indo-Caribbean people are often perceived by South Asians as immodest, vulgar, primitive and uncivilized—which makes Singh’s comments about feeling comfortable enough to wine up on Machel Montano, embrace her body and “free up herself” feel less empowering and more appropriative. She’s not actually countering a problematic narrative; she’s having fun by behaving in a way that is deemed unacceptable by her own community, before putting aside Caribbean language, mannerisms and dance moves when those things no longer benefit her. Indo-Caribbean people don’t have the same luxury—nor do Black Caribbean people, whose enslaved ancestors made Carnival what it is.
Not everyone feels the way I do, of course; the comments section below her March 3 vlog is full of Trini people praising Singh for celebrating our culture and introducing our country to the world. But while her videos will introduce Carnival and aspects of Trinidad to entirely new audiences, they also don’t recognize the very people that welcomed her to this festival in the first place. Watching her Carnival videos is like watching an episode of MTV Cribs hosted by an AirBnB guest—she seems to have forgotten that this isn’t her house.
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