The Freetown Collective: Creating Community Through Song in Trinidad and Tobago

Freetown CollectiveThe founders of Freetown Collective, Muhammad Muwakil and Lou Lyons. (Not pictured, Keegan Maharaj) Photo Credits to Kibwe Brathwaite

 

The Freetown Collective was the consequence of the meeting of ideas between friends, who it just so happened were also spoken word artists; this was the wellspring from which the Collective was both earthed and birthed in August 2010. Muhammad Muwakil, Lou Lyons and Keegan Maharaj started something that would be a source of new music; music that gives as much as, if not more, than it receives.

The Collective, which has been a part of Muwakil for “as long as he can remember” continues to create freedom sounds: songs that echo the long-forgotten anthems of the freedman resettled in what is now known as Belmont, but was once called Freetown.

 

A Free Man’s Town

The streets of modern day Belmont are narrow and lined with small homes on either side; in the social spaces where neighbors collide, aged history books sit astride benches, sipping and spilling stories of the past. Old Freetown has been described as ad-hoc, a type of presentation that symbolizes the haphazard juxtaposition of beings who came there to find and live in freedom.

In 1807 following the abolition of the trade of enslaved persons, the British Royal Navy worked to free persons from British ships that persisted in the illegal practice of human trade. Of the thousands of humans who were freed from the ships the Navy intercepted, some were relocated to Trinidad, specifically to Freetown.

On discovering this bit of his hometown history, Muwakil realized what had come to be was a meeting of the past in the Collective’s present. It is from this small community, the hills of Freetown, off the now capital city of Trinidad and Tobago, that inspiration for so much of the Collective’s music comes. Freetown Collective is both the dream and the fulfillment of the people and the place.

 

 

And Then There Were More….

 

Freetown CollectiveBack L-R – Malene Joseph, Shanna Joseph and Tishanna Williams. Front L – R – Muhammad Muwakil and Lou Lyons. Photo Credits to Kibwe Brathwaite

 

Freetown Collective is a growing, living entity and community. The unit has grown to include “The Trinity”, a trio of songstresses: Malene Joseph, Shanna Joseph, and Tishanna Williams. Most recently, Jayron “DJ Rawkus” Remy has become a fixture of the Collective. Armed with acoustic guitars, rhythm, voices, and passion, this musical coalition of passionate young artists infuses any space they inhabit with melodies and lyrics that make you laugh, think, dance and most importantly, feel.

 

In the Collective, I am My Brother’s Keeper

Dissatisfaction. It was dissatisfaction with what was available in the music industry that motivated the Collective to act in 2010. Wanting to give society options, something that would and could be happily parroted by little brothers and sisters in social and secluded spaces alike; a genuine love of music and a desire to make a positive contribution on the musical landscape of Trinidad and Tobago: these are the reasons the Collective found their voice.

Eight years on, not much has changed but the impetus remains. The group experiences an immense sense of energy during their process of creating new music. This process and that energy is something that they cannot, even if they wanted to, walk away from. It has become too big a thing to part with, because for Freetown Collective, community and conversation are at the center of what they do, and why they do what they do. Their musical offerings are borne out of the struggles of the communities within which they move, and are aimed at starting conversations that will give rise to justice and equity. The Collective unequivocally believes that there is no way to create meaningful work within a vacuum. An artist is tasked with shining a light on society for reflection and action.

The Collective’s mission is to create with their art a musical reality that will tend to the healing of all who find their way to Freetown. Their vision is to help others, and to themselves live out the great dream of their Caribbean fore parents. To create art and philosophies that identify and define them as a unique and authentic people.

 

Born in Darkness

 

Freetown Collective

 

On June 30, 2018, Freetown Collective launched its first studio album, Born in Darkness at a packed concert event. The album, a six song offering, is in the words of the Collective, “a map. a map made of sound and emotion, experience and dreams. to where? anywhere.” The only directive the group gives, the hope that they have for this album, is that it is “used to go inside [and] used to find your way outside.”

Moved by a need to offer songs that travel through the everyday experiences of the people and their emotions, emotions that many do not have the time or the luxury to explore or engage with, the album is filled with words, ideas, and sound combinations meant to take these experiences of unsung and unseen aspects of communities and steady them next to what is projected in mainstream media to present a new image; new music.

One of the more prolific songs off the album is “Human Form,” a song which speaks to the controversial comments made on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. “Human Form” is in the words of Muwakil “a beautiful warning” that wants to expose the hypocrisy of divine right. The imagery of the video is a stark comingling of the concepts of inward and outward hunger, that challenges continued existence of systems that seek to normalise the inherent violence of social stratification.

 

I’m ok in my human form / that’s just the calm before the storm /

In my head it keeps raging on / o’ my brother can you hear the sound /

Many years ago I had a dream /

I sold my dream so I could eat / now I’ve eaten and I am full /

I lost my soul and gained the world

 

For Muwakil, one of the songs that challenges the normalization of this inherently violent social system is “Normal.” The word “normal” is a Trinbagonian idiom given in response to the question of one’s state of being, a response they would receive endlessly from children during their school tours. The Collective recognized that what they were witnessing was an acceptance of the broken state of the system. That even from a very young age, the actors within Trinidad and Tobago’s social landscape were accepting as “normal” unapologetically fragmented and unforgiving social structures.

Another notable song is “Space for a Heart.” Though it may not immediately be viewed as an overtly political song, Muwakil states that “it very much is, because it is a song that deals with the vulnerability of the black Caribbean male” and the ideology that the “ideal” Caribbean man must lead with aggression in regard to gender relations. It is a song that softly interrogates and confronts this hyper-masculine ideal and offers up an alternative—that costs nothing—to the traditional code of conduct.

We can take Born in Darkness as an album that attempts to lead us though a conversation with each other and with ourselves. The sentiment is one of support, looking to authenticate the emotions of the listener, making them aware of their significance and worth. With this album, Freetown Collective confronts, objects, and soothes all at once, in an attempt to transport the listener to a place where they are ready to challenge the status quo.

 

Freetown Collective

 

Freetown Collective“Born In Darkness Album Launch, Trinidad, June 2018"

 

The Collective, in their words, see themselves as recipients of “so much love from the residents of Freetown and our Freetown family, and this does not go unacknowledged.” That they should be named after a town founded on the principles of freedom is only fitting, as the spirits of the many Africans who first settled in old Freetown continues to resonate in their music.

Born in Darkness, inspired by these echoes, and the need to write the many truths of the descendants of the same, with whom they now live, love, laugh, and learn in Belmont, is the means by which Freetown Collective has decided to recognize that love, and to return to the people music filled with purpose and meaning.

There is a lyric in one of the Collective’s originals, “Good Swimma,” a simple and for the most part overlooked lyric which says, “I’m a Believer!” And it is these four simple words that moved Freetown Collective to first set out in 2010, and continues to shape them today. It moves them to find their song, and the freedom to sing with a potency that resonates.

 

 

 

 

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Shrinagar is a Food Anthropologist, with an MA in the Social Anthropology of Food from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) UoL. Always having been an avid writer she is actively working toward one day having her work appear on screen, stage, and in print.