With its colourful traditional shows and masquerades, including Jab Jab, Fancy Indians and Moko Jumbies, Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is considered the biggest and brightest in the Caribbean sub-region and attracts thousands of international visitors every year.
In 2019, Port of Spain was named a UNESCO City of Music. This has created a year-round opportunity for artistes, musicians and entrepreneurs to promote the art of music and culture as a driver for sustainable urban development.
In 2020, everything was different.
Restrictive social distancing measures, travel bans and island-wide lockdowns to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus came on the agenda. In 2021, Carnival had to be suspended. This deprived Trinidadians of one of its most important social events, and a large part of the local cultural industry lost income and livelihood.
“You so busy with pleasure, you don’t see the level of employment. That coulda save life when yuh think this thing woulda destroy them.” In his latest hit, “Heart of The People”, local soca artiste Bunji Garlin pays tribute to the service providers and creatives who make a living through the Carnival season. Many artistes and creators, especially those who work in the informal or gig economy, are now unable to make ends meet, much less produce new works of art. Dancers, musicians and event organisers had to re-invent themselves to either market their art online or put their creativity on hold for the time “after corona”. Cultural institutions and event organisations are losing millions in revenue. The devastation brought to the entire culture value chain will have a long-lasting impact on the creative economy.
Since the onset of the pandemic, social media campaigns such as #ShareCulture encouraged culture professionals around the world to post their art online. This enabled access to culture for millions of people around the world during the Covid-lockdowns. Artistes were able to connect, lift each other up, share their art and, in turn, a little hope and community spirit.
Culture and creativity are essential to building the resilience of Caribbean communities; this becomes even more true in times of crisis.
At a time when billions of people are physically separated from one another, culture brings us together. At a time of enormous anxiety and uncertainty, culture provides comfort, inspiration and hope. “Covid-19 has brought into stark relief, as crises often do, the necessity of culture for people and communities,” said Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture. “Yet even as we rely on culture to get us through this crisis, culture is also suffering.”
As the world works to address the immediate danger of Covid-19, it is imperative to put in place measures to support artistes and access to culture, both in the short and long term.
We need to work to ensure culture is accessible to all, and that the full diversity of humanity’s cultural expressions can flourish, both online and offline. We need to encourage countries to ensure artistes can access global markets and be fairly remunerated for their work. With one-fifth of those employed in cultural occupations working part-time and often on a contractual, freelance or intermittent basis, we need to re-think the labour and social protection frameworks surrounding artistes to consider the unique ways in which they work. We need to ensure artistes and creators’ economic, social and human rights are respected. This includes their right to free expression and protection from censorship.
We need to equip young cultural practitioners with the skillset for creative entrepreneurship. We need to promote cultural exchanges between Caribbean artistes and international markets to promote Caribbean cultural goods, establish an inter-regional knowledge exchange and build on lessons learnt from other regions.
We need to safeguard the Caribbean’s cultural heritage and environment while supporting the tourism sector. We need sustainable eco-tourism that allows the visitor to discover the cultural resources of the Caribbean in harmony with its natural wealth.
Culture has the power to positively change the lives of thousands of people in the Caribbean, build lasting bridges and overcome language barriers when integrated into development strategies. By placing culture at the centre of sustainable development, the UNESCO Transcultura programme, with the financial support of the European Union, aims to harness diversity and connect artistes and culture professionals from different linguistic areas in Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean and interregional.
Now, more than ever, people need culture. Culture makes us resilient. It gives us hope. It reminds us we are not alone, that we are part of a larger place in life. That is why we should do all we can to support culture, safeguard our heritage and empower artistes and cultural workers to recover from this crisis and build back better. We all need to join hands by supporting culture in our family, our community, our city, our country—however we can.
—Saadia Sanchez-Vegas is director and representative for the UNESCO Cluster Office for the Caribbean