Back in October 2018, National Public Radio Music (NPR Music) published an essay online declaring Trinidadian female soca star Destra Garcia as the “liberator of revelry.” That essay was part of a series that, according to the editor, was “dedicated to recasting the popular music canon in more inclusive — and accurate — ways.” The series’ essays make arguments that “challenge the usual definitions of influence…rethink the building legacies of popular artists [and] celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time.”
According to NPR Music, she was “broadening the sound of soca” thus influencing that sound certainly from the perspective of the writer, a diaspora-based Caribbean, and the milieu in which the writer wrote her essay. Importantly, that external viewpoint also illustrates something which is taken for granted here in Trinidad and Tobago: Destra Garcia is the bellwether among female soca artists in the music industry globally. That “influence” described in that article has a reach which, one can argue has made this soca star a Caribbean music icon outside of her native Trinidad and Tobago, and certainly one that dwarfs her local reputation. Her calendar of influence is no longer centred on Trinidad carnival. She is now regional and annual.
But, to determine subjective classifications of the “best” or “biggest” artist, one must have the imprimatur of some objective measurements. In this modern age of music where data is king and “likes” and “follows” matter more than universally diminishing record sales — her entire catalogue however is on all the major digital music platforms — Destra has the numbers that matter and make a solid case for her ascension beyond her self-declared Queen of Bacchanal to the more apt Queen of Soca.
Kimron Corion, writing in Huffington Post on the “responsibility Caribbean natives have to help control the narrative about our respective countries in the media and how Caribbean soca artists can use social media to build their brands worldwide,” asserted that, “Destra does a great job with social media and has built a raving community around her brand online. She uses her music to give people in different cities around the world a view of Caribbean, especially her home country Trinidad and Tobago, without really being there.”
Looking at those numbers on popular social media platforms Instagram and Facebook, she is indeed the queen, distancing from other female soca stars like Alison Hinds, Fay-Ann Lyons, rising star Nailah Blackman and even calypso legend Calypso Rose. Only soca superstar Machel Montano with a 35-plus year career betters her on Instagram, while she is the clear leader on Facebook among all performing soca artists worldwide with 323,000 plus followers, as of December 2018. Her fan base is strong, and when one factors in the small numbers of the islands, it becomes clear how important the diaspora and an external market becomes.
Soca’s popularity and the stars who make this music regional if not global are still operating within confined niche markets despite the sound and rhythm of soca being tapped by today’s urban pop stars as a sonic bed for chart topping hits. Social media numbers of soca artists pale in comparison to the biggest artists from these islands: Bajan Rihanna has close to 80 million followers on Facebook, while Trinidad-born Nicki Minaj has 41 million and Cardi B of Trinidadian and Dominican parents, and arguably the hottest thing right now, is just beginning, notching just over 6 million followers on the platform. Instagram shows similar multi-million followers of these international acts, and hence display the relative beginnings of soca artists and the genre in the global marketplace.
Destra’s profile certainly has a bigger impact regionally than at home in Trinidad. The Fader magazine noted in a 2016 review of her career that Destra “tours globally year round, connecting with her international fan base via trilingual capabilities — she speaks English, Spanish, and French — and the universal language of wining.”
That universality has been endorsed by her tireless touring up the islands — in 2017, she fell from a stage in Bermuda breaking her ankle and continued touring and dancing with a cast! — and importantly through Europe and the Americas where she has headlined festivals and events in the Netherlands, Canada, the U.S., every island in the archipelago from Bermuda to the Dutch and French Antilles, to Guyana and Venezuela on the South American mainland, and even to Dubai. The wider global marketplace is her oyster, and soca is her ticket to the world.
A solid argument can be made that Destra is without the two most important measures of soca stardom in Trinidad, a Road March title and a Soca Monarch title. It is a fair assessment that she was strangely “denied” a Road March for her anthem “It’s Carnival” in 2003, that song being a hit to this day in Carnivals the world over.
Her “rival” or more correctly, her female colleague in the soca fraternity, Fay-Ann Lyons has both titles and more, a distribution deal with US-based label VP Records that should guarantee some chart action for her albums. This seems to not matter to the cognoscenti or fans.
This anomaly of no titles but better social media data would negate any rational arguments from naysayers and assuage the many who dote on Destra’s every offering in the annual Carnival celebration. Her lynchpin to domination is the universal adulation for her among a network of Caribbean and international Carnivals that ape the ethos of the annual Trinidad celebration from January to October. And further, the legacy of this wide adulation has had an impact on the performance aesthetics of a number of younger soca singers from the islands.
Back in 2006, Caribbean Beat described Destra as, “perky and girlish, a Trinidadian version of an American pop princess…her stage act is G-rated, but still just sexy enough for her to maintain credibility on the Carnival scene.” In 2019, the twentieth year of her career, not much has changed, except that she is now a mother and the curves are real. The image of the singer is an iconic one — voluptuous, sultry, almost cartoonish like Jessica Rabbit — unmatched by the new interlopers on the soca scene. That hasn’t hurt her prospects of extending her career nor has the infrequency of the major hits annually. In that twenty-year spanning career, Destra has had one hit a year, and a major hit or classic frequently including 2015’s “Lucy”.
How did we get to this point of arguing the merits of Destra’s legacy thus far? We should start at the beginning and trace the touchpoints that mark a career that has expanded beyond the boundary. Journeys to the top are never in a figurative straight line but follow the ups and downs of a life shaped by island influence and the DNA of familial destiny and fancy. VS Naipaul posited in his book The Writer’s People in 2007 that “small places with simple economies bred small people with simple destinies.” There has been a challenge by Caribbean people for years to escape that indictment by actions fashioned by fate or honed out of habit.
Destra Garcia was born and raised in the tough Laventille district outside the capital Port of Spain and is either a product of her community or the patient student of the industry that rewards the deserving and confines the ordinary to the pages of the journeyman chronicles. Or both! Intriguingly, the idea of escaping far from the madding crowd of Laventille or a kind of “distancing” from the grim influences of its ethos is subliminally hinted within her biography. However, the reward of family, friends and school as the basis for a focused career point to a denial of “simple destinies.”
Destra’s primary and secondary school life existed in Woodbrook and then St. James, on the other side of Port of Spain, and in that milieu, she excelled singing calypsos at the various calypso competitions organised for school children by organisations like the National Carnival Commission and other community-focused ones.
She recalls that her initial breakthrough as a singer, “you’d have to go all the way back to when I used to sing calypso. When I started to sing at school. And my teacher, Janice Roach, was the one that found that I had a good voice, a good tone and she found that I was brave.” ‘Miss Roach’ figured importantly in creating the future star. Destra continues, “She wrote my very first calypso, ‘Common Entrance’ and entered me in the primary schools’ competition, And I won. My first try, my first attempt at singing in public after she trained me to use the microphone. It’s from that moment that I felt I like this. I was only ten. It was just an eye-opener to me. I enjoyed the attention, I enjoyed the applause, I enjoyed being on that stage, and I never looked back.” The spirit of that early mentorship paid major dividends at secondary school where she set an unprecedented winning streak, this time composing her own calypsos.
At the same time her school provided a foundation for a career, her family and their myriad influences provided a framework for that career that continues today. The Garcia home was a house of music and as she says, “my influences are the influences of everyone around me that is in my family.” Her mother was into soul music, her father was into Bob Marley, her grandparents were into ‘old time kaiso’. The male relatives were working musicians playing steelpan and jazz. That “good voice” that Miss Roach heard was touched by all these musical connections, including the church and gospel music, to develop into a signature powerhouse vocal instrument instantly recognizable among soca fans.
Once Destra left school, she began to experiment with R&B in both solo and girl group formats and was sought out to record songs to be “shopped” abroad by an American A&R executive. An unplanned setback with that project led her to “try soca.” An initial partnership with singer Third Bass on the track “Just A Friend” in 1999 began her professional soca career, that subsequently led to frontline singer roles in Roy Cape All Stars and Atlantik before striking out on her own a few years later. Destra Garcia the music businesswoman was born. There could be no turning back as the accolades began to compile, but the slings and arrows of the professional soca circuit lay ahead.
The plight of female soca artists in a male dominated music sector and within this genre was also noted by Destra. “As females, yes, we would probably be judged a little bit harder, or the challenge, the rise to the top is going to be almost like an uphill battle. At the end of the day, you do what you need to do, you remember who you are, you stay focused and you go out there and just get it done,” advises the singer. “We have to work twice as hard as men to actually reach on their level. And sometimes we are on their level, but we’re still not on their level in terms of how the world sees it,” she explains with a kind of foregone destiny. She further advises, “Ladies, don’t give up, I can’t say why, but I can give advice. Don’t give up. Just work harder.” Similar stories have been told in American film and television industry as well as rap music industry so the path to the top is a well-worn one she negotiated staunchly.
She sometimes displayed an annoying self-doubt and awe at times of soca competitions, but was steely, determined and bellicose when confronted. Destra reminisced in a television interview that “In the past, a lot of people have said, ‘Oh, Destra has a hot temper. Destra’s mouth too hot.’ Let’s go back to when the glow stick hit me in my face in Bacchanal Wednesday that year  and I just lost it. The next day it was all over the news that Destra said this and Destra said that.” A media darling today, the next, a target for derision, she says those days are over now that she is a mother.
How has Destra survived all these years? Establishing early in one’s career a footprint outside of the home market pays dividends in the segmented music marketplace globally. This writer noted in an essay elsewhere that “music industries are difficult to manoeuvre everywhere. The subjective nature of popularity varies from locale to locale.” The importance of brands in the new music industry has not escaped Destra. Amazingly, or confusingly if you are new to her music, she boasts three brand identities, three alter egos: QoB (Queen of Bacchanal, the fashion icon who “does mash up de place”), Lucy (her innate wild child avatar from the 2015 hit of the same name) and Destra, the soca queen that began in 1999.
The idea of “escaping far from the madding crowd in Laventille” still subliminally resonates in the music and sound of Destra Garcia. There is a perpetual battle among Caribbean artists to “keep it real,” to not dilute the brand with obvious crossover elements. Laventille was a crucible of creativity for original Trinidadian culture. Music cues outside of the Caribbean are present in her music. Her voice, her look, that easily identifiable popular music sound and vision touched by those many influences of family and fame over the years signal an outlier whose plangent, yet dulcet tone, and suggestive character make her and her music unique and recognisable among a sea of female soca singers. She leads where others follow.
More importantly, for Destra over the years, her brand of crossover soca with its familiarity and its obvious interpolation of popular music forms — her 2003 anthem “It’s Carnival” written by Kernal Roberts liberally samples Cyndi Lauper’s hit “Time After Time”, 2004’s “Bonnie and Clyde” interpolates 1980s Norwegian pop group a-Ha’s “Take On Me” — made pioneering impacts that resonated among the advertising and marketing sector in the Americas. Captain Morgan’s Parrot Bay Rum used “Bonnie & Clyde” as its theme music for its television advertising campaign in the US in the 1990s. Digicel signed her as the first female endorsee in the Caribbean in 2006. Even the island of Antigua, the leading wedding and honeymoon destination, wanted to cash in on her fame by suggesting that her pending nuptials would be held there in 2018, a fact denied by the artist.
A critical aspect of the Destra Garcia empire is her branded concert. In 2016, Destra said in a television interview,
“Machel doing it [Machel Monday]. Kes doing it [Tuesday on the Rocks]. So, I said, ‘you know what? I’ve been in this industry too long and at the end of the day, I have been evolving: I was Destra. I became Queen of Bacchanal, and they started to call me Lucy and I really want to leave somewhat a legacy. I want people to remember things that I have done.’ Yes, the music speaks for itself, but I also wanted to be able to follow the example [set] by some of male colleagues and have my own show. I think my catalogue is very wide. I’m up to eleven albums now [in 2018, she released her 12th album, Destraction] and I have a whole lot of music and my fan base is very wide. So, I thought, ‘you know what, let’s have a concert for QoB, and let’s call it QoB Wednesday because Monday is gone, Tuesday is gone, and I was born on a Wednesday!’”
With the landscape for live performance moving towards experiences enhanced by stars over simply star driven concerts, the diaspora’s role as conduit and advocate for the explosion of soca worldwide is important and amplified. Glastonbury or Coachella festivals maybe the goals for some soca singers, but loyal audiences and fans are dictating where artists need to be. American-based Caribbeans are now opting for themed cruise vacations featuring almost non-stop soca parties and performances, while European and UK-based Caribbean opt for sybaritic escapes to the exotic and chic Ibiza chock full of Carnival sounds. Destra was the pioneering headliner at the genesis of both these new situations — UberSoca Cruise in 2016 and Ibiza Soca Festival in 2017 proving that after twenty years in the business, her popularity has not ebbed, and her demand and draw were significant to the success of most if not all Carnival music ventures.
Nicki Minaj said in Caribbean Beat back in 2011, “I actually wanted to do a track with Destra and Machel for my album, but we didn’t get it together in time.” In 2012, this same magazine noted that Trinidadian Broadway star, Heather Headley, was interested in doing collaborations with artists from Trinidad & Tobago, quoting her saying, “I think Destra’s got a great, great voice, and it would be fun at some point to just sit down and figure it out.” The diaspora and our stars in it have seen the light and heard that powerful clear voice. Like Naipaul, she is not a hero in her native land, but her island knows her importance, and the region embraces her wholeheartedly. The ageless and timeless Destra Garcia is becoming global, and her ability to continue to fascinate audiences everywhere about the excitement of soca music is the key to a future that won’t diminish soon.
10 Essential Destra Tracks (click links for videos)
- It’s Carnival (2003); the international anthem of Caribbean Carnival ever since. A winner in everyone’s book.
- Bonnie and Clyde (2004); on the surface, a song of longing for a long lost one, but in actuality it is about a rag that was lost at Carnival. Allegory, gone wild.
- Mash Up (2004); rapid fire instructions that drive people to, well, mash up the place.
- I Dare You (2007); the ultimate come on if you are able. Permission is granted.
- Bacchanal (2009); an anthem for Carnival that suggests we leave our inhibitions at home.
- Cool It Down (2011); a production by the Bajan team D’ Red Boyz that find a melodic centre outside of Trinidad influences.
- Call My Name (2012); a reminder to her fans that she is the elixir for their happiness.
- Keep on Wukkin’ (2012); the perfect tune for a couple to wine to. Groove is addictive, instructions included.
- Lucy (2015); it’s either an autobiography in song or a revelation for female listeners to proudly connect with their inner wild child. A brilliant video.
- Family (2018); a soca star recognising who is by her side through thick and thin. Danceable too.
- An edited version of this article appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Caribbean Beat entitled “Queen of queens”
© 2019, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.