The making of a Guadeloupean identity

Etienne writes*

Although they all share a colonial past, the Lesser Antilles have since gone in very different directions. Many islands have obtained their independence (Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, Saint Kitts & Nevis…) but others are still overseas territories of their former colonial powers (Guadeloupe, Curaçao, Puerto Rico…). Studies have shown that dependent Caribbean islands tend to perform better economically than their independent counterparts. However, “is that level of development sustainable or desirable since they [dependent islands] are often strings attached?” Indeed, economic support comes at a cost: dependent islands have less formal autonomy and socio-cultural differences with the “metropole” [the ruling country] are often less recognized. The French overseas territory of Guadeloupe is an example of how dependent islands attempt to balance their lack of autonomy with spontaneous identity-building cultural movements.

It all started with Kassav’. Formed in 1979 by Pierre-Édouard Décimus and Jacob Desvarieux, the band quickly became famous in the French Antilles and abroad. In an island that had undergone no real decolonization process —the land of plantation owners was not redistributed, self-determination was minimal—, Kassav’ altered Guadeloupeans’ self-perceptions and shaped Antillais identity in a revolutionary way. Paul Cohen argues that Kassav’ “represents an inventive cultural and commercial response to structures of neocolonial and capitalist exclusion in the French Caribbean”. Inspired by their first trip to Africa, the band’s album Gorée —named after the island off Dakar from which slaves were deported to the French Antilles — faces the island’s colonial heritage. The song An-ba-chen’n la (‘Chained Below’) pays homage to the victims of the transatlantic slave trade. The band calls on Antillais to take pride in their African heritage in the song Doubout pikan (‘Standing Tall’). In Neg mawon / balata, they remember the runaway slaves who joined Native Caribs to form highland societies away from colonial power. Interviewed by Gladys Francis in 2016, lead female singer Jocelyne Béroard highlighted the importance of bringing Amerindians to the core of Antillais identity as the first inhabitants of the island.

Compensating for Guadeloupe’s historical amnesia, Kassav’ initiated through its music an effective decolonization process that contributed to Antillais identity. Others have followed their tracks: Soft, formed in 2002, continues Kassav’s (unconscious) nation-building project, with an even more political stance. In songs such as Ti gwadloupéyen and La vi fofile, the band remembers the colonial injustices of the past and promotes a new Guadeloupean identity, reminding the “ti nèg ti blan ou ti zindien” (‘little blacks, little whites, and little Indians’) that they are “ti gwadloupéyen” (‘little Guadeloupeans’).

Bottom line: Although dependent Caribbean islands benefit from economic support from their metropole, they often face an identity crisis due to the lack of decolonization and to their formal non-differentiation with their former colonial power. However, cultural movements have arisen to shape identities and counter neocolonialism. In French Guadeloupe, the band Kassav’ has shaken an historical amnesia, pushing Antillians to face their colonial past and form a common identity.

* Please help my Economic Growth & Development students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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