From her initial hit "Pon De Replay," which peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100, to her recent designation as the first artist to surpass the RIAA’s 100 million cumulative singles award threshold, Rihanna’s phenomenal success over the past decade has generated international interest in the music of Barbados and has raised the career aspirations of artists hailing from the superstar's Caribbean island birthplace.
"The unexpected transformation of Robin Fenty from an unknown Barbadian school girl into Rihanna, an international music icon, has stimulated Barbados’ music landscape," remarks Adisa "Aja" Andwele, renowned Barbadian-born musician, poet, writer and event producer for the Barbados government’s cultural arm, the National Cultural Foundation (NCF). "In that regard, more younger people are now looking at music as a viable career, and getting involved in singing at Cropover competitions."
Cropover, Barbados’ largest annual event, is actually a season that begins in late May and concludes the first Monday of August (known as Kadooment Day), which culminates in a parade along Spring Garden Highway in the country's capital of Bridgetown, set to a pulsating soca soundtrack. Rihanna’s return to Barbados in recent years to participate in Cropover festivities drew widespread media coverage to the event, primarily in the form of captioned photos of the seven-time Grammy winner wearing an ornamented bikini, standard attire for Kadooment Monday’s female carnival masqueraders.
Cropover’s rum-fueled revelry is serious business -- its various activities pull thousands of visitors to Barbados, filling hotel rooms and guesthouses across the 430-square-kilometer island, generating an estimated $80 million dollars for its economy in 2014, according to the NCF. Cropover is also the engine that accelerates Barbados’ music industry into high gear, and the launching pad for many Barbadian (or Bajan) artists’ careers.
Originally founded in the late 1600s to celebrate the sugar cane harvest, the festival went dormant from the 1940s through 1974, when it was revived by the Barbados Tourism Authority, now Barbados Tourism Marketing, Inc (BTMI) in 1974 as a tourism vehicle to combat the slow summer months. Cropover remained primarily a heritage celebration until the early '90s, when various musical competitions and other events were added to its cultural mix.
The NCF will stage approximately 30 events during this year's Cropover, including the Pic O De Crop calypso competition, the Party Monarch competition for artists performing rapid-paced soca, the Sweet Soca competition for slower songs and the Grand Kadooment carnival finale. Private organizations and promoters also put on various parties, concerts and all-inclusive fetes. "Cropover reflects Barbados’ musical development and its constantly evolving trends," says Andwele. "In the 1980s, Cropover music was confined to calypso’s social commentary. By the early '90s soca had replaced calypso as Cropover’s most popular music, which influenced the NCF to create the Party Monarch soca competition, which attracted over 25,000 patrons in its first year . That impacted the local music industry as artists made more records which engaged writers, arrangers, musicians, producers, etc."
Years before Rihanna’s emergence, Barbadian artists had already made international strides in local and regional Caribbean genres, especially calypso and its uptempo derivative soca, which originated in nearby Trinidad. Trinidad’s pre-Lenten carnival is the world’s largest event for soca and the birthplace of several of the genre’s biggest acts including Bunji Garlin, Destra Garcia and Machel Montano. In 1995, Cropover hits by Barbadian artists including the bands Krosfyah (featuring Edwin Yearwood), Square One (featuring Alison Hinds) and Coalishun (featuring Rupee) impacted Trinidad’s February 1996 carnival so forcefully their music was collectively referred to as a Bajan Invasion.
"My career started with Cropover and my presence here now can help younger people see what we have done and pass it along," observes Krosfyah’s lead singer Edwin Yearwood, whoses unprecedented win of three major Cropover competitions in 1995 for his soca classic "Pump Me Up" has yet to be repeated.
The majority of Barbados’ soca artists release new music on their own or through independent labels during Cropover to benefit from increased opportunities for airplay, performances at competitions, parties and on Kadooment Monday, with NCF estimating 500 songs to be released for Cropover 2015. An artist’s earning potential at Cropover is difficult to gauge, says Yearwood, as it is dependent on their notoriety, the popularity of their songs during the season and whether or not they enter or win cash prizes at competitions.
"Artists that aren’t successful will lose the money they spent on recording, buying clothes for performances and other Cropover preparations," Yearwood acknowledges, "but artists with popular songs will get bookings for performances at Brooklyn’s Labor Day carnival and at other carnivals in the US where they can earn much more than in Barbados."
The influx of soca stars from other Caribbean islands now releasing music during the festival, including Trinidad’s Farmer Nappy, Patrice Roberts and Kes The Band, have raised the Cropover stakes, opines Rhona Fox and Zack Cohen, co-owners of the New York City-based digital soca label Fox Fuse, now the world’s largest distributor of Cropover music. "The amount of people traveling to Barbados and the music being made each year for Cropover continues to grow; credit must be given to the quality music made by Barbadian and other Caribbean producers, which has helped developed this niche market," said the Fox Fuse team in an emailed statement to Billboard.biz.
"It’s not just soca artists making music for Cropover," adds John Doe, host of the popular Morning Mayhem program on Hott 93.5 FM and the co-producer of the hit "What A Way" from The Cropover EP by marquee Jamaican dancehall sing-jay I-Octane, who is also a Jamaica Brand Ambassador for telecommunications giant Digicel. "Caribbean artists want to get into this market to access fans they might not reach otherwise and attracting an artist of I-Octane’s caliber brings a greater shine to the soca business," notes Doe, whose station adjusts its dancehall, hip-hop and soca format in early July and solely programs Cropover music for the remainder of the season.
Expressing a concern of the wider soca industry, Rupert "Rupee" Clarke, whose Cropover single "Tempted to Touch" reached No. 39 on the Hot 100 in 2004, ponders the music’s absence from the Hot 100 since his hit. "It’s not because we haven’t been trying; Machel Montano has tried by recording combinations with artists like Pitbull, Busta Rhymes and Angela Hunte. Bunji Garlin came incredibly close with [the Major Lazer remix of] 'Differentology,' which rekindled mainstream interest in soca. One of the reasons soca is stuck," Rupee observes, "is because it’s pigeonholed by festivals and dictated by what works for seasonal competitions. There’s no parallel between Cropover/carnival competition-winning songs and Caribbean songs that impact the charts. We need to seriously look at soca as part of the billion-dollar, global music industry; consistency and song themes are key and those things are hindered by how seasonal our music is."