Whether joining Rihanna to perform “Bitch Better Have My Money” in her native Barbados or appearing in Nicki Minaj’s Trinidad-set “Pound the Alarm” video, Machel Montano is the go-to for providing island-ready assists to pop stars. Though his name may not be familiar in the United States, Montano’s music — soca, the upbeat, feverishly fast descendant of calypso that fuels Carnival celebrations around the world — has influenced everyone from Major Lazer (which paired him with Ariana Grande for 2014 track “All My Love”) to Drake, who booked the 41-year-old Trinidad native to headline his annual OVO Fest in Toronto on July 30. “Drake was just No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with ‘One Dance’ — a hip-hop song influenced by soca music,” says Montano. “We’re contributing to the mainstream in a major way: There’s soca in Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry,’ too. That makes me even more focused on my role right now.”
Having taken the genre from New York’s Madison Square Garden (five sold-out shows, most recently in 2011) to the White House (twice during the Obama administration), Montano’s role as the global ambassador for soca is expanding. On Aug. 5 the artist makes his acting debut as the star of Bazodee, a soca musical that also draws inspiration from Bollywood (Trinidad and India were both British colonies). “It’s important to put a film out that tells the story of Caribbean culture, alongside the story of soca music,” says Montano of the movie, which Serafini Releasing will release to 200 screens nationwide. “Reggae music did what it did, and I think now soca can do the same.”
Raised in South Trinidad, Montano first hit the island’s Carnival circuit in 1986 as a precocious 11-year-old singing the fitting anthem “Too Young to Soca.” By his late teens, he had started incorporating elements of hip-hop and dancehall into his music to create a modern soca sound, with mid-’90s Carnival classics like the frenetic “Big Truck” and “Toro Toro” catapulting him to the top of the genre. Having conquered the local festival scene, Montano turned his focus global: 2014’s Happiest Man Alive (Mad Bull Music), for example, featured both Nigeria’s Timaya and Boyz II Men. His energetic live performances, though, remain the backbone of his celebrity, reliably transforming audiences of tens of thousands into ecstatic, flag-waving and gyrating (or as islanders call it, wining) masses.
“Machel is the greatest at fusing soca with everything else going on in music, which is why he’s so successful,” says fellow Trinidadian and Grammy Award-winning songwriter Angela Hunte (Jay Z, Britney Spears), whose Montano collaboration “Party Done” will appear on the Bazodee soundtrack. “He’s as close as he ever has been to a mainstream breakthrough.”
To Montano, there never has been a better time for soca to go international — and fans like Meghan Trainor and Sean Paul (who joined Montano for “One Wine”) agree. “It has been a really deliberate focus by my management to look toward the influence Caribbean music can have on the world,” says Montano. “Soca is based on seeing past barriers, and that is more relevant today than ever.”
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 6 issue of Billboard.