Notes from the Field
This topic was one of the trickiest to write about, and one of the most difficult for people to receive. I once gave a talk at Princeton University on the sexualized language in Rara. I had to stand at the podium and say “pussy” and “dick” in this beautiful room with wood panels and portraits of distinguished scholars on the walls. The talk of ‘betiz,’ or sexualized laughter, did not go over easily in such decorous halls. People appreciated it, to be sure, and engaged my theoretical argument earnestly. But they did not laugh at the hilarious form of speech I was re-presenting. The vulgarities were not easy for people to hear.
A book reviewer did not appreciate this part of my work, and thought it was unseemly to focus so much on betiz, despite the fact that I link sexualized speech to classed and gendered power dynamics and even to military dictatorship. I think that just as some intellectuals cannot come to terms with the sexuality of Hip Hop and its culture, other intellectuals simply cannot bring themselves to take betiz seriously.
But Kreyol’s betiz, like Hip-Hop’s vulgarities, and Jamaican dancehall’s “slackness,” is an important form of vernacular, or everyday, speech, in American popular culture. It’s also about pleasure, and about power relations between men and women. There are even times when songwriters use vulgarity as a way to talk about the exploitation of the lower classes by those in power.
There is a debate on about whether sexual lyrics in Hip Hop are straight out demeaning and misogynist towards women (even when sung by women) or whether they are a form of liberating language. It’s a very complicated subject, and I think that language can be different things at one time-and can be heard and interpreted by people differently. It’s interesting how many ways there are to listen and hear, and think and make meaning. Some of my favorite writers on this subject are Carolyn Cooper (who wrote Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Culture (1993) and Tricia Rose, author of Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994).
Part of Rara’s creativity is in using the bravado of sexual innuendo. Rara bands will usually launch Vodou prayer songs during their morning outings, but somewhere around mid afternoon the cane liquor flows freely, and songs take on an irreverent vulgarity. The humor of innuendo is used in various instances in Haitian culture as a form of Kreyol speech called betiz. In my book, I treat the betiz in Rara as a popular form of speech that reveals certain truths about gender and sexuality in Haiti, truths that can be related to political, economic, and cultural forces. I believe that Rara’s betiz songs are as much about order, subordination, exploitation, and dictatorship as they are about gender, sex and sexuality.
I argue that vulgar betiz songs are a form of popular laughter that comprises the only public form of speech possible for the average guy in the Rara. On the most basic level, betiz songs perform the cultural work of affirming not only the existence but also the creative life of a people in the face of insecurity and everyday violence. In times of political repression, when you are not permitted to say anything else, at least you can swear and sing vulgar songs. If you look at these song lyrics in terms of gender there is a whole ethos of masculinity at work in them. But some songs are sung from womens’ perspectives, and broadcast women’s agendas. For a more in-depth discussion about gender and sexuality, see Chapter Two of Rara!.
You can hear a vulgar Rara song on Track 6, “Kwiy Nan Men, M’ap Mande…al Roule Tete.”
(Excerpted from Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti. University of California Press, 2002, p. 59-79.)