How a Trinidadian Chutney Soca musician became a global TikTok sensation
TikTok’s unpredictable algorithm is shining its light on one of Trinidad’s many musical forms.
08 Aug 2022
In recent months, TikTok’s increasingly influential role in the music industry has been questioned and criticised more than ever before. With FKA Twigs, Florence and the Machine, and Halsey each bemoaning the industry’s pressure on them to create TikTok hits, a backlash has emerged to defend artistic integrity when pitted against the platform’s mercilessly unpredictable algorithms.
But Vedesh Sookoo never felt this pressure.
A Chutney Soca musician from Trinidad, his twenty-year career has been built around the old-school Caribbean ways: club night gigs, festival spots and blaring his music atop carnival floats. He didn’t have songs on YouTube, Spotify, or any social media.
Then he went viral on TikTok.
In May, Sookoo’s 14 year old son enthusiastically showed him a TikTok that used one of his songs. Then another video popped up. Then another. “[My son] was like ‘Dad, this is out of this world, you don’t know how popular you are,’” Sookoo tells gal-dem.
Every day, Sookoo logged onto his son’s TikTok, amazed to find more videos of people around the world filming their reactions to his 2008 single, ‘Meat is for Man’.
Sookoo’s sound, Chutney Soca, is a style of music born in Trinidad and Tobago. The genre originates from folk songs brought by East Indian indentured labourers who were shipped over to the islands under British colonial rule. In Trinidad, the folk melodies eventually mixed with the steel-pan-soaked calypso rhythms of the Afro-Caribbean community, resulting in Chutney Soca.
Chutney Soca lyrics tell stories, and like much Caribbean music, it can be overtly erotic with sexist undertones. The virality of ‘Meat is for Man’ is, in part, hinged on the shock factor of its lyrics: “I want to marry but I want a fat woman / because bone is for dog and meat is for man”.
TikTokers first began filming comically aghast reactions to the words, along with subtitles like “WTF are these lyrics?”. Sookoo stresses it was never his intention to offend, “People can hear the fun in my voice and that’s why they love it. I believe that all women are beautiful.”
“The virality of ‘Meat is for Man’ is, in part, hinged on the shock factor of its lyrics”
These first ‘Meat is for Man’ TikToks were posted in Guyana, a Chutney music stronghold, before crossing continents to reach Somalia, where influencer Rosey Rose picked it up.
Rose filmed herself looking uncertain when hearing Sookoo’s lyrics, before breaking into a gleeful jig as upbeat steel pans kick in. Her caption reads “you’ll never starve with me, that’s for sure.”
Rose’s TikTok got 444,300 likes. Trinidadian commenters proudly claimed the song as a badge of honour; one said: “That’s Chutney Soca artist Vedesh Sookoo…coming straight out the Caribbean”.
Before long, women of colour around the world embraced the song as a body-positive anthem for curvy women. Nigerian pop superstar Yemi Alade posted a video to her 17 million Instagram followers that received a whopping 1 million views, and a caption that reads “whoever sung this song is my type #findhim”.
Natasha Thasan, a saree stylist based in Toronto with 291,400 followers on TikTok, is posting an ongoing series where she eats meals to the song, racking up to 1.1 million views per video. Thasan, who has struggled with an eating disorder, says the song is “saving lives” by reminding people to eat in a positive way: “For me, it’s ‘Meat is for Health’,” she tells gal-dem. “The bone is being vulnerable. Eat nutritious food because you don’t want to be chased by no dog!”
“You can extract a meaning from any song that benefits you in the best way”Natasha Thasan
Thasan, who is from the Sri Lankan Tamil community, makes a point to eat with her hands to add exposure to the cultural values of marginalised groups, “It’s ritualistic when I put that song on. Yeah, it’s funny and it’s about a man, but you can extract a meaning from any song that benefits you in the best way.”
The song’s viral vindication says a lot about the TikTokers’ stalwart ability to celebrate different types of music and lyricism. Julia Toppin, a Music Business lecturer at the University of Westminster, values certain creators for this attitude, “I can imagine that they totally embrace the body positivity in the song and then just run with it,” she tells gal-dem.
Toppin provides guidance to young people building careers in the music industry and welcomes TikTok’s presence in the scene. “It is very positive for people who are never gonna get signed by a label because they are very niche or don’t belong to a pop aesthetic,” she says. “The artists that moan about TikTok tend to be established.”
“The artists that moan about TikTok tend to be established”Julia Toppin
As top industry executives from the world’s biggest music companies are overwhelmingly white men, artists from countries or communities that aren’t on big execs’ radar are likely to face disadvantages when it comes to getting heard.
But a TikTok trend doesn’t discriminate based on what type of music you’re making and where. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world as an artist. If your track gets popular, you are going to get noticed,” says Toppin. “That’s the great thing about digitization, it creates a more equal space, and you’ll get tracks from Kenya, Trinidad, France, wherever.”
Sookoo hasn’t sorted licensing contracts to get sync royalties off his videos and has not made money off the trend. He’s looking into it but maintains he is just content that his music has made so many people happy. “Money isn’t everything,” he says. “Trinidad is so small, if there’s an opportunity to get our music outside here we’ll take it.”
In total, ‘Meat is for Man’ has reached over 100 million views across TikTok and Instagram as of July 2022. To Sookoo, that’s a record-breaking accomplishment: “If you ask me, ‘Meat is for Man’ is the biggest chutney song in history.”
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