Starving artistes


by William Smokey Burke

I may be wrong, and I usually am, but I am sure that I am hitting the right chord, on the beat and in time!

In these days of downtime for artistes, both pros and amateurs, Independence and Christmas time brings to the fore the fact that we the artistes are still being taken for a ride; a ride to nowhere! I wonder how many Bajans are aware of the term “starving artists”! Do they realise that starving can also be applied to “artistes” and do they know or care about the difference between the two? As per usual, I digress.

Colin Spencer and I refer to each other, especially during the aforementioned seasons, as the Mighty Charity. Adonijah calls himself the undisputed Free Show Kaiso King! This is so because once these two seasons roll around, we will get several phone calls from schools, churches and various organisations (and usually last minute) to come and perform free! I believe that these people are well-intentioned but are systemically conditioned to take most artistes for granted. Remember, we play, we don’t work!

Elections are in the air now and soon many of us will be asked to grant favours either to the tune of freeness or minor stipends. Of course this does not apply to every artiste.

More often than not, the persons chosen to coordinate this free performance are ill equipped to so do and they will just tell you the date and location and will hardly ever get back to you. If you fail to show up, then it is published or put on the grapevine that X or Y never showed up and how disappointed the kids were! Added to this, when you do show up, there is nothing in place to make you comfortable; some people will even tell you that they didn’t know they had to get a sound system!!

Once I sang for a primary school at Independence time and upon completion of my part of the deal the principal gave me half a sweetbread and a Red Ju-C! As a diabetic, what a combination?!

Another time, while preparing for a musical extravaganza for our alma mater, Nicholas Brancker wondered out loud, “Why can’t doctors, lawyers and other well-heeled professionals donate to the cause? Why must it always be the artistes? These people make millions!” Artistes continue to scrunt!

The answer is simple but two-fold my friend: apart from being taken for granted, we are “popular” and thus people will pay to come and see us! However, that is where the financial aspect ends. Try selling CDs at one of these same events that you have graciously given of your talent and time and check the end result.

One of the worst things you can do is tell them that while you will perform and not charge them that there must be an honorarium! This is because there is another salient point that is overlooked: it costs the artiste to perform — cleaning, gas, taxi fare; there is always a cost! Years ago I did an event for a political party and the honorarium applied. Once I was done and headed home, I decided to check the envelope to see how much was in it. There was a $20 and a $10! Needless to say, I turned around and asked someone to give it back to the politician (he was on stage speaking at the time) with a note written on the envelope, “Please donate this insult to someone needier than I”!

Another time, a constituency branch (same party) called re a fund-raiser they were planning. Of course I was asked to perform for free but I wanted money and told them so. They said they would get back to me. They did with an offer of $75!! I told them to please forget that we spoke about this and also told them that whenever they were having a major event, I would never be called; this would be for major names. The irony of this is, they will tell you that the big names are chosen because they will draw people. Fine! Then remind the big names that they get the paid big gigs and so when the fund-raisers occur they should also step up to the plate (stage?). After all, they draw people! By the way, the political party did have a major event soon after and of course major names applied!

Hello Barbados! Entertainers also have families, bills and other financial responsibilities to deal with on a monthly basis. We cannot go to the supermarket and say we are X or Y so give us groceries! In your minds the business of music applies only to foreign acts, a few superstar locals but to the “glorified slaves” (Mike Sealy circa 2012), not!

“Hobby class” is a Bajan euphemism that has been part of our culture for years! This is even more so when it comes to artistes. We need to be respected not only by the word itself but by the wages that other professionals are automatically accorded.

Sometimes as we perform for free, we are on stage observing others (e.g food and beverage vendors as well as other peripheral services, not to mention the sound, lighting and stage people) making money! Yet we are considered the main event!

It is not just persons who did not do well academically who chose music. We may not all be Barbados scholars but many of us are quite equipped in that respect. For all aspects of the arts, practice is required; you are born with the talent but it has to be honed. This applies not only to foreign artistes but the ones you grew up with, the ones you so easily take for granted simply because “I know he!”

Finally, it appears that giving kudos to someone you know is difficult for us as a nation! We are unable to hear a compliment being paid to someone with whom we are familiar without adding a negative e.g. “X is a fantastic guitarist” and your response is “but he so ugly!” One has absolutely nothing to do with the other! We relish tearing people down with untruths about their sexuality, lifestyle etc.

We cannot see Adrian Clarke as being able to sing at the same level as R. Kelly, simply because we know Adrian but not Robert Kelly! We cannot fathom that with the identical opportunity AC could have been where R. Kelly is now!

Freedom of speech is an important and basic tenet of democracy, however a free performance does not fall under any of these as the right to earn a living is one of the basic tenets of the Human Rights Convention. In other words artistes must be well paid for their working efforts like everyone else!

One Response to Starving artistes

  1. Ryan Straughn January 9, 2013 at 8:26 am

    As usual Smokey, you’re right on the money. Excellent article. Your reference to playing rather than working sums up the attitude of the society to those not operating in the “traditional professions”. Further, artistes like yourself aren’t viewed as professionals operating in an industry.

    All of you should insist on minimum standards for performance which is a good place to start.

    As a diabetic you should definitely steer clear of the sugar, honey, ice tea during what would be our silliest season yet and for the rest of the year.


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