Black Stalin, who has died aged 81, was a modern calypsonian of the old school, dedicated to keeping political and social commentary at the heart of his music when other exponents of the art were becoming purveyors of frivolous party music. His determination to stick to what he saw as the righteous course allowed Stalin to become calypso monarch in his native Trinidad and Tobago on five occasions. It also brought him a global audience of fans who were appreciative of his acerbic, Rasta-influenced take on political and racial affairs.
In the 1990s in particular Stalin was a force on the world music scene, and some of his many albums sold in significant quantities abroad. He was fiery by nature as well as in his lyrics, and among his best known songs were the classic Burn Dem (1987) – in which he begged Saint Peter to allow him to personally throw various world leaders, including Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, into the fires of hell – and More Come (1994), in which he celebrated an endless stream of black “warriors” ready to die in the battle against oppression.
Such compositions stood in marked contrast to the trend for dance-based “bump and wine” calypsos that took hold in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean from the 80s onwards – and which threatened to undermine the proud calypsonian tradition of creating music with a political edge.
While Stalin knew as well as anyone that calypso has often been leavened with humour, sexual innuendo and good dance tunes, he appreciated that social and political commentary was at its heart. And although he was not above issuing the odd feel-good tune himself – two of them, Black Man Feeling to Party, and Look on the Bright Side, won him the Calypso Monarch competition in 1991 – in general he stuck to his guns.
His body of work was a mix of optimism and pessimism, often defiant and upbeat but just as frequently bemoaning the human condition.
Though ethnic identity was a preoccupation, and he referred to himself mainly just as “The Black Man”, Stalin was scornful of those who played what he called “race politics” and stood aside from the black power movement that threatened revolution in Trinidad in 1970. Instead he positioned himself as a voice of the poor, of whatever race.
Born Leroy Calliste to Elcina, a market vendor, and her husband, George, in San Fernando in the south of Trinidad, he had a humble upbringing in the most impoverished part of town. Receiving only a cursory education at San Fernando Roman Catholic boys’ school, he spent much of his youth hanging around the practice yard of one of the local steelbands, the Free French Steel Orchestra, where he formed the idea of becoming an entertainer.
He made his singing debut at the Good Shepherd Friendly Society Hall in his home town in 1959 with the self-penned tune Why I Want to Be a Calypsonian, and by 1962 had found a regular home with the Southern Brigade tent in San Fernando, where he came under the wing of one of the most popular calypsonians of a previous generation, the fearsome Lord Blakie, who gave him the sobriquet Stalin.
Calliste became well enough established to join an early 60s tour of calypsonians around the Caribbean, and by 1964 he was appearing at the Original Young Brigade tent in the Trinidadian capital, Port of Spain, run by the greatest of all calypsonians,
In 1978 he released, To the Caribbean Man, material from which helped to win him his first calypso monarch crown in 1979.
Although he suffered a stroke in 2014, which left him unable to sing publicly, he maintained his status as one of Trinidad’s most beloved entertainers.
He is survived by his wife, Patsy (nee Mitchell), whom he married in 1974, by their three children, Shaka, Keina and Abiola, and by two sons, Jason and Ray, from an earlier relationship.
Black Stalin (Leroy Calliste), singer, born 24 September 1941; died 28 December 2022