Caribbean memes: meme what you say and say what you meme

Internet memes offer idle entertainment, but Janine Mendes-Franco suggests they can also give serious social commentary

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Mass media capitalising on topics of discussion in wider society? It’s hardly unprecedented. Take one long-running 1990s advertising campaign for a popular beer in Trinidad and Tobago: every Friday, without fail, there was a full-page, full-colour ad in a broadsheet newspaper, with a beauty-shot of the product in all sorts of politically or socially relevant scenarios, accompanied by a punchy one-liner. It provided witty commentary on everything from cricket to government gaffes, and became so trendy it sometimes seemed as if people were buying the Friday papers just for the ad.

That was two decades ago, and “what town say” has come a long way since then — thanks, of course, to the Internet. Or, more specifically, the Internet meme. Mass media has made way for “new” media, in which a well-timed bon mot combined with a few clicks at any one of a number of meme-generation websites can transform you into the next big meme creator.

In Internet terms, a meme — pronounced meem (note the absence of a circumflex accent over the first “e”) — is basically a cultural conversation piece that spreads through repetition, via email, blogs, Twitter, and other web-based sources — including Facebook, the social networking site that has taken the Caribbean pastime of minding people’s business online. It is telling that in a region where Internet penetration is estimated at a meagre thirty per cent, at least half of those netizens have Facebook accounts — and when they’re actually logged on, much of their time is spent posting, sharing, liking, or commenting on a range of memes that poke fun at and encourage discussion about topics hotter than a bake just off a tawah.

Caribbean people are visual: we like to see to believe. So it makes sense that the memes that garner the most regional attention tend to be in the form of photographs or videos. Like well-written calypsos, they may appear on the surface to be frivolous, but a closer look often reveals stinging satire and blunt social commentary. Rhoda Bharath, a lecturer in African literature at the University of the West Indies who is also an active blogger, compares memes with the call-and-response style of extempo calypso. “You find it in Jamaican dancehall too,” she says. “There’s a rhythm that’s familiar and you riff over it. The freshness comes from the lyrics. It’s the same thing with memes: a familiar visual image mixed with a new idea. It’s the audio-visual version of sampling.” As cultural bastions like song and Carnival masquerade shirk their social responsibilities and cross over to the cult of personality, the meme is shouldering the burden of humourously giving public voice to issues of culture, community, sport, politics, governance, environment, and even human and animal rights.

For example, on the heels of the Jamaican track and field athletes’ outstanding performance at the London 2012 Olympics — where the Jamaicans copped a total of twelve medals, winning both the men’s and women’s 100-metre events, and dominating the men’s 200-metre — Trinidad and Tobago won the gold medal in an unlikely contest, the javelin throw. Competitiveness and good-natured picong soon came into play: a clever Trinidadian came up with the line “Jamaican men run real fast (9.63 secs) but Trini men throw rel [sic] wood (84.58 m),” printed it on a t-shirt, uploaded a photo, and soon thousands of people were sharing it on Facebook. There’s another meme that routinely plays on an image of American actor Gene Wilder in character as Willy Wonka.

“So . . .” reads the text, “you’re a newbie and you want to get into [insert name of exclusive Carnival band here]? How cute!”

As a meme spreads, derivatives naturally appear, whether through commentary or parody. Like binary fission, the meme reproduces until it is, quite literally, everywhere. This is otherwise known as “going viral,” achieving thousands — sometimes hundreds of thousands — of web views in a short space of time. For something to earn true viral phenomenon status, however, it should somehow make its way into non-virtual life: an interesting 180-degree twist from the usual order of things. We’ve all heard of art imitating life; this is life imitating art. But can memes even be considered art?

As an interactive medium, the Internet meme fits right in with a broader definition of the arts, combining ideas, images, and language from popular culture into new forms. It is nothing if not contemporary, and regional netizens are putting their own stamp on it simply by dint of their Caribbean perspective. By using ordinary online tools in ways that are illuminating, funny, and unique to the Caribbean point of view, a new form of expression is being created. It’s current, accessible (we love a freeness!), and it puts many of the issues that island territories are grappling with into a larger, global context.

There is a popular Hitler meme, in which key scenes from the film Der Untergang (a German Second World War drama that chronicles the last days of the Nazi leader’s life) are given parodic subtitles, as Hitler reacts to an array of topics. A recent example: a controversial speech by Trinidad and Tobago’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva, which struck the wrong chord with the country’s nationals, raised serious questions about political nepotism, and resulted in the ambassador being recalled from her post. The YouTube video of the actual speech recorded more than 125,000 views, the meme just over 2,500 — but add to this number the many spin-off photos of the former ambassador in speech mode giving misinformation (like congratulating beauty queens on winning the Nobel Prize in the 50-metre freestyle), and you get a sense of the power of the meme as an online tool and the change it can help to effect in real life.

But is it fair, this cut and thrust, as a meme takes on a life of its own? The ambassador “suffered the backlash precisely because of how offensive she was,” says Bharath. “Fatigue” — a Trinidadian word for ruthless mockery — “is our default mode. It’s the foundation of how we interact.” Offline and online.