Reverence & Respect: Matriarchal Lessons in Bahamian Culture

I don’t think I invented the framework for reverence or being reverent, I am clumsy in my gratitude and loud in my adoration. I lack too much couth to think that I, of all people, could ever be the person to give a tutorial on the topic.

There is, however, a level of grace that I believe legends do and should hold. There is also a level of respect that I know current cultural workers lack. 

With that, I present our beloved Emily “Sweet Emily” Williams and the energetic and talented Wendi Lewis-Knight. 

If we’re sincere, cultural work in The Bahamas has always centered around “What will tourists enjoy?” rather than “What can we preserve?”

Things are changing; with creatives like Tamika Galanis, Jodi Minnis, Bodine Victoria, and so many others on the frontline, we’re seeing a significant improvement in archiving our culture, and increased development of our voice. 

This does not change the mindset surrounding artistry in our country and the varying ways we have treated our homegrown artists in the nearing five decades since Independence.

Naturally, it caught my attention when Sweet Emily made a social media post indicating her disappointment in a Soca artist (Wendi) being chosen to headline a Junkanoo Festival in The Bahamas. Emily was upset that an artist like Wendi could not only be booked to perform, but more specifically to perform a cover of a song for which Emily brought acclaim in The Bahamas.  

“How can a soca artist headline a cultural Bahamian show and is paid to sing my song while I am home unemployed? Fix it!!” said Emily.

While this statement is rooted in truth and pain, it throws a legitimate young Bahamian artist in the line of fire. Although Bahamian artists rarely get all their flowers, Emily’s upset should have never been directed towards Wendi. 

Meanwhile Wendi’s response to Emily offered no Crystal stair. Her words left me with a deep sadness, without seeming too dramatic, but I’ll get back to that. 

Art in The Bahamas operates similarly to the Government, resetting with each administration, wiping the slate clean on each rotation, and building on, at best, an unclear foundation. 

Emily’s comments on Soca let me know that Bahamian music and art are being created by many people in secluded silos all across the nation, rarely collaborating. Culture should be ever-evolving, fluid, and constantly readjusting. Concepts of what constitutes authentic culture should never be static. If we deem it necessary to pinpoint just a few things that make it authentic, we haven’t come as far as we need to in terms of cultural evolution.

Cultural development aside, Emily’s comments make me sad for a reason more profound than just music. We seem to have lost an opportunity for actual matriarchal energy and mentorship. 

I wrote an article about  mean girls that brunch a few years ago. Beyond the shock value of me saying the quiet part out loud, Emily’s comments aren’t merely “look what you get, when you’re tired of what you’ve got.” They are the result of what you get when that brunch energy is left unchecked. 

Women shouldn’t have to get along; they’re not, nor should they be mandated to happily work together. But in a patriarchal society, the stakes for women—especially Black women—are higher. The microscope lense is stronger; the opportunities a lot slimmer. 

The fact is, whether we like it or not, Emily and Wendi have sadly, sold us a ticket to a movie that yet again indicates, not only can women not get along but they don’t make great mentors—even to each other. 

Of course, we know this to be untrue. Yet, here we are in the middle of a back-and-forth of what honestly could have been an iconic Bahamian collaboration, which leads me to Wendi’s response.

Wendi doesn’t need to justify why she was employed to headline that festival, and I’d like to lay that groundwork. She has an extensive catalogue and immense talent. She deserves to be on any stage to which she is called. Still, much like Emily’s comments, Wendi’s statements broker no room for a collaborative conversation or an acknowledgment of the cultural contribution made by Sweet Emily as her forebearer.

To me, this feels like a bridge burnt, on both sides, by both artists. Emily’s unwillingness to acknowledge the changing of the cultural guard and to make room for newer artists that sound different and Wendi’s lack of acknowledgment towards the old landmark, leave much to be desired. 

We must take care in the way we respond to criticism whether from elders or from the new kids on the block. Recognizing that the old guard could have been hurt in the system in which we are currently thriving is a key step to bridging the gap between generations. And while tiring, I love to toot Millennials as an emotionally-intelligent lot who now know better. And so, in turn, to borrow from the poet Maya Angelou, we should always aim to do better. 

Sweet Emily has contributed significantly to what we look at as traditional Bahamian music. Wendi is paving a unique way for new artists to find their own voice and proudly stamp the Bahamian flag on their packages of talent. 

Both women deserve respect. Their contributions deserve reverence, and that is why I’d like to see them respect each other. Imagine that: two powerhouse women reconciling one to another— before it is too late.

This article was updated to reflect a spelling edit in Wendi’s response.