Caribbean music icon Destra talks bringing unity to the Soca

“It’s all about unity, togetherness” — these are the opening lyrics to one of Caribbean Soca sensation Destra Garcia’s most recognizable hits, “Fly,” and they perfectly signify the energy her music exudes. With a career spanning over 20 years, the Trinidadian songstress remains one of the most recognizable, respected and relevant faces in the Soca music scene.

In celebration of Caribbean American Heritage Month in June, Garcia recently spoke with In The Know about her humble beginnings, her meteoric rise to fame, her vocal appreciation of her LGBTQIA-identifying fans and passing the baton to the newer generation of Soca stars and influencers.

Credit: Juan Lennon Awong

While I was growing up in Trinidad, Destra was always heralded as “the standard” in the Soca music scene — and decades later, nothing has changed. Whether it be hearing her music blasting across the speakers lined up by the street vendors at San Fernando’s High Street or watching her annihilate the stage with her signature explosive and adrenaline-packed performances at the Soca Monarch during Carnival season, Destra has always been a hometown hero that could not be escaped — for all the best reasons.

However, this journey to becoming the best wasn’t achieved with ease. The now 38-year-old Caribbean music icon comes from humble beginnings, telling In The Know that her upbringing in Laventille, a place she refers to as “one of the ghettos” in Trinidad, was one she would never change for the world.

“I spent more than half my life there,” she said. “I’m one of four children — the eldest sibling. My dad was unemployed for a long time in the period that I was going to secondary school [high school], so I had to deal with a lot of different issues that were very humbling.”

After sharing that, from a young age, she knew that her peers “were a bit more well-off” than she was, she added that she came to a welcomed realization that her journey was set to be “a longer one than most.” However, she stressed that this did not deter her from pursuing her dreams as a musician, but rather, motivated her to “make it.”

While we as music fans and consumers often hear stories of some of the world’s most accomplished acts choosing to take a detour from pursuing any academic aspirations, Destra’s story is a bit different. The music star explained that, while her parents were certainly aware of her dreams to pursue a career in the arts, one element was non-negotiable: her studies.

“I was in a musical family, so it was no doubt or surprise when I wanted to sing. However, because of where we were from, my mom always wanted me to focus more on school,” she said. “So, I also developed a strong affiliation to academics. That was the ultimatum: ‘If you want to sing, you have to learn your work.’ So, I guess it’s a win-win [and] it paid off.”

Once she completed high school, she “got the OK” from her mother to pursue music full-time and things took off from there, almost instantaneously. How instant are we talking? Well, in a matter of months into her official debut, she released what is arguably still considered the reigning song of the Caribbean Carnival season, worldwide: “It’s Carnival.”

The clear breakout hit from her 2003-released debut album “Red, White, Black” saw her score a double-win: she collaborated with already established Soca king Machel Montano on the single and received major international acclaim.

“‘It’s Carnival’ was a very, very special song for me,” she told In The Know. “I was always a Machel Montano fan and I never thought that someone as big as he was at the time — He was this big celebrity — I never thought he would want to do a song with me. Little ol’ me, now starting out.”

The song went on to become what many dub the “virtual anthem” of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, and it is widely considered the soundtrack to the celebration across the world. To this day, the anthemic hit remains a timeless classic and serves as the annual musical indicator that the Carnival season is about to commence.

“It means so much to so many people,” she said of the song’s cultural impact both domestically and internationally. “For them to sing, word-for-word, the words to a song, you know it’s special. And then we ended up winning the Roach March title in New York City, not in Trinidad. But that was huge for me too, because I never realized that the song would’ve crossed the ocean.”

While “It’s Carnival” proved to be the crossover hit that kept on giving, Destra refused to become complacent and kept churning out music that only managed to challenge the progression of the genre at the time.

Destra’s music is beautifully heavy-handed on the themes of unity, female- and self-empowerment, revelry, family and pride — themes that all coincide with the essence of another event widely celebrated in June: LGBT Pride. What’s even more heartwarming is that while this merging of themes turned out to be the blanket aim for both her music trajectory and this globally celebrated movement, it was carried out with the most deliberate of intentions.

The Caribbean, historically, has been known for touting anti-LGBTQIA rhetoric, with several well-known reggae musicians and political leaders boldly declaring that same-gender love is illegal in their respective islands. From Barbados to Jamaica, at least nine Caribbean nations have been recorded to have criminalized homosexuality.

In April 2018, however, Trinidad and Tobago decriminalized consensual gay sex, which was previously punishable with up to 25 years in prison, according to New Now Next. While it took the twin islands decades to push for equality, LGBTQIA+ people are now one step closer to feeling safer in their homeland, and this act of acceptance and unbridled love is something Destra has consciously displayed in her music since her debut.

“I don’t see gender. I don’t see race. I don’t see sexuality. I see heart,” she told In The Know. “For me, it’s about the heart and I don’t care what someone says or does, unless it’s something that I don’t believe in.”

Exercising her allyship, the musician performed at LGBT Pride and even recalled her first time doing so: “I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is too cool!'”

“It felt like Carnival, because I love Carnival. I love the freedom of Carnival and I got that same vibe from Pride,” she continued. “You would never get a bigger advocate for my fans, no matter race, creed, color. Whatever it is, we stand together, because they stand with me, no matter what. So, I stand with them, no matter what.”

Destra Garcia on the cover of her 2020-released 15th studio album, “Queendom”

Standing up for and celebrating the lives of her LGBTQ-identifying fans isn’t the only leading theme in her music catalog. Female empowerment and uplifting other women in Soca — her peers, influences and admirers — also remain top-ranking passions for Destra.

“This goes for my LGBT community, for some people who have not yet come out or people who are afraid to be themselves,” she said. “We have to try to be accepting of others as we are accepting of ourselves. And if you can’t accept yourself, then nobody else is going to accept you.”

Elaborating on her deep-rooted appreciation of self-acceptance and security, the “Lucy” songstress added that embracing the newer generation of Soca artists is essential for her as it promotes continuity and preserves the genre in ways that cannot be achieved otherwise.

“You can’t have the older generation of music or musicians know all the secrets or know everything and not pass it onto the new generation,” she said. “The music will die. The art form will die. Music will die.”

With this philosophy in mind, Destra stressed that “it’s very important to mentor” and “to show new artists the ropes.”

Proving, once again, that she’s a woman of action, the Soca legend collaborated with the genre’s newest rising star and one of In The Know’s Caribbean American Heritage Month stars to watch, Nailah Blackman.

In January 2020, the two released their collaborative single “Dutty Clean,” marking a rare occurrence of two women in the Soca realm joining forces.

“It’s very important to do collaborations as well as it’s beneficial to the older generations of musicians,” she told In The Know. “You may be accustomed to one way of doing something and if you don’t switch with the generations, you create that generation gap for yourself where you would no longer be able to connect with the younger generation.”

The Soca staple further expounded on the importance of partnership and denounced the often touted concepts of female competition and relevance in the music space. “There are a lot of people that are in a generation that’s already gone that feel threatened, but I’m not like that. I think knowledge is something that you pass between each other. None of us are the same.”

Though Destra has co-signed Nailah’s clear star power, the icon still admitted that she remains dissatisfied with the current state of the genre — and these issues, she stressed, do not fall on the laps of local artists, but rather on more widely known acts who “steal” elements from the genre without clear accreditation.

“I don’t like where it is right now because I know that Soca is yet to be accredited,” she said. “It’s yet to be taken seriously, globally. I hear the samples of the beats in the music overseas that we call World Music. I hear artists overseas using pieces of our music in their music, but not calling it what it is.”

While offering up suggestions on how to possibly remedy this disconnect, she added, “Maybe we need to do something different.”

“I don’t think we need to change what it sounds like. I think maybe we need to unite a little bit more,” she expounded. “There’s reggaeton out there. There’s dancehall out there. Before dancehall, there was reggae. Calypso made it, but Soca hasn’t. I don’t feel good about where it’s at, but I still have faith that it’s not over yet. We have far to go, but we’ll make it.”

This admirable spirit of resilience and optimism marked the winding down of our chat, with Destra adoringly declaring the secret to the Caribbean way of life.

“Caribbean heritage means being different,” she said with a prideful smile. “Caribbean heritage is just having a little bit of melanin in your skin. It’s like the flavor you put in a nice pelau — For people who don’t know what pelau is, that’s a Trini dish where you mix up all kind a ‘ting and make it in one pot.”

“A melting pot” is arguably the most widely used and frankly the most fitting phrase that can describe the aura of this region, and Destra couldn’t agree more.

“We speak French, we speak English, we speak Spanish,” she added. “Our food is unique. We’re just special. So, don’t let anybody tell you being from the Caribbean is like you’re in a third-world kind of demeanor. No. We’re great. We’re powerful.”

If you enjoyed this story, you might like to read about the Caribbean star spearheading a new era of Soca music.

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