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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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New York Healthcare Sings Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 7, 2013

I’m just back from an eight-day visit to New York City, where I heard plenty of jazz but no calypso.  I did have a kaiso encounter in a most unlikely place, though: not on the streets of Crown Heights or at the latest Calypso Rose concert (the New York transplant played Lincoln Center’s “Midsummer Night Swing” on June 29th; I had to miss it), but at a bus stop in leafy Morningside Heights, just two blocks from the gates of Columbia University.

“I Sing Calypso,” announces an amiable-looking, middle-aged, trilby-hatted man identified only as “Peter,” part of an outdoor ad campaign for Healthfirst New York:

healthfirst_isingcalypso

The image and the declaration, amplified by the slogan “Plans to Sing About,” also grace the Medicare Advantage page of the Healthfirst website (screenshot below right)—and before you remark that this would not be the first time in the annals of American marketing that some mega-corporation cynically exploited the image of a photogenic black man for a bit of cute faux-populist messaging, let me hasten to add that other Healthfirst print ads and billboards I’ve seen feature people of color from all walks of life, many of them professionals.  A bus-stop ad on the next block, for example, had a bespectacled and bestethoscoped black doctor announcing, “I make house calls.”

Granted, the doc got a full name and a title, whereas Peter was just “Peter.”  (In other words, the usual honorific inequities of class and education apply.)  And given the fact that West Indians make up a big share of the nannies and doormen of the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights, not to mention the support staff and maintenance workers of Columbia, one can’t completely rule out the possibility of pandering or condescending.  But because Healthfirst is a non-profit that works to provide immigrants and poor & working people of all colors with free and affordable healthcare plans, and because its ads appear throughout the New York metro area, sometimes in Spanish, Russian, and Chinese, I’m not eager, in the absence of a damning exposé, to question its multicultural bona fides.

healthfirst_calypso

Healthfirst has certainly gotten its money’s worth out of “Peter,” though.  He appeared in an earlier (Fall 2012) ad as “Peter P.” of the South Bronx, and his full identity was divulged in a 2011 press release about Healthfirst’s inaugural “Medicare Member Testimonial” campaign as Mr. Peter Phillips—who, as it happens, really is a calypsonian. (He brought up the rear in a rump competition—”Through the Eye of the Tobago Calypsonian“—held as part of T&T’s Independence Golden Jubilee in 2012.)

No disrespect to Mr. Phillips, then: no doubt he’s earned the right to represent the common man.  But maybe Healthfirst would consider approaching his fellow Tobagonian, one McArtha Linda Sandy-Lewis, a five-time Calypso Monarch who has also triumphed over a health scare or two in recent years, for an endorsement.  Now that would be something to sing about.  (“Gimme More…Coverage”!)

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