Quintessential ‘Caribbean Man’ Black Stalin dies at 81

Five-time Calypso Monarch, the Black Stalin
Five-time Calypso Monarch, the Black Stalin.

Prominent Trinidadian calypsonian the Black Stalin, dubbed the quintessential “Caribbean Man”, died on Wednesday at this home in San Fernando, South Trinidad, around 8.30 a.m., according to the Trinidad Guardian. He was 81.

The Guardian said Dr. Leroy “Black Stalin” Calliste, a cultural icon, was “battling with his health since Sept. 22, 2014, when he was struck down by an Ischemic stroke. 

“In recent, years, he had been mostly confined to his San Fernando home, due to the stroke affecting his speech and movement on the right side of his body,” the publication said. 

Stalin’s younger sister, Gloria Calliste, told the Guardian on Wednesday that Stalin’s last days played on her emotionally. 

“It has been five years since he had the stroke; but, in the late half, I did not want to see my brother in the condition he was in, and I did not want to see him,” she said. 

“I always wanted to remember him as my brother Leroy with his pet name ‘Lo Loy’ and my name Gloria with my pet name ‘Go Go,’” she added. “So, I always wanted to remember him as that person, Leroy Calliste.” 

As children, Gloria said she and Black Stalin had a very close relationship. 

“Nobody doesn’t know anything about Leroy but me,” she told the Guardian. “Whoever say they knew him, they know him but not as good as me; that was my brother. 

“In growing up, we shared this love together,” Gloria added. “But I was the person who protected him from the girls, and this was before he started in the calypso arena.” 

The Guardian said that long before Black Stalin became a calypsonian, he was a limbo dancer. 

It said that Stalin embarked on his calypso career in 1959, performing at an event in Ste Madeleine before he made his tent debut in 1962 as a member of the Southern Brigade cast. 

The Guardian said Calliste credited fellow calypsonian, the late Carlton “Lord Blakie” Joseph, with giving him his sobriquet.

“At an event in Siparia, where he went to do limbo dancing, he heard a calypsonian by the name of Successor singing calypso and, when the performance was over, he turned to me and told me, ‘Gloria, I think I want to sing calypso’”, Gloria told the Guardian. 

“But I told him that you never liked calypso, especially when our brother, Dennis, used to write them, and he said, ‘but I heard this man here, and I was moved by his lyrics’”, she added. “And it was there his love for the art form started.” 

The Guardian said Black Stalin was born on Sept. 24, 1941, in San Fernando, one of four children of George and Elcina Calliste. 

The paper said that he grew up on Coffee Street and attended San Fernando Boys’ Roman Catholic School. This street was later renamed after him.

Stalin received his first Calypso Monarch title in 1979, when he sang “Caribbean Man” and “Play One”, according to the Guardian.

It said that Stalin was crowned Calypso Monarch four more times – in 1985, 1987, 1991 and 1995. 

The Guardian said Stalin’s other memorable, competition-winning calypsoes included “Ism Schism”, “Wait Dorothy”, “Mr. Panmaker”, “Bun Dem”, “Look on the Bright Side”, “Black Man Feelin’ to Party” and “Tribute to Sundar Popo”. 

For his sterling contributions to Trinidad and Tobago’s musical landscape, Black Stalin was awarded the Hummingbird Medal (Silver) in 1987, the Guardian said. 

It also said that, on Oct. 31, 2008, Stalin was conferred with an honorary doctorate—Doctor of Letters (DLitt)—by The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine.

“The City of San Fernando is in mourning with the passing of this iconic and distinguished man, Dr. Leroy ‘Black Stalin’ Calliste, who has made his name in the art form of calypso over the decades,” The Guardian quoted San Fernando Mayor Junia Regrello as saying. 

“And I know he started his career in the early ‘60s and would have made tremendous contributions over the years and maintained that consistently over the years, and the city has lost a son, and we should be flying our flag at half-mast today,” he added. 

“In San Fernando, Stalin supported a lot of the steel bands, but I can remember him supporting Skiffle Bunch over years, and he supported culture in a very general way; and I can call him Mr. San Fernando,” Regrello continued.  

Global Voices said Black Stalin was renowned for “penning and performing songs examining issues of colonialism and oppression.”

“His endearing personality and stage presence, combined with bitingly witty lyrics and danceable melodies, made him a favorite both within the calypso fraternity and with the large audiences that would turn out to see him,” the online publication said. 

It said Black Stalin also won the Calypso King of the World title in 1999, a global event at which, in its inaugural competition in 1985, Stalin placed second to The Mighty Sparrow, the undisputed Calypso King of the World. 

In the mid-1990s, Global Voices said Stalin signed with Guyanese-born Eddy Grant’s Ice Records label, based in Barbados, releasing his “Rebellion” album in 1994 and “Message to Sundar” the following year. 

Two days before his 73rd birthday, in September 2014, Black Stalin suffered a stroke after performing at a charity show in South Trinidad, Global Voices said. 

“Despite making some progress, he would never again return to the stage in full force,” it said. “Throughout his long and vibrant career, Stalin always managed to put a highly original, intelligent spin on the issues of the day. He was a fiercely independent thinker and lyricist who called it like he saw it. 

“’Wait Dorothy Wait,’ for instance, was a brilliant tune that promised his fans he would one day write them a light-hearted, smutty calypso — but only after serious social issues like corruption, inequity and poverty were addressed,” Global Voices added. “The song, which was both danceable and deep, showcased his creative range and defended his right to sing about topics of social relevance.” 

Global Voices said Stalin’s 1979 hit “Caribbean Man”, also known as “Caribbean Unity”, “created some controversy across the region, as it addressed the ever-elusive concept of Caribbean integration.” 

“Stalin was valued as much for the quality of person he was as for the music he sang, a rare combination that makes him truly deserving of the title ‘icon’”, Global Voices said. 

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley said the Black Stalin was “one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most accomplished calypsonians. 

“Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I love music. It is key to all that I do,” she said on social media. “The truth is one of those early artists who centered me and gave me context and perspective was Black Stalin. He had a way of drilling down always to the core—his message always rooted in truth, justice and solidarity. 

“Black Stalin was one of our region’s finest masters of calypso,” Mottley added. “Both his lyrics and his melodies expertly captured the rhythm and vibe and voice of the Caribbean. 

“He was acutely conscious of our shared history, culture, passions and concerns, and expressed them in his songs in a way we never could ourselves,” she continued. “In the true tradition of calypso, Stalin was also a griot, chronicling the issues and philosophies impacting our daily lives. 

“No more so was it evident than in that iconic Caribbean anthem that remains our Holy Grail of the Caribbean Civilization,” the prime minister said. “Who else has more poignantly reminded us that: ‘we are one people on the same trip coming on the same ship… pushing one common intention for a better life for we women and we children.’ That must be the ambition of the Caribbean Man—even more so, as we get ready to celebrate 50 years of CARICOM (Caribbean Community) in 2023.” 

Mottley said the Caribbean has lost one of its greater nation-builders in Black Stalin. 

“Each word of his, each sentence of his, carefully crafted by a maestro to tell our story of the Caribbean and our people – our story,” she said. “May we work hard to keep his music alive across this Caribbean, with each succeeding generation. 

“May his work inspire others as it has (for) me on my life’s journey!” Mottley added.