Arts, Culture & Media

A singer sparks outrage for telling the truth about her country's poverty

Singer Lisa Punch has become a sensation on the ABC reality show “Rising Star.” It's also made her a star in her native Guyana — a controversial one.

Guyanese cheered on Punch from afar as she qualified for the second round of the competition. Viewers voted for her rendition of Whitney Houston's “How Will I Know” during the premiere episode.

But during an interview with the show's judges, Punch called Guyana "poor." Now some Guyanese are criticizing her for not presenting the country's best face to the world.  

“Guyana is a very beautiful country, and it’s also a poor country," Punch told the judges. She migrated to the US with her family, and she said "the reason we moved to America is because our grandmother wanted a better life for us.”

Guyana, a fomer Dutch and English colony on the northern coast of South America, is indeed beautiful. It's home to tropical rainforests, spectacular waterfalls and rare species of animals. But the small country remains one of the poorest in the Wester Hemisphere. Guyana struggles with poverty and many of its skilled workers leave to find employment elsewhere.

After her comments caused uproar on social media, others came out in Punch's defense. Andrew Kendall of Guyana's Insight magazine analyzed the burden that Guyanese are placing on the young singer:

As Guyana loses its talented youths to greener pastures because of less than ideal planting ground for some aspects of the arts, are those artists bound to take Guyana’s hopes of being a tourist destination into mind and represent it in a way sometimes with prevarication — that makes it seem an idyllic paradise? Or as artists do we allow them to share their truth despite how far from the ideal it may be?

Lisa Punch has always been praised for her sincerity and authenticity and one wonders how sincere it would have been for her to pretend her journey to Rising Star had been one without incident. Would we have even liked her more then? As an artist, she can do little else but carve a space for herself in the world by telling her own, personal story.

Writer and cultural activist Ruel Johnson praised Punch for persevering through difficult circumstances. “What got her to where she is today is sheer hard work, incredible individual talent, unstinting support from her mother and friends, and belief in her own ability to make it,” he wrote. “Instead of decrying her on the basis of some bullshit, delusional positive patriotism, we should be thanking her for acknowledging us at all when this place as a community of people and laws did nothing special for her.”

Support for Punch and excitement about her appearance on the TV competition was also strong on Twitter:

Abdullaw, a Guyanese artist in Brooklyn, felt Punch was just stating the obvious:

And Guyanese singer Jackie Hanover pointed out an amusing irony in some the criticisms of Punch:

The support even came from the country's highest levels: Guyana's President Donald Ramoutar wrote on Facebook that Guyana is proud of herIn the end, it seems Punch has more fans than detractors, but some will still likely place “the burden of representation” on her as she advances in the competition. Either way, they'll have the chance to watch her again when “Rising Stars” airs its next episode on July 6.

This story by Matthew Hunte was originally published on our partner Global Voices Online, a community of bloggers from around the world.

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