I am well-rehearsed on the highs and lows of learning and navigating the nuances of a culture I have not been raised. For almost four years, I have focused on the beauty of Caribbean Carnival and how it has positively impacted my life. I tip-toed about discussing the negatives to tread carefully. I feel that I have not been holding true to my self-proclaimed “Genuinfluencer” title.
Embracing the “tread carefully” approach has left me but a shell of who I am as a person at my core, and does not allow me to advocate for other people’s needs in this Carnival space. This blog is not an attack on anything or any specific person. This long overdue thought piece aims to spark productive conversations… hopefully.
This thought piece reflects my experiences and what I have learned in my journey—reading and listening. Discussion panels and deep conversations in and outside of my DMs. This thought piece is also born from discussions with designers, production teams, section leaders, band owners, masqueraders worldwide, and silent leaders in the industry. My perspectives and experiences are not invalidated because I am African American. And so, I challenge all to buckle up and dig deeper.
Its just my culture.
This feeds back into the blog I wrote about enjoying the culture responsibly. In 2017, a good friend said something that rocked me. Mainly because she told me I was talking out of my ass in so many words. From then on, I vowed to learn as much as possible. I started asking people I associated with in person and inside chats. I began to ask questions about why I saw certain things at Carnival and fetes, and the originations of many things I observed.
I was met with radio silence, or the phrase: “It’s just my culture.” Frustrated, I embarked on a journey to learn on my own.
When I was introduced to Carnival, my sister told me things about Carnival that she learned from someone else that was West Indian. My sister emphasized the fun and the sexuality of Carnival. My sister unintentionally transferred over a mentality and perception about the experience as something I needed to hide or even ask my then – husband to participate in. And YES, she was encouraged to claim or fly a flag from another island country. But the reality is no one can blame her for what she told me.
It took me participating in Caribbean Carnival for about 3-4 years or so before I uncovered enough information about the significance of J’ouvert. Before then, I heard everyone talk about it, but they couldn’t tell me what it was about other than it being much fun. So, I never went. I was purely a road masquerader.
One day, I learned about the Canboulay and got bits and pieces of information about how it all ties into Carnival. J’ouvert is for the people. Pretty mas is for the establishment. DEFIANCE, RESISTANCE. REBELLION. It RESONATED. I make it a point to incorporate it into my carnival experiences when my work schedule allows. I am continuing to learn and grow as a “conscious” masquerader. But if I am being totally honest, it took a lot of effort to go out of my way to know what I know now, because those that I was surrounded by couldn’t lead me in the right direction.
If I was lost, so are many others. When it comes to Caribbean culture and carnival, google is really not our friend. So where do we turn to?
Outsourcing the ritual of Carnival.
There are a lot of false speculations behind this platform and how I have been blessed to enjoy Carnival as much as I have over the years. I’ve read false rumors about “begging” for free costumes, taking opportunities from other content creators… you name it, I’ve heard it. If I publish a sponsored post, I’m “profiting,” which is also not true. But what IS TRUE is that China has probably made BILLIONS of dollars over decades because Caribbean Carnival is so heavily outsourced.
Why aren’t we maintaining that same energy tho?
Some carnival events are so HUGE that outsourcing must happen. But the reality is that some of your favorite bands and sections have failed in the United States because of outsourcing. When I first played mas in 2015, My section leader was the designer. I remember going into the mas camp where panties were actively being sewn, bras assembled, and you could see band members doing feather work. We still have mas on a smaller scale, but we now see many section leaders and band members who don’t sew, design, bend wire, or even know the sensation of a hot glue gun burn. Simply put: the ritual of creating mas is outsourced for convenience or due to lack of skill.
The demand for outsourcing increases as Carnival grows in popularity on any given day. Where there may be opportunities for us to pick up the ritual of creating mas, the truth is the industry struggles to find new talented sewists, wire benders, featherers, and production teams.
Let's discuss what we can do.
The other day I was surfing Instagram and stumbled upon an Instagram page. Caribbean carnival has spread to Indonesia. I kid you not: Caribbean Carnival will happen in Bali from September 23-28th this year. Much to the chagrin of many, the popularity of Caribbean Carnival will spread to the farthest corners of the world. The harsh truth is that you’ll never be able to gatekeep carnival and fetes. But there are a few things we can do collectively to keep its message alive, and promote respectful participants of the culture:
Your invitation MUST come with education.
The truth is many people who follow me on social media are wholly aware of the damages of cultural appropriation. It’s mainly discussed on a WIDE scale on TikTok. You’re not going to stop your occasional culture vulture or the Instagram masquerader, but there are a lot more that want to know about the culture before they enter than you think. People don’t know where to find the information, and when they ask questions, they don’t get what they need from their lines of questioning. “It’s just my culture” does not work. If you don’t understand parts of the culture or choose not to seek an answer to share, all you are doing is promoting a lifestyle of the culture and nothing more.
Your invitation MUST come with patience.
I read much commentary about people getting irritated when asked questions or angry when someone doesn’t quite get it right. In the earlier phases of AWM, I remember being attacked over saying “Caribbeans” and not “West Indians.” We don’t know what we don’t know, and most people have no intention of walking into a space disrespectfully. Creating spaces where people are invited to learn, make mistakes, and grow is important.
We must accept people as they are.
Negative attitudes about non-West Indian flags or non-West Indian people at Carnival and fetes appear to be a United States problem. People discuss openly that they should not bring their US flag. Others are told to wear another flag for different reasons. But the truth is if you want people to treat flags as more than a piece of cloth, people also need to feel comfortable about representing themselves as they are when we come into those spaces. Like trauma, our passions and joy of the people that came before us is also transferred through our DNA. For that reason, many will gravitate to it not understanding why (just like I did). If we don’t want to see anymore cringey interviews, we need to have spaces where people feel comfortable to come as they are and not hide it.
We need productive conversations.
I gain insight through productive and sometimes outright painful discussions in my DMs, but they are necessary for personal growth. But it seems as if everyone prefers to have these discussions quietly. I have had insightful talks with other content creators, which resulted in an idea for us all to participate in discussion panels, and they have declined. We need to take these conversations out of the DMs and WhatsApp chats.
Embrace the ritual of creating mas.
There are so many things that happen before you hit a mas camp for costume collection. One reason I love carnival so much is that I have been blessed with the opportunity to help with production. I respect the art and love that goes into designing your favorite costume. I have sewn, I have feathered. I have wrapped wire, and organized left and right feathers. I have had to exercise creativity in odd situations. I have distributed costumes and burned my hands on a hot glue gun.
The truth is that many of us don’t want to dedicate our time to designing, sewing, or wire bending. Many say they’ve been playing mas “from young” but wouldn’t dare step inside a hot mas camp to help. Until we get more people involved in mas outside the parade, billions of dollars will continue to be outsourced elsewhere.
Carnival has saved my life and served as a space for healing, which is why I am passionate about sharing what I have learned with others. I don’t want others coming into this cultural experience like I once did: COMPLETELY BLIND AND WRONG.
Unfortunately, Carnival does not look remotely like it was when I started. While we may not be able to change its evolution, we can collectively unite to keep its profound meaning and history alive.