Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Jamaica Prepares for Another Vibrant Carnival Season in 2019

Photo via Skkan Media Entertainment
Needless to say, I'm biased. I think Jamaica Carnival is wonderful. I've never been to Trinidad, and in my 40 years in Toronto I've only missed a handful of Caribana parades. Carnival is an enjoyable passion of mine, and every part of my heart believes that Jamaica Carnival is the perfect storm of carnival excellence!

Since attending for the first time in 2017, I have kept an interested eye on the costumes, promotions, and the overall impact this exciting event is having on Caribbean culture, music, and international vibes overall.

As someone who has played mas, built mas, written about mas, and helped to organize and promote mas, I have waved the proverbial flag high and mighty for our local Toronto event, for years. I have studied our carnival and invested time and passion into understanding how I can play my part, how we as Torontonians of Caribbean descent can work together to sustain this event, and I've even tried an exercise to visually operationalize the structure of Canada's largest Caribbean celebration to see how perhaps we can begin to explore new ways of strengthening the model of accountability, and eventually build that Caribbean community centre that the parade was originally intended to fund. Anyone involved in the logistics of this massive undertaking, however, knows that it's all easier said than done.

Via CarnivalInJamaica.com
Even from an unofficial distance, I can't help but still love everything about carnival, and that's why I am most impressed by the Jamaican's tightly-executed branding and presentation of their events, their themes, and their unique experiences. Canadian-born, and raised in a non-Carnival, traditional Christian Jamaican home, I pretend not to be a carnival "expert" by any means. But I do recognize genuine excellence and well-established businessfolk coming together to celebrate this festive time of year, to showcase various talents, and to encourage tourism to the island of Jamaica for yet another wonderful reason.

Everything about Jamaica Carnival makes me feel proud.

For example, the bands are spectacular. This year there have been four established bands that have launched their themes, costumes, designers, and affiliated marketers and sponsors in late 2018: Xaymaca International who launched on November 10, Bacchanal Jamaica launched on November 17, Xodus Carnival launched November 24, and One World Rebellion launched on December 8. Previous participants Jamaica Carnival (the originators of this Kingston celebration, as founded by legendary Jamaican calypsonian Byron Lee) have not taken part since 2017. While the legacy of Lee is still alive and well in this regard, financial restrictions will prohibit participation until further notice, according to a Jamaica Gleaner report early last year.

Since my last attendance in 2017, the carnival has seen increased numbers of participants (the attendance of 2000 in 2016 grew to 6000 for 2017 according to Kamal Bankay, the Chariman of the Jamaica Carnival Stakeholders Committee), and the town of Kingston has taken on new life for Caribbean and international tourists who might otherwise stop off in Negril or Ocho Rios to be entertained. Leading up to this year's Road March, taking place on Sunday, April 28, Kingston will be a hub of visitors, beauty, and entertainment excellence from the participating bands and affiliated brand sponsors and promoters.

Bacchanal Jamaica in particular has a heavy roster of pre-set dates and anticipated events that the soca-loving fete crowd can look forward to each season. Some of the significant dates already in place include:

March 8 - Bacchanal Mas Camp Opening
March 30 - Rum for Breakfast
April 12 - Bacchanal and Dancehall
April 20 - Beach J'Ouvert
April 24 - Bacchanal Night Mas
April 26 - Bacchanal J'Ouvert

For those who will only be in Jamaica specifically to celebrate the Carnival, they have four excellent choices of bands to jump up with, including Bacchanal Jamaica, and can access, interact, and prepare themselves accordingly through the excellent range of online products and photos that have been made available for the international carnival market.

XAYMACA INTERNATIONAL launched their concept ICONIC, with the support of co-sponsors and design and marketing affiliates Tribe, Kandi, Sleek Jamaica, Richie Ras, LehWeGo, Rogue, Skkan Media, Krave, Medz, Punchy Punch, and Keisha Als.

Featuring a range of sultry and dynamic designs, masqueraders can choose from sections like Dynasty, Victress, Mendoza, Dancehall Queen, Ashanti, Primadonna, Donatella, Vainglory, Burlesque, Bohemian, Psychedelic, Aphrodites, Aja, Queen of the Nile, Rose, or participate in a specially designed t-shirt stating: "Out of many, one band."

BACCHANAL JAMAICA will be celebrating Carnival this year through their theme of "Invictus." They launched  at their notorious mas camp (located at the National Stadium in Kingston), and will continue to host events and pre-carnival festivities at the popular location up until Carnival Day.

Along with their allies Lavishmas International, Eden, Designs by Dru, and VIP Carnival, they will be presenting sections like Venus, Gaea, Salacia & Neptune, Bellonw & Mars, Felicitas, Electryo & Bacchus, Diana & Apollo, and Cleopatra, in addition to offering Sunday wear and t-shirts for interested participants.

XODUS CARNIVAL launched the "Cosmopolitan" theme for 2019. "The World in One Band" consists of a range of location-specific costumes representing various destinations and their significant aesthetics. Sponsored by affiliates Dream Entertainment Ltd, Trinidad's Y.U.M.A., Campari, Appleton Estate, Wray & Nephew, and Hennessy, the costumes are stunning, with amazing graphic representations of the featured cities.

Xodus revellers can be transported to Bangkok, Aztec, Kingston or Manhattan, Nairobi, Madrid, Macau, Florena, Tokyo, Cairo, Mumbai, Asella, Rio, Bali, or Figi through beautiful regional-specific costumes.

One of the most newsworthy elements of this year's Jamaica Carnival promotion, thus far, has been the addition of the new band produced by Trinidadian-natives and Caribbean music legends Fay-Ann Lyons and her husband Bunji Garlin.

ONE WORLD REBELLION launched their theme "Revolt" and has received coverage and attention from the Gleaner, Loop Jamaica, Carnival Fetish, and many other Caribbean news brands for their unique designs as well as special messaging. While initially Fay-Ann's words about the nature of Carnival in Jamaica vs. Trinidad were taken out of context, but interviews and discussions quickly clarified that her love for Carnival has expanded to Jamaica out of passion and good intention, and not as a means of reducing participation in Trinidad or "choosing sides."

The launch of One World Rebellion even featured reggae's dancehall legend Beenie Man, reminding all Caribbean music lovers that our separations are only geographic when it comes to the proper celebration and sharing of music and culture. Fay-Ann clarified this dedication by stating that her band and this year's theme were "rooted in history" and based on the background of cultural revolution amongst all African descendants.

Her band is bringing this collective history together; sections highlighting warriors and power, goddesses and African prints are her homage to the history of the Caribbean, as well as the carnival celebration. Costume sections are named Iroquois, Breffu, Valkyrie, Aza, Bois, Thesilea, Oceania, Thrachan, and Aquarius and will be supported by Campari, Coca-Cola, Wata, and Chromatic Live.

Like Bacchanal Jamaica and the other bands, One World Rebellion will also host a series of pre-Carnival events, and Lyons' fitness brand Aza Fit will provide stamina-building workout sessions for their patrons and interested participants.

Once Christmas passes, carnival enthusiasts worldwide reset their calendars, prepare for new music releases, and get ready to observe, participate, and share news about the rolling wave of riddims and costumes that will take place over the course of the year. Trinidad's Carnival remains the pinnacle of the celebration: it has an early emergence in the carnival calendar year, the religious tie to Lent, as well as the observation of the end of slavery and a range of local traditions and folklore.

The tradition now continues to evolve, present itself uniquely in various locations, and highlights a range of celebrations and practices. At the root of this event is the public enjoyment of culture and the freedom to express with exuberance and inhibition.

With any change to cultural celebration, will come analysis and social impact studies on the effects and impacts of the new addition as well as opinions and recommendations for its success. For example, cultural expert Kai Barratt explored the use of slim, light-skinned, and scantily-clad models in the promotion and endorsement of Carnival, which she believed to be in stark contrast to Jamaica's "Out of Many, One People" national messaging.

Any consumer of Carnival culture knows that the majority of models and featured faces tend to be non-black, very thin, and represent a range of "lighter" hues and "straighter" hair, often leaving out the average-sized, darker-skinned, fuller-clothed participant of Carnival across the region. Issues of class and the social value system were also presented via Barratt's research, where the images of Carnival participants can also exclude the "average" woman from relating to the experience and accessing the means and opportunities to take part in this ritual.

It is not news that racial discrepancies and social barriers exist in the Caribbean, so seeing these issues at play during Carnival season is almost inevitable. The high cost of costuming, and the "uptown" gatherings of soca lovers and mas enthusiasts were linked to power and unbalanced representation, while the day-to-day realities of the citizens of the islands are often deliberately left out from the marketing and promotion of these events.

Carnivals are presented as multicultural and accessible, however, they are particularly niche-based for those who are dedicated to the phenomenon, and those who make this a part of their regular routine. Many will remember the work of Jamaican academic Carolyn Cooper, where arguments were made that somehow the "slackness" found in dancehall was unacceptable to many, yet similar movements and displays from the "uptown" soca crowd received a pass due to racism and classism.

These discussions go hand-in-hand whenever "Carnival in Jamaica" is a topic, because there will always be an assumption that Carnival is a particularly Trinidadian or upper-class occurrence, and that it is not in the Jamaican history to produce or celebrate it in the same way. It is in stark difference to the open dancehall celebrations of the reggae community, and therefore it appears (to some) a contradiction to openly embrace both.

I've read criticisms from both sides, about either the preservation of Jamaican and reggae culture, or the betrayal of Trinidadians when it comes to celebrating Carnival in other locations or in unconventional ways. My conclusion? The average Carnival enthusiast is truly just seeking the liberation and joy from the experience, an opportunity to dance freely, wear costuming that takes a level of confidence and risk, and to frolic and fraternize with peers, countrymen, and make new acquaintances through these shared moments of revelry and excitement.

Not to take away from the fact that there is definitely a racial bias in Carnival promotion, and that (truth be told) this bias still exists outside of Carnival as well. I also won't take away from the contradictions in treatment and acceptance from dancehall street parties versus outdoor soca fetes, both in the Caribbean and abroad. There is injustice, there are imbalances, and there are definitely loyalists and traditionalists that don't want to see the various sub-cultures and traditions merging. On a larger international scale, and on a specific island scale, these are the usual social controversies we must all work on improving.

I view the emergence of Jamaica's Carnival as a benefit to the Jamaican tourist experience, as well as yet another great reason to enjoy the island in a new way. Jamaica already hosts a great number of music festivals, and has artists from all genres performing for large audiences year-round. Hotels are consistently booked, and millions travel in and out of MBJ and KIN airports each day to soak up a little sun, and go home with a touch of spirit, a bottle of rum, and the vibes of Jamaica in their soul. Adding Carnival to the already positive and memorable Jamaican experience is a blessing. Why not? Why not give folks one more reason to enjoy Jamaica? Without taking away from dancehall or reggae culture, and without disrespecting the values of the island, the Carnival should be viewed as a beautiful occurrence that is open to adapting and expanding over time.

The buzz about Jamaica Carnival is on a steady incline, so it is my hope that it will adjust and conform over time. I already saw evidence of this with many reggae and dancehall artists participating in the 2018 festivities, performing on trucks, to thousands of masqueraders doing the "Genna Bounce" along the Road March route. Jamaica will adjust. The people will accept what they will, and dash away what defeats their innate soul and purpose. I trust that the Jamaican people will endorse and customize this experience for the benefit of their people, in due time. I also trust that Jamaica will embrace the international elements, and adjust accordingly.

The official "Carnival in Jamaica" brand launched in October of 2018 in Kingston, as a collaboration between the Ministry of Tourism, and Jamaica's Tourist Board. Dedicated to keeping Jamaica at the top of the Caribbean tourist's destination list, all related supporters and business affiliates are putting forth a great coordination to ensure that Jamaica's Carnival continues to grow, has a steady and positive impact on attendees, and also helps to create unity amongst the Caribbean islands without the physical or music-specific divisions. Just like reggae music is easily enjoyed and celebrated across the West Indies, Jamaica has also embraced the legacy and joy of soca music through Carnival season and is also witnessing a permeation into other elements of Jamaican celebration.

There are so many wonderful fragments of Jamaica culture to uplift, to enjoy, and to endorse. My spirit gravitates towards this particular Carnival because of my heritage, but also the mix of reggae and soca music, the natural joy, the powerful dancing, beautiful artistry, elaborate costuming, borderless camaraderie, vibsey performances, tightly branded parties, and at the core of the experience...just enjoying the outdoors, having your feet on the streets of the city, and tying it all in to enterprise and celebration.

I'm looking forward to the 2019 installment of this wonderful international Caribbean-centric tradition, and I'm happy to endorse it the best way I know how: through online and physical support of our hometown Toronto Carnival bands, events, soca DJs, and brands; through showcasing Carnival culture on our official Kya Publishing @CarnivalSpotlight Instagram page; through the promotion of my 2014 urban fiction novel "Carnival Spotlight" that embraces Carnival culture from a Canadian perspective, and through sharing the images of more brown-skinned natural Carnival ambassadors, and supporting body-positive Carnival movements like #EveryBODYPlayAhMas. Most importantly, by doing my best to attend as many Carnivals as possible, support the economies of the local promoters and businesses, and to take a jump for my spirit that craves this annual rejuvenation!

See you on the road!

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales."

Monday, January 7, 2019

Cancelling R. Kelly, Kanye, Kevin Hart, and Dare I Say Bill Cosby

It sucks. It's uncomfortable. It's embarrassing. It's unfortunate. It's a shame. It's hurtful. It stings, and it makes you question your priorities and morality in a way that you never thought you would have to. Drawing that firm line in the sand against one of "your own" can feel like betrayal, even when it's abundantly clear that something is wrong, and that something must be done.

Like many, that R. Kelly docu-series "Surviving R. Kelly" was the last thing any of us will ever have to see to know and remember just how terrible this man's behaviour has been...from time. Those testimonials, the pain on the faces of those women was disturbing as hell. We've all heard the whispering, the shouting, and seen the evidence plain as day, but somehow it took years. Decades even, for a collective cultural "WTF" moment where we are forced to look at Robert Kelly without the lens of his fabulous R&B hits...and see him for the asshole he is. There: I finally said it.

We knew with Aaliyah, but we still sang along. We were 14 at the time, and knew she was young, too. We heard the rumours, but maybe it was immaturity or just a general lack of understanding of life that never made us question him or his intentions for too long. Aaliyah seemed happy, we all loved her vibe and her spirit, and we left it at that.

"Age ain't nothing but a number..." was a song that played in our adolescent female psyches in a way no male could ever understand. As disturbing as it is, there is a part of you as a young woman that wants to be acknowledged as mature enough to be in the company of older men. You want to dress like an older woman, and act like an older woman. You want to prove that you are grown enough for grown situations. And this isn't based on daddy issues or a lack of sensibility...even for those who grew up in stable two-parent homes with loving and doting fathers, Christian values, and a firm sense of love and respect, the admiration of a slightly "older man" can still be easily intriguing to young girls.

I can only speak for myself as a woman, as a Black woman, and as someone who has always been in tune with pop culture when I say that: I can see where we went wrong, but I can also see why.

My older sister had R Kelly's "12 Play" CD that was released in 1993. I was in the tenth grade, and a music lover from birth. I knew good sounds when I heard them, and R&B was in a place where the slow jams were sensual, the lyrics were provocative, and the rhythm meant more than anything. I can remember listening to those songs over, and over, and over again partially intrigued by the mature subject matter, and subsequently desensitizing myself to some of the content.

That album was memorized. Your body's calling for me. I don't see nothing wrong with a little bump and grind. Homie lover friend. I like the crotch on you. Summer bunnies. Sex me. Twelve play. And then there was my favourite track, number 4: seems like you're ready.

It seems like you're ready.
Seems like you're ready.
Seems like you're ready.
Girl, are you ready?
To go all the way?

I was 15, what did I know? How could I comprehend how the master manipulator was even training my young mind, through sound and subconscious? The album was fire. That song in particular was dope and I listened to it on indefinite repeat. It was cool to listen to mature music and R. Kelly's "12 Play" album was a certified hit. There was zero part of me that recognized how his hypnotic lyrics were permeating my young brain, and there wasn't anyone around who looked at that man or his master manipulation as a severe problem.

A few years later, I remember visiting a friend in Chicago. I was already 21, she was slightly younger, and after a night out on the town we headed to the Rock and Roll McDonald's in the city, because there were rumours that R. Kelly would be stopping by. What were we hoping for? Probably just a photo, a good story, and the chance to see a celebrity up close. What do I remember? A lot of young girls hanging around, late-night, in case the superstar decided to pass by.

He never came, plus a parking lot fight and over-crowding caused them to shut down the restaurant temporarily that night. Crisis and kidnapping averted.

I am hesitant to make this an issue about the "Black community" or to use race as an excuse for accepting obviously disgusting behaviour, but when it keeps happening, and when you keep seeing people that you really wanted to love, and admire, and uplift, being beaten down...it starts to feel personal.

Like many, R. Kelly's music was a staple of my life's experiences. Parties. Celebrations. At-home sessions. He wasn't Michael or Prince...but he definitely had his lane, and occupied it consistently. He was a bad boy, with an unforgettable presence and an acute song-writing ability that lured the likes of Celine Dions and motion picture soundtracks, reggae artists, and sacred moments like the funeral of Whitney Houston.

I heard rumblings of his indiscretions, but never spent a lot of time studying them or researching the validity.

But it's a different time now. Everything is coming to light for a lot of people in the worst way. Exposure is a daily reality from the White House to the Grammy's, and it leaves many of "us" in a position where we finally have to come to terms with letting go of the illusion of support, and eliminating excuses for bad behaviour.

Jada Pinkett Smith posted a video on Instagram this weekend asking why? Why was R. Kelly's music still being consumed, and why were his numbers spiking at a time when his demons were all front and centre for all of us to see simultaneously. Some said that it could have been because of the younger generation, curiously listening to his lyrics and tracks to see what the hype was about. It could have been individuals reminiscing about the beautiful music he made, and trying to piece together the how and why.

A part of me sat and mentally went through all of the hits R. Kelly has made over the years, and wondered why it was so hard to admit that I'd have to let these songs go to a certain extent. Songs like Double Up featuring Snoop Dogg, or "Keep it on the Down Looooow," or those humour-but-not-humourous songs like "Feelin on Yo Booty" and "Get up on a Room," or what about "Half on a Baby" or "I Can't Sleep, Baby" and "Ignition," and the list literally goes on and on.

How do we forget the beautiful "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time," or "I'm Your Angel," or everyone's birthday song "Step in the Name of Love?"

It's a damn shame.

Just like it was a damn shame to see Kanye West, one of my favourite rappers/producers of all time, smiling in the White House, or sitting in the Oval Office with that pathetic 45th leader, confessing his daddy issues to the world, and forcing a hug on the wanna-be-dictator who was clearly not worthy of the space or attention our rap star was giving him.

Just like this fiasco with Kevin Hart, and the old homophobic Tweets, and hosting the Oscars, and the back and forth about comedy and opinion, and the importance of respecting all lives and all sexual preferences, and then thinking about how right now at the pinnacle of his career, we get to watch Kevin be crucified. We knew it was coming (it always does), but it still makes you cringe when it starts to go down.

Looking at photos of Bill Cosby still hurts me to my core, because he felt like a beloved family member that was tied to so many laughs, and jokes, and moments gathered around the television, and he was the root of so many people's emulation of fatherhood, and someone that the Black community (and every other community) adored and respected, and now we know that he has been stripped of his throne many times over, and that he was not the man of character and genuine charm we hoped him to be.

I can not, and will not excuse the bad behaviour of anyone. Not Trump, not Cosby, not anyone. The media's role in shaping stories and guiding public opinion are evident at times...but when reality is unavoidable, it's that last step that hurts the most. The cancellation.

It hurts to see anyone of substance fall from perceived "grace," but as a Black woman who always has, and always will love and respect her Black brothers/kings, it is particularly difficult to admit that time is literally up for those who we upheld for so long. We hoped it wasn't true. We hoped they were who we wanted them to be, and who we as a culture NEEDED them to be at times.

And now we mourn.

Coupled with the disappointment and disgust, are feelings of defeat and hopelessness. Wrong is wrong, but there is a part of me that feels protective of the spirit of the Black man, and I'm ultra-sensitive about the cultural influences and inspirations of the Black community, and mingled in somewhere with the feelings of anger and frustration...are feelings of pity and sadness.

I wish they would have received the guidance, the strength, or the foresight they needed at the time of their indiscretions. And while Kanye's mental illness and Kevin Hart's bad jokes were not as terrible as R. Kelly's abuse of minors, or Bill Cosby's sexual assaults, there are times when you look at any of them as Black men and really just want to pray for their peace, their protection, and their place in society.

There are times when you look at them as Black Men and hurt, because you know it hasn't been easy. You can't excuse their behaviour, and you definitely can't make the truth go away, but it still hurts. It still feels like watching a family member be persecuted, and it feels like losing small sources of power in places where it isn't always easy to obtain king status.

Why have I never publicly criticized Bill Cosby? How come I still listen to my old Kanye West albums? Should it be this easy for me to still follow Kevin Hart on Twitter? Am I going to participate in the public #MuteRKelly campaigns? Sadly, their actions are now leaking over into our daily lives as Black community members, as well as consumers of pop culture where we are now not just passive recipients, but almost complicit if we support their products or idealized legacy in any way.

"Praying about it" feels like a typical Black thing to do: hoping that God will reach the spirit of these broken brothers, and help to right their wrongs. Praying for collective forgiveness from mainstream media so we can keep a piece of the crown that was once given to these talented Black figures. Perhaps the most difficult and uncomfortable part is when you have to put the racial loyalty aside, and acknowledge that nothing...absolutely nothing can justify some of these actions.

It hurts. Some (like Kevin Hart) may be able to survive the scandal and still continue to have a fruitful career. Others (like Bill Cosby) will continue to age, and fade away from our interest and childhood memories.

The lives of those young Black women that R. Kelly is manipulating matter. And the impact of these actions matter. I hope that somewhere in these unfortunate examples, that the young Black men coming up now in the entertainment industry can take a good look at what their image means and respond accordingly. That they recognize that somewhere beneath the talent, the fame, the millions, the gold, and the opportunities is a very, very limited window of influence that they can't afford to take for granted, or mess up.

We are getting used to being "let down" by our public figures and designated "role models"...and I do believe those who have the power really better monitor it, nurture their opportunities, and do the right thing. Talent will only excuse so many wrongs, and the end result it too painful to continue to endure. When one goes down, we all feel the pain. Let's hope that the lessons are learned, as an important takeaway from an otherwise unfortunate state of the Black man (yet again) and his constant battle to keep his head held high.

We love you, but our love can only do so much.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.