carnival in brooklyn
the biggest difference between last weekend's carnival in brooklyn and the carnival in cambridge the week before is the sheer scale of brooklyn's annual west indian festival. 2-3 million people were expected on eastern parkway last monday--apparently 4 mil showed up back in '01--and there were at least many hundreds of thousands there this year. (i haven't been able to find an official count. how does one officially count such a thing anyway?) the multitude included representatives of every island in the caribbean, with folk from the larger islands--jamaica and trinidad in particular--out in force. there was little doubt on this day that the flatbush area of brooklyn is, as selwyn seyfu hinds puts it in gunshots in my cook-up, "the Caribbean capital of the world" (24).
together with becca, andrew, and joe schloss (who's making beats, an ethnomusicological take on sample-based hip-hop production, just came out), i walked down the parkway beginning at grand army plaza, the final destination of the parade. caught in many a bottle-neck, we very slowly made our way through the crowd--probably covering about three miles in three hours--and still the people seemed to extend down the parkway as far as one could see. the crowds gathered on either side of the street, shaded by the trees lining the parkway. the road was reserved for dancers, elaborate costumes, enthusiastic parade-goers (who jumped the barriers and joined in), and giant trucks full of speakers and parade elite. (apparently, wyclef jean--this year's grand marshal--got down and walked around, pressing flesh like a good diplomat.)
at one point the crowd became a bit of a danger to itself. as we were sitting on the curb watching the festival go by, a stampede suddenly materialized, sweeping us off the curb and into the yards of nearby buildings for shelter. it was an intense and frightening moment. people pushed, ran, and shouted, ducking and looking around. and then it was over as quickly as it started, with no explanation. we never heard a shot or figured out what triggered the sudden mass movement. i guess it wouldn't take much, though. brooklyn's festive labor day parade has been consistently marred by violence. i heard later that someone was stabbed on monday, and learned as well that later that evening there was a shooting on flatbush ave. moreover, people in nyc and in the US more generally are pretty on-edge since 9/11, even if brooklyn's west indian festival seems a rather unlikely target. let's face it, despite all the wild but vague terror alerts raised by the bush administration, al qaeda had rather specific--and politically-pointed--targets when they struck three years ago: the world trade center, the pentagon, the white house. no surprises there. no surprise either to see anti-bush signs on the trucks going by: the president has done little to serve the caribbean community.
(carnival--and transit workers--for kerry? against bush, at least.)
each side of the street was filled not only with onlookers and people flossing in their national colors (or someone else's national colors--i mean, anyone can sport a pair of pumas), but with vendors selling west indian food, bob marley t-shirts, and bootleg CDs (2 for $5) and DVDs ($5 a piece, including some flicks that haven't yet opened in theaters--don't ask me how). for a cool fin, i picked up a nice compilation of dancehall instrumentals new and old plus the new roots album, which i had been holding out on after reading several lukewarm reviews. (sorry ?uest and company: i did buy the other six on the up-and-up, though.) seeing this kind of widespread availability of CDs and DVDs, inclduing some astoundingly timely releases--such as a DVD of last week's boston carnival--reminds me of walking into a roxbury computer lab a few years ago to see a kid watching the newly released minority report on his computer, with chinese subtitles to boot. seems to me that when something called "piracy" becomes common cultural practice, accepted as a kind of status quo, we need to reconsider using a criminal label to refer to it--unless of course one wants to leverage the oppositional role represented by the pirate. i definitely ran into many a jamaican in jamaica who invoked the island's long history of piracy to defend their current internet-assisted acquisition methods. (trust me: nuff peer-to-peer pirates in jamaica.)
another contrast from last week's carnival in boston was the overall predominance of the jamaican presence in brooklyn. trinidad--who had the strongest showing back in cambridge--came in a close second, but there was no doubt--especially in the vicinity of massive b's massive soundsystem on wheels--that jamaica was represented to the fullest on this day. walking up flatbush ave on our way to grand army plaza, one could see more teams of proud jamaicans than any other bedecked group.
(the dancers in the street, pictured below, are decidedly trini, but note the number of jamaicans repping in the crowd:)
i should note that there was also a substantial and impressive showing from guyana and panama--especially from the black/english/jamaican side--and several smaller islands, including st. vincent's, st. lucia, and st. kitts. most of the english-speaking islands were well-represented. there was a palpable, or at least visible, absence of spanish caribbean folk--especially on the road. of course, this is the "west indian" festival, which tends to mean anglo-caribbean (i.e., the islands formerly colonized by the british).
i was glad to have a chance to take in the sights and sounds of caribbean brooklyn last weekend. the BK is an important site for my investigation of the intertwined histories of hip-hop and reggae. and being in the flatbush area demonstrated the undeniable caribbean presence on the city's soundscape. most of the cars driving around were bumping reggae, and hot 97 was playing some old school dancehall on sunday night. i recently read a great little anecdote that illustrates pretty well the influence and power of jamaican-ness in brooklyn--an influence that can be heard throughout hip-hop's history, but especially beginning in the late 80s, following a wave of immigration, posse presence, and continued integration into new york's social fabric. allow me to set-up and excerpt the story: selwyn seyfu hinds recalls getting into a confrontation one night while walking through the streets of brooklyn; as he and his friends become surrounded by a menacing group of teenagers, he decides on a revealing strategy to evade a beat-down:
...I was scared shitless. The kind of fear when your Adam's apple swells up and seems liable to burst out your throat. So I did what most recently arrived Caribbean kids in that era would do in such a situation...I began talking with a Jamaican accent.
"Wha ya deal wit? Mi nah wan no trouble, seen?"
See, Jamaicans had a rep in those days. Still do. Jamaican kids in Brooklyn were thought of as fearsome, aggressive, not to be fucked with lightly. For the rest of us Caribbean folk, donning the trappings of that reputation when convenient was a welcome ability. (27)
i think that explains pretty well, at least in part, why jamaican accents became such a common, if not crucial, aspect of new york hip-hop in the late eighties and early 90s. the fu-schnickens, the boot camp click (black moon, smif'n'wessun/cocoa brovaz, heltah skeltah, originoo gun clappas), biggie, busta, black star/mos def, and others give shape and form in their music to the west-indian-accented experience that life in brooklyn has become (and has been for some time). i need to get back soon to take in more sights and sounds and talk to more people about what brooklyn was like in the late 80s and early 90s. a good oral history of this period has yet to be compiled. somebody needs to give rebecca levine some dough so she can finish her project. i got a chance to chat with becca last weekend, and she definitely filled in some gaps for me in her description of the neighborhood and its parties circa 1983-1995.
even though i'm looking to see more, there were plenty of amazing sights to be seen in brooklyn last monday, including several groups dancing on stilts. unfortunately, the dance doesn't translate in a still photo, but here's a pic anyway.
(yep. nuff amazing sights.)
soon come back, brooklyn, y'ear?