Last Friday, Alec Steinfeld was driving to work from Brooklyn to Manhattan when he caught a whiff of roadkill, local station WGN reports. He kept on driving, knowing that encountering a dead animal in New York wasn't too out of the ordinary. But once he got to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the smell had developed into an olfactory cocktail of burned plastic and death, and smoke started to billow out of his vehicle.
"Then smoke started to pillar," Steinfeld wrote on Facebook. "I pulled over and got out of the car."
Then his Volkswagen just burst into flames, and the fire department dispatched a truck to come put it out, though within three minutes, his engine was toast. When he popped the hood, he found two dead baby rats inside—his first clue as to what the hell he'd been smelling during his drive. He took a closer look and discovered that they'd nibbled through his electrical wiring, likely suffering a brutal end. Soon, two more rats emerged from the wheel of his car, where presumably they had been camping out, munching on his car's insides.
As if rats blowing up your car in the middle of Manhattan isn't weird enough, Steinfeld's day took an even stranger turn, and out of the smoke plumes, a golden ray of light emerged. As his car was spiraling into a fiery doom, he noticed Tony Hawk, the pro skater, was standing nearby filming the whole hellish scene before him.
"So I am watching my car get mauled by a rat fire, seeing Tony Hawk capture this across the street," Steinberg told WGN.
Though the Birdman didn't really do anything to help Steinberg out, he did join him for a selfie, which isn't nothing.
In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here .
When Dan Levy first proposed the "East River Skyway" in 2014, it was hard to miss a reference to Lyle Lanley, the shuckster from "The Simpsons" who bilked a pie-in-the-sky idea that Springfield didn't necessarily want, or need: a shiny, brand spankin' new (but not necessarily functional) monorail.
Here was Levy—a businessman who first made headlines with his company, CityRealty, which was a pioneer in online real estate listings—pitching an aerial gondola that could carry 5,000 New Yorkers every hour across the East River, from Brooklyn's Williamsburg to Manhattan's Lower East Side, in 5 minutes flat. Compared to most transit projects, it'd be cheap (one engineer estimated $134 million), Levy argued, and could be built in no time. But plenty of New Yorkers had heard this sort of gambit before—I mean, Donald Trump is from here—and attention quickly deflated; "why not?" is an urban design dream that often dies fast here, either due to costs, or regulatory hoops and hurdles. (And the list here is daunting.)
But then, news of the L train shutdown broke.
Now, facing a transit crisis that will fuck up hundreds of thousands of daily commutes for over a year, Levy's pitch doesn't seem as far-fetched, nor unwarranted. And, in fact, it's gaining steam: last November, a cadre of elected officials, including Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, penned a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, urging him to consider the idea in light of the shutdown, while news articles that once made Levy seem overly idealistic have since changed their tune. The proposal even recently got a nod from "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz, which is kind of like the Good Housekeeping Seal, but for New York City development.
So VICE reached out to Levy to discuss the Skyway, where he's at in the planning process, and whether or not this is actually happening. Here's what he had to say.
VICE: So your idea actually predated the L train shutdown news. What did you see happening then in these areas that demanded a project like this? Dan Levy: There's a very significant congestion problem in North Brooklyn, even when the L train is working perfectly fine. So obviously once the thing goes down, it's gonna go from a very bad problem to an absolutely horrendous problem. You've got this fundamental paradox in North Brooklyn, where neighborhoods that become more and more popular—Williamsburg, specifically, but also Bushwick and Greenpoint—kind of become victims of their own growth. You have this situation where you have tens of thousands of new people living in this area, the vast majority of whom work in Manhattan, since the way that the city is configured is that most of your commercial or office space remains there. But there's this thing called the East River that's in between.
In the North Brooklyn corridor, the ways you can cross it you can literally count on one hand: you've got the L train tubes, the bridge—which not only carries cars and buses, but also bikes and the J/M/Z trains—and the ferries. At the end of the day, it's a fairly simple mathematical calculation: you can only stuff so many people in the subway, or across the bridge, everyday. And even today, when the L train is operating "perfectly," you already have this very significant problem where if you try to get on at 8:30, 9am, invariably, it's just massively crowded. Once all of these developments come online over the next 5, 8, 10 years, you're gonna have tens of thousands of new people living here. So the congestion that exists today is, by all accounts, gonna get worse.
You come from a real estate background. How did someone like you end up being the guy with the gondola idea? I happen to be a lifelong skier, and I was skiing one day about four years ago. I grew up in northern Vermont, where the ski-lift technology isn't known as being advanced, but I happened to be skiing on this mountain that had a brand new gondola system. And I literally said to myself, 'Gee, this is very fancy, very new. Almost feels like a New York City subway car, so large and with so many people.' To make a long story short, I sort of said to myself, 'Why doesn't someone put one of these between Brooklyn and Manhattan?' I did some research, and saw that, lo and behold, a lot of cities around the world were doing exactly that. Places like Rio de Janeiro, Medellín, London, Barcelona, Singapore, and Hong Kong had very recently built these types of systems, and all of them had been successful. Then I looked at the Roosevelt Island tram; we kind of have this type of technology already here in New York, and it turns out that the tram is massively successful. It's the safest part of the New York City public transportation system.
Being in real estate, of course, unbearably what you hear locally is the infrastructure is sort of lagging the development. That's a persistent problem everywhere, but certainly here in New York. Specifically with respect to transportation, I think a lot of people recognize that there's just a disconnect between what's getting built and what's needed by these new residents. In order to make these locations viable, you need a very healthy infrastructure. Everyone knows there's a problem, but there's not really any solution. So when I saw this technology and how it was being applied in other cities, I thought it was a natural solution for New York.
Tell me about this technology. How would it actually work? The technology is incredibly safe, with a record that's better than subways, buses, taxis, certainly bikes. It's obviously totally green, with no on-site emissions, it's totally silent, and it's also very cost-effective to both build and operate. It also turns out that the technology has evolved such that, combined, the size of the cabins and the speed of the transmissions system we're looking at now allow a capacity of 5,000 people per hour, per direction. It's not as much as the L train or any other subway line can transport, but it's more than a bridge can accommodate.
Even when a bus or subway are operating at peak performance, you still have the expectation that at the station, you'll have to wait a few minutes for the next one to arrive. This technology is continuous, meaning that when you walk into the gondola station, in 30 seconds, you're on a car going across the river. The Roosevelt Island tram, you do have to wait, because it's a tram, but you wouldn't here. Each car would hold 35 people, so they're very large cars that are wheelchair-accessible, and can hold baby strollers, bikes, whatever, no problem.
Would the Skyway operate as a private entity or would it be city-regulated? We envision something that looks a lot like the CitiBike model—so obviously a lot of interaction and interfacing with NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) and other city agencies, but fundamentally privately funded, and privately operated. It'd be fairly traditional private finance, and the aggregate costs are relatively modest, given the projected ridership levels. The concept with the fare, although it's a little early, would be to offer unlimited monthly commuter passes for something like $25 to $30 per month. The real comparison is if you were to take a cab across the bridge, that's probably $12 one way.
I remember the flurry of headlines when you first proposed it in 2014, but what has the process been like since then? What obstacles do you face now? It's a little bit of a tricky project—it's not the kind of thing that gets built every day. So we're starting to establish a process that will be followed. We've got a good sense of the regulatory pieces that will need to come together, and in our opinion, there's no red flags that suggest that this can't get done. Now, we're just going to be working through our regulatory pieces. We've got some initial financing that's gonna be finalized relatively soon, and then working through the overall approval. That's the next regulatory hurdle. But with that said, it's complicated.
It's not necessarily a complicated project from an engineering perspective, or from a financing perspective, but it's really just complicated from a regulatory perspective. But I do feel like we know what the route is, and it'd be nice if we could present a plan that would have us online for the L train shutting down, but that's beyond our control. That's really for the city to say, 'Yes, we want this in time for the L train to shut down. Or not.' We need that directive from the city.
Most criticism pegs the conflict with the city not being able to do big projects like this anymore, and as a result, it's unrealistic. What do you say to those who say it's unlikely? It's a borderline cynicism, which I understand. Pick whatever project you want—whether it's the Second Avenue Subway, or anything else—and people just think, 'Oh, that's gonna take 30 years, cost billions of dollars, we're never gonna see it done,' so on and so forth. It's skepticism that borders on cynicism, and it's understandable. But cutting through that, and saying, 'Hey, no, this is something we can do quickly, and inexpensively.' I think people like the idea, but think it sounds too good to be true.
I think we can do it. If the city was able to build one of these things in the 70s, when it was basically on the brink of bankruptcy, we ought to be able to do one now. If they can build one in Caracas, we ought to be able to build one in New York City. And I think there's an appetite for it. The mayor wants to do big projects, and certainly the governor does, too. And when that L train comes back online, you're gonna have the same problem you have now, except you're gonna have another 10, 20, 30,000 people living in the area that need to get into Manhattan everyday. It's not like when the L train comes back online in 2020, we solved the problem—you just made it so the tunnel doesn't collapse. There's no expectation that capacity will be increased by any sort of meaningful amount.
In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here .
As ethereal and essential to the New York cityscape as the subway station may be, so, too, is the bodega above or below it, serving the nonstop flow of commuters that are coming and going, with a decent cup of coffee, a quickly-smeared bagel, and a paper bag for that Coors Banquet. They are the lifeline of this city's lifestyle: a place that has everything you'll ever really need, always open, and always there for you.
There are nearly 12,000 of these refuges, spread out across New York's five boroughs. They are a vital piece of the city's economic puzzle, offering immigrants, who often run or work them, an important ladder to success. But, like many things from the city's past, these delis are disappearing due to very real threats in sky-high rents and Duane Reades. Increasingly, bodegas are becoming an endangered species, and that sucks.
In north and central Brooklyn, the prolonged L train shutdown poses yet another existential crisis to these small business owners. Rush hour is what keeps them afloat, and losing that train's greatest purpose—to connect commuters to Manhattan every day, by the hundreds of thousands—for more than a year could be what drowns them. This dependency is what makes bodega workers some of the most vulnerable individuals to the closure's fallout.
So, on a recent afternoon, VICE went up and down the L train line to ask the folks who make this city run about the impending crisis: their worries, their backup plans (or lack thereof), and what it could mean for their future in New York.
"The L train covers a big area. This last stop, if you see how many people come, it's sort of like more than 25 blocks. Usually, the regular stops, it serves a couple of blocks. But in this area, the L train is the easiest and best way to reach Manhattan... I thought they should've fixed it one tunnel at a time, so you don't cut the service for almost a year and a half. What are the people going to do? How many businesses depend on this train? Usually, when you establish a business, you open it next to the train station. So are you going to shut your business down for a year and a half? How are you going to pay for each employee, or each store? There's about 50 businesses on these 2 blocks. Why? Because the station is here. That's how we make our money. If there's no station here, all of these people have to figure it out, too.
"For myself, I open 21 hours. I close only 3, 4 hours at night. If there's a way to complain, we'll do it. I'm complaining now—that's why I'm talking to you."
-- Adel Ghaly, 26, Grab N' Go Deli (Rockaway Parkway Station - Canarsie)
"Do you see how many people are coming in here right now? It's gonna be bad, bad business for those of us who rely on this train. The merchandise that we sell here is half of what it is in Manhattan, so everyone buys it here before getting on the train. A friend of mine told me, 'Do you know how much it is for a bagel with cream cheese and a coffee in Manhattan?' The city hasn't reached out, or been out in the area—we're just finding out about this now. But it's not like they're gonna do things. Maybe when it gets closer, but who knows."
-- Saleh Fadel, 46, Mucho Loco Deli Grocery (Sutter Avenue Station - Brownsville)
"More than 100 people come out of this station during rush hour; they're either going to work in Manhattan, or coming back from work in Manhattan. Our business is from the train station, and the bus stop. The area changed a lot, so we opened up here a year ago, because we knew this was a popular area. I don't know what we'll do—we're either gonna make it through it, or we're gonna go down. That's it."
-- Mike Zindani, 29, Wyckoff Deli (Halsey Street Station - Bushwick)
"Half of our business is from the L train. Everybody comes here. I get that rush. Without that rush, I can't pay my rent. I barely pay it now—it's like 8 grand [a month], like Manhattan. It's supposed to be 5 or 6 grand, the most. We've been here 4 years."
-- Abdulla Yaface, 25, Quick Stop Deli & Grocery (Montrose Avenue Station - East Williamsburg)
"It'll shut down between Manhattan and Brooklyn, so all the trains here aren't affected big time. However, the problem is, the people who are here, the majority of them go to Manhattan. That's the problem. I don't know how the shuttle is gonna go, but still, this train will be working. At first, everybody thought they were gonna shut down every station, but they're not going to now. I think what's gonna happen is that some people will come, and take the shuttle to the train. Walking, it's 10 minutes, and the shuttle will be 10 minutes. But with 15 months, you never know what's going to happen. I don't really have a lot of choices. I know the city isn't gonna do anything about taxes, and the MTA, we don't even expect them to come out. The last thing the city thinks about is small businesses. They worry about the dollar—how much money they'll lose. Sometimes, when the MTA brings people, you get the idea it cares about the people. But do you think that the MTA cares about the people, honestly? Nah. Same story. They never do. Worse comes to worst, they care about themselves."
-- Amer Ali, 45, Quick Stop Deli & Grocery (Montrose Avenue Station - East Williamsburg)
"I don't know how we're gonna do it. It's going to be hard for people to get here on the weekends without the train. How are they going to do it? They'll have the buses, but that's it. I mean, I hope so. We've been here for two or three months, with a new owner, and every week here, we see new people. We see some locals, but only a little bit. Mostly it's tourists from Spain, from Argentina, from Germany... everywhere. It's a very nice neighborhood, with restaurants and bars. I hope we do good... I hope so. The MTA hasn't come out here yet to talk to us, but even then, what will they do? They need to fix it, anyway. Everyone who works here [at the deli] takes the L to get here, too. People will come, I think, no matter what, but we're hoping it's enough to pay the rent, pay the workers. I hope so."
-- Ali Abdul, 40, North 7 Deli (Bedford Avenue Station - Williamsburg)
In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.
On the second floor of the Brooklyn Public Library in Brownsville, in a room called the Heritage House, which honors African-American history and culture, community organizer Joe Loonam laid out the MTA's suggested alternatives to the L train shutdown in April 2019. Among more ambitious proposals like a gondola above the East River, ideas currently under consideration include more protected bike lanes and shares; increased service on the already-crammed JMZ; an extended G train, which would lengthen the number of cars to pack more people in; and more ferries, which would deposit transit-stranded Brooklynites on Manhattan's East Side.
"How does that sound to everyone?" he asked the room.
"Sounds like another headache," Lyeta Herb, a local resident, replied, almost instinctively.
The small discussion, organized by the Riders Alliance, a grassroots advocacy group dedicated to improved transit options citywide, was of particular importance in this section of central Brooklyn. In a neighborhood like Brownsville, the prospect of life without the L for over a year is not only met with predictable anger and frustration, but also, exhaustion. Far flung from the center of the city, this corner of Brooklyn is already awash with transit issues, with subway stations that are either closed for repair or inaccessible, and bus speeds that often add another hefty leg onto a trip. (One bus in particular, the B58 from Brownsville to Sunset Park, won the 2015 award for slowest bus in Brooklyn, traveling at a mere 5.8 miles per hour.) And given its location, the disruptions can be staggering, taking commuters like Lyeta nearly two hours sometimes to travel the 20-ish miles to Manhattan.
So losing a line like the L—which is lauded among residents as the fastest route into the city, clocking in at roughly 25 minutes—carries an even heavier burden here than for most. And not just due to distance.
Nearly 40 percent of the population in this low-income community, which is dotted with mazes of housing projects and an array of abandoned lots, lives below the poverty line, making it the poorest neighborhood in Brooklyn. According to the city's own figures, about one in six adults here are unemployed. And although crime stats are at all-time lows citywide, Brownsville's reputation has long been tainted by violence and an intense police presence.
This more recent history has lent Brownsville a strong feeling of isolation toward the rest of the city when it comes to offered services—a notion front and center when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his "Vital Brooklyn" plan in March, which will funnel $1.4 billion into the area. "What is the area in this state that has the greatest social need?" he asked. "If you look at unemployment rates, food stamps, physical inactivity, number of murders, one of the greatest areas of need in the entire state is central Brooklyn. And it's not even close."
That said, hindering transit access to Manhattan and its higher-paying jobs could have serious economic implications for an already-distressed area. And what that could mean for neighborhoods like Brownsville and nearby Canarsie was the topic of conversation here at the Heritage House on Wednesday.
Residents shared their needs for the train—some said their jobs or doctors were in Manhattan— and explained how this shutdown will force them to reconfigure their daily schedules. Loonam, who led the talk, voiced his own concern: "I'm worried that they'll be focused on North Brooklyn and Manhattan improvements, and they'll forget about what's out here." The handful of residents in the room nodded their head in agreement.
Herb chimed in, saying that she's lived in Brownsville for ten years, and during that tenure, the 3 train—the other major line that passes through the neighborhood—has been shut down twice for repairs (two stations in the area are currently closed until later this spring). As a result, she has to take a shuttle bus to another subway, which tacks on another 20 minutes to her commute. "The thought that these two lines could ever be closed at the same time," she said, shaking her head.
Throughout the meeting, Riders Alliance organizers outlined the MTA's plan going forward: an input phase lasting until summer, where the agency will gather community feedback on the perceived impact of the shutdown; and a fall 2017 deadline for a comprehensive shutdown report, which could include any remediation efforts for local businesses, and a litany of promised improvements for certain stations along the route.
Immediate service changes were also discussed, like temporary disruptions on the line, at night and on weekends, that will take place leading up to the full shutdown, while copies of Riders Alliance's list of recommendations for the MTA were handed out. "Do things like build elevators," Loonam argued. "Do things like free transfers."
A game plan was written up to canvass Brownsville—at senior centers, laundromats, bodegas, subway stations, and the library downstairs—in order to spread the word to residents who might not know that their transit is about to get ten times shittier (many who attended the meeting did not, in fact, know the full extent of the shutdown). Loonam then name-checked the politicians who could "influence" the MTA in the coming months: Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, state senators, assembly members, and city council members.
"And who influences them?" he asked the room.
"We're supposed to," said Miriam Robertson, the curator of the space. "But we know how that's worked out."
In April 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down between Manhattan and Brooklyn for 15 months. Among the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who ride under the East River on the L line every day, the upcoming closure is talked about in apocalyptic terms. The plans for alternate transit options—or in L train shutdown parlance, survival—during that year and a half of darkness are still being hashed out, by MTA officials in boardrooms and in community meetings across the city. The only certainty as of now is that there's a lot of uncertainty.
The reason behind the shutdown dates back to October 2012, when the Canarsie Tunnel, as the underwater route is known, was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Now, years later, officials at the MTA say the tunnel needs a $477 million tune-up, or else disrepair could greatly threaten the vital piece of infrastructure in the near future.
According to a November 2016 report by the Regional Plan Association and Riders Alliance, 225,000 people now take the L between Brooklyn and Manhattan every weekday. Ridership has more than doubled since 1990, with Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, a central choke point, seeing a 373 percent increase. But it's in the communities farther out on the line, like Canarsie and Brownsville, where the L line is one of the only options to get to and from Manhattan quickly, that the shutdown is likely to be most harshly felt.
Superstorm Sandy aside, the L train shutdown has been a long time coming. When the line first started operating in 1924, New York City was booming. The population was somewhere around 5.6 million people, and Brooklyn already had more than 2 million denizens, making it, even then, larger than many major US cities today. That decade saw the greatest growth in city history, a rapid expansion that demanded a system that could support such an influx.
Now, nearly a hundred years later, the city is growing the fastest it has since that time. By 2040, it is projected that 9 million people will live in the five boroughs, cramming themselves like sardines onto a subway system that, by and large, hasn't truly expanded since the 1980s. Brooklyn itself did not see a huge population jump since the 1920s, until the recent 5.3 percent uptick between 2010 and 2015, the highest growth rate in the city.
The explanations for this sudden spurt, of course, vary—more people living, fewer people leaving—but really, New York's boom is just one of many happening across the globe. According to the UN, metropolitan areas will house 66 percent of the world's population by 2050, greatly accommodating the wave of globalization, and, as a result, putting a strain on urban infrastructure unlike anything we've seen before.
What's important for our conversation, though, is where this population growth in New York is happening. In the last decade alone, some pockets of North Brooklyn—like the waterfronts of Williamsburg, blocks in Bushwick, and the extended homes of East New York—have seen an increase in human bodies ranging from 10 to a whopping 126 percent. Through wide-scale rezoning efforts, and city-financed incentives to build high into the sky, developers have responded in kind, placing this section of Brooklyn under scaffolds, seemingly forever.
In the lead-up to the dark day in April 2019 when the Canarsie Tunnel shutters, VICE is launching a continuously updated blog called Tunnel Vision. Here you'll find regular news updates, profiles of longtime residents, new upstarts, and business owners along the L route who are unsure of what the future holds. We'll also publish Q&As with elected officials, urban planners, and transit advocates about what the closure means for infrastructure and urban mobility in the modern age. We're looking to hear from folks whose lives rely on this train; who have ambitious ideas and ways we can think differently about how we get around; and who have serious concerns about the standard of living in a borough that has seen such rapid change.
In short, over the coming months this space will serve as a one-stop-shop for New Yorkers—and anyone interested, for that matter—to find information related to the L train shutdown. Not only in the form of reporting on the bureaucratic maelstrom that is the MTA, but the more human side of the people and places whose lives and livelihoods will be significantly altered for over a year beginning in early 2019.
Someone broke into a Secret Service agent's car on Thursday, jacking a laptop computer full of "sensitive information," CBS News reports.
The agent's car was parked outside her house in southwest Brooklyn when, at some point early Thursday morning, a sneaky thief hopped out of a black car, broke into the agent's vehicle, and then took off down the street on foot with her backpack. Along with the computer, the thief is said to have made off with other Secret Service documents and some kind of access card.
The laptop reportedly holds security info about Trump Tower, including floor plans for the president's New York skyscraper, and, more strangely, materials relating to the notorious investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. A statement from the Secret Service made clear that the computer files were secured with "full disk encryption," though reports differed on whether it could be disabled remotely.
Secret Service recovered the bag itself, along with some coins inside. But the laptop and documents are still missing. A source at the NYPD toldNew York Daily News that the situation is a "very big deal" and that the Secret Service "is scrambling like mad" to fix things up.
In other Secret Service news, two agents are currently under investigation for allegedly creeping into Barron Trump's room and snapping some selfies with the sleeping boy. Just add these to the long list of bizarre, often sexual or alcohol-infused mishaps that have embarrassed the Secret Service in recent years.
Tavi Gevinson recently moved into a new apartment in what real-estate developers would like you to call the Brooklyn Culture District and which is actually called Fort Greene, a historically black, middle-class neighborhood. The Rookie founder/editor-in-chief and actor has been posting to Instagram about her new digs,…
The raucous festivities at Carnival may seem like the last place one would expect to hear the sounds of jazz. However, if you listen closely to VICE's new documentary "Brooklyn's Dirty Masquerade," the sweet trumpet of Etienne Charles sets the tone for reporter Wilbert L. Cooper's cultural immersion into the lively Flatbush street festival known as J'ouvert. With a commanding blow of his horn, the Trinidadian immigrant guides Cooper on a journey from Flatbush fetes to streets filled with multicolored masqueraders basking in the glory of their independence.
Although Charles likes to preserve the traditions of Caribbean Carnival from the steelpans to playing mas, the improviser also managed to modernize the music of the century-old street party with what he calls "Creole soul." By exploring the rhythmic African cadences of Orisha chants to the contagious and vibrant beats of Caribbean soca, Charles's trumpet tells the story of a prideful people who live in harmony with their history. I spoke with the 33-year-old artist recently to learn not only how his melodic oration gets crowds on their feet, but also how a generation's worth of storytelling is hidden beneath the flamboyant sounds of Carnival.
VICE: How does your Trinidadian heritage impact your music? Etienne Charles: My music's a reflection of me, so everything that I grew up hearing is in my music. I grew up in Trinidad, so all the sounds of Trinidad are in my musical DNA. My parents are big into Carnival. My dad used to play in a steel band, and my mom plays mas every year, which means she puts on a costume and goes into the street, so that's always been a big inspiration for me.
Calypso and soca are traditionally played at Carnival. How do you incorporate jazz into the celebration? Calypso documents the happenings of Carnival. They are songs that tell a story and incite a certain type of fun. Soca is a high-energy music that you normally hear at fetes. It's the music that you use to dance through the streets for Carnival. It's a really rich tradition of music. Jazz is the core of music that incorporates African rhythms, improvisation, and a certain type of vocal expression. The music of the Caribbean has that as well. It's very easy for me to incorporate the sounds of Carnival into the sounds of my music. The reason it sounds weird is because you're thinking of jazz as American music and Carnival as a Caribbean thing. But they naturally feed into each other—the art forms are very similar.
Describe your experience performing at Carnival in Trinidad this year. For Carnival, I put a band on a truck and went out and played all through the streets. This year, the theme was "We the People." We went out into the street and about a thousand people followed us. Before that, I was working on a large piece of music called, "Carnival: A Sound of a People," in which I wrote about all of the different traditions of Carnival and all of the different performers in Carnival.
Why does freedom play such a huge role in Carnival? I've been living [in the US] for 15 years, and I don't think there's any nationwide celebration for the end of one of the most brutal institutions on the face of humanity. But we in Trinidad celebrate it in a huge way because it's life for us. We were given life because of this. Slavery is death. Freedom is life. By nationally celebrating it, even with all of our different histories and different backgrounds, we come together. It's our defining national ritual. For me, it's a really magical thing. That's why improvisation is so important and the costume portrayal is so important, because all of those things help me to tell whatever story you want to tell.
Which songs were used in the VICE piece, and what are they about? The songs used were "Papa Bois" and "Folklore" from my album Folklore. Papa Bois is a folklore character. A custom we have in Trinidad is storytelling that comes directly from the African oral tradition. Through that we were able to communicate the stories that were told from our ancestors. The character is some sort of fusion of a half-man, half-animal, almost like a Supreme Being or a guardian. Papa Bois is Creole for "father of the forest," and he's normally half-man, half-deer, and he's the protector of the animals in the forest. He normally has a horn that he blows to call out to distract hunters. "Folklore" is based on an old Orisha chant. It's a special one because the faith of Orisha is one of the few things we have intact from Africa that we have in Trinidad. It tells the whole story of the folklore tradition. It gives me a lot of power knowing our history.
Is that what you experience at Carnival—people who know their history? Not only that, but they do their part to continue to pass it on to the next generation, or even just the people who come to see it. Carnival is about freedom. It's about celebrating the freedom to live, freedom to do what you want. So seeing the music give the people the power to do what they want is most rewarding. The music reminds people of the freedom that Carnival is about.
Check out more Etienne Charles's music on his website.
Joey Bada$$'s career has been pretty wild thus far. As a rapper, his music has garnered him both critical acclaim and many loyal fans—including the one-and-only Malia Obama. As an actor, he became one of the most intriguing characters in Mr. Robot history. So naturally the Brooklyn native has quite a few stories to tell.
During Thursday night's episode of VICELAND's Desus & Mero, Joey Bada$$ stopped by to discuss Brooklyn's gentrification, having the secret service on his tail, being a "thespian," and more. Check out the full interview below.
You can check out every episode of this week'sDesus & Mero for free online now, and be sure to watch new episodes weeknights at 11 PM on VICELAND.
The N.O.V.A. Knuckleheads love to turn up. As their name implies, Cake Man Maine, Tyson, and Wu-Benz have a lust for life that is only satisfied when they're getting "Numb Off Various Addictions." As the rap group's laid back track "Persona" says, "good vibes carry good karma." According to the crew, those elements are major keys to the "N.O.V.A. lifestyle." It's seems only natural then for the trio of Caribbean-American rappers from Flatbush, Brooklyn to be big fans of Carnival, the annual festival that's bursting with excesses of all kinds—from whining booties and thudding soca tunes to festive drinks and lots of jerk chicken.
Although many people think of the West Indian Day Parade when they think of Carnival in Brooklyn, for the N.O.V.A. Knuckleheads, the best part of Carnival is J'ouvert, a street masquerade that starts late at night and runs through dawn on Labor Day. Last year, VICE's Wilbert L. Cooper hung with the Knuckleheads while they celebrated J'ouvert. They showed him how to really kick it: Drinks were poured, steel pans were played, and then they took to the streets of Brooklyn in the midst of a cavalcade of revelers covered in paint and powder.
We recently caught up with the crew to talk a little more about Carnival, their favorite time of year, and how they convert the Caribbean spirit of J'ouvert into the infectious vibes you hear in their music.
VICE: Tell me about your Caribbean heritage? Cake Man Maine: We're all from Brooklyn, but my parents are from Guyana. Tyson: My pops is Jamaican, my mom's pop's is from Barbados and her mother is from St. Vincent. So I'm like a mutt. Wu-Benz: My parents are Haitian.
What elements of Caribbean culture are present in your music? Tyson: The food, the clothing, the dances. Cake Man Maine: We grew up on a lot of dancehall and backyard parties so the things we heard—the melodies we heard in that music—is what we bring to the table as far as mixing it with other rap we listen to.
What songs of yours celebrate your culture? Wu-Benz: "Persona" for sure. Cake Man Maine: One of my personal favorites is "Floating Down Flatbush," that's one of the first times we really came through on some heavy culture like, "OK, we're going to express ourselves." Tyson: We can't ignore it. We can't not do it. We grew up doing that, listening to that, moving like that, talking like that. It's going to come out.
How were you exposed to J'ouvert? Tyson: It's something that was born in us. If you're from Brooklyn and you're West Indian, I want to bet money that you've been to J'ouvert and the Eastern Parkway for the parade. Our music is heavily reggae-influenced, so it's synonymous with J'ouvert. We threw a dope party J'ouvert night, and it got lit. We had a good time.
How do young people celebrate J'ouvert? Cake Man Maine: They get drunk. They get turnt up. They come out real late… Tyson: They wear nothing… Wu-Benz: They throw baby powder. Cake Man Maine: They throw anything they can basically get their hands on, and it's all in celebration. Tyson: No sleep. Good vibes... You're eating a whole lot of good food—jerk chicken, rice and peas, oxtail gravy. Wu-Benz: Kids are smoking a lot of weed in public because the police are not really harassing you that day. Cake Man Maine: That's the one day you get away with it in New York.
What are you celebrating? Tyson: I celebrate independence. It's a celebration of West Indian culture. They dress up in big-ass costumes and masks and shit, throwing the powder... These are traditions that have been passed down since before we were born. That's just the basis of it. You've got to just get extravagant with the celebrating. Go the hardest you can with everything—dressing, eating, drinking. Wu-Benz: West Indian people, they are some hardworking-ass people. So when it comes to Labor Day, it's like celebrating all the labor that they put in. It's like, "OK, we're really going to turn up on this one day and we're really going to live our lives and enjoy this day for what it is."
What do you make of the violence that sometimes occurs at J'ouvert? Tyson: It's the one day of the year where everybody's allowed to walk around in one concentrated area wearing masks and are drunk and high. The other 364 days, life is happening. People have beef. People have problems. So everybody comes together this one day and that's what happens. Maybe they should make more days like this so there will be less incidents like that. Cake Man Maine: Violence happens all the time. You can't really avoid it, and when you've got people [coming out] in those kinds of numbers, something's going to happen. For the most part, we focus on the positive. We wish it didn't happen, but it is what it is. We go out there for the fun. That's what it's really all about at the end of the day.