Tag Archives: Brooklyn’s Dirty Masquerade

Trumpeter Etienne Charles Connects Jazz and J’ouvert

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.

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Flatbush’s N.O.V.A. Knuckleheads Tell Us Why Carnival Is Crucial

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.

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Thirsty 4 P.O.P. Talk Consent, Partying, and Being Women at Carnival

In VICE's new documentary "Brooklyn's Dirty Masquerade," reporter Wilbert L. Cooper meets Jahzeel Delgado and Azia Toussaint at a smoky backyard party on J'ouvert. If you don't know, J'ouvert is the wild street party of the Caribbean Carnival that starts under the cover of night and goes until the morning comes up. While it's roots lie in the emancipation of enslaved Africans in Trinidad, it has become an important annual fixture in Brooklyn thanks to the Big Apple's Caribbean transplants. As New Yorkers with West Indian and Latin American heritage, Jahzeel Delgado and Azia Toussaint were fundamental in showing Wilbert how to embrace J'ouvert's true spirit. 

It's easy to see why Jahzeel Delgado and Azia Toussaint would be the ones to show Wilbert a thing or two about being free at J'ouvert, considering the duo make unabashedly liberated music under the moniker Thirsty 4 P.O.P. I linked up with the "electronic trap" group recently to talk about how they celebrate Brooklyn's notorious street masquerade. Of course, it wasn't long before the talk shifted. Given the fact that a 22-year-old woman was fatally shot at J'ouvert in 2016 for rejecting a man's advances, I also asked the feminist artists about whether or not the freedom commonly associated with J'ouvert is even attainable for women. Here's what they had to say. 

VICE: So, what does "Thirsty 4 P.O.P." mean?
Jahzeel Delgado: P.O.P. stands for the "power of the pussy." When I used to play basketball, that was the way we would break. So that always stuck with me, and it just continued to go with life.

So your music is focused on female empowerment?
Delgado: Yeah, we're talking our shit in our music because we did everything that society told us to do as girls—go to school, be a good girl, try the corporate situation—and it definitely didn't work. It's saying, "We're doing it our way." And we've been doing that since 2012.

Azia Toussaint: The end game is always the same. It's about equality and being fair and the world allowing us to be us in whichever way we see fit.

How did you get involved with J'ouvert?
Toussaint: I grew up in Crown Heights/Flatbush area. My mom's family's Haitian and my dad's family's Trinidadian. When I was little, I used to want to go to J'ouvert. My mom would be dressed up—mud, little shorts, basically naked—out on the street, up onto the parkway with my dad. But they never let me go. So when I finally was of age and I was able to go, I used to go all the time. This year, it was really dope. We had a lot of fun. We turnt up. J'ouvert night we started off with a backyard barbecue with lots of West Indian music, like reggae, calypso, soca. Everybody was dancing, whining. There were nutcrackers going around. There was liquor, light foods, fish cakes, stuff like that. 

Delgado: I'm from Arlington, Virginia. I'm Colombian and Salvadorian. I played (mas) for the first time in 2012 with Azia. Ever since then, I've always gone. We live between Nostrand and Rogers, so I can't dodge it during Labor Day because they block everything.

There's this impression that J'ouvert and other Carnival celebrations are just an excuse to show off your bodies.
Toussaint: J'ouvert isn't even kind of like a rebellion. It is a rebellion. A long time ago when blacks weren't allowed to express themselves or have a good time, the slave masters would have parties and we weren't allowed to go. So they came up with this concept of "J'ouvert" where they create their own parties. They would put paint on to mock their masters and make fun of what their slave masters looked like. So that's where the paint and mud comes from, the powder faces... You might see people when the paint dries up, sometimes it dries up white or an ashy color and that essentially all comes from making fun of your slave masters and making it a good time. It's just about letting go, having fun, rejoicing, being free and one with the music. So you hear a lot of steel pans, a lot of drums. You get lost within the culture, the noise, the music. Whether it sounds good to you, sounds crazy, chaotic whatever it is, you'll get lost with the beat of the drum. 

Do you feel safe at J'ouvert?
Toussaint: Yeah, Labor Day is my favorite time of the year because I'm a low-key nudist. So I like any holiday where you don't have to wear a lot of clothes and no one's going to harass you. You do get some guys who are over-excited and they might try, but that's not the main thing. You can be in a thong playing in the parade and that's the norm. I do feel safe. Some people may not be used to that environment. The culture is very raw and aggressive. But not aggressive in a way like, 'Girl, come here.' If someone's trying to dance with you, they're just dancing. It's not like they're trying to have sex with you on the floor. But then you do have men who take advantage—who can go that route. But that's not what it's about. It's about having fun, dancing, letting loose.

How does your music celebrate your culture and being a woman?
Toussaint: With T4P, we embody the power of one's self. Not only are we saying it's girl power because we're here to uplift each other, but it's really just being true to ourselves. We're both from two different cultures, but they're both very full. Our music touches on all of that. 

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J’ouvert Mourning: Remembering the Brooklynites Who Died Before Dawn

It seems like every Labor Day weekend in Brooklyn, someone is shot and killed. The violence is typically centered around J'ouvert, the wild pre-dawn street masquerade that attracts more than 250,000 people to the neighborhoods of Flatbush and Crown Heights and serves as the prelude to the annual West Indian Day Parade. Every year, as a cavalcade of revelers dance down Empire Boulevard splashed in colored paint and white talcum powder, whining to the pummeling rhythms of steel drums, you can also hear the screech of sirens in the distance and see the cautionary strobe of red and blue emergency lighting. 

The most talked about murder to take place at J'ouvert happened in 2015 when Carey Gabay, aide to Governor Andrew Cumo, was caught in a fatal shootout between the Folk Nation and the Crips. The murder was a catalyst for the city to initiate a heightened police presence at J'ouvert, which is seen by many to be the heart of Brooklyn's Carnival festivities and celebrates afro-Caribbean culture and emancipation from colonial slavery. In 2016, thousands of NYPD officers along with 42 security cameras, and 2,000 flood light towers were employed in an effort to keep the peace. Unfortunately, despite the extra precautions, J'ouvert was yet again the backdrop for more casualties. As the sun came up over Brooklyn skyline, signaling the end of the revelry on Labor Day 2016, two bloody crime scenes mere steps from the official parade route were being cordoned off.

Seventeen-year-old Tyreke Borel was was fatally shot in the stomach at 3:45 AM on September 5. Thirty minutes later, one block away, 22-year-old graduate student Tiarah Poyau was shot in the eye from point blank range. It's been nearly six months since the murders. The authorities have made one arrest for the shooting of Poyau, none for Borel, and no convictions for either. 

As we approach J'ouvert 2017, there will undoubtedly be talk among politicians and gentrifiers about suspending or canceling the celebrations altogether due to the violence that appears to happen every year. While others in the community will continue to fight to preserve the tradition they feel is essential to their heritage, a birthright gifted to them by their ancestors, that has nothing to do with gangs or guns or murder. 

What people probably wont be talking about are the holes left in the community by the loss of Poyau and Borel, two young people with promising futures who were taken from their family and friends for no discernible reason. 

Tyreke Borel

Photo via Facebook

"[Tyreke] was a loving child," his mother Alima told me. "He loved his friends, he would be there for them," she said, in a lilting Trini accent. "He was a sweetheart. Babies were just drawn to him."

Alima Borel St. Clair gave birth to Tyreke in Sangra Grande, Trinidad, in 1989. They moved to Brooklyn when he was 13. He loved basketball and cars, and was studying to be an auto-mechanic. Alima is left behind with Tyreke's 12-year-old brother, "who just looked up to him" and his eight-year-old sister who is "really handling it OK."

Ashley Hall, an 18 year living in East New York, became friends with Tyreke last July. She was in summer school when she would "see this boy" and just thought, "who is that?"  

"He was kind and gentle and laid back," Hall said. "I didn't think I would get close with him, but over time that definitely changed… It's just so crazy that this happened." She told me, "I didn't know his nickname was 'Trini' at first… He had coolie hair, like the Indian islanders. We would all sit at this table at lunch and people would do the accent from where they come from and his is like down to a tee."

Seventeen-year-old Allena Frazier saw Tyreke the night he died on Church and Nostrand Avenue. "It had to be like, 11 o'clock. He was with some kids [I knew] from elementary school and I was like: 'How y'all know each other?!'"  

"He gave me such a long hug. You know how they say people have a sense of when they're gonna pass away? If I only knew… Tyreke was my first friend who had been shot. It was an eye opener. I'll never look at the world the same way."

Hall is still stunned. "It was so crazy, we had just started getting so close... I wish I could understand why it was him. Like, why was he even there?"

Frazier couldn't imagine that anyone would purposefully shoot Tyreke. "He never carried any negativity around him. He was affectionate with his cousins, protective over anybody he cared about."

Tyreke's mother also doesn't know what happened that night. "They say he got split up [from his friends]. It's a culture of violence. This is happening day by day. How many officers were out there? How many lights could be out there and yet this could happen?"  

These days, when she calls the police at Brooklyn's 71st Precinct, "they give me an answering machine to leave a message. The detective is never there… I think they have stopped looking for my son's killer," Alima Borel said. "He's a little black boy who wasn't born in this country, so why give him any thought?" 

Tiarah Poyau

Photo via Facebook

"[Tiarah] was a loved person. I can't emphasize that enough," said Christy Neptune to me. She grew up in East New York around the corner from the Poyau household. She remembers "the big homie Tee" was the "pretty girl in the neighborhood." Neptune said, "everyone knew Tee as being an honors student. But she had a life. She was not just this idolized person because she graduated. She didn't have to put a fake facade to it. She loved reggae music, she loved to have a good time. I can't even really believe it. In my head she's still abroad in Paris somewhere."

Poyau learned the value of international travel from her father. And her grandmother, who was half-French, half-Haitian, and all-Catholic, had demanded her whole family see education as an essential passport to life. Poyau was completing her Master's Degree in Taxation from St. John's University, and she'd secured a position with a Big Four accounting firm. Her old friend Neptune recalled that Tee's grandmother and her aunties were very close to her, they were "real figures in her life, and she turned around to be a real figure for other women, too."

One of Poyau's very closest friends was Chanel McNeil, who lived around Tee's corner of Linwood and Pitkin Ave in East New York. When McNeil had her first daughter Marley, she made Poyau her god mother. McNeil left Brooklyn for Petersburg, Virginia to give her "daughter a more peaceful life" away from the type of violence that took her friend's life.

"[Tiarah] called me that night on FaceTime... In the morning my mom called me and said, 'He came up and shot her point blank in her left eye… That's what the newspapers are saying!' I called her cell phone like 500 times, just thinking, Pick up Tiarah, pick up.

"I'm like five years older than her. She was like my little sister, but I looked up to her. She helped me become a better person.

"She said, 'you always just gotta do what makes you happy.' She wanted to skydive? She jumped out of a plane! I'm like, 'You know you could die jumpin' outta planes.' And Tiarah's like,
'I could die getting hit by a bus, or falling down a flight of stairs.'"

Around 8 AM on Labor Day 2016, the police arrested a heavily intoxicated 20-year-old Regenald Moise for drunk driving. The NYPD Chief of Detectives, Robert Boyce, went to the press, and divulged that Moise had prior, sealed, juvenile convictions. Boyce then told a widely reported story that Moise shot Poyau, when she refused his come-on to dance with her. He is on Atlantic Avenue and Smith Street now, remanded to the Brooklyn Detention Complex, awaiting trial. According to his defense counsel, Norman Steiner, the State has no eye-witness and only circumstantial evidence tying his client to Tiarah's murder.

I asked Poyau's friends and family if they believed the police's account of what happened that night. Chanel McNeil heard that Poyau had "left the friends she was with to get a flag... there's so many different stories, I don't know what happened." Christy Neptune went on to say, "I put that in God's hand. There's a a lot of crimes that go on in Brooklyn and we don't know what or why."

Lead Photo:  Tiarah Poyau's crime scene. Photo by Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Amdé Mengistu is a recovering attorney raising two boys in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Capturing the Wild Rapture of J’ouvert in Brooklyn

Brooklyn-based street photographer Russell Frederick has been shooting in and around Bedford-Stuyvesant since the early 2000s. Frederick's great grandparents moved from Barbados and Jamaica to Panama during the construction of the canal—leaving their home, but not their West Indian traditions behind. With these roots close to his heart, Frederick has been shooting J'ouvert and the West Indian Day Parade since the start of his career. 

He uses his camera to keep the traditions alive in what he describes as an ever-changing city. Originally, he was driven to photograph the parade because of its lack of coverage. Frederick wanted to share the traditions with people from outside Brooklyn who don't have Caribbean roots and are unfamiliar with all of the colors, tastes, and rhythms. This, and his love and drive to support his West Indian community, are what bring him back each year.

VICE: What is it like to shoot at the West Indian Day parade and J'ouvert?
Russell: Shooting both festivals requires you to be on high alert at all times because so much is happening around you so quickly. Photographing J'ouvert is a workout! I photograph J'ouvert as a participant not as a spectator. Its full of festive music from each country, nonstop dancing, beautiful people, good times, and everyone celebrating their roots and culture.

How do people react to being photographed when they're taking part in the celebration?
People are in such a good mood and having so much fun that they pose or they are not concerned with me at all. I would say they have an overwhelming positive reaction to my camera .

Do you think these photos hold a purpose besides documentation?
I think for my people from the Caribbean they're about celebrating who you are, remembering where you come from, your struggle and success as immigrants. The pictures will make these same people think of home. For those who are not West Indian, I hope they will inspire travel, curiosity, conversations, and reading. The pictures are New York's embrace of its West Indian community. The pictures are here to educate.

What do you think of the violence that happens at J'ouvert? 
I feel the violence is isolated. I think every parade has its share of confrontations— large crowds, alcohol, and tight space are a recipe for some mischief. I think some people want the parade and J'ouvert to end and they are trying to pressure the mayor to shut it down. Its unfortunate and disappointing to hear of anyone getting hurt.

How has the festival changed over the years?
There are a lot more police officers at J'ouvert and the parade now. The cleanup begins earlier and the routes for trucks playing music has shortened. With Brooklyn becoming more white, my concern is the parade being shut down, more barriers, regulations, cultural insensitivity growing, less advocacy, and a decreasing space for the West Indian community.

How has it changed to be a photographer at the J'ouvert and the parade?
The revelry that makes the parade and pre-festival, J'ouvert, so much fun is being compromised by the police presence. People are not as comfortable to be themselves with a heavy police presence. We have our eyes on them.

What makes these celebrations so special to you? 
These are my people. I grew up with Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, and Haitians so J'ouvert and the parade bring back fond memories of growing up around people enjoying themselves under the umbrella of West Indian culture. I also love to see the creative expressions of pride everyone wears of their homeland.

Do you only fill the role of photographer or do you take part in celebrating too?
I have to celebrate! The music is infectious and it helps make better pictures when you are a participant. The smell of jerk chicken, eating some sugar cane, having fresh coconut water, feeling the bass of some dancehall music, seeing the vibrant costumes of the women representing Trinidad & Tobago, hearing the various accents, and witnessing the arts and crafts. My job as a photographer is to tell the stories of the people or a place.

How does this work relate to the other bodies of work that you make?
My focus is to educate people on the rich diversity of the African diaspora around world by countering this negative image of us being the face of poverty, criminals and sex objects. The time has come for us to tell our own stories. More people of color have a voice now in media. Raising awareness is why I take pictures.

See more of Russell's work on his website

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Brooklyn’s J’ouvert Is New York’s Most Polarizing Street Festival

There's no one way to look at J'ouvert. The boisterous predawn street festival that takes place over Labor Day Weekend in Flatbush and Crown Heights, Brooklyn has roots in Afro-Caribbean slave resistance and post-emancipation Carnival traditions. In many ways, it's seen as the prelude to Brooklyn's massive West Indian Day Parade. It's also the source of great contention, since people seem to talk more about the citizens shot during its festivities than the Caribbean culture it celebrates. 

In an attempt to quell the violence associated with J'ouvert, officials have opted for what one top cop called a "small army" of officers—1,200 cops were stationed in the 71st Precinct in 2015, twice that in 2016. And after two tragic murders took place in 2016, a complete overhaul of the festival could happen in 2017. Canceling it altogether isn't completely off the table either. When I asked a source inside the NYPD with knowledge of the event, they told me the city will not oppose J'ouvert as long as the community supports it. Whether or not the community supports it depends a lot on which community you talk to.

All comments have been edited for clarity and length. 

Kirya Traber
Educator and artist on faculty at New School

J'ouvert is a part of a cultural tradition that comes from Trinidad and Tobago. It's got a lot of history. Certain aspects have to do with rights to self determine. It comes out of resisting slavery. Not everybody who participates is necessarily thinking about that, but it's there. 

There are similar events in the city [where people act a fool], like SantaCon, in which people hurt each other and viciously harass people. It's a public safety violation just as much as J'ouvert is without the deep cultural history. The fact that J'ouvert is being targeted is about the changing demographic of [Flatbush and Crown Heights]. It's about white people who don't understand the history and think, This is an inconvenience to me. I understand that there are people who are affected by the violence, who are also upset. But the conditions that lead people to hurt each other in that way is not J'ouvert. That's a bigger issue.

I had a police light shining into my house for a week and a half around J'ouvert this year. Bedford was covered in police signs, barricades, with patrols coming through. But it didn't make me feel safer. It actually made me feel nervous.

Professor Eugene O'Donnell
Former NYPD officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Obviously, this is best addressed collaboratively between NYPD and the organizers.

In a city where homicides are relatively rare, it is shocking to have two at one event. Well aware of the violence, NYPD tried last year to use enhanced security techniques. The parade itself is one of the glories of NYC, and if it happened in any other city, it would be a major tourist attraction in its own right.

But, ethically, how can you continue to run the event when a small number of brazen people are attracted to it like moths to a flame? If I were an organizer, I would be concerned beyond the ethics of attendee endangerment with potential civil liability. Sadly, violence has become all too predictable at this point.

Photo by Tony Savino/Corbis via Getty Images

Jeffrey Luc 
18-year-old Flatbush native

I was on Empire Boulevard when the shooting happened. I knew it was going to happen—every year, something always happens. But I go because it's fun. I've been going for a few years. I love the music, the other people from other Caribbean countries. I'm not afraid. When I see stuff getting too crazy, I leave. I don't think we should shut it down, but I think we should have more protection, more police.

New York State Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley
A vocal proponent of the suspension of J'ouvert in light of the recent violence 

I would say 90 percent of my residents are in support of my position [of suspending J'ouvert]. Some want to shut down J'ouvert altogether. The vast majority of those who want it to continue are those who live outside of my district. They're fierce advocates for J'ouvert. They participate every year, understand the history behind it, and want to involve young people.

I don't think it's a purposeful disconnect. Sometimes adults don't take into consideration that for young people to understand and appreciate what J'ouvert is about, we have to teach them. This is not just about a day to party. This is a day to take heed of our history. We have to make sure that [young people] are safe, and that those who wish to inflict harm understand that there's repercussions to their actions.

Erik Peterson, 29
Software engineer who recently moved to Prospect Lefferts from Crown Heights

I moved here right before J'Ouvert this year. My main impression was the police response—there were cops everywhere for a week. They put up these patronizing flyers, "don't stab anybody." For days beforehand you couldn't walk 20 feet without running into a group of cops. They used the 7-Eleven [at Bedford Avenue and Empire Boulevard] as a command center. These groups of cops all moving together only interacting with one another. I could feel a lot of the tension that they caused. Even at two in the morning it was like daylight here with their lights.

Obviously the police presence didn't [stop the violence]. It's the same violence that's going on all year long, but people only seem to really care about it when it's J'Ouvert. This is the second year that it was sanctioned by the city. For 20 years it was totally unsanctioned. Shutting down the event would be counterproductive, because people will do it anyway. It would force police to police an illegal party instead of protect a parade.

Image via Google Street View

Maxine Griffiph
Manager of Culpepper's Restaurant on Nostrand Avenue along the parade route

I'm not really a fan of it—too many bad things happen, people take it too far. I think there should be more police out on that night. People start drinking from the night before, and by the time the parade starts, they're already drunk. I like the parade, but I don't like J'ouvert. I think they should stop J'ouvert and keep the [West Indian Day] parade.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Christy Paurette
18-year-old Flatbush native

This year was my first time. At first, it was kind of hectic. It was dark and you never knew who had a weapon. I was right across the street from where that girl got shot when it happened. People told me not to run. It's scary because everybody was dancing in a very tight area. I was expecting a shooting, because everyone told me J'ouvert is wild, but I never expected to be that close to danger.

[The men] weren't threatening, but when you're really close, it can be kind of uncomfortable. If I didn't feel comfortable, I would stop dancing and they would stop, too. Originally, I didn't want to go, but my friends were persistent because it's my last year before college. My mom knew it was kind of dangerous, and when she heard about the shootings, she told me to never go again. I might try to go in Canada or Miami. But I wont go in New York again, because everybody here comes from Crown Heights and Brownsville affiliated with gangs. Stopping it would probably make it worse. But I feel like they should put in place more limits. 

Ebrahim Kassim 
Manager at Prospect Deli on Lincoln Road and longtime resident

I've been living in this area all my life, and I've experienced it all my life. It needs a dramatic change, because every year something's happening. Less liquor would mean less problems. I mean, I love it personally. I always go to the parade: you see all these people in crazy costumes, people from all different cultures. Last year I saw the mayor, I shook his hand. But I can't even lie, it gets crazy at night.

To tell you the truth, it's a beautiful. You dance, you get powder all over you. But all of the shootings and stabbings need to stop. I think they should end J'ouvert. The parade is enough.

Kate Manwell
Flatbush Avenue resident

I try to avoid it because a lot of gangs come out at night. It's people in gangs who are causing the trouble, not the people from this neighborhood or the people in the parade. It's the outsiders. I think J'ouvert is a wonderful event in some ways, but it's not like the St. Patrick's Day or Puerto Rican Day Parade. I would say they should have more police, but then again I don't know the politics of crime, except what I see on Law & Order. I don't know what to do to stop the violence. During that weekend, we drive to Pennsylvania and enjoy the countryside.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams
A leader in the effort to make J'ouvert more safe

Having a safe J'ouvert the same weekend you have five shootings in Queens, three shootings in the Bronx, several shootings in Harlem, and several other shootings in Brooklyn that are nowhere near J'ouvert is not a victory. We can't just flip a switch on J'ouvert day and say everything needs to be safe here when we didn't do what we needed to do the rest of the year.

People are trying to demonize a celebration that has a long cultural tradition attached to it. I don't care how much violence you have after the ball drops in Times Square, you will not have calls to end it. The police department will figure out how to make it safe. 

This area is ground zero for gentrification, attracting the kinds of people who don't see the need for the West Indian Day parade or any of the longstanding traditions of this community. If you would have had no shootings at all, you would have still have calls to end J'ouvert. The headlines were already written. If you were to do an analysis, many of the people writing those stories are the new arrivals in Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, and Fort Greene. These are the new reporters.

Subconsciously, people dislike J'ouvert because it's not what they know. It is not sponsored by Starbucks. It does not serve artisanal food. It is not what people consider to be the New Brooklyn. It's old Brooklyn. There is nothing chic or hipster about it.

Lead Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

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Behind the Seams of Brooklyn’s Elaborate Carnival Costumes

Every year in Brooklyn, in the wee hours of Labor Day morning, a sea of otherworldly characters smothered in oil and paint or costumed in devilish masks swarm Flatbush Avenue, willing the sun from its slumber with their clanking steel pan music. The pre-dawn Afro Caribbean street party known as J'ouvert is the raucous prelude to the West Indian Day Parade that happens in the bright summer sun with its own band of masqueraders, who whine down Eastern Parkway to the sound of soca music in fancy feathered headdresses and colorful spandex. The two celebrations are the yin and yang of New York's Carnival celebrations, which turn the streets of Brooklyn into a runway of sorts for revelers, who use fantasy and craftsmanship to represent their West Indian culture through costumes that are both personal and political.

"Masquerading, or 'playing mas' as we call it, is about the freedom to express yourself in the streets," says Donna Dove, the FIT-trained costume designer for Pagwah, one of the most well-known mas bands in New York that plays during J'ouvert. Last year, Pagwah's band members won the top J'ouvert prize for their costumes: all-black berets, knee-length fringe vests, and massive, elaborate straw hats that sprouted from the crown and snaked down revelers' shoulders. Dove, who is originally from Trinidad and has designed for Pagwah the past nine years, says she drew inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement—evident in the pleather vests and berets that wink at the Black Panther Party's own chic uniform. "Inspiration is drawn from consciousness and awareness of present-day circumstances," she says. But J'ouvert is also about imagination, and the costumes' fantastic flourishes help to tell a more triumphant story about black lives. "You have to understand that to play mas is to tell a story, whether it's of history or experiences," Dove explains.

Whether they know it or not, today's masqueraders carry that history as they "chip" or shuffle rhythmically down the road. Though New York's J'ouvert has only been a fixture in Brooklyn since the 80s, it is rooted in the centuries-old tradition of Carnival in Trinidad. French settlers who colonized the island in the 18th century celebrated mas but excluded the Africans who had been enslaved. With the abolition of slavery in 1834 came the evolution of Carnival from the society balls of the ruling class to the street festivals of an emancipated people rejoicing in their freedom. With limited resources, Trinidad's new revelers created costumes from colored cloth, tar, and grease. Many of the traditional characters created in early Trinidad society can still be found on the street today in Brooklyn. You'll see "jab jabs," devil-like creatures usually covered in black paint, romping around Flatbush at 4 AM, or maybe a "Dame Lorraine," an exaggeratedly voluptuous woman dressed up to mimic the French aristocracy.

This kind of political satire is a mainstay of New York's J'ouvert in particular, and 2016 provided more than enough fodder. One reveler wore a Hillary Clinton mask while riding a "donkey" with Donald Trump's face. He said that he was "riding this jackass straight into the White House." But the West Indian Day Parade, which follows J'ouvert, presents a stark contrast in costumes. Around 10 AM, the steel pans are swapped for speakers oozing rapid-fire soca beats, and the crowd becomes younger and less clothed. Still, these masqueraders nonetheless see Carnival as a crucial time for self-expression, too.

"The Brooklyn Carnival [after J'ouvert] is definitely geared toward a younger crowd," says Rhia Babb, 30, a Brooklyn-based designer originally from Trinidad. Babb's show-stopping designs include all-white headdresses and "back packs" (the plumed collar that adorns the masquerader's shoulders) accentuated by long, beautifully placed pink-and-green feathers and a white bikini dripping in gems. She has created these kinds of masterpieces for Carnivals from Toronto to Bermuda, but in New York, she has mainly worked with Ramajay Mas, one of the bigger bands that play along Eastern Parkway. Like many of New York's designers, Babb eats, sleeps, and breathes Carnival. "In my culture, in my blood, I'm a Carnival baby, so once I go out there, I'm going to enjoy myself to the fullest," she says, noting that the experience is especially rewarding for people who work behind the scenes. "We're the ones losing sleep at night. Because at the end of the day, this is a production. You're putting on a show for a lot of people."

The costumes Babb creates for Ramajay Mas can range from $250 to $1,000 for a one-of-a-kind outfit, which may seem steep, but considering the convenience of staying put rather than traveling to Trinidad, most masqueraders won't hesitate to shell out. "It's home, so it's different," says Felicia Francis, 26, who designs for Boom Mas, another well-known New York band. "It's always a different feeling when you're home, and you can get away from your house and put on a costume and go on Eastern Parkway. You're not spending a bunch of money traveling. You're just in your comfort zone." 

Francis's family is from Barbados, but she grew up in Brooklyn and got her start in the party scene modeling costumes at Labor Day parties. After she had her son, she decided to try her hand at entrepreneurship and began designing costumes. Boom Mas's theme last year was "Brazilia," and Francis designed a breathtaking blue-and-purple set intricately adorned with body chains and strategically placed gems, inspired by the Cotinga bird, a species found in South and Central America.

While New York's Carnival designers tend to have drastically different inspirations—with some rooted in tradition and satire, and others more ephemeral—they share a common bond in designing for a vastly diverse Caribbean community in New York. "I think New York Carnival has a unique personality only because in Brooklyn, there are a lot more people who actually aren't born and raised in the Caribbean," says Babb. With so many rich histories to tap into, though, New York does carry its limits. "In New York, [the people] are not conservative at all, but we are restricted by the Carnival association in terms of what people can wear," Babb says. Dove agrees: "There is a sense of policing in New York that we don't have in Trinidad," she says, but perhaps reflecting that unique hustler spirit in New York, she adds, "Revelers are more free in Trinidad, but we Brooklynites work with what we have."

Art by Duane Bruton

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Losing All Inhibition at the ‘Dirty Masquerade’

J'ouvert is New York City's most controversial cultural celebration. For one thing, the raucous street masquerade, filled with its writhing, unfettered black bodies, doesn't quite fit in with the matcha-sipping, downward-dogging image of gentrified, white Brooklyn that helps sell overpriced real estate. Not to mention, the parade route for the celebration goes through rival gang territories in the neighborhoods of Flatbush and Crown Heights, giving way to violent clashes. Every year, there are national headlines about shootings, stabbings, and assaults during J'ouvert, which has led New York City officials like former police commissioner William Bratton to characterize it as the city's "most violent cultural event" and New York assemblyman Walter T. Mosley to call for it to be suspended. 

But that's just one shortsighted take on J'ouvert. It's so much more than drunk asses shooting at one another. The street masquerade plays an important role in Brooklyn's Carnival, taking place in the pre-dawn hours of Labor Day as a prelude to the massive West Indian Day Parade. Brought here by West Indian immigrants, J'ouvert's origins lie in the emancipation of enslaved Africans in colonized Trinidad in the 19th century, who used street masquerades to mock and satirize their former masters. Today, J'ouvert brings together more than 200,000 people, who join in the revelry by playing mas (short for masquerade), which consists of donning macabre costumes or covering themselves up in mud and paint and chipping (a sort of marching shuffle) down the street to the sounds of riotous steel pan music. 

Fascinated by all this contention and culture, VICE's Wilbert L. Cooper decided to immerse himself in J'ouvert. In the run up to Labor Day 2016, he met with old-school Trinidadian mas men to learn about its origins and its ability to speak truth to power through its satirical costumes and placards. He talked with local politicians about how they planned to regulate the festival and make it safer than years past. And he connected with the young Caribbean Americans to find out how they were carrying on the tradition and what they thought about the violence the celebration has become known for. After all the talking and intellectualizing, Wilbert realized that the only way he'd ever really understand J'ouvert would be by joining a mas camp and playing himself. 

Watch Wilbert's transformative experience at J'ouvert in VICE's new feature documentary, Brooklyn's Dirty Masquerade: