Last week I suggested that over the last 30-40 years, changing socio-economic circumstances have come to be reflected in the economics of pretty mas and specifically the all-inclusive mas band experience.
Over the same period, and particularly the last 15-20 years, there have also been increases in violent crime. We know that during 2000 to 2005 the murder rate in T&T increased 322 per cent. Other crimes against the body, like domestic violence, kidnappings and rape, also witnessed unprecedented increases. In a distinct space over the same period, the cost of participation in pretty mas moved from $TT800 to more than $TT3,500.
What sort of connection might there be between an increase in dead bodies as victims of crimes and the growth of pretty mas at Carnival with its ubiquitous semi-naked bikini and beads bodies? Any enquiry, of course, is only suggestive.
The Grotesque Body
Today, our murder rate exceeds one person every day and the site and sight of a dead, maimed and murdered body, a grotesque body in the most obvious sense, is increasingly ordinary. This dead body, sometimes described as “mutilated,” “headless” or “beaten to death,” is reproduced linguistically on newspaper front covers and in text, presented on the nightly TV news, discussed in daily conversations, and found in popular culture.
Such violence against the body can be termed anthropologically as increasingly “spectacular”; its performance—as in the harrowing case of 62-year-old US military veteran Balram Maharaj who was found burned, dismembered, placed in two buckets and buried in separate shallow forest graves, to cite one distressing example— often public.
One understanding of this performance would be that these sites and sights have consequences. For example, they influence how people situate themselves socio-economically in the world and how they assert rights to their own safety. The visual effect of dead bodies, as Brazilian anthropologist Teresa Caldeira pointed out in a study of crime and violence in Sao Paulo, leads to increased levels of social apprehension that in turn generate a general “climate of fear.”
In urban Trinidad, this “climate of fear” feeds urban segregation and social exclusion because experiences of violence flatten racial hierarchies and overlook ethnic solidarity to become class-specific.
By this I mean many who can afford added security pay for it and wall themselves off from “others.” It is little surprise then that over the last 15 years responses to insecurity in Trinidad include a dramatic increase in gated-community life and the rapid expansion of private security firms. The point to take away from this is that murdered bodies support socio-economic stratification because “protective measures” such as private security are only affordable to some and not all.
The Pretty Mas Body
The second everyday image of the body is the salacious pretty-mas Carnival body. Often female, but by no means exclusively a female body, it is the commercial expression of modern Carnival. It is the image Government and masquerade producers broadcast to the world. It is the commodified body, an idealised sexuality that fits easily into the western mediascape alongside the MTV booty video aesthetic.
This pretty-mas body emerged in the late 80s and early 90s and whether it is staring back from billboard advertisements for special interest Carnival bank loans, local TV programmes demanding viewers get in shape or Carnival, Web sites and magazines dedicated to displaying the latest Carnival costume and its wearer, or newspaper columns arguing for and against such nakedness, the pretty-mas body, like the dead body, is no longer exceptional but normal.
This pretty-mas body is the symbol of the all-inclusive masquerade band. However, the all-inclusive band, as we know, is the all-exclusive band because the price of participation is far more than the average monthly wage, potentially excluding those who can’t pay. Just like fear of the dead body, the all-inclusive band provokes unconscious class hierarchies by making participation in Carnival a public performance of social status and wealth.
In an imaginative sense then, these two bodies talk to us. These once exceptional bodies, now normalised, are two voices among many that influence how we imagine ourselves and the nation. The grotesque body is justification for the rich to divide themselves from the poor while the pretty-mas body is a symbol of an exclusive type of masquerade. Taken together, the normalisation of these bodies might suggest a society increasingly defined by class over race and ethnicity.
There are many stories to be told about the genesis of our Carnival. One story in particular broadens the traditional origin myths. Through anecdotal and archaeological evidence, it suggests a tradition of masking reaching beyond the classic tale of European arrival and its role in the spreading of Carnival to islands where, after Emancipation, in an act of social resistance, Afro-Trinidadians appropriated it.
A good place to start the story is where I first heard it 15 years ago with local historian and anthropologist John Cupid. For Cupid there was “a tradition of celebration” on our islands long before the French arrived, and before that, long before the Spanish came too. A “tradition of celebration going back to the Warrahoon.”
As many might know, the Warrahoon were and are a group of Amerindians from the Orinoco delta who, the archaeological record states, were here in the 500-year period before European arrival. They were also involved in the Trinidad Carnival of 1848 documented by Charles Day, who, when discussing the initial period of Carnival after the beginning of French immigration, recorded his observations of a “Warrahoon masquerade” played by “half-Indian peons and Africans” on the streets of Port-of-Spain that appeared well-established.
According to Cupid, this was not surprising. “There were always celebrations on the island. Where we are here, on these hills and high valleys of Lopinot, there were people…long before the Catholics came, there were celebrations on the island of Kairi (Trinidad).” He went on to say the Warrahoons’ animal masquerade involved a headdress made of animal skin, painted face, and animal skin worn on the shoulders and ankles. And that the Capuchin monks who arrived in the late 1600s as missionaries to Trinidad “observed these celebrations.”
Is there evidence to back up his story? Historical anecdote and oral histories do describe the Warrahoon playing an animal mas and painting their faces with roucou berries and red ochre. Also, Cupid’s version of events makes sense. It does not erase the presence of the Amerindian population, its culture and genetics on the island, which we know existed in plain sight into the early 19th century. Nor does it erase their cultural influence and how a tradition of celebration may have existed here long before Europeans began their colonial conquest of the Caribbean.
This is an easy observation to support because anthropologists and historians have demonstrated the world over the long-established,cross-cultural human capacity for celebration. Celebration does not suddenly appear with colonial immigration. For example, we know as far back as 525 BCE that the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of the spring solstice celebrations he witnessed in North Africa. He mentioned Egypt, where celebrations were held to mark the opening of their crop season and honour the fertility of both the earth and women.
He wrote, “The Egyptians were the first people in the world to hold general festive assemblies, and religious processions and parades, and the Greeks learnt from the Egyptians.” Support for Cupid’s suggestion that a tradition of celebration has long existed on the island can also be found in the diaries of Bartolomé de las Casas (one of the first European settlers to the Caribbean) who recorded seeing Carnival-like behaviour.
In terms of archaeological evidence, it is agreed that roucou berries and vegetable substances like cashew nuts were being used as facial and body decoration at the time of Spanish arrival in the region. This idea then, of festival and celebration on our islands before the arrival of Europeans, is not a huge leap.
That “Wild Indian” masquerades—a mixture of Warrahoon and North American Indian influences—are also a recorded sight throughout the 19th and 20th centuries at Carnival time and are still seen on the outskirts of today’s bikini-and-beads Carnival is further evidence of an Amerindian strand and connection.
Anthropologically all of this is important because it suggests the dominant and simplistic European origin myths about our Carnival are incomplete. Cupid’s story does a similar thing to later narratives of Africanisms that surround Trinidad Carnival in the 19th century.
And lastly, the story also supports ideas of cultural mixture and process in understanding our society, opening the way to including other cultural influences in the story of our Carnival such as East Indian, Chinese, and American, over the more simplistic, familiar and traditional European and/or African origin myths that most often dominate.
There is an article about Nicki Minaj’s ‘Pound the Alarm’ video doing the rounds on tumblr. I didnt think it was accurate when i first read it. Then i saw it blasted by racialicious and i felt i had to comment because it was a form of representation by dominant US racial discourse about the Caribbean that pushed our own readings of ourselves out the window.
This is the second of two comments i made below the line on racialicious post:
Hi Adrienne, thanks for your response.
I fired my initial reaction off in a state of disappointment that an article I thought so wrong on tumblr had been promoted to added visibility on racialicous so I think I should quickly clarify that I am a fan of Minaj and proud of her in many ways for pushing the boundaries – as a women, as a trini, as a person from the Caribbean, as a dougla, as a POC, as a black women in the US racial binary, as an immigrant, as a minority and much more.
That she is appropriated by the capitalist entertainment machine and has her own unique voice still while obviously fighting against its patriarchal, misogyny is impressive and by no means was I belittling that. And I totally agree that it’s possible “for Minaj to have struggles with self-acceptance and also have a political opinion. The fact that Minaj operates on a wide spectrum should be heralded: she may not be a great role model or entirely unproblematic but I think she offers an honest and complex view of Black womanhood which is often denied to us.” That is a great point.
My issue was with the article itself and the oversimplication and misrepresentation of Trinidad, the political situation here, the history of Carnival and what the author claims the video is about. If statements by Minaj or the director were offered in support of the author’s readings – rather than a reading more in the style of literature studies essay then maybe I would be less critical. However, pushing political meanings into cultural objects where perhaps they don’t exist is problematic because it obscures the real politics and power relations at play for a more sanitised and hegemonic one. In this instance US racial politics read over Caribbean socio-cultural and economic realities.
So what I’m saying is my disappointment is directed at the author and not Minaj – it is also directed at racialicious for giving this argument more legitimacy. I should also add that the video has been discussed greatly in public and in academic circles in Trinidad (full disclosure I teach anthropology and political sociology at the University of the West Indies). To say a lot of people in Trinidad were disappointed with what they saw as a generic Hip Pop video wouldn’t be far from the mark too. However that is a different argument. It also doesn’t negate that some people love the video and for many different reasons. Our history is complicated – thus varied responses are normal. In that sense the author’s view might have a place here – however due to the many inaccuracies in the piece I am reluctant to let it slide.
Some examples of errors, problems and inaccuracies to add to those in my previous post:
The author overstates her interpretation and description of the curfew. I would also like to see the evidence for “several US and UK officials have informally implied threats of intervention.” That is pure hearsay.
Also, why report “a (unsuccessful) vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar”? It was knocked out of the park along party lines yes but it never had a chance since the ruling party has a substantial majority. In fact polls show that more people were in support of the Curfew than against it. This doesn’t negate that the curfew can be described as class warfare against poor black men – but our class and racial politics are extremely complicated. Many of the members of the Government – included our current National Security are black men so the curfew while racist was first and foremost classist.
The military and law enforcement aid from the US the author mentions is connected to the war on drugs which we all know is the most racist war there is. One forced on the rest of the world by the US Government and its capitalist cronies who launder hundreds of billions of US dollars through the first world’s banks and also support the corrupt class structure in Caribbean islands. A form of neo-colonialism if ever one needs an example. My point here is the author mentions such things and then just leaves them hanging without connecting them to Video. It a straw man and language used to politicise an argument where there isn’t much evidence of politics at all – i.e. the video has as an afterthought the Trinidad bandana as a gangsta symbol. Have you watch the making of the video? Minaj even mentions the bandana as an afterthought not as some political statement.
My biggest ire as someone who studies and has published on the history of Carnival is the author labelling the music video “a tribute to T&T Carnival”. This is just plain wrong. The history of T&T carnival is complicated and I touched on the basics above in my previous post. Put simply, a tribute to Trinidad Carnival and its black working class roots which were appropriated first on the road to Independence and now by the Capitalist machine needs to express the exclusion of the poor black working class from Carnival today. The author falls into the typical over hyped, multicultural b/s that does not mention how poor black people in an echo of the colonial situation are the servants to the middle and upper classes that now enjoy and pay between $4000- $7000 TT dollars for a costume (the average monthly wage here is $4000TT). If the video is a tribute to T&T Carnival then it is a tribute to the carnival that is stratified by cost and race. Not to mention the video has no shout outs to calypso or soca the real music of our Carnival. Nor does it have more than a few seconds of Ole Time Mas which again is part of the essence of our carnival. When the author says that Minaj “appears in a traditional carnival costume” I wanted to scream. She appears in ‘bikini and beads mas’ which is def not the same as a “traditional carnival costume”. Please do not represent us. That is what the author does with her analysis of carnival in the video. And even though she is claiming to give a political reading, the author speeds over the colourism at play in video which is extremely revealing of the local situation. I think the author needs to call the video direction out on the lack of black female bodies in the video for the high browns and light skin black women it uses. Yet the author speeds over this in less than sentence.
And I’d like to add that in contra to what the author says St James is not outside Port of Spain, it is part of Port of Spain. And today Woodbrook and Ariapita Avenue is the number one party district in Port of Spain. In fact the class, race and political differences between the two areas and their histories are an essay in itself.
Lastly, to call the ending of the video a “post-Mas apocalypse aftermath” when it is a generic pyrotechnic finale is another great example of the author overhyping her reading and misrepresenting an image as political. Does she even recognise where that is? It is the Savannah, the home of Carnival and definitely not apocalyptic to us. Maybe to foreigners. But it is the soul of Carnival for many – where the stage is on a Carnival Monday and Tuesday, and where for a few hours everyone gets to play king and queen.
So all in all the foundations and pillars that the author builds her argument on about the video are either overstated, open to disagreement or plan wrong.
Maybe the author has a point in her intro about most reviews hardly do Minaj justice as a political figure with agency, or recognize the political subtext of her video. But let’s not overhype it and get carried away with Pound the Alarm – that does more damage than good. In this instance it rewrites our local history, race politics and class situation. For me, that is the same thing white hegemony does to black history in the States. Here it is US based intellectuals – through the visibility the website racialicious provides the author – doing that to people in the Caribbean. It is the same hierarchical situation you always write against but you are doing it to us rather than having it done to yourselves.
If you got this far thanks for reading.