Jade Nixon is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. She has created a vlog, Bacchanal Baddie, to share and explore her research on carnival and other carnival spaces, which can be accessed on YouTube and Instagram.
Close your eyes and feel
How freedom does feel
Close your eyes and feel
How freedom does feel
We are MASQUERADERS
So leave we alone
We are MASQUERADERS
Fete or de road is we home
We are MASQUERADERS yea!!!
Every year, multiple times a year, whether it is in my country of origin, Canada, or in other geographical locations, I am seduced by the fast-paced tempos and upbeat rhythms blasting from truck speakers. As the bass penetrates my skin and ricochets off of my bones, off of our bones, carnival calls me. I bask in the sun’s rays, letting the music activate my waistline and a thousand others, we move, and jam, in one unsynchronized accord. The shared energy that moves my feet, forces my arms to sway, and my lips to sing loud, proud, and off key, fills my soul with profound joy. This blatant loudness, our unruly bodily movements, and our total disregard for respectable behaviour in public space, all represent a kind of freedom to me.
The Caribbean carnival in Canada, also referred to as Caribana, which just took place this last weekend in Toronto, is a take-over of public space, in a nation formed through the theft of Indigenous land, attempted Indigenous genocide and slavery. This is precisely because Caribbean people quite literally take over the street, and we insert our Caribbeaness into a white nation through song, dance, and with our unapologetic loudness. During Caribana, masqueraders disobey the policies and regulations that Canada relies on to control Caribbean bodies, voices, and movement. For example, during Caribana weekend, there is a noticeable and heavy police presence. Police can be spotted on almost all of the streets in Toronto’s downtown core – all Caribana weekend long. Even still, Caribbean people persist on playing a mas’, and what we refer to as “freeing up ourselves”, which means we let loose. To me, our determination to carry on this Caribbean tradition, particularly in a place that refuses to make us feel at home, is a fight for Black freedom.
Over the years, carnival, to me, has become more of a spiritual practice than a site of fun and frolic. I knew that examining this Caribbean ritual, one that involves intentional disobedience, would help me endure a demanding university postgraduate programme. Every time I go to a soca fete, or to carnival, I experience “how freedom does feel”, and because of this I knew I had to restructure my doctoral research project by making soca and carnival central to it. Over the course of my studies, I started to change the ways I thought about what freedom meant, or what it looked like. I began to think about how it felt, and how it sounded. Inspired by the teaching and mentorship by Black and Indigenous scholars within the university, I learned to think about freedom as an ongoing process, one that takes shape in diverse ways and in ways that are not always recognizable. I also learned to think about Black joy, in this case Afro-Caribbean joy, as a form of freedom. The joy that fills my soul through song, the joy that penetrates my bones through dance, and the joy that fills the air through our collective energy, matter to me. And if carnival can make me, and others like me joyous, in a really white country, I will always be committed to that freedom practice and struggle. But still, I wondered how as an aspiring scholar, I could honour this commitment to freedom by taking my community of fellow masqueraders, soca lovers, and feters along my academic journey.
Attending university has never been a pleasant place for me. Whether it was being taught by a majority of faculty who do not look like me; learning about things that in large part had little if anything to say about the kinds of histories and ideas I am interested in; or experiencing and witnessing the university exclude people based on their race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, legal status, I learned that within the university, my life, my distinct set of histories, and people like me do not matter. Following the instruction of scholars Fred Moten and Stefano Harney who write, “in the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can”, vlogging became one of the tools that could make this theft possible for me. I decided that I could rely on some of the knowledge I had access to within the university – specifically, the language to name, and the lens to critique various systems in our world that hurt, harm, and kill Black and Brown people – and create a non-violent learning space with Black and Brown people who matter to me.
The creation of my vlog, Bacchanal Baddie, accessible via YouTube and on Instagram, is my duty, an act of love, and a commitment to freedom. It is what scholar Robin D.G Kelly refers to as Black study. In my vlog I share my opinion, and views through video form, in hopes of generating a bigger discussion about liberation, and what that means in carnival spaces. The vlog opens up a virtual space where people in my community – namely, non-university attendees – can engage in free and accessible learning and various critiques of power. Although fairly new in inception, I see the vlog having the capacity to be a virtual form of Caribbean study. I may not have the best equipment, and I have minimal knowledge about filming, editing, and lighting, but I recognize that Vlogging can function as a bridge, allowing the learning I receive in the academy to facilitate a deeper learning outside of it. Learning embedded in love and in care. Sharing my private ideas, ones usually bound to a classroom, in such a public way, requires a level of vulnerability and honesty that is often overwhelming, and difficult. Yet, the words of Assata Shakur, African-American political activist exiled to Cuba for over thirty years, continually remind me that, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains”.
Despite Carnival and carnival cultures emerging as a form of resistance against enslavement and colonization, more often than not carnival spaces tend to operate within the very structures they were created to resist and critique. In other words, carnival is not always a safe space for everyone. Although carnival may be a source of freedom for me, it is not perfect. Sexual harassment, homophobia, anti-poor sentiment, and other oppressive systems govern the way that carnival operates, which can further marginalize people in the Caribbean community. Through my vlog, my fellow carnivalists and I can work together to identify the various ways that we feel free, and address and fix the ways that some of us feel unsafe and excluded from this freedom practice. In 2017, former Miss Trinidad and Tobago, Anya Ayoung-Chee led an anti-harassment campaign titled Leave Me Alone, a name taken from Calypso Rose’s hit song. In this campaign Ayoung-Chee raises awareness, and protests against sexual harassment, violence against women, and body shaming during carnival. Because of my own experiences with sexual harassment in carnival space, I used Ayoung-Chee’s campaign as the groundwork to create a vlog episode asking my viewers to imagine what a soca fete would look like without sexual harassment, without unwanted touching, or unwanted dancing. I also tried to highlight the ways that men make me feel unsafe in carnival spaces when they do not respect my boundaries, do not listen, and/or get upset when I say no. In other videos, I urge Caribbean people born outside of the region who travel there to be mindful of our presence, and ensure that we are not bringing harm into someone’s homeland. Although addressing some of these issues is challenging, part of our duty, is to make carnival a space of freedom for all Caribbean people. With this in mind, the majority of my vlogs discuss the ways that we can make our carnival spaces safer, eliminate physical, emotional and sexual violence, and insist on making carnival a joyous space for everyone. I have other episodes documenting my carnival travels, and that demonstrate my own carnival-based Black girl joy.
As a public forum with a largely Caribbean audience, albeit a small yet growing one, I can share my own processes of learning and unlearning with those who make my work and joy possible. Relying on scholarship that I have accessed within some precious spaces within the university, my vlog centres carnival and soca fetes as central sites where knowledge is and can be produced. Our singing, and dancing, and our overall joy is a form of Caribbean knowledge and vlogging is a method that, I believe, can facilitate conversations about, and a record of, “how freedom does feel.”