Last year, Afropop Worldwide produced a program all about the kaleidoscopic bacchanal that is Brooklyn’s Labor Day Parade and the festivities that take place in the days around the parade. We’re back again this year to bring the sights that graced the streets of central Brooklyn in the first days of September. For the series of concerts that preceded the Labor Day Parade itself, check out our photo essay here.
The Labor Day Parade is a child of the big-time bacchanal that takes place across the Caribbean in February, with the Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago as the crown of these festivities. Carnival was imported to New York City way back in the 1930s by Caribbean immigrants, beginning in Harlem but eventually migrating to Brooklyn, which has become a massive hub of Caribbean culture and people.
In 1967, the festivities began to be organized by a new group–the West Indian American Carnival Day Association (WIADCA)–which took the parade down the broad Eastern Parkway thoroughfare in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. This year, 2017, marks the 50th anniversary of WIADCA hosting the millions who flock to Brooklyn on Labor Day to dance, drink, eat and be merry. The thousands who march in the parade are grouped into masquerade (or “mas”) bands and are decked out in extravagant, technicolor and often revealing costumes adorned with feathers and jewels. The mas bands are accompanied by a succession of massive sound trucks–18-wheeler flatbed trucks jam-packed with enormous sound systems that have the volume to shake the earth. These trucks blast the latest soca and dancehall hits and often advertise local Caribbean businesses or recent soca albums.
The boundaries between participant and spectator have traditionally been relatively fluid, but NYPD barriers have been causing ire in recent years. On the other side of the barriers, along the Parkway, are something in the realm of a million or so people and an unending row of vendors selling fresh juices and an abundance of Caribbean food–jerk chicken, bake and shark, rice and peas, fried fish and so on. Roving salespeople with coolers hawk beers and small bottles filled with intensely sweet cocktails. Keep your eyes out for large reptiles too.
It’s no small thing to go out to the Labor Day parade–you’ve got to be ready to dance for hours, especially when the Haitian truck makes its way to you. The Haitian truck, of the Francophone minority in an Anglophone Caribbean majority, brings up the rear of the parade and blasts non-stop compas louder than anything you’ve ever heard. This year, like last year, the truck was graced with the musical presence of none other than Sweet Micky, otherwise known as Michel Martelly, the compas star who served as Haiti’s president from 2011 to 2016. Once the cops shut down the truck’s sound system, the unstoppably dense crowd of dancers that surround the truck continued onwards down the Parkway, accompanied by the local rara group Brother High.
But long before anyone hits the Parkway on Labor Day Monday morning, the party gets started early. J’Ouvert (French for “daybreak”) gets kicking in the form of street parties somewhere in the depths of Sunday night/Monday morning and traditionally moves into a loose parade around 4 a.m. J’Ouvert is host to “dirty mas,” a complement to the daytime “pretty mas,” in which black oil, splattered paint, chains and devil horns are the name of the game, not feathers and jewels. Jab jabs, from the French diable, or “devil,” are these characters of the night who, depending on who you talk to, represent the dark side of human nature, the pains and brutality of slavery or the dangerous spirits that one must be sure not to anger. J’Ouvert’s also a time to get political: often you’ll see costumes that reflect current political debates, critique politicians or social ills, namely racism. There’s a whole variety of characters of all stripes who appear during J’Ouvert to the accompaniment of live music, largely made by steel pan bands and cacophonous “rhythm bands” on wheels.
Unfortunately, over the years Brooklyn’s J’Ouvert has seen a few tragic deaths happen along the parade route or during its hours. The news coverage of the event has inevitably overshadowed the positive, culturally rich and fun-loving dimensions of the fête with suggestions that J’Ouvert causes murders. As you can hear in our 2016 program about Brooklyn’s Carnival, there are voices on the other side that say that gun violence and gang activity, which are a larger problem in the city on any day, are behind the deaths, not J’Ouvert itself. Others add that the intense police presence exacerbates the issue by making people feel caged in and stressed out, provoking them to lash out.
By a vast majority, J’Ouvert is a positive event that brings together people to celebrate. On the other side, the NYPD, among others, see J’Ouvert as dangerous. Thus, in recent years, the rules around J’Ouvert have gotten increasingly strict. This year, the J’Ouvert parade route was entirely cordoned off by barriers, with a few checkpoints where partiers were searched with metal detectors–no alcohol, no food and many fewer people. In addition, the parade was pushed to begin at 6 a.m., when the sun was beginning to rise. The combination of the daylight and the strict limitations changed the character of J’Ouvert starkly, to the chagrin of many of the partiers. In an interview with Afropop in 2016, local council member Laurie Cumbo had this to say in regards to the changes around J’Ouvert: “For our communities, which are people of African descent, we have gone through over five centuries of colonization, a trans-Atlantic slave trade, and a decimation of our entire culture. There are so many social ills that still ravage our community that that has to also be…taken into account when we are thinking about how do we simply have opportunities for celebration.”
Beyond the heated debates over the Labor Day festivities, there are millions of people who make the fun happen, who come out in abundance to the road to party and spread the love. As always, we’re looking ahead forward to the next time we get to take part in the magic that is Labor Day in Brooklyn! Be sure to check out the full gallery of pictures from Labor Day below–more costumes, more crowds and more vibes. All photos by Sebastian Bouknight.