Out of Many: Dancehall kings, cricket batters, fowl farmers, and more have found ways to bring the Caribbean to the South

Meet just a few of the folks who make up metro Atlanta's vast Caribbean community

Christopher Swain

Photograph by Melissa Alexander

Christopher Swain
Christopher Swain has traveled the globe seeking to understand his ancestral lineage through the arts. The native Atlantan, author, and public arts coordinator for the City of East Point is an avid collector of tribal art and artifacts from various cultures, having spent the last 25-plus years traveling to countries on the African continent and in the Caribbean, and attending and participating in various traditional cultural festivals, celebrations, and sacred spiritual ceremonies. Most recently, Swain explores connections between his Southern culture and the spiritual systems of Cuba in his newly released children’s book, O Is for Orisha. To bring the book to life, Swain partnered with Cuban artist Victor Mora—a devotee of the traditional African diasporic religion of Santeria. The storytelling partnership introduces readers to the Orisha spirits, Swain explains, “as they explore their divine tasks of being intermediaries between God and humans.” –Ann Hill Bond

Aaron Jones
By the time we met on Zoom, Aaron Jones had been awake for well over 24 hours. The Atlanta Fire Minor League Cricket batter was playing for the U.S. national team in a tournament in Namibia. But his mind was on a different team he’ll soon join: the Seattle Orcas.

A brand-new sports franchise, Major League Cricket will kick off its inaugural season in July. Jones had pulled an all-nighter with teammates to follow the league’s draft, which started around 2:30 a.m. for them. He and 15 other current or recent USA team members were pulled into the MLC.

A few weeks ago, Jones was playing for the Rangpur Riders in the Bangladesh Premier League, which means the Orcas are the fourth team he’ll play for this year. Each commitment is relatively short—for example, the entirety of Major League Cricket’s season takes place in July—giving players plenty of time to join other teams. “I love that aspect of playing professionally: You get to travel, you get to network, you get to meet new people, get exposed to different cultures, try new foods,” he said, adding that when he’s not traveling the world for tournaments, he’ll still live in Atlanta. He owns a home in Clarkston.

Jones was born in New York but grew up in Barbados, where he learned to play cricket. “Cricket is everything in the Caribbean, to be honest with you,” he said. “We played cricket every single day growing up as kids.”

This October, he’ll be back in the dugout with Atlanta Fire to play in the Atlanta Open, held in Cumming at the 58-acre Atlanta Cricket Fields, one of the largest cricket facilities in the U.S. In the meantime, rec leagues have taken over the space: “A lot of Caribbean people play cricket in Atlanta—but also Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, guys from all over the world,” Jones said. “If you watch the club cricket play on weekends, it’s hundreds of people playing, watching, having fun, chilling, coming to support family and friends.” —Heather Buckner

Brooklyn Dominican Hair Salon
At the Brooklyn Dominican Salon off Ralph David Abernathy in West End, owner Nancy Santos says Fridays and Saturdays are, naturally, her busiest for roller sets, doobie wraps, color, and blowouts.

Photograph by Melissa Alexander

Photograph by Melissa Alexander

Caribe United Farm
When asked to describe their farm these days, Tamita Brown and Gabriel J. Jiménez-Fuentes answered at the same time—“Chaos!”—and cracked up. “Organized chaos,” Jiménez Fuentes offered.

For years, the husband-and-wife duo has managed to get by on five acres in Oglethorpe County, but today, Caribe United Farm is bursting at the seams: “We have chickens all over. They’re in my flower boxes in my windows. They sleep on my veranda and on top of our cars,” said Brown, both of them laughing. “They have places to sleep—they want to be everywhere but where they’re supposed to be. They lay eggs all over. They own this place.” Chickens run to greet them at the gate when they get home. Right now, they have around 400 of them—plus 51 pigs, 40 ducks, 30 guinea fowl, four geese, and three dogs. The pigs and ducks? “Awesome.” The geese? Unsurprisingly, “cross and angry.” But soon enough, they’ll have plenty of space to brood: In March, Brown and Jiménez-Fuentes purchased 74 acres in neighboring Wilkes County.

Brown grew up in the Jamaican countryside on a small farm, “eating what you grow and growing what you eat. My grandfather always said ‘Make sure you have something in the soil.’” In 2016, she and Jiménez-Fuentes bought a home in Oglethorpe County and started a family garden. Then they got a few chickens so they could have fresh eggs; Brown thinks big-box supermarket ones “taste like rubber.” When friends and coworkers started buying their surplus, Jiménez-Fuentes—who is from Puerto Rico, and whom Brown calls a “city boy”—saw a business opportunity. But he soon fell in love with farming itself: “When you buy one chicken, you want another one. When you have three, you want five. When you have 10, you think, I could have 25.”

Brown broke in: “I’d come home from work and there’d be 50, 60 baby chicks in my kitchen!”

In 2020, Jiménez-Fuentes quit his job to manage the farm full-time. Brown is a high school Spanish teacher but pitches in after work and on weekends at the Athens, Oakhurst, and Grant Park farmers markets, where they sell pork, chicken, turkey, Jamaican sorrel, pet treats, and lots of eggs. Occasionally, they also sell sandwiches, soups, rum cakes, and Puerto Rican coquito. On weekends, they wake up at 3 a.m. “We work hard; we work nonstop,” Brown said. “If you want good, your nose has to run. If you want something good, you have to sweat for it.”

Though they’re moving their farming operations to a larger space, the couple will continue to live where they are. Brown conceded she’ll miss the chickens when she wakes up and doesn’t hear clucking and crowing, or when she pulls her truck into the driveway and a flock doesn’t welcome her home. On the other hand, she’ll finally be allowed to use her veranda. And Jiménez-Fuentes gets to buy a thousand more chickens. —Heather Buckner

Yaardie EatsYaardie Eats
At their food truck, Yaardie Eats, Carrie and Michael DeMessa specialize in dishes—ackee and saltfish eggrolls, garlic butter shrimp—that reflect their family background: Both are descended from Chinese laborers who migrated to the Caribbean in the 19th century. We asked Carrie DeMessa to tell us a little more about the origins of the cuisine and the culture.

The original set of Chinese that moved to Jamaica were Hakka Chinese. Hakka means guests or visitors. The British were abolishing the African slave trade, and so they were looking for indentured laborers. Before they went to China they brought a group of Scottish and German indentured laborers to Jamaica. My maternal great-grandmother is German. And there’s a town called German Town in the hills of Jamaica. Even up to this day they’re still white, blue-eyed, blond-haired.

The Chinese had to work on the plantations to pay off the passage fare. A lot of them went to work on the Panama railroads. And then they migrated to the rest of the Caribbean after finishing the Panama railways, in the 1850s. When they were able to pay off their loans, they became, like, shopkeepers. They would provide supplies to people still working on the plantations. Rice, butter, little provisions. It’s still very active today but because it’s so many generations past, it’s harder to have the language. Even my grandparents didn’t know Chinese.

Jamaican food is of African descent, where you have a lot of stews and stuff like that. The Chinese way is more stir-frying, and a lot of soups. My husband learned from his mom, mainly. He takes the recipes from his family but then makes it his own. A lot of the Chinese dishes that we do, those are recipes passed on from our grandparents. Chinese Jamaican food is such a niche, you know what I mean? Here in Atlanta, not many people are aware of it. But Jamaican and Caribbean people are like: Ah. I can’t believe you’re here. —As told to Sam Worley

Sean Fahie
Artist Sean Fahie (pronounced “Foy”) keeps a– machete under his bed—to chop his sugarcane, of course. The Cabbagetown resident goes to a nearby farmers market for many of his native St. Croix touchstones, like sugarcane and guinep when they’re in season. When he wants a true taste of home, he finds it at Thomas Bakery in Decatur. For kinship, he links up with Quianah Upton, a fellow Virgin Islander who runs Nourish Botanica several highway exits away in Joyland. When he wants to shake his waistline, he’s at Rum Punch Brunch or Global Whine, a party put on by his friends at the Werc Crew. And when he just wants vibes, he’s lounging at Rock Steady off Howell Mill.

Fahie moved to Georgia with his aunt, uncle, and cousin at age nine after Hurricane Hugo ravaged the northeastern Caribbean in 1989, doing the most damage to St. Croix, Puerto Rico, and Guadeloupe. At first the South was a culture shock. He remembers telling his aunt and uncle, who’d settled in Augusta, that he wanted a mango. He was flummoxed when they told him they had to go to the store to buy one and couldn’t just go outside and pick it from a tree.

But why? he asked.

Though he’d go back to both St. Croix and nearby Tortola to stay with his grandma, mom, and dad in the summers, over time he lost the accent that initially garnered him the nickname “Cool Runnings” from the neighborhood kids stateside. His art, however, remained constant: He was trained by an older cousin in St. Croix who introduced him to the anime and comic book aesthetic; and he refined his skills in Atlanta’s art scene. He knows now that “home” shows up most in his art—“I gravitate to vibrant colors and rhythms and, most of all, people’s energy”—and his laugh, which sort of erupts and spills over—easy and free—like a pot of contessa porridge. —Kamille D. Whittaker

Stefan “Flashlight” GuelevStefan “Flashlight” Guelev
The hallowed Sunday evening, a time of quiet relaxation—unless you’re Caribbean. While the rest of Atlanta wards off the workweek with NFL and laundry, hundreds of revelers are popping off into the night at Rum Punch Brunch. A staple of the Atlanta dancehall scene, Rum Punch Brunch—which operates out of Believe Music Hall, a former Baptist church, in Mechanicsville—draws huge crowds for its Sunday-afternoon parties, featuring a rotating cast of dancehall DJs, food trucks, and rum drinks galore. Amid a sea of Caribbean dancers, you’ll often find one distinctly not-Caribbean guy who nonetheless fits right in. “People are kind of weirded out by me, but in a good way,” said Stefan Guelev, aka Flashlight, who’s become a mainstay of the Rum Punch Brunch scene. “When I do the dances, they’re like, ‘How the hell does he know that?’” He laughed. “To me, that’s priceless.”

Guelev—who earned the nickname Flashlight when his motorcycle headlight broke off and he replaced it with a jerry-rigged flashlight—moved to Atlanta from Bulgaria as a kid. He learned English in school, and found himself at home in a diverse community of international émigrés. After catching the dancing bug in college, Guelev became a regular at clubs like Electric Cowboy and Hole in the Wall. Some Jamaican friends invited him to Rum Punch Brunch, and it quickly became his go-to Sunday dance spot. “The whole Caribbean style has its own little twang of communication through music,” he said. “I find that really cool.” Dancehall was all new to him—“I just went with the flow of what they were teaching me”—but before long, he was gamely jumping onstage for dance battles. Guelev knows he’s not your typical dancehall king, and he likes that. “People don’t expect a white person to come there and dance like that,” he said. “I love whenever they’re surprised!” —Rachel Garbus

Vyanti JosephVyanti Joseph
“We would always joke, growing up, that there could be a guy called Ram John Ali,” says Vyanti Joseph, an Atlanta-area political consultant and entrepreneur who was raised in Debe, Trinidad. “Ram is Hindu, John is Christian, and Ali is Muslim.” The imaginary name encompasses the breadth of a place that’s been a meeting point of many cultures: enslaved Africans, Indian migrants, and European colonists. It’s the Indian aspect that’s perhaps less well known in the United States, where only a couple of places (New York City, South Florida) boast substantial Indo-Caribbean populations. After the British empire abolished slavery in the West Indies in 1834, the need remained for laborers on sugarcane plantations—a role filled by indentured servants from South Asia. “They left their homes, they left their cultures, and when they came to this island they tried to re-create whatever pieces they could,” Joseph says. Including in their foodways. Take roti, a staple of both Indian and Caribbean cuisine. Transported halfway across the world, it kept its essence: still a flaky flatbread. But it was remixed in dishes like buss up shut, a Trinidadian layered roti often served with curried meat or chickpeas.

Joseph’s family moved to Georgia in 1989. She inherited a passion for social justice from her family, and expanded her sense of identity—“being able to straddle both worlds”—as a student at Georgia State. Since 2016, Joseph has been involved in one high-profile political campaign after another: McBath, Ossoff, Biden, and Warnock, for whom she served as Asian American and Pacific Islander constituency director. She also cofounded the Georgia chapter of They See Blue, which mobilizes South Asian communities to elect Democratic candidates.

It’s an interesting fit. “Everyone assumes you’re Indian, and I’m like: Well, my great-grandparents came from India in the late 1800s. That was four generations ago. I guess, ethnically, I am. But I’m Caribbean,” she says. Meanwhile: “People usually just identify Caribbean as the African heritage of the Caribbean. So it’s like: You’re not Caribbean enough. And I’m like, what the hell do you mean I’m not Caribbean enough?” She laughs. “I’m as Caribbean as you can get.” —Sam Worley

Ras Kofi
For Ras Kofi, born in Guyana to a Guyanese father and a mother from Georgia, farming is about more than what we can extract from the land—it’s also about what we put into it. “My work, my mission, is to bring agriculture into pop culture. When you make the culture tangible and relatable, that’s when you’re able to do that. Similar to the proverb that says ‘What you teach a child to love is much more effective than what you teach a child to learn.’”

At the East Point farm he runs—Oyun Botanical Gardens (owned by Queen Yenn, founder of Oyun Ministries), formerly known as Shamba (which means cultivated ground)—that concept is clear. In addition to the rows of crops and fresh produce available for purchase—from kale and collard greens to cabbage and onions—there are also local vendors selling homemade products (like salsa, salad dressing, and jam), and an indoor space that has various wellness offerings (from meditation and energy clearings to life coaching). “We cultivate the soil and the soul,” Kofi says. “It’s a community space . . . a social space centered around a garden.”

Kofi is especially mindful of the unique relationship that many Black folks have with land. “All people have been separated from the natural environment, but Black people especially. When it comes to Black people, it has been even more traumatic in terms of our relationship with the land—from slavery to sharecropping. Clearly the land is the source of wealth.”

That understanding has deeply influenced Kofi’s work to preserve and uplift the legacy of urban farming. “We’re finding our way home. Where is home? Home is with our mother— nature.” —Jameelah Nasheed

Read the full feature: Atlanta’s Caribbean Vibes

This article appears in our May 2023 issue.