Tunde Sam treasures many memories about the first time he “played mas,” or participated officially, at the Atlanta Caribbean Carnival, but there’s one moment from last May that stands out. The crowd was approaching the Jackson Street Bridge, “whining” their hips to the tunes of Machel Montano, as the Trinidadian singer’s soca music poured out of speakers stacked as high as the treetops. Sam stopped for a moment on the bridge to take in the Atlanta skyline. “To see a city I’m so connected to from that perspective—while wearing a Carnival costume—and then to look down off the bridge and see cars stopped. People are jumping out of their cars, waving flags and shirts. It was so, so unique,” he said.
Back in February, Sam had selected a band, or a group of masqueraders, to “play with” and purchased an approved costume. For 2022, his band, Entice Mas, chose the theme “A Wonderful World.” Sam bought a pair of neon green shorts decorated with gold detailing and multicolored jewels that matched ones he draped over his bare chest. He dyed his hair blond to complete the look. Cost: $450. He assured me this was nothing compared to the $1,200 his best friend spent on her costume, which wasn’t even the most expensive outfit in their band.
Sam, who has lived in Atlanta since 2015, moved from Jamaica to attend Morehouse College, following in the footsteps of his older—and livelier—brother, Ulato. But in that moment, dancing in the street among family, friends, fellow Caribbean Atlantans, the quieter sibling felt liberated.
“There is a certain reservation we have as a result of societal judgment,” Sam explained to me. “We want to act within the bounds of what is not overdoing it. Be presentable. But once you take that first step at Carnival, all of that goes out the door. It didn’t take the first mile or the first 20 minutes of walking. The minute that truck wheel moved, it was on. People climbing on walls, cocked up on the fence, jumping up and down, throwing water. No hesitation. Kaboom.”
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Carnival, celebrated with ornate costumes and street dancing around the world, most directly derives from annual pre-Lenten celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago. But other islands and nations have historically held similar festivals. In the Bahamas, there’s Junkanoo. Barbados has Crop Over. Grenada celebrates Jab-Jab. In the U.S., of course, New Orleans is known for Mardi Gras. In Atlanta, Carnival takes place over Memorial Day weekend. In Caribbean Carnival: The Art of Transformation in the New World, Morehouse literary scholar Leah Creque explains that these celebrations and the African masquerade traditions are syncretized with the European masked ball tradition, which “provided fertile ground for slaves to bend elements of African ceremonial arts that resulted in the unique Carnival tradition of the Caribbean.”
“In its genesis, it was street theater,” Charles Baker, the public relations officer for the Atlanta Carnival Bandleaders Council, explained to me. “It was used to express yourself and express things and ideas that you weren’t allowed before. You could make mockery of those that subordinated you. You could make commentary about those that ruled you. You could exhibit your own interpretation of art in abstract ways.”
Atlanta’s celebration dates back to 1989, when Atlanta Peach Carnival held the first Caribbean Folklife Festival, including a “Carnival-style” parade down Peachtree Street that attracted tens of thousands of people, serving as a unifying event for the growing local Caribbean population and a tourist attraction for an ambitious young city aiming to prove its international relevance. By the early 1990s, Bruce Seaman, a Georgia State University professor, determined the annual economic impact of the event to be about $8 million. Estimates put the crowds anywhere between 25,000 and 40,000.
Revelers lined downtown streets as bands strutted by, dancing and interacting with attendees who came in costume even though they hadn’t officially paid to participate. Celebrants wearing extravagant crowns would approach families with young children, posing for photos to inspire future generations of mas players. The spectacle of seeing “a man [make] his way down Peachtree in a 10-foot headdress fashioned of nylon and foil,” as reported by the Atlanta Constitution in the early ’90s, was a declaration of the changing identity of Black Atlanta. For Atlantans of Caribbean descent, the show represented a shared revelry for both their familial homeland and their current residence. And it was an invitation for Atlantans previously unfamiliar with Caribbean culture to immerse themselves in the joyful, haunting rhythms of steelpan drums in Woodruff Park while savoring goat roti and stewed oxtail.
Over the past two decades, the celebration has departed from Peachtree Street and split into two competing operations: the Atlanta Caribbean Carnival, which has taken place at Turner Field, Morris Brown College, Auburn Avenue, Old Fourth Ward Park, and, more recently, Central Park; and the Atlanta-DeKalb Carnival, which started in Conyers then moved to Decatur and, now, Stonecrest. At first glance, the split might seem to mirror the sprawl of the Caribbean community throughout the metro Atlanta area. But Atlanta’s tale of two Carnivals also reflects the age-old tensions that can occur when people with disparate but similar backgrounds have limited options for celebrating their identities and are forced to find community together—alternately being blamed or credited for each others’ actions.
Sam, for instance, had originally intended to participate in the Atlanta-DeKalb Carnival, until organizers announced the night before that they hadn’t secured the permits necessary to host the event. (According to Baker, the group that organized the event was unable to hire enough security staff.) Sam’s band was able to switch festivals, but the late cancellation stirred unrest in the local Caribbean community.
Keza Williams, owner and bandleader for Entice Mas, says she would’ve faced bankruptcy if she had not been able to secure a last-minute spot in the Atlanta Caribbean Carnival for the nearly 600 people who had signed up with her for the DeKalb event. Since costumes are based on an annual theme conceptualized by each band—such as Entice’s 2022 “A Wonderful World,” which featured six costumes with international inspirations, such as the colorful Buccoo Reef in Tobago and Madagascar’s Baobab trees—saving them for next year was an unlikely option. In addition, vendors had purchased enough food and supplies to serve thousands of people. Out-of-town participants had booked flights and secured hotel rooms.
While the Atlanta-DeKalb Carnival was busy controlling the costly fallout, the Atlanta Caribbean Carnival was suddenly racing to meet the demands of a much larger-than-anticipated crowd. Patricia Henry, Atlanta Caribbean Carnival’s current president, says they expected about 5,000 people last year, but instead hosted double that number—while still recovering from taking two years off during the pandemic. And, before that, in 2019, they too had been unable to hire the number of security guards required by their permit and were forced to end their event early. Last year, when negative press described unruly crowds leaving Central Park a mess and urinating in the yards of nearby residents, organizers pointed at the canceled DeKalb event to explain the chaos. “Every year we go through a rough patch and it’s like we get blamed for everything,” said Henry.
Earlier this year, I visited an unassuming Stonecrest business complex where the Panyarders had set up “mas camp,” the production area where a band creates its elaborate costumes. I walked past a room full of outfits from last year’s “Adventure Exotica” theme—including a $2,000 creation flanked by two human-sized, royal blue seahorses.
Charles Baker, the Panyarders bandleader, told me it takes about seven months to craft the costumes that his 125 masqueraders will wear for only the three or four hours it takes to walk the two-and-a-half-mile route in Stonecrest.
This year’s theme is “Allure: The Fascination” (because of 2022’s last-minute cancellation, people who purchased costumes and weren’t able to use them will, in fact, be allowed to play mas in last year’s “Adventure Exotica” looks). Within the band’s “Allure” theme, there are sections called “Provocateur: The Tease,” which features bold red costumes, and “Angelica: The Coy,” which dazzles with blush colors and jewels. Baker has been a bandleader for decades and recognizes that some people in the community don’t approve of the sensual looks that are often on display at Carnival—he refers to sexy costumes without meaningful themes as “wings on strings.” He explained, “We’re not against the body being beautiful and worthy of exhibit, but what you have to exhibit has to be more than that. You need to make sure that you don’t stray too far away from the full meaning of this exhibition.”
I asked Baker if he’s looking forward to the return of the Atlanta-DeKalb Carnival. “Not everyone is over last year’s letdown,” he told me, noting that the 2022 event was supposed to signal the highly anticipated return from Covid. Nevertheless, Carnival is still “therapeutic,” he said. “Some people can’t wait for that one day to free themselves of all inhibitions. Just be.”
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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the local story of Carnival at least partially started at the Atlanta University Center, just as many of the city’s other significant cultural moments have. The Black students and professors who come here from all over the world use the AUC as a portal into the city and are often at the forefront of solidifying Atlanta’s identity as a Black mecca. Back in the mid-80s, Morehouse English professor and Caribbean Carnival author Leah Creque and Pola Cooper, a purchasing agent for Morris Brown College, set out, essentially, to prove that Carnival could be done “the Atlanta Way.”
Serving as the first artistic director for the Atlanta Peach Caribbean Carnival alongside executive directors Cooper and Patrick McBain, Creque said they knew they would have to prove themselves to the power players in Atlanta’s business, education, and political realms before they could ever march down Peachtree Street. To demonstrate the event’s cultural gravitas, they founded an arts organization, the Atlanta Peach Carnival, that would do far more than host a rowdy parade. The nonprofit organized educational workshops on folklore dances and calypso music, book fairs highlighting Caribbean authors, and steelpan performances, and printed and distributed the aforementioned book highlighting Carnival’s history. Their efforts paid off with financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Atlanta’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Fulton County Arts Council, and the Georgia Endowment for the Arts.
At the time, Atlanta was on a quest to prove itself as an international city. As U.N. Ambassador, Andrew Young had traveled the world, including a 10-country Caribbean tour for the Carter administration to “promote good relations and stable development.” As mayor, he famously made international investment a top priority. And by the late 1980s, around the same time that Cooper, McBain, Creque, and others were lobbying to bring Carnival to Atlanta, real estate attorney Billy Payne and other members of the “Atlanta Nine” were working hard on a bid for the 1996 Olympic Games. Local Carnival organizers pitched their festival as the “perfect symbol of Atlanta’s new multicultural image.”
Today, few question Atlanta’s global reach. But it’s hard to get reliable numbers on the size of the local Caribbean community. Prior to 2020, the census didn’t give Black people the option of noting their origins along with their race. And, as Caribbean immigrants give way to third and fourth generations, their children sometimes feel stronger ties to the U.S. than to the island nations where their elders were born. Still, in 2020 the Migration Policy Institute concluded there were about 85,000 Caribbean immigrants living in metro Atlanta. That’s more than double estimates from the early 1990s, when Cooper told the Atlanta Constitution there were about 35,000 people “from Barbados, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, and Bahamas and the Virgin Islands” living here.
Writing for the digital journal Atlanta Studies, Howard University scholar Kali-Ahset Amen addresses the complex identities that exist within the city’s Black population. “The region has also become a place where multiethnic and multinational Africana communities converge and forge mutually constitutive Black identities and spaces. Like the region itself, Black Atlanta is always under construction,” she wrote.
The legend of the “Black mecca” can be incredibly flattening. It generalizes the experiences of an entire racial group, regardless of significant identifiers like ethnicity. The local Caribbean community is composed of descendants from French-, Spanish-, and English-speaking countries, each of which has a unique history and identity. Some immigrants came here directly. Others spent time in different parts of U.S. before settling in the metro area. Unraveling the story of Atlanta Carnival’s many permutations over the last three decades is equally complicated.
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Several days after meeting with Creque on the Morehouse campus, I traveled to Stonecrest to meet artist Rukuumba Nedd, founding president of the Atlanta Caribbean Carnival Bandleaders Association (ACCBA), and Baker, the Panyarders leader, at the Panera Bread across the street from the mall. I wanted to get a better understanding of the many iterations and tensions that have arisen since the original Carnival parade.
When the duo spoke of the early years, it was with a sense of fondness, revelry, and pride. Baker was living in D.C. in 1989 but, like many Caribbean people living in the U.S. at the time, he traveled to Atlanta for Carnival. “I was very much impressed that our community was able to be recognized, and [they could] celebrate and assimilate within the larger community. That was actually an inspiration for me to move here.” Within two years, he’d move to Atlanta and become a bandleader.
Nedd, who came from Trinidad to study art at Morris Brown in 1989, said that, in the beginning, bands mostly worked independently from each other and the larger organization—coming together right before the parade. But, in the early 2000s, tensions grew between bandleaders and event organizers. The former thought the latter wasn’t awarding enough prize money, while the latter complained about rising event costs. Nedd and Baker tried to walk me through the permutations. They pulled out notebooks, they drew timelines. The trail was hard to follow.
To get the organizers’ perspective, I spoke with Patrick McBain, Atlanta Peach Carnival’s founding co-executive director. He explained that bandleaders didn’t fully appreciate the logistical challenges of crowd control and permitting. “We had to go before the NPUs (neighborhood planning units) and get their blessings before we could have Carnival. Sometimes, it was really difficult,” he said. McBain ended up leaving the organization and his volunteer role around 2005, nearly 20 years after assisting in bringing Carnival to Atlanta.
One thing is clear: The bands are the backbone of Carnival. About a dozen of them work with each event, organizing hundreds of people, including attendees who aren’t Caribbean but still want to participate. There are new bands, including Williams’s Entice Mas, which was formed last year. Others have been Carnival staples for much longer, including Baker’s Panyarders, which was formed in 2012.
The competing factions finally broke apart in 2005, when some bandleaders formed the nonprofit Atlanta Caribbean Carnival Bandleaders Association and held their event at the Conyers Horse Park. According to Nedd, who served as founding president of ACCBA, that year the Atlanta Caribbean Carnival organizers had moved the festival to Monday, and the bandleaders were concerned the schedule change would inconvenience the thousands of people who were traveling to Atlanta for the event. Nedd and other bandleaders expected about 2,000 attendees but ended up with tens of thousands.
The following years were a period of uncertainty that included an attempt to hold both organizations’ events on the same day, on the same parade route, back-to-back. In 2014, yet another split occurred, with members of ACCBA breaking off to form the Atlanta Carnival Bandleaders Council (ACBC), citing financial transparency concerns.
Publicly, the groups were often mistaken for one another. In 2015, when the City of Avondale Estates publicly responded to noise, littering, and traffic complaints, they incorrectly referred to the Atlanta-DeKalb Carnival as the Atlanta Caribbean Carnival.
Whereas the City of Atlanta was originally an integral part of Carnival, both groups have now complained about a lack of support from local municipalities. “We ran into some difficulties with the street parade. The police department felt we were asking for too much,” McBain said, referring to the length of the requested route and how much time they wanted to block off streets. “There were some folks within the organization who felt we were being slighted from that standpoint.” Such disconnects are one reason the events kept changing their locations. Atlanta magazine reached out to the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, the Mayor’s Office of International Affairs, and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, as well as the Department of Parks and Recreation, but was not able to get any information about the city’s past or present relationship with Carnival.
For Morehouse’s Creque, the sprawl of Carnival throughout the metro area isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Carnival, in its truest form, isn’t about one founder or organization, she says. “It became bigger than any of us could imagine, which is the carnival mode all over the world.”
Moreover, Carnival is no longer Atlanta’s only major cultural event celebrating the local Caribbean community. While Tunde Sam was still at Morehouse, he cofounded AUC Vybz, a club to connect Caribbean students. “Even the students who weren’t necessarily raised or born in the Caribbean, they were used to having a Caribbean environment at their schools or in their communities when they’re from New York or wherever. They felt deprived of an experience.” Sam said a 2019 J’Ouvert event (a daybreak parade to mark the beginning of the Carnival celebration) hosted by the organization attracted 3,600 attendees and lost the school’s “event of the year” award only to Homecoming. Tafna St Jean, current AUC Vybz president, said the AUC’s J’Ouvert allowed her to learn an aspect of Caribbean culture that she’d previously been unable to partake in. (She says that, although she grew up in Orlando in a vibrant Haitian community, most of her childhood was sheltered from participating in parties and similar cultural events.)
From large events such as Rum Punch Brunch, which attracts 2,500 people to Mechanicsville’s Believe Music Hall on any given Sunday, to smaller ones like “Caribbean nights” at Atlanta Hawks games, which are organized by local consulates and draw several hundred participants, there are now many ways for the Caribbean community to connect and gain visibility.
Still, many people in Atlanta’s Caribbean community continue to hope that, in a city known for its Black cultural contributions, a singular, unifying Carnival can find its way back downtown. That may never happen, but perhaps Creque is right. Maybe with the number of cultural and social events that are now available—it doesn’t need to.
This article appears in our May 2023 issue.