With about 3 million participants in its various festivities, it’s easily America’s biggest festival. A report by Patricia Meschino for Billboard.
For 50 years the West Indian American Day Carnival (WIADC) has been a joyous celebration of Caribbean unity rooted in the commingling of African and European masquerading and entertainment rituals developed on the island of Trinidad in the late 18th century. But, perhaps most of all, its multi-cultural presentation represents New York City’s cosmopolitan population.
While not a music festival per se, music — especially Trinidad’s indigenous soca, the fast paced descendant of calypso — drives almost every aspect of WIADC’s identity and its turnout far surpasses the combined attendance of Coachella, Lollapalooza and South by Southwest. As the event celebrates its golden jubilee on Labor Day (Sept. 4) in a Caribbean flag waving with vibrantly hued, sequined and feathered costume parade along Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway, the theme “From a Dream to a Legacy” honors its evolution from a modest gathering of Trinidadian carnival enthusiasts to a diverse congregation of approximately 3 million participants in its various festivities.
As early as the 1920s, Trinidadian and other Caribbean immigrants living in Harlem held pre-Lenten celebrations, which included costumed balls and performances by calypso singers. The indoor festivities were brought to the streets on Labor Day, 1947, by a Trinidadian woman named Jessie Wardle and New York’s Caribbean carnival parade was born.
While calypso — the first recorded music of the English speaking Caribbean, developed from carnival rituals in the early 1900s — was slowly gaining popularity in the U.S. at the time, Trinidadians living in New York recognized the celebration as a boon to their music, as Lord Invader sang in his 1948 calypso “Labor Day.”
With increasing harassment aimed at Caribbean revelers by other Harlem residents — which included bottles hurled at them from building rooftops — the parade ceased in 1961 before resuming in Brooklyn in 1967, where a second wave of Caribbean immigrants had settled.
According to Angela Sealy, chairperson of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA), the parade moved to Eastern Parkway in 1969 or 1970 and attracted 1,000 participants. “With a large Caribbean community living in the area, everything just grew from there,” Sealy tells Billboard.
WIADCA is responsible for the Labor Day carnival parade and the preceding four consecutive nights (Aug. 31 to Sept. 3) of Caribbean concerts, as well as the steel band competition Panorama (Sept. 2), all held behind the Brooklyn Museum — also located on Eastern Parkway.
WIADCA’s golden anniversary concerts begin on Thursday August 31 with Reggae Under Di Stars, featuring veteran Jamaican singer Cocoa Tea, Ghanaian dancehall reggae star Stonebwoy (from Ghana) and Stephen Marley, all of whom will receive State Senate Proclamations from Brooklyn Senator Jesse Hamilton for their contributions to Caribbean culture. Marley will also receive a proclamation honoring his father, Bob Marley, who performed at a WIADCA Brooklyn Museum show in 1980, while promoting Uprising, the final studio album released in his lifetime.
“That night a big Cadillac drove slowly up to the stage; Bob Marley got out, walked on stage, started singing ‘One Love’ and the crowd went bonkers,” says WIADCA president William R. Howard.
A close business associate of the late Shirley Chisholm, the first African American female (born to Caribbean immigrant parents) to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972, Howard remembers the scene as he escorted Chisholm to the museum concert.
“Chisholm went on stage with Marley and they danced to ‘One Love.’ Then he went in front of the stage, kissed the ladies, shook hands and said he was happy to be there with the people. He did two songs and the local band that backed him were happier than anyone that night.” he says. “Bob said he loved what WIADCA was doing for Caribbean music and that he would come back and perform for us, anytime, for free.”
But that return WIADCA engagement was not to be. On September 21, 1980, Bob Marley collapsed while jogging in Central Park, the day after he performed at Madison Square Garden. On May 11, 1981, he succumbed to complications from cancer.
Soca and calypso artists will be similarly honored at WIADCA’s Friday night Brass Fest, featuring soca artists representing several Caribbean islands including Lyrical (Trinidad) and Problem Child (St. Vincent). Sunday’s Dimache Gras stars calypso stalwarts The Mighty Sparrow, Calypso Rose and David Rudder, alongside presentations of the elaborate king and queen costumes from the masquerade bands.
“WIADCA has done a great job in keeping calypso, soca and steel band music alive in New York City and making Labor Day weekend the biggest time of the year for this music,” says Trinidad born Trevor Wilkins, host of the longest running calypso radio show in North America on New York City’s WNYE, 91.5 FM. On his Aug. 26 program, Wilkins played several beloved calypsos recorded between the late 1960s and the early 1990s celebrating Labor Day carnival including the late Lord Kitchener’s classic “Meet Me On The Parkway” and the late Rootsman’s “Parkway Rock.”
“But WIADCA survives because they provide a platform for new soca artists too,” Wilkins hastens to add. “[Soca superstar] Machel Montano performed there for 10 consecutive years early in his career and this year they are bringing Ultimate Rejects who came out of nowhere to win Trinidad carnival’s Road March [an award given to the song that received the most play during the climactic carnival parade].”
The phenomenal 2017 success of Ultimate Rejects, an EDM-meets-soca DJ-performance-production collective that exemplifies the transformative career effects of a Trinidad carnival hit. “Full Extreme,” their adrenaline-pumping nod to traditional soca with sputtering electronic effects, earned the group more than 40 shows in the eight-week season; surpassed Machel Montano’s “Your Time Now” in the Road March competition after he had won for three years straight prior; and Major Lazer has remixed the track and closed their 2017 Ultra Music Festival set with it — all of which has generated a demand for Ultimate Rejects on the international carnival circuit, including at WIADCA’s Brass Fest.
“Over the years, I’ve heard many Trinidadian artists talk about the Labor Day Parade, in particular the significance of the shows behind the Brooklyn Museum,” says lead singer MX Prime, who previously enjoyed success as a solo artist and is now reaping further career elevating benefits alongside fellow Rejects Joel Aming, Johann Seaton and Avaron Vinloo. “Brooklyn is one of the main places for Caribbean culture, promoters of soca shows and carnivals travel from Miami, Atlanta, Boston to see whose hot and who’s not, but we always deliver because we always perform like it’s the only show we have.”
An impact study funded by Empire State Development Corporation in 2003 (the most recent study on WIADCA) found that Brooklyn carnival events generated $86 million dollars for every 1 million attendees. With 3 million patrons projected to attend the five days of WIADCA 2017 events — the majority of which will be at the parade — the revenue generated via tourism, local purchases and sale of goods consumed along with mass transit use, exceeds $300 million.
Unsurprisingly, other entities have taken notice and are cashing in on Labor Day weekend’s Caribbean culture explosion. Hip-hop radio station WQHT FM Hot 97 presents its annual On Da Reggae and Soca Tip concert on Friday (Sept. 1) at Brooklyn’s Ford Amphitheater, while WWPR, Power 105.1 FM personality DJ Norie hosts Anything Goes, a dancehall and soca concert extravaganza on Saturday at Club Amazura in Queens — both events pulling thousands of Caribbean music fans. Across New York City’s five boroughs promoters stage various Caribbean themed parties, concerts and all-inclusive fetes, which has impacted attendance at WIADCA’s Brooklyn museum events.
As WIADCA’s remaining original members reach their 70s and above, it’s the organization’s younger representatives that will likely determine the direction of carnival events in an increasingly competitive market.
“The elders have given us a wonderful 50 year template to work from,” says Anne-Rhea Smith, heneral member of WIADCA, who also handles media and marketing, strategic relationships, partnerships and sponsorships. “So, as young Caribbean professionals, we’ve taken that and moved beyond, focusing on technology to include expandable social media campaigns because we want younger people to go to the shows and be on the Parkway listening to the music, eating great food and wearing their flags. There’s a generation that is aging out, so we are looking to capture the next one.”