Category Archives: Mas Rhetorica

High Mas Review Excerpts

HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture by Kevin Adonis Browne”

Reviewer: Sarah Anita Clunis | XAVIER UNIVERSITY
New West Indian Guide. December 2019

https://doi.org/10.1163/22134360-09303033

Proustian in its luminous, often nostalgic prose, High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Photography is also as lyrical as the song of a Malian griot. It is as if Pauline Melville had fallen into bed with Frantz Fanon and given birth to this intricate and sumptuous volume of poetry, politics, criticism, and iconography. After a brief introduction, there are three substantive chapters and a conclusion, interspersed with four photo essays. The story begins with a dramatic descent into blindness. In the introductory chapter, we are thrown into a story of personal traumas, self-reflective and deprecating confessions and at the same time an analysis of photography and Mas. What better fodder could there be for a photographer to begin? Yes, just that—to record everything before it fades away. Don’t misunderstand, High Mas is critical in its methodological approach. In fact it sometimes wades too deeply into the mire of what I consider to be a diasporic critical language, a language committed to proving our ability to speak the difficult semantics of critical theory, but it does not do this too often. For the most part, as readers we are carried along a wave, a flow of dialect that is, to my mind, quintessentially Caribbean, both critical and surreal.


HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture by Kevin Adonis Browne”

Reviewer: Stephen Stuempfle | INDIANA UNIVERSITY
Journal of Folklore Research. May 2019

http://www.jfr.indiana.edu/review.php?id=2363&fbclid=IwAR0bwyIUDZywF4xe6HbAIqoNTJxzJepwji1hzWzJTBj5wxCU8Xz70PHKV1I

While the masquerades (mas) of Trinidad’s famous pre-Lenten Carnival have inspired many academic studies since the 1950s, there is nothing quite like this new book by Kevin Adonis Browne, a Trinidadian scholar of rhetoric and a photographer associated with the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. To date, most researchers have offered general overviews of the wide variety of masquerades that appear on the streets during the two days before Ash Wednesday, or have carried out systematic analyses of particular mas types. Browne, however, eschews comprehensive reporting and instead selects a small number of masquerades and a handful of practitioners as catalysts for the consideration of broader themes. Moreover, his approach is unabashedly subjective, meditative, and evocative, in contrast to the documentary realism that has characterized most examinations of Carnival. The result is a deep account of the materiality and symbolism of mas in relation to Trinidadian social experience, presented in several essays and four series of color and black-and-white photographs.

Browne’s stunning photographs in this collection illuminate multiple facets of the ever-evolving masquerades of the Trinidad Carnival and challenge viewers to look more closely. At the same time, his essays point toward new ways of describing these enactments and interpreting their significance for individuals and society as a whole. Readers with an interest in Caribbean studies, public performances, or experimental writing and photography will find much to contemplate in this well-crafted book.


Title “Beautiful, Dangerous Things: A Review of HIGH MAS

Reviewer: Ayanna Gillian Lloyd | UNIVERSITY OF EAST ANGLIA
MOKO Magazine. December, 2018

http://mokomagazine.org/wordpress/beautiful-dangerous-things-a-review-of-high-mas/?fbclid=IwAR2ROhQPLxTwTAvwET9f5D83XnOsj6zS-1OYXGblknp7r0ZzvmmHpm3vb40

High Mas does not rest easy. Certainly, the cover image—the body of a blue devil in motion—will draw you in. You may even expect a simple coffee table book. Something your guests can peruse over post-dinner coffee and feel good about the beauty of the Caribbean and the splendor of Mas. Place it there, in the center of your comfortable living room by all means, but do not expect to be merely comforted or entertained. “Beautiful, dangerous things” live there. By the time you have lived with the text and the images a while, you might be one of them. HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture follows Browne’s Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean published in 2013 by University of Pittsburgh Press. It continues a line of enquiry into a distinctive Caribbean rhetoric tradition in vernacular texts and performances and posits a theory of the Caribbean carnivalesque. High Mas goes a step further and investigates performers and makers of Mas while also implicating the eye of the photographer on these subjects to present a poetics of Caribbeanist Photography. I use the word ‘subjects’ warily, as does Dr Browne, I suspect. It’s a complicated term. ‘Subjects’ can feel like a far too distanced, far too imperialistic word to describe the relationship between the Mas makers and players photographed, and the eye and body of the ‘Caribbeanist Photographer’ who tries to capture them. Again, a troubled word–‘capture’. The more you live with the ideas in these essays the more the words that you have grown comfortable begin to chafe. For how can gods be subjects? How can daemons be captured?  How can the ever-present dead be fixed and framed?


Title:HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture

Reviewer: Shivanee Ramlochan
Caribbean Beat Magazine. Issue 155, Jan/Feb 2019

Perhaps it’s only when our sight is risked that our seeing acquires a specific urgency. For Kevin Adonis Browne, “open-angle” glaucoma prompted a reflection on how he might see the world, and his place in it. In High Mas, his book combining essays and photographs, we witness myriad possibilities not only of seeing mas but of seeing oneself as a mas—a personal conglomeration of the mystical, the rapturous quotidian. If we believe the sweetly-crooned mantra that Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is the greatest show on earth, Browne’s essays in High Mas are confessional agents at that altar. Composed with sociological cartography, the rhetoric on display here is that rarest of things: accessible, and joyously available to all—like Carnival itself should be. In the vivid, immersive suites of photographs that follow the essays, Browne’s lens tears down the tiered barriers that often dictate how Carnival bands are organised. As co-celebrants of his vision, we see the inhabitants of mas at sweating range, plastered in blue paint or dragging their cloven hooves before them. The images, even to an untrained eye, have been composed with all the accuracy of which love is capable.


Additional Praise for HIGH MAS

Dame Marina Warner, DBE, FRSL, FBA
Novelist, Short Story Writer, Historian and Mythographer

HIGH MAS is a hugely energetic, original multifaceted, deeply engaged action in book form, which takes up what he calls ‘the magic of perishable things.’ Kevin Adonis Browne moves between memoir and history, aesthetics and gender politics, visual imagery, poetry and, prose to think about Carnival and Mas at a highly original and personal depth. He asks, ‘What does a Caribbean pessimist do with the unfulfilled imaginings of his former deities?’ He confronts his own methods as a photographer to forge astonishing images from the inside of the rituals and the frenzy, and combines these with his academic, critical formation to meditate on theoretical approaches to maleness, to blackness, to the black male body, to being visible and being invisible. He is troubled and his material is troubling, but the book took me and the other judges to unexpected dimensions of understanding and awe at human complexity and depth.”


Gary Younge
Editor-At-Large, The Guardian (UK)

HIGH MAS is impressive in scope, lyrical in style, and innovative in form. [It] impresses both as a work of literature and art. Browne peers into the soul of a people with whom he feels a deep kinship. The result is a radical, genre-defying tribute to a cherished tradition in the finest tradition of literary non-fiction.”


Christina Sharpe
Professor of Humanities at York University, Toronto

“Kevin Adonis Browne’s High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture is a gorgeous rhetoric, a poetic, visually stunning, and necessary book. That it is a rhetoric is clear from Browne’s essays that theorize, meditate on, and historize Carnival. These essays explore memory, blindness and the problems of sight, composition, light, refusal, something like freedom and the practice of Caribbeanist photography. The subjects with whom he collaborates—those people who make Mas—inform and co-shape the photographic praxis that Browne elaborates in the essays and performs in the photos. A visual textual document of the present, HIGH MAS leaves me breathless with the beauty of what we make, how, and under what conditions.”


Dionne Brand, OC
Poet, Novelist, and Essayist; Former Poet Laureate of Toronto

“Kevin Adonis Browne’s HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture, is a one of a kind work that understands fundamentally all that is at stake when people make Mas—the embrace of their fierce unexpurgated beauty. The writing, and by that I mean both text and image, is as liquid as Mas itself catching the exquisite balancing of life here, life after, and life before which is ‘being,’’ in Mas. Mas is the body abstracted from the formal tyrannies of history and of the quotidian—not a fleeting or temporary state of performance but the production of an ongoing state of being; neither cosmetic nor decorative nor even dramatic but lodged in the existential, or as Browne might call it the rhetorical. Browne shows us everything about the permeable, uncanny habitations of these figures of Mas in his lucid images. This book is wise and field changing.”


Elizabeth Nunez
Novelist and Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College, CUNY

“Lest we forget there was Mas (still is!), Kevin Adonis Browne reminds us of its crucial role in Caribbean culture and history. In this remarkable book, Browne turns his Caribbeanist photographic gaze on images of Mas present and past, too many taken for granted, too many in danger of being lost forever. Poet, visual artist, photographer, essayist, visionary, Browne warns us to pay attention to what we see and feel. This book with its riveting photographs and poetic prose is essential reading. It will open our eyes to what lies beneath the revelry of Mas.”

Tropic Tendencies Review Excerpts

Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean by Kevin Adonis Browne”
Reviewer: Angeletta Kim Marie Gourdine | LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY

Caribbean Rasanblaj. Vol. 12, Issue 1, 2015

http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/emisferica-121-caribbean-rasanblaj/gourdine 

Tropic Tendencies forecasts its queries immediately, as the pronunciation of the title’s initial vowel epitomizes Browne’s analysis of tropical people’s troping strategies. Building on at least a half century of African diaspora discourse analysis, Browne aims in this study to answer two central questions: is there a discernible Caribbean rhetoric? Assured that there is, he asks: how is this rhetoric used in Caribbean popular culture? In an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion, Browne reads Caribbean rhetorical performance(s) through a matrix he names the “Caribbean carnivalesque” (7). The “Caribbean” with which Browne is concerned is an ethos, a “subscription to a characteristic way of framing the world and making meaning within it” (5). Consequently, the “carnivalesque” is “an embedded practice…a definitive method for understanding and enacting” the ethos. An adept rhetor, Browne reorganizes these familiar, over-determined concepts into a new structure.


“Browne’s Tropic Tendencies
Reviewer: Josephine Walwema | OAKLAND UNIVERSITY

Present Tense. Vol. 3, Issue 5, 2016

https://www.presenttensejournal.org/volume-5/book-review-brownes-tropic-tendencies/ 

Using what he calls the “Caribbean Carnivalesque” as a rhetorical trope that defines the essence of being Caribbean, Browne grounds his analysis in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives and the concept of human beings as symbol-using animals. Those symbols—identifiably Caribbean and emblematic of the Caribbean experience—center on the Carnival and associated accouterments, namely masque, performance, and vernacular language. Browne acknowledges that speaking for the Caribbean, given its geographic territory, is inherently problematic because of its geographic size and heterogeneous populace. And yet he manages to forge a collective identity among those who identify as Caribbean by capturing their shared fear of marginalization.

Browne’s contribution is a welcome addition to rhetorical scholarship, which has expanded to instruction in various rhetorics. Given the increased climate of globalization, students need the opportunity to learn concrete strategies for communicating with and understanding others around the globe. And, in Tropic Tendencies, with the Carnivalesque form as content, they have an opening salvo. Before it can set the terms for its own debate, Tropic Tendencies, as a single work, must work closely with the rhetorical tradition to be recognizable as rhetoric; at the same time, the work attempts to maintain autonomy from the rhetorical tradition to be studied seriously.


“Kevin Adonis Browne’s Tropic Tendencies
Reviewer: Candia Mitchell-Hall | UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES-MONA

Caribbean Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Vol. 40, Issue 3, 2015

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/review-kevin-adonis-brownes-tropic-tendencies-popular-candia/ 

The final chapter, in my opinion the most original and captivating, presents an account of how Caribbean users inhabit the InternetYouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and LinkedInusing their Caribbean vernacular and rhetoric. Browne evaluates three genres employed by these Internet users: chatting, blogging, and video sharing. He finds that Caribbean users employ the same rhetoric offline as online. Hence, these technologies do not change Caribbean users; they facilitate their Caribbean consciousness, identity, and activism.

All in all, the book succeeds in achieving its mission of illustrating how critical Caribbean culture is to the existence of its peoples within the region and diaspora. I take an issue with the images of the text that, to my mind, are better suited for a study of poor people’s dwellings or material culture than a study of expressive culture. What would have been more relevant are images of revelers, Jamettes, bad Johns, dancers, and Calenda or stick-fighting duels, among others. That said, Browne’s work cements itself as a strong scholarly work on Caribbean rhetoric and culture which will probably be consulted by many academics of cultural, literary, and Caribbean studies.

High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture (2018)

HIGH MAS BOOK COVERI’m pleased to announce the publication of my book, HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture by the University Press of Mississippi.

HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture is a book of contemporary Caribbean thought and practice. In it, I combine the arts of photography and the lyric essay to devise a way of seeing the Caribbean, the world, and the self.

I can’t wait for it to be fully in the world, but you can pre-order it here.

Kevin (@drbrowne)

Reserve your copy of HIGH MAS

for the Trinidad Launch on November 4, 2018!


Responding to the myths and crises of identity, of nation, and of belonging that persist in the region, HIGH MAS complicates assumptions about Trinidad Carnival as an exemplary festival of local freedoms. Instead, Browne explores the spirit of Mas as a deeply generative means of vernacular expression. Using the performance of Mas as a lens for reading the contemporary Caribbean, Browne draws particular inspiration from the performances of Blue Devils, La Diablesse, and Moko Jumbies—all of whom were photographed by the author between 2014 and 2017.


 

 


Essays accompany each series and frame the author’s ideas of “Caribbeanist Photography” as a practice that is both reflective and refractive. Beginning with memoir, and moving progressively toward a more extensive treatment of Caribbeanness as performance—as Mas—the book is a celebration of the Caribbean subject. It is, furthermore, a declaration of the agency of ordinary people who take it upon themselves to do extraordinary things, who deconstruct the vagaries of everyday life to construct meaning. Like its overarching theme, HIGH MAS disrupts conventional assumptions of what Mas—and the people who make Mas—can do. It recomposes the image. Relying simultaneously on aspects of memory, experience, imaging, and inquiry, HIGH MAS is an intricate argument for the relevance of vision to the Caribbean voice.

Advance Praise for HIGH MAS…

“Kevin Adonis Browne’s High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture, is a one of a kind work that understands fundamentally all that is at stake when people make Mas–the embrace of their fierce unexpurgated beauty. The writing, and by that I mean both text and image, is as liquid as Mas itself catching the exquisite balancing of life here, life after, and life before which is ‘being’ in Mas. Mas is the body abstracted from the formal tyrannies of history and of the quotidian–not a fleeting or temporary state of performance but the production of an ongoing state of being; neither cosmetic nor decorative nor even dramatic but lodged in the existential, or as Browne might call it the rhetorical. Browne shows us everything about the permeable, uncanny habitations of these figures of Mas in his lucid images. This book is wise and field changing.” 

–Dionne Brand, poet, novelist, and essayist


“Lest we forget there was Mas (still is!), Kevin Adonis Browne reminds us of its crucial role in Caribbean culture and history. In this remarkable book, Browne turns his Caribbeanist photographic gaze on images of Mas present and past, too many taken for granted, too many in danger of being lost forever. Poet, visual artist, photographer, essayist, visionary, Browne warns us to pay attention to what we see and feel. This book with its riveting photographs and poetic prose is essential reading. It will open our eyes to what lies beneath the revelry of Mas.”

–Elizabeth Nunez, distinguished professor of English at Hunter College, CUNY, and author of several novels including Prospero’s DaughterBruised Hibiscus, and Anna In-Between


“Kevin Adonis Browne’s High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture is a gorgeous rhetoric, a poetic, visually stunning, and necessary book. That it is a rhetoric is clear from Browne’s essays that theorize, meditate on, and historize Carnival. These essays explore memory, blindness and the problems of sight, composition, light, refusal, something like freedom and the practice of Caribbeanist photography. The subjects with whom he collaborates–those people who make Mas–inform and co-shape the photographic praxis that Browne elaborates in the essays and performs in the photos. A visual textual document of the present, High Mas leaves me breathless with the beauty of what we make, how, and under what conditions.”

–Christina Sharpe, professor of humanities at York University, Toronto, and author of Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects and In the Wake: On Blackness and Being


 

Pre-Order HIGH MAS

HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture will be released on October 15, 2018. Pre-Order your copy on Amazon, Barnes & NobleWaterstones, and wherever fine books are sold.

(Keywords: Caribbean Poetics, Trinidad, Photography, Carnival, Cultural Rhetoric)

Read or download a pdf of Chapter Summaries here.

Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean (2013)

Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean

 

“Browne’s excellent contribution to cultural studies in the Anglophone Caribbean is grounded in a rhetorical praxis that ranges over several expressive forms, including poetry, masquerade, music, folklore, fiction, and digital media. The compelling analysis is impressive both in coverage and insight.”

Glyne A. Griffith, University at Albany

Browne’s Tropic Tendencies is a groundbreaking study, and a necessary one. [His] thought-provoking theory of the Caribbean Carnivalesque—itself a prime example of the rhetorical creolization present in the many performances he observes—blends classical and contemporary vernacular traditions to articulate an ethos that is distinctly Caribbean.

Elaine Richardson, Ohio State University

Tropic Tendencies Tropic Tendencies

A legacy of slavery, abolition, colonialism, and class struggle has profoundly impacted the people and culture of the Caribbean. In Tropic Tendencies, Kevin Adonis Browne examines the development of an Anglophone Caribbean rhetorical tradition in response to the struggle to make meaning, maintain identity, negotiate across differences, and thrive in light of historical constraints and the need to participate in contemporary global culture.

Browne bases his study on the concept of the “Caribbean carnivalesque” as the formative ethos driving cultural and rhetorical production in the region and beyond it. He finds that carnivalesque discourse operates as a “continuum of discursive substantiation” that increases the probability of achieving desired outcomes for both the rhetor and the audience. Browne also views the symbolic and material interplay of the masque and its widespread use to amplify efforts of resistance, assertion, and liberation.

Browne analyzes rhetorical modes and strategies in a variety of forms, including music, dance, folklore, performance, sermons, fiction, poetry, photography, and digital media. He introduces chantwells, calypsonians, old talkers, jamettes, stickfighters, badjohns, and others as exemplary purveyors of Caribbean rhetoric and deconstructs their rhetorical displays. From novels by Earl Lovelace, he also extracts thematic references to kalinda, limbo, and dragon dances that demonstrate the author’s claim of an active vernacular sensibility. He then investigates the re-creation and reinvention of the carnivalesque in digital culture, demonstrating the ways participants both flaunt and defy normative ideas of “Caribbeanness” in online and macro environments.

Kevin Adonis Browne is assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University.

PITTSBURGH SERIES IN COMPOSITION, LITERACY, AND CULTURE

Paper ISBN 978-0-8229-6259-5
6 x 9 • 232 pp.
14 Illustrations

Buy on Amazon.
Download Tropic Tendencies Press Release.

Winers in the Hands of an Angry God: A Sermon on the Monk

We is a oil and water people.
A cocoa in the sun people.
A carnival people.
To soak this kingdom, yuh don’t need much—just some rain.
— a Mas Man
“Wherefore, my beloved,
as ye have always obeyed,
not as in my presence only,
but now much more in my absence,
work out your own salvation
with fear and trembling.”
— Philippians 2:12, KJV
“This is my story, this is my song.
Praising my Savior all the day long.”
— Frances J. Crosby, 1873
“You say you want a leader,
but you can’t seem to make up your mind.
I think you better close it, and let me guide you.”
— Prince, Purple Rain, 1984

I.

Carnival coming.
People go fly.
The dead go rise.
The living go play them.
Iron go knock.
Bottle go break.
Knee go bend.
Tongue go confess.
Kingdom—a Soca Kingdom—go come.

I have listened to Rudder’s “High Mas” and wept.
I have fallen drunk and risen to the dholak that carved a spine through Shorty’s “Indrani.”

Despers was my Damascus, once. All Stars, another time.

I have spun and spun at a crossroads in Port of Spain to Ella and Devon—Eshu, Ase.
I have seen a Blue Boy fly.
I have seen a Golden Boy beat a magic drum.
I have seen a Golden Calf become a Mad Bull.

I have seen things, so let me testify:
Carnival coming.
Jump high, jump low, it coming.
And the road will be your church,
the Savannah will be your cathedral.
And Soca will be your praisesong.
We, the people of moments and movements, of shame and of spectacle, will sing.

So sing, my people.

Sing a hymn to soothe your weary souls from the drudgery of everyday life. It will bring you peace, a peace you must also seek. You must go out in the road, put your hands up, close your eyes, breathe deep, and wine like hell for the salvation of your Carnival spirit. Even in the silence of streets you are afraid to walk, you will remember what it is like to feel. Wring the pan and drum from your spine, wring it from your shoulders. Wring out your heart. No one will stop you. Who will dare to tell you how to feel? Who dares to silence your grief? Or mine? We dance to save ourselves out of the abyss, chipping away at its walls.

Yes.

Carnival coming, and people in fear will dance their terror in the hope that it will save their lives. People forced to numb themselves, who live in a country gripped with fear of death and unspeakable violence, will pulse and break open, dancing a hymn soaked in adrenaline and painted in blood. For them—us—a Road March is the theme song of a funeral procession. Public pain, set to music. We dance at funerals. We sing.


II.

And so it will come to pass that a people on an island will forget they are in a wilderness. Rising waters lift all ships, the people will say, forgetting how to swim. A people who think themselves free will come to call themselves a “kingdom” without asking who among them is king. They forget the blind have no king. The dead have no kingdom.

But we’re still here, you and I. Neither dead nor blind. You and I. Still alive, in a way. Since we’re here, let us think together a bit. First, a couple basic points:

1. Machel is a boss. Late release is good strategy.
2. Popular culture is driven by the market.
And
3. “Soca Kingdom” might be shit.

Let us at least concede that. He may be easy enough to dislike, but he’s the hero in his own tropical Jungian matrix. In that matrix, Super Blue is the elder—his senex. Super Blue is also a boss, our hearts wrapped in blue. (He’s seen his share of falls and ascendencies. We love and respect him.) Bunji is obviously his shadow (the opposite is true in Bunji’s Jedi/Jungian references in “Vintage Garlin”). Faye-Ann is yet to be factored in (in public).

Archetypes aside, there’s no accounting for taste. And unless you play a song nonstop from now till Carnival, you can’t really force people to like something. (Can you?) It’s not like there’s a “Soca Mafia” silencing other artists, interrupting their competitors’ songs with drivel. (Right? Right.)

The song follows a well-worn formula, as far as songs like this go. The lyrics are also what we should expect them to be: basic. “Stamping” your name on the stage, for example, evokes that civil servant ethos, the standing in lines for hours at a time, only to be dismissed, insulted. But it also reminds us of our desire to legitimize our behavior (bad and good, if there is such a thing), to claim the space (personal), to own it outright. To own ourselves. Stamping the stage is how unfree people free themselves. We stage our liberation in such a way. We dispute squatter’s rights all the time, but squatters—and the landowners who despise them—always find a way to share the road when the time comes.

The fact that it’s “a process about a process” makes it at once a tautology and a metaprocess: a matrix not unlike the one he warns us about in “Take It Slow.” That, I suppose, is something to consider. Coupled with the reference to wining “in front of de people business place,” we could speculate on whether the “Rituals” 😉 of confrontation at the heart of Carnival can make a difference in the ways that matter to us. Or, are we on Charlotte Street, where everybody business is literally on the road? Or are we talking about people who have no business being on the road? Or is it just too late? Who can say? Double-entendres have their uses, though they can sometimes lose their sting—seeming quite numb (before numbing us).

I’m not so concerned with those things, right now, but with the beat. The heart of the matter, so to speak. It, too, is simple. This simplicity—what we may call its elegance—makes the song and the moment brilliant af.

Soca says,“Feel.”
Not “if you don’t hear, you will feel.”
No, Soca says, “Feel. Listen, if you want. Take apart the construction and the arrangement, if you must. But feel! If you do nothing else, feel!”

And I’m here for that. Simply put, if Calypso is the voice of the people, Soca is its soul.

According to Connor Towne O’Neill, when Ed Watson declared calypso dead in 1971, Lord Shorty was “determined to find a music that the young people could be part of.” He went in search of its soul. Led by the prophetic vision of what the soul of a sound might feel like, he went looking for us, feeling around for us in the dark.

It was a moment of existential and sensory transcendence. When he took the “so” from calypso and fused it with “kah,” he didn’t just connect a predominantly West African form to an East Indian one. He also orchestrated the completion of a sonic cycle that, in order to move, had to appear to simplify itself. Some would say too simple, but would follow eventually.

Shorty argued, with music, that to truly express its complexity, Caribbeanness (as he understood it) would have to transcend its form. It would have to transform. To evolve, the power of the word would have to shed its form for another—something more emotionally abstract. Not “soul calypso,” but something simpler and more elemental:

Soca is the afterlife of calypso, a praisesong for people in grief.

In this open yard of black, brown, bronzed, and blackened friars, each song is a hymn, an anthem for lovers, warriors, and heathens. It is a conduit to memory’s future. It is the sublime soundtrack of tormented people. A lovesong for people in search of themselves, a liberation that occurs in spite of themselves.
In a very real sense, then, Soca is a Mas—
and Machel may be its Minshall or its Minstrel.

He may be both. We have helped make him this way. Do we see our handiwork? Do you feel it?

Don’t worry. It coming.

Every rupture will bring forth a Messiah.
Every crisis will produce for us a prophet.
We are Carnival people; our prophets have always been different.

We’ve had Invaders and Executioners,
Stalins and Bombers,
Nelsons and Kitcheners.
We’ve had Sparrows and Swallows,
Roses and Rudders,
Melodies and Shadows.

If we fail to make a prophet, will he not make himself out of dust? Will she not carve herself from stone? Will they not make iron talk when the season comes, bending and hammering themselves into shape? Will we not try to summon that power now, when we need it most? We are a Carnival people—you and I—and our prophets have always been different. Let us chant the incantation like a chorus of our difference and desperate beauty, let us whisper it like a prayer:

We are a Carnival people.
We are a Carnival people.
We are a Carnival people!

Carnival coming, and it must not catch us sleeping. We must not say to ourselves that a kingdom without a king is just an incomplete colony—a colony of missing parts and missing people. We already know that. We must not wonder if Soca is a praisesong. For if it is, then for what are we giving praise? To whom? Through whom?


III.

This pain is proof that we’ve made it to a new year. (Many did not.) To be alive in this dangerous and numbing time, who wouldn’t want to feel something real? We need it. We need something. Who can blame us? Who dares to? Who can judge us?
And who, but a prophet of our making, will lead us in our present libations? Who will decode for us the “Spirit in the spell” we find ourselves in? In the court of public opinion, I am a fool. Who am I to name prophets, to say whether a song is shit or not? What do I know?

What I know is that Carnival coming. And all kinda thing does happen. You just have to pay attention. I have seen a man call himself a rocket man, a minister, a monk, a god—with my own eyes, I’ve seen him descend from the heavens. Others followed.

Is this not something we ought to expect from ourselves? As grounded people—people who can no longer fly—don’t our traditions demand these transformations? Don’t we suspend our own disbelief to sacrifice our bodies on the altar of our misshapen histories? Don’t we turn to ash in this hot sun, mix our ash with water, and bathe ourselves? Don’t we know the feel of sharp sand on our tongues? Or, are we so starved, so desperate that we no longer see ourselves for who we are?

Mortal.
Breakable.
Silly.
Wonderful.

Are we so damaged that we no longer see Carnival for the Mas? Are we that lost? Have we forgotten how to pray, or forgotten what it is to be preyed upon and corrupted?

The answer to all of these questions is Yes.

We are starved and desperate.
We are damaged.
We are corrupt and corrupted.
We forget and have forgotten.
We are cynical.
We are tired.
We are lost.
We—every single one ah we—are in crisis.

So who will lead us?

To soak a kingdom, all you need is saturation. Rain. We were promised the fire next time, but we’ve had a lot of rain. We are soaked to the bone. And still, no king has come.

Who reigns when there is no king?A queen? (No, they beat women here.)
Will a child lead us? (No. We hunt and eat our children here.)

What kingdom comes of a future we have eaten? How can we breathe when our love and our rage and our sex are all so poorly staged? Will Soca reign, or will it rein us in? That, it seems, is the answer. But what is the question? What is the question, and who will come forward to ask it?

What is the difference between the prophets we make and the profits made of us? None.
The difference between a Road March and a funeral procession? None.

Who will lead us if we don’t know the difference between a monk and a Mas? We will sing and take the jamming, wining for our lives while we wait for an answer to come.

Kevin Adonis Browne (@drbrowne) is the author of High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture (2018) and Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean (2013).

Of Time Travel and ​Trigger Warnings; Or, Somewhere Between #BoycottHM and #BoycottHandM

My friends are like family. Which means they don’t seem to care much about trigger warnings. They just go ahead and send me things:

• mixed-race jokes
• porn-inflected jokes
• gender-based violence jokes
• the occasional mutilation joke
• jokes about misogyny and missing teeth and pain and other assorted cruelties.

And I know why they do it: not because they secretly hate me and think I’m a bit too detached from my world to be bothered by a disembowelment when set to uninteresting music, but because I’m as likely to ignore the violence as break into a full-throated analysis of one thing or another.

I know what you’re thinking, because I think the same thing from time to time: I need better friends. It’s true, but I love them all (if not equally), so what can I do? People need some way to deal with the pathology of the society of which they are a part–a society from which they hope to remain apart. It is a futile hope. And their apathy–ours, really–is nothing short of Macchiavellian. The justification, poor as it is, does work. Family, amirite? (I call people “darlings” and “beautiful badasses” on here, so it’s whatever.)

Anyway, I was minding other people’s business on social media, when I get a version of the image on this post–just the child on the left. I only saw the child on the right this morning on a Crisis Magazine tweet. My first reaction was, “cute kid.” I didn’t take the bait. I responded with a bit of cynicism–“we keep expecting these people to do right by us”–and kept it moving.

Scroll.
Swipe.
Tap.
Comment.
Reaction (❤, mostly).
Lol.
Repeat.

Repeat. Damn.

I didn’t say that if the child on the left makes it past the age of 12, learns the principles of black liberation, has “The Talk” (birds, bees, bullets), and avoids Hotep fallacies, coconut oil, and kale, he’ll be as much a “survival expert” as his apparent counterpart. And that his apparent counterpart–framed as a conservative, capitalist, colonialist, imperialist mashup in the shape of a boy cut to fit a sweatshirt–not only views his blackness as a thing to be conquered, but also as an aspiration. No, he doesn’t want to be black–why would he? Rather, he is a projection of a whiteness I recognize. A child made to portray a desire for the condition of being “the coolest monkey in the jungle.” Not in the Jane Goodall sense of cool, obviously (chimps are apes, after all).

Because we know neither of those children resides in any real jungle, we can (must) assume that the metaphor is what matters here. Viewed in such a way (and because symbolic language is not what it is but what it might be), it’s reasonable to look at this child on the right as a prefabricated hipster conservative, and his gaze as a parable of inevitable gentrification. Stoops and corners, like ruins in the memory. Eminent domain, and the bodies made to represent it. Bodies designed, as it were, to desire and be displaced from it.

I didn’t say that I was thrown back–because all sweatshirts are a throwback, in the age of clima-cool. In an age of breathable clothes worn by bodies that can’t breathe, I saw this child (the one on the left) as representing something of a hybrid–a visual prelude-postscript to a very particular set of issues that plague contemporary life. In short, you could say I saw him as a superhero. I saw him, foolishly, as a young Luke Cage: developing his love for sweatshirts from a young age, causing trouble in the concrete jungle of Harlem or Bed-Stuy (or wherever black bodies are stripped of their black minds and black spirits, wherever they’re either forced or inclined to run and fight for their lives with hands up or throats clenched or hearts broken, wherever death–black death–is not a metaphor, but a reality). A young Luke Cage, before becoming a caricature of our suffering, before Black Panther shows up, takes the wheel, slaps the #Oprah2020 out of our mouths, and redeems us all.

And why not? Escapism (like desensitization and terrible Whatsapp etiquette) is a strategy for people like us. From “Flying Africans” of Modernity and Black Antiquity to the elemental Earth, Wind & Fire.

We fly. We stay fly. We be fly.

It’s how people like us, who seem to have no power, deal with shit. And I’m no different, so you can believe I’d go with Luke Cage who, before he was bulletproof, badass, or beefcake was not unlike the child on the left. Black.

And when Black Panther comes like Black Jesus, I’ll make of this sweatshirted child a young T’Challa on a visit to America, throwing shade as an unapologetic embodiment of a Signifying Monkey in this prison industrial complex of language–with its marketplaces and parlors. Before that happens, though, I try to get my mind right. I turn the conversation inward.

Me: Why Luke Cage, which was immediately (and ultimately) disappointing?

Also Me: Because I’m bound, like everyone else, by the symbols I’m given. And there aren’t enough black Jedi.

Me: Why not read this image as an homage to Trayvon Martin?

Also Me: Because while the easy imposition of black death and white superiority on children’s bodies causes me anxiety (almost as if it were prophecy), trauma is not a badge of honor–nor is resilience synonymous with recovery. There is blood on all of our shrines.

Me: Why not remix the irony of red-green colorblindness and ridicule the construction of race as an example of a dilapidated discourse, as an uninhabitable idea?

Also Me: Because the “red-black-green” progression from Martin to Luke to Cool is as much a “semiotic slight” as “sleight of hand”–a move from child to man to child; a broken promise that takes us forward from bullet riddles to cages to jungles, as if it were progress. Because “the red, the black, and the green” is how many of us learned to spell “Justice.” Because it is a nostalgia that mirrors the tragic-comic-absurd of throwback sweatshirts in contemporary culture over the past decade. Oh, Luke. If only your projections could save us.
(Also Also Me: Wait, darling, T’Challa is coming. Again. And Carnival. Wait.)

Me: Why not reach for the image of Trayvon, a child who would be 23 next month, pluck him out of the memes that made light of his black death, bring him forward in time, forward into 2018, imagining him as a smaller child now, bending time to give him more time, giving him a restart on his clock, summoning my mystical manipulation of time and flight and travel to save this child’s life before his love of candy and iced tea?

Also Me: Because I’m waiting for a future, a mothership prophesied in Soca and Funk, sanctified in Fire and Water, and reified in Black Magic. Because I’m not yet what I’ve longed for.

Me: Why not scoff at the absurdity of false equivalency and the problem of signs?

Also Me: It was an interpretive choice, obviously. And a self-care choice, as well. Because black death is as much a reflex for us as for those who would destroy us. Because I only appear to respond to an absurdity with an absurdity, something like a phenomenon to offset the silliness of sacrificing the image of children to the diseases we’ve learned to worship. There are children, lodged between #BoycottHM and #BoycottHandM. Boys, as it turns out, being anything but themselves.

There’s a larger, simpler point: it’s impossible to escape from a trap that I set for myself, no less possible to remove my skin and burst into flames. A trigger warning, after the bullet, in between the ceaseless volley of hurts that we must negotiate–often, and unfortunately, at the cellular level–for people like us.

People like us, who know the trigger is the weapon–that language is a perfect violence, one we cannot boycott. And so it is, that with all perfect violences, the perfect villains will often look just like us. Until they don’t.

Let the church say, “Ase!”

On Mango Sucking

The problem of mango string in your teeth is neither the mango’s fault nor your own. Find the right mango variety, and you’ll have less of a problem. The greater problem, assuming there aren’t any other varieties available, is the lack of choice. As in, I have no choice but to eat this mango all the way down to the seed. 

Then, of course…

What remains between our teeth is regretful, to be sure. (It’s what I imagine floss would be if it had a personality disorder and dressed in costume, tormenting others to make itself relevant.) But because it is derived from our previous pleasures, it is not essentially a regret.

It’s important to know the difference, as we walk sucking our teeth among strangers for whom discontent is the norm. Or, in the comfort of our homes, taking an adolescent pleasure in running our tongues along those teeth and smiling broadly at the bowl of skins and seeds resting on our lap.