Soooo…my first experience of Carnival in Martinique takes place the same day that the French government passes a law permitting gay couples to marry and adopt children. I have yet to see this on a news site but multiple people mentioning it plus a sermon about how God instituted marriage to be between a man and a woman the following day have convinced me that it’s true. In case you didn’t know, here’s links in French (more authentic innit), and in English.
In case you’re wondering about the connection, seeing is believing. As I’m not planning to be in Martinique for the official two days of carnival next week, I’ve been curious to know what I will be missing. It’s a curious twist of fate (slash me taking every piece of holiday time literally) that despite two carnival-time séjours in the French Caribbean, and being somewhat religious about participating in London’s annual Notting Hill Carnival (and the biggest festival in Europe fyi) I’ve never experienced Carnival à la Martinique, Guadeloupe or Guyane.
I wonder if, as a Londoner born and bred, it doesn’t feel like Carnival Time. My whole life, Carnival has been at the end of August, Carnival Monday is a day off work, and regular revellers know to book the Tuesday off to recover. All summer long you’re outdoors; in the park, having BBQs, celebrating the appearance of sunshine, good vibes are buzzing like unendangered bees, and London is the best place in the whole world to be alive from May – September pretty much. Carnival is the official closing of summer in London. The Thames Festival wants to be, but no one’s heard of it (sadly, it’s actually good. I blame Boris).
But it’s just Feb. Carnival is somehow on the wrong side of Christmas and yet, it’s coming. But back to the gay thing. Caribbean culture somewhere along the way seems to have picked up a reputation for being particularly, virulently homophobic and I’d like to take a minute to reflect on that. America’s Time magazine in 2006 published an article focusing on Jamaica, but suggesting it was the worst of a bad bunch of islands, and titled it ‘The Most Homophobic Place on Earth?’ Likewise, the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis wrote a piece firmly about homophobia in Jamaica, but with a tagline implying it was a Caribbean-wide issue. From whence has this reputation come?
Having grown up around Caribbean people my whole life, both in London and in the Caribbean, and not having observed them to be more homophobic than any other people, I remain perplexed by the prevalence of this idea. I’m pretty sure it was not black people’s homophobia which kicked off the Stonewall riots, and during the 1981 Brixton riots, some of the earlier protests were against homophobic harrassment from police I read somewhere, possibly in the Scarman Report, possibly in Brixton Rock. Moreover, neither San Francisco nor Soho owe their existence to Caribbean or black homophobia as far as I’m aware.
I’m not saying that there aren’t any homophobic people in the Caribbean, I’m saying there are homophobic people everywhere. There’s a reason why, despite the political will, there’s been huge domestic hostility to gay marriage rights being enshrined in law in places where they’ve made it onto the statute books, and in the many places where it remains off them. There’s a reason why the Lonely Planet publishes a ‘Gay and Lesbian travellers’ section in its guidebooks, and why the FCO has a similar section on its website, and these add-ons are not specially produced for travel to the Caribbean. (Assumedly there are no racist people anywhere since they don’t offer advice tailored to black travellers…)
With regard to the existence of overwhelming evidence of Caribbean homophobia, I’ve heard it said that it’s ‘obvious from the music.’ How could you listen to music which is blatantly homophobic and not be so-called intelligent people ask? To which I say, really? I’m not even a dancehall fan and I feel compelled to respond to that one. Since when did a trend within a genre of music define a whole community, nay region of the world? Does anyone listening to the hip-hop on the radio really believe anymore that the nonsense crime-confessing lyrics spouted are actually being committed by these fake MCs? (Yeah I said it, but I’ve been listening to Phonte, Akua Naru, Sy Smith and the inimitable Eric Roberson for a week. Their quality incites militancy). Or that the DJs and television stations playing their tracks are also criminals, and the fans are also criminally-minded? Likewise with the shops, bars, and gyms which play the same tracks in their spaces? Have you ever danced to a song whose lyrics you didn’t agree with? Do you even listen to the lyrics of the songs you dance to?
Dancehall music is hugely popular here, far more so than soca or calypso or any other music forms primarily from the anglophone islands. Local artists are of course popular too; ‘Alcool et Dancehall’ is something of an anthem round here. It’s on the radio all the time, and can be heard daily in shops and from cars in Fort-de-France. In case you didn’t know, among the most oft-mentioned tracks as incontrovertible proof of Jamaican, Caribbean and (let’s be real) black people’s general homophobia are Buju Banton’s Boom Bye Bye, and T.O.K’s Chichiman. While clearly containing some deeply offensive lyrics, they’re also not the entirety of dancehall; both Buju and TOK specifically have also had huge hits with songs chronicling the pain of living amongst crime and poverty respectively in Murderer and When You Cry. And dancehall is only one strand of reggae, which is only one strand of Caribbean music, which is itself is only one strand of black music. And like other people, music is only one way that black people express themselves.
How tracks like these have come to represent Caribbean/black thinking on homosexuality is pure unadulterated manipulating of discourse. That some lyrics of some Jamaican music has captured and disturbed European and American imaginations far more than the economic destruction of Jamaica by the IMF simply beggars belief. The aforementioned orientalist Guardian journalist despite himself quoted a Jamaican musician saying “As much as music is an important part of the culture, the price of flour is more important than music or what artists say.” This particular journalist travelled to ‘the Caribbean’ and ‘discovers a culture that can’t see a problem, let alone a solution.’ Which problem? To living with Life + Debt, to use the title of an award-wining documentary on Jamaica’s economic crisis, or music lyrics?
And how does this all relate to gay marriage in France and carnival in Martinique? Well, France (Martinique’s…um…colonial master) has really been up in arms about gay marriage. In oh-so-tolerant, progressive and forward-thinking Europe, lies a country where some rather unpleasant views were expressed in the run up to the law permitting gay marriage yesterday. The anti-gay marriage march in Paris was much larger than the pro-gay marriage march my sources tell me. And which minister was toasted when the dust had settled? (Bear in mind the passing of the law was greeted with a standing ovation in parliament it had been such a bitter fight.) Only a canerows-rocking black woman from French Guyana, which is in the Caribbean, aka Christiane Taubira, France’s Justice Minister, whose job it was to get the legislation passed.
In Fort-de-France, as one of the many pre-carnival parades took place, I found a good spot. My brows furrowed somewhat when already-tall women wearing 6 and 7 inch shoes and dressed in revealing and or incredibly tight outfits walked past. I wondered if it was a Martinican thing, that prostitutes came out at carnival. I asked one of the guys who I was with, who simply pointed at the passing lady of the night’s adam’s apple area. Oooooooh. Of course.
Anyone still convinced that the Caribbean is The hotbed of anti-homosexuality activity, should probably take a trip to Martinique in February. As my Guadeloupean friend put it, old, young, CEO, white or blue collar, men from all walks of life dress up as women for carnival. In Martinique, he hastened to add. It’s a traditional thing. My 70 year old friend did it last year; lipstick, heels, the lot. And they go hard.
In England, it’s pretty common to see guys on a stag do dressing up as women with over the top make up, and and hairy legs with dresses; a good friend of mine has a lovely picture of her now-husband lying across some bins in Camden while posing in a nun’s habit. He was drunk and getting married and the guys went wild.
Martinican men however take it very very seriously. No hairy legs, or chests, or armpits for that matter. Properly done make up. I saw a six foot black dude yesterday wearing what looked like a weave, but which had to be a wig because surely he wants to take it off on non-carnival parade days? Right? I also saw a well-toned dude in baby pink tutu which barely covered his bottom, baby pink pop socks, carrying a pink umbrella and wearing flashing playboy bunny rabbit ears. He was topless; clearly not making an effort.
I was like, yo, carnival’s different here yo. And not just because of the whole men come dressed up as ‘women’ and the different time of year. Carnival has been building up since I arrived over three months ago. Since the beginning of Jan, I’ve been hearing about ‘truc de carnaval’ in reference to the many soirées, and pre-carnival parades, some of which – like yesterday’s – have involved cordoning off parts of the town centres they’re so big. Carnival in London starts about two weeks to a month before if you’re excited about it, maybe two or more months before if you need to organise a costume. For people not involved in the coordinating, ie most of the two million folk who come out, it’s a weekend of partying in the streets.
I must confess, when I was not giggling at the extremely convincing men-ladies (no! Her too?!), only really identifiable by their 7-inch heels and scandalous outfits, I was subdued by my experience of carnival in Martinique. Taking part is serious business here. You don’t just buy a costume and drink and dance all day here, there are dance routines to be learned. You don’t want to dance, no worries, you can play an instrument. All of the carnival bands were, well, bands. That is to say, each band had a live music section which formed the bulk of the band, rather than ‘dancers’ or costumed revellers as in London.
A huge percussion section (I actually saw a ride cymbal being played!) which usually included cowbells, conches, and calabashes and obvs, drums, was often supported by brass sections of trombones and saxophones. I’d name more but I’m no expert on instruments. Amazingly, people carried these instruments while dancing/walking in costume. The bands all played live music which the revellers danced to until the end of the route. Some of them played traditional favourites, some also branched out into popular dancehall beats, and everyone was singing – band and crowd alike.
As a Notting Hill regular, I became acutely aware of how Londonised our carnival is. For those of us accustomed to Playing Mas in comfort, when you get tired, there’s a truck you can sit on. Safety-conscious folk can also leave belongings there if they don’t want to leave them at Mas Camp. Moreover, unless you’re with a steel pan-centred band (which are farther and fewer in between each year) the odds of you dancing to live music are slim to none. If you find a proper soca band, you might get an artist come on the truck and perform their big hits, but you’d have to plan to be where the artists will be in advance. If not, you’re listening to a DJ and monster speakers all day.
Don’t get me wrong; I love Notting Hill Carnival, it’s a bit like Christmas come early for me. It just has to be said carnival in Martinique was different in unexpected ways. To its credit. I’m now slightly disappointed I won’t be here for the big, national holiday, official carnival which is good. I should probably explain that the men dressing up is not part of the bands, they kind of just saunter in the streets as an add on to the festivities, or dance behind the bands with the crowds. And not all Martinican men do it, it’s like anything mainstream; lots of people love it, others prefer the underground version, and a few really hate it.
It’s not my first carnival in the Caribbean. Something of a soca lover, I’ve done Kadooment in Barbados a bunch of times. Nor will it be my last; I’m heading to Trinidad for the Empress of Caribbean Carnivals in a few short days (very excited!!) which is why I’ll miss the main events here, but I can’t help but think that my little experience of carnival in Martinique may be my most thought-provoking.