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Caribbean Carnival returns to Roxbury

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Anna Lamb
Caribbean Carnival returns to Roxbury
At-large City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Mayor Michelle Wu, Caribbean Carnival Association of Boston President Shirley Shillingford and Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tomkins kick off the 49th annual parade. PHOTO: JOHN WILCOX, MAYOR’S OFFICE

Celebrating a return to normalcy after several years of canceled or modified events, the 49th annual Caribbean Carnival returned to Blue Hill Avenue with music, costumes and a slew of food vendors in Franklin Park. However, the annual party was not without its challenges, as pandemic-related hardships persist and a new generation has called into question longtime leadership’s approach to the Carnival festivities.

Put on for decades by the Caribbean American Carnival Association of Boston (CACAB), the festivities have traditionally included multiple parades — the 5 a.m. J’Ouvert to kick things off, then an afternoon parade widely attended by a mix of partiers, families and performers. Masquerade bands costumed in elaborate glittered and feathered outfits and masks playing traditional Carnival music have also been a focal point of Boston’s Carnival celebration for decades.

Last year, due to the pandemic, the afternoon parade’s masquerade bands and accompanying floats met at the Shattuck Hospital, then marched three-quarters of a mile to the Playstead area of Franklin Park.

“I’m glad it’s on the road,” Burnetta Bates, a longtime parade-goer said.

Mayor Michelle Wu attends the Caribbean Carnival parade. PHOTO: JOHN WILCOX, MAYOR’S OFFICE

And while community members where eager to see the festivities return this year, many fan-favorite mas bands were noticeably absent from the streets. Iconic performers like Soca & Associates, who appear to have disbanded, and LaBoue, aka Mudd Band, which has been quiet on social media for nearly a year, were both missing from the parades.

Additionally, the Misfit mas band, leaving a cryptic message on Facebook that cites “everything going on,” announced earlier last month that they would not be participating.

Only one mas band stayed on the bill for this year’s Carnival.

And while it’s unclear whether some bands pulled out for reasons related to COVID or simply a lack of desire to continue performing, some of the mas bands have outright stated their desire to boycott current CACAB leadership.

Carl Smith, bandleader for the steel band Branches, told reporters from WBUR that he is out of Carnival until a shift in leadership occurs. Formerly CACAB’s vice president, Smith pointed specifically to President Shirley Shillingford, who has led the organization since the mid-1990s. Last year, the two exchanged strongly worded letters before Smith ultimately departed the organization.

“If she goes, we’ll be back at Carnival. If she stays, we won’t be,” he said.

Smith is just one in a coalition of band leaders and other community members that have come together to speak out in opposition to the longstanding steward of the Carnival festivities. In July, a petition cropped up with a call to #SaveBostonCarnival, created by local radio personality Danielle Johnson and a new group calling themselves the Boston Mas Bands Association (BMBA).

Winfield Warren-Prass, a spokesperson for BMBA, said the group has strong concerns over the missing cultural elements of Carnival, including the King and Queen competition and the panorama competition.

“As a concerned member of the community, someone who now has a two-year-old daughter and who wants her to experience the traditional elements of Carnival — to participate and to understand her culture — I don’t see those opportunities being present because some of the traditional elements of carnival are no longer present,” he said.

Warren-Prass said the group is calling for a new community elected board and better transparency in decision-making, including things like posting meeting minutes.

“Carnival is a celebration that stems from emancipation, so that connection to distancing ourselves and making fun through pageantry and dance and song of slave masters and those who marginalized and colonized — that has not died,” he said. “There are people who are still willing to go out and do something different. To go against the grain to fight for a change, to bring that back on a broader scale. That know the beauty of what Carnival is and has been in the past.”

Shillingford, dressed in yellow florals head to toe on the day of the festivities, spoke against the demands that she step down.

“I call them insurrectionists — young people who have also garnered some people from the carnival before that didn’t work out for us. And they start to make some very derogatory statements about me, not looking at anything that I have done over the years,” she told the Banner.

A former aide to Boston Mayor Kevin White and the manager of a Boston Public Health Commission food pantry in Mattapan, the Jamaican-born Shillingford has worked to make political connections and sponsorship deals to fund the festival. She said Saturday that her connections have helped hire security, rent equipment and legitimize the event.

“I took this carnival from zero to where it is today,” Shillingford said.

She noted some bands, like Soca & Associates, have simply retired from the festival and that now is time for new groups to step up.

“People get older and could no longer do it,” she said. “I am hoping that next year, being the 50th year, that [bands will come back],” she said.

Also in hopes of making next year’s Carnival even better, Shillingford said she is willing to incorporate younger voices and “add some more people with specific skills, because I am from the old school.”

Overall, the 49th Boston Carnival was still enjoyed by hundreds looking for a spot of joy to end the summer.

“It’s all of the Caribbean, West Indian Islands just coming together in unity and celebrating, and this is what all of our islands do,” spectator Jameela Hyman said. “We do this on all of our islands, and it happens across the United States as well, and it’s just really nice for all of our cultures, and all of our music to come together.”

Commenting that she also missed some traditional aspects, like the King and Queen contest and the kiddie parade, she added that her least favorite part of the Boston Carnival has been incidents of violence.

“Every year at some point in the night, I’m always running, and I don’t know why,” Hyman said.

A fatal shooting near Harambee park, a half-mile from the parade route, occurred Saturday evening after the parade ended. Police have been hesitant to connect it to the festivities. Earlier in the day, an additional shooting and arrest occurred at the J’Ouvert parade. In that case, the victim’s injuries were non-life threatening.