Last year, I decided to fully immerse myself in the bikini-and-beads version of the Carnival experience. I worked out. For reasons still unbeknownst to me, I got a spray tan. I took to the road with a large group of people I largely liked.
But I never felt fully free. It struck me just how confining pretty mas, despite my own nakedness, could be. The rope separating revellers from public was sacrosanct. An order kept in place for next year’s celebration.
I first met Adam Cooper — DJ, designer, and event producer — in Los Angeles in 2016. Under the name foreigner, working with Samantha Blake Goodman (alias Muñeka) and Kelman Duran (recently featured in Rolling Stone magazine), Cooper was producing and playing at a party called Rail Up, which centred Afro-Caribbean music within the larger Los Angeles underground scene.
At 1 am, I’d take an Uber to a Boyle Heights warehouse, or a former Lincoln Heights mortuary. The car would halt, confusedly, before the inevitable throng of people — an eclectic crowd of art school kids, queer people of colour, and Caribbean people looking for a chance to hear something familiar. Some of us were all three, with Rail Up the only place to express it. And, blessedly, not with our words.
“Prior to that, those sounds and those genres were not really prevalent [in LA],” explains Erin Christovale — LA-based curator, co-founder of the video series Black Radical Imagination, and sometime collaborator of Cooper’s. “I think he was really sort of like a trailblazer in that way, bringing those sounds to LA.”
Thirty-four years old and Trinidadian by birth, Cooper grew up in Venezuela and Brooklyn. He studied international business at Howard University, where he, inhabitant of many cultures, was clearly affected by fractures within the student body. “You look at the main quadrangle . . . and you see the Caribbean students under the Caribbean tree, the African students over here, the Americans split up by what they are studying,” he recalls, in an accent so reflective of the merging of these identities, I couldn’t help but wonder where he stood. Perhaps with one; perhaps with all.
In Trinidad, a satisfying party experience means hearing mostly (Trinidadian) soca and (Jamaican) dancehall, preferably Kartel-heavy, pulled back where necessary. But in his LA events, Cooper was repping the Caribbean by shirking the formula. Clad simply in jeans and a football t-shirt, he’d mix and slash gqom, a kind of minimal South African house music, with trap; batida, a type of Afro-Portuguese music, with dancehall.
“When you think about the most popular [soca] song to come out, that you would hear playing in an underground scene or a club or American party, [it] was [St Lucian artiste Freezy’s] ‘Split in di Middle,’” Cooper says. And then, just when you expected to continue to hear the familiar — that year’s Road March contender perhaps, a little something to take you back home — he’d switch it up with something you’d never heard before. You’d still be wining on the sweaty concrete dance floor — but this time, wondering why you needed that glossy, slick soca track so badly in the first place. And, between songs, how making space for all Black music, particularly the underrepresented, particularly the obscure, is a way of making space for all Black people.
“What I really love about what he’s doing,” says Attillah Springer — writer and guest speaker at one of Cooper’s most recent events, Carnival Tabanca — “is that, yes, you know soca is crucial and soca is central to the conversation . . . but how he’s centring liberation as part of that conversation is really interesting and exciting.” After our interview, Cooper enthusiastically sends me playlists for genres of music I’ve never heard of from across the region — our region. Shatta from Martinique, Rabòday from Haiti — a federation, if the original included these territories, of sound. I listen to it all, until I abandon myself and begin to move.
“If you ask my brother what were his biggest qualms with me growing up,” Cooper says, “I would just play the same song on repeat, over and over and over and over, you know?” And whether propelled by a boyhood obsession with beats, or the foreigner’s mission to gather and locate his community, people are paying attention. Solo, Cooper’s performed at the opening of an exhibition by Lauren Halsey, a star emerging from the Los Angeles contemporary art scene; he’s also performed at the launch of fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto’s Y-3 line for Adidas.
It makes sense that his work would be embraced by art spaces — not to mention the art school kids that frequent his events. Cooper’s rigour is part-academic, part-curatorial, experimenting with Pan-Africanist music and ideology in a West Coast city that can regard him with curiosity because it has little frame of reference for Trinidadianness — and in which he can, in turn, take more risks.
But Cooper is switching that up, too. He understands there is a fine line to walk between showcasing a sound and seeking its validation from the (white) establishment. And he’s clear that the latter is the antithesis to his new work — projects that privilege specificity and context. He has taken a stance against mixing, literally and figuratively, in a way that “erases identity and richness by trying to meld everything into one” — seeking instead to teach Los Angeles, through considered, community-oriented choices, about Trinidadian culture.
“[In 2017], we had done a big Red Bull event, and of all of the people I could have chosen with the budget that I had, I said, you know what? Let’s put Laventille Rhythm Section” — Trinidad’s revered percussion band — “in the middle of a warehouse in East LA, and just see what happens,” he confides.
So, what happened?
“People lost it . . . they had never heard anything like it. That’s the ingenuity of Trinidadian art and creativity.”
In 2018, I went to another event organised by Cooper — Junkyard J’Ouvert — held in June in an actual and very small junkyard, complete with mysterious trailers and broken-down cars. It was a US$9.99 party in Los Angeles, cheaper than anything similar in Trinidad. And it was vibes. Then there’s Roadblock™, an indoor party filled with cars and scissor cranes, bringing “the kind of block party session . . . found in the streets of Lagos, Kingston, Port of Spain, or Belize City” into a Los Angeles warehouse.
“Carnival does not need to be a luxury product,” Cooper says, firmly making a case for a new model of export, of representation of Caribbean culture overseas — one that resists capitalism, classism, and Americanisation.
“And I think that is one of the things that holds us back.”
This year, Adam Cooper has focused on deconstructing and re-adapting aspects of Carnival — creating a new model in anticipation of its post-COVID-19 evolution. He’s been working with Patrick Struys, another mid-thirties Los Angeles transplant from Canada — who was born in Trinidad, learned wire-bending as a child, and even played as a Carnival King in Toronto. “He calls me the picture-taker-outer, but I call him the curator,” says Struys, “because I don’t see Adam as a DJ — I see him as the future of how Caribbean culture should be put out into the world outside of Trinidad, outside of the islands.”
Together, they’ve produced Carnival Tabanca, a free, twelve-hour attempt to build a global, virtual Carnival band, hosted on Clubhouse, an online platform that Struys, along with partners Jasmine Solano and Anjali Ramasunder, has built as a way to ensure that DJs can perform and get paid during COVID.
The latest edition happens on Sunday 2 August, 2020 — Emancipation weekend in Trinidad and Tobago. In typical Cooper fashion, there is a meticulous roster of events reflecting talent from across the diaspora — each one titled and “defined” in images displayed across his Instagram page. For example: “When d Parkway was nice, n. Etymology: Brooklyn,” defined as “Vivid memories of when Eastern Parkway on Labour Day was a carnival for the people by the people” — featuring noted NY-based DJ Back2Basics. In Port of Spain, #1000mokos, the moko jumbie collective, performs during the livestream on the streets of Belmont, to the music of Trinidad/UK duo Jus Now and Blase Vanguard.
“Ride de cow print! Ride de cow print!” commands the Dutty Politician — actually Cooper, in a suit presumably soiled with J’Ouvert paint — as he plays in the programme’s tenth hour, closing the entire show. A woman — as a matter of fact, four of her reflected on screen, a Rorshach of winery — rolls her hips on top of a cow-print bedspread. Her image becomes a digital backdrop for Cooper as he plays to a live global audience.
The technology for Carnival Tabanca is supplied by Twitch, a platform typically used by video gamers. For this event, it allows revellers to dial in via Zoom to a virtual dancefloor, and to watch as their dancing images quadruple in trippy mirror reflections behind the Dutty Politician, obeying as he commands them to pick up something, anything. I’m watching in my bedroom, wearing whatever I put on that day. There is no wristband to collect.
It’s almost like the riddle with a tree falling in the wilderness. If soca is livestreamed to your bedroom, off-season, can it be called Carnival?
As seen in Carnival Tabanca, the answer is yes.
“[It] was just a way for me to explore the unique elements of online programming, which allow you to kind of deconstruct certain things in ways that you can’t deconstruct them in a live setting,” says Cooper. The project was conceived after wondering whether, and how, Carnival 2021 would happen.
All in all, it was viewed by 155,409 people.