La La Anthony caused a stir on social media after posting a photo of her in a traditional Caribbean mas costume for Halloween. In an Instagram post, she appeared in stunning purple and silver bodywear with a feathered backpack.
“Never been to carnival so I brought carnival to me.”
While the comments, filled with celebrities like P Valley writer Katori Hall and La La’s bestie Kim Kardashian, all seemed to express fondness over her costume choice, Caribbean people and members of the diaspora appeared to be at odds over whether this was a case of cultural appropriation.
It’s a question I’m having a hard time answering myself. I’ve played mas since the age of 6. In fact, the only year I didn’t play was in 2017 and that’s because I was 8 months pregnant. It’s a practice I find so much joy and liberation in, but times have changed, as have the celebrations.
For context, Caribbean carnival is often compared to Brazilian carnival. And while they certainly share similarities, the origins vary. On the island of Trinidad, carnival dates back to the 18th century. During this time, Spaniards owned the land. It was populated by French Catholic settlers who had a tradition of enjoying masquerade balls. But the slaves who worked on plantations owned by French people were forbidden from participating, so they had their own festivities, which centred around singing, dancing and drumming.
After emancipation, slave descendants continued on with their tradition, something referred to as canboulay. The French presence was fading, but former slaves and their descendants held on to the act of masquerading. In doing so, they faced opposition from the Brits, who were now in power and used it to outlaw a lot of the elements of canboulay. No masquerading, no drumming, no stick fighting. This inspired defiance from those who participated, leading to riots between masqueraders and the police. When Trinidad gained independence from the British in 1962, the festivities became a staple of Trinidadian culture, and ever since, the celebrations have taken place annually during the weeks leading up to Lent.
So there’s a lot of history that comes with mas. Unfortunately, year after year, Caribbean people are finding that their highly treasured celebration of carnival is becoming a whitewashed, watered-down version of what it was intended to be – a celebration and expression of our freedom. It’s a divine celebration of our ancestors, who quite literally had to fight for the right to party. It’s why the idea of “gatekeeping” has become so prominent in discussions surrounding carnival and soca music – a blend of soul and calypso that plays during carnival (and year-round in my house).
In recent years, there’s been an influx in people from all over the world descending on the Caribbean for carnival. My hot take is that Instagram, an app obviously centred around images, worked very well to help popularize carnival beyond the Caribbean. Up until the late 2000s, it was a lot more niche. It wasn’t this widely-known festival outside of the Caribbean that celebrities attended or participated in in the same way that we see today. But as people attended, either because of family, friends or their own personal heritage, and found a new way of sharing photos and videos of their time there, it piqued the interest and curiosity of people around the world who made a point to go and experience it. And a lot of those people were celebrities.
That’s why I found La La’s post incredibly tone deaf. With more than 13 million followers, it’s likely that this post is landing in the feeds of people who may never have heard of carnival before. For their first interaction or impression to be from someone who admits to never attending a carnival, I think she could’ve done better at representing the culture. Is it her job or her responsibility? No. But it certainly was a missed opportunity.
For the most part, I would say that Caribbean people are happy to see others coming to enjoy carnival. Especially considering the money it boosts into local economies. In Trinidad, carnival can inject upwards of $50 million USD into the economy annually. During the pandemic, carnival was cancelled for two years and you can imagine the economical ramifications that came with that.
We’re also happy to see celebrities taking part. Personally, I almost peed my pants when Real Housewives of Atlanta star Tanya Sam brought the cast to Toronto carnival. It was the same excitement when the cast of WAGS went to Trinidad carnival in 2017 and visited the family home of Sasha Gates, giving viewers a real look at Caribbean life. Beyond that, stars like Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Winnie Harlow have all been photographed at carnivals throughout the Caribbean. But despite all of this, it can be conflicting to share such sacred space with people who haven’t taken the time to understand the history of why we celebrate.
And that brings me back to my question. Do I think La La is guilty of cultural appropriation? No. She’s an Afro-Latina. She is entitled to partake in her culture. But do I find it incredibly disrespectful for her to choose this way to take part? Yes. It boggles my mind that she would admit to never investing the money or time into going to a carnival, not even one in the U.S., but in the same breath, dress up as a masquerader for Halloween. It bothered me that she didn’t even take a second to tag the costume designer, who really could’ve benefitted from that visibility and acknowledgement. It’s scary to see someone like Kim Kardashian commenting that La La’s costume is inspiration for her for next year.
Because though mas is a costume, it’s not a Halloween one.
It speaks volumes to the influence celebrities have, and what the implications could be on different groups of people. I don’t think La La intended to do anything other than look sexy on Halloween. But there are hundreds of other costumes without cultural ties that would’ve allowed her to do this. Not to mention the advantage of having a glam squad and the money to have something custom-made. I also don’t think Kim K meant to give off the impression that she plans on donning a culturally appropriating costume next year, but that’s why it’s important for everyone, especially celebrities, to avoid diving head first into things without taking a second to assess what something is, and how their engagement with it may affect others. Especially with a reach like a Kardashian's.
Based on the comments I’ve seen, the confusion over why this is an issue comes from people who think that celebrities posting about carnival will help it to become more well-known. Of course it will. It puts more “star power” behind the tradition. But the people who stand with me on this recognize the disrespect and inappropriateness (not appropriation, just inappropriateness) of her costume choice and are aware of the dangers of over-commercialization.
There is a huge push to make soca global. We’ve seen Caribbean music artists like Machel Montano team up with stars like Ariana Grande and Ashanti. There is a huge push to make carnival global, too. And it certainly feels like it is. Caribbean islands like St. Vincent, Antigua, St. Lucia and Grenada all host their own carnivals. Toronto is home to the largest Caribbean carnival in North America, trailed by cities like Miami, New York and Atlanta. But in our efforts to increase our visibility, we have to be thoughtful about what we want that visibility to be. If it’s the beautiful women in sexy costumes, have at it. But if it’s our story, our history, our reason, then we really have to assess whether celebrities like La La Anthony are the best way to do it.