Last weekend, when Rihanna was in her native Barbados for Carnival, she looked especially ethereal as she walked in the climactic Kadooment Day Parade in broad blue wings and a bejeweled bikini. Predictably, the UK tabloid Daily Mirror called her costume “raunchy,” while Marie Claire sent out a tweet that was staggeringly dismissive of hundreds of thousands of Caribbean islanders: “Nobody can believe Rihanna wore this jewel-studded bra in Barbados.”
These shocked posts were rightfully met with backlash, as commenters pointed out a complete absence of cultural awareness. But the justifiable outrage obscured an important detail about Rihanna’s overall Carnival look: her facial expressions in the photos. Her face seemed relaxed, almost beatific, full of the peace that comes from being among people who love you, in a place you consider to be home. The core of Rihanna’s appeal is an amalgam of fun and defiance, but the latter isn’t noticeable in her Kadooment Day photos. Perhaps an air of defiance isn’t as necessary for her there as it is in North America or Europe.
Like many Americans, I don’t know much about Carnival culture apart from the breath-stealing splendor of its costumes, so I reached out to two friends who participate every year. I wanted to find out what it is about Carnival that appears to be so freeing for its revelers. Alisa Alvis, a psychologist from St. Vincent, and Stephanie Okola, a Toronto-based lawyer of Kenyan and Jamaican descent, participated in their first costume band in 2007 at Caribana, a celebration of Caribbean island cultures in Toronto. Both were 25.
Alvis, who first attended Carnival in St. Vincent as an onlooker at age four, said she was at first skeptical about how comfortable she’d feel in a costume. “It’s walking down the street in a bikini. I thought I’d feel really self-conscious, but when you get out there, you realize it’s every kind of body type. There’s really no need to feel self-conscious at all.”
Okola added that the reticence is particularly high for first-time participants. “You’re half-naked on the street. You don’t know if people are going to be judging your body or if they’re going to be making comments. The thing that I always tell people who are newcomers to the Carnival experience is that nobody cares. There are people in thongs, there are people in boyshorts, there are old ladies in sequined unitards. My joke with Alisa is that I’m going to be that old lady with one milky eye and a walker, limping along in Carnival with a unitard,” she chuckles.
Carnival is about more than parading in skimpy costumes — and not all costumes are revealing. The parades are made up of many different “bands” of revelers whose costumes, or “mas”–an abbreviation of “masquerades”–riff on the same theme. Each “mas” band competes against the other to be named the best of the year. “Some themes are literal or traditional,” says Alvis, who mentions “sailor mas” which dates back over a century. Maroon or slave mas are a nod to an island’s history of colonialism and enslavement, and other mas closely reflects the politics or pop culture of a particular island. Some masqueraders dress as symbols of an island’s folklore, black devils and blue devils being popular among them.
There are also “pretty mas,” which are most familiar to Westerners. Rihanna’s costumes, like Alvis’ and Okola’s, are “pretty mas.”
“The total lack of cultural context is a real problem,” says Okola. “From a distance, someone may see Rihanna walking down the street and say, ‘Oh, she’s half-naked on the street.’ First of all, why do you care? Secondly, do you understand the context within which she’s half-naked in a bikini? It is simply part of the mas experience. And mas has not always had these levels of nakedness, but like everything, mas evolves.”
The West may be puritanical by comparison, but Alvis notes that her native Vincentian culture has also internalized some of the same ideals.
“St. Vincent is pretty parochial, like a lot of places. We were colonized in a two-fold manner — via [European notions of] violence and religion. A lot of the rhetoric around sexuality reflects that. St. Vincent is not a very sexually permissive place, at least not on the face of it.” She notes that the Carnival, which lasts ten days on the island, is an exception. “It does represent a suspension of certain types of societal norms. There is a type of behavior that is acceptable during mas that would not be acceptable at any other time of the year.”
Okola agrees that Carnival allows for an absence of judgement. “You can be walking around in pasties and a thong at Carnival, and the old ladies from your church won’t even look at you twice.”
In the U.S. and Canada, Carnival doesn’t have the same effect.
“When you’re in North America, to most people who don’t have Caribbean backgrounds and don’t have any understanding of Caribbean backgrounds, it literally just looks like pretty girls in spangly bikinis walking down the street and they’re there to ogle,” Okola said. “In the Caribbean, you could be walking around in that thong and pasties and a dude could be standing one foot from you and he won’t touch you. He won’t touch or harass you because there’s a level of respect for masqueraders.”
Okola also appreciates Rihanna’s refusal to tamp down her accent or the obvious cultural influences on her public persona.
“Both Alisa and I spent half our life ‘code-switching,'” she explained. “You speak one way to the white people you work with, one way to your friends, and you speak another way to your family. “I feel like you see authenticity in Rihanna.”
Okola tries to preserve some of that authenticity for herself. “I have a very public-facing job. Clients may make judgments about me because of various things,” she told me. “But you better be d— sure there will be a picture of me at Carnival, because that is part of my culture. And if someone wants to make a comment about how that is inappropriate or slutty, then that person probably doesn’t need to be my client.”
As revolutionary, revealing, or raunchy as Carnival fashion may seem to outsiders, it’s a refuge for women like Rihanna, Alvis, and Okola — all women of color in public professions, all Caribbean nationals living far from home. Ironically, masquerading offers space for each of them to be their most authentic selves — and to experience pure happiness.
“Carnival is about joy,” Alvis says. “It is to be utterly transported. Because transport is such a big part of it, you don’t think the people watching you a whole lot. If you’ve got a whole mask of people moving to the same song, pumping to the same beat, it’s intoxicating. There is nothing that compares to it.”