Atlanta Carnival Gasping for Air
By Marissa Williams
Atlanta Carnival celebrations have come and gone, and the Caribbean Atlanta community is in the throes of celebrating Caribbean American Heritage Month. Yet, many weeks later, the post-mortem continues on Atlanta Carnival 2013 and new clues continue to reveal why one of the Caribbean’s most treasured and respected cultural art forms is seemingly dying a slow death here .
The bloody corpse of a mediocre 25th anniversary Carnival is riddled with wounds of disorganization, questionable leadership and at times downright dishonesty. Accusations are being thrown left, right and center and fingers are being pointed in all directions, but there is an echo of silence when it comes to viable solutions and next steps.
The stark truth remains that there are lots of unanswered questions about the execution of Atlanta Carnival in 2013. Questions about the parade route, questions about a second Carnival movement, questions about finances and most recently questions about a lost 501C 3 status of a long standing organization. It’s time for these questions to be answered and solutions found. Members of the Caribbean Atlanta community, including myself, can no longer sit on the sidelines and dismiss the chatter as being the ‘usual Carnival chaos’. We are all stewards of our culture and when one of our biggest cultural displays to the Atlanta community is gasping for air, each one of us should be held accountable. The post mortem on Atlanta Carnival 2013 requires unbiased critique and more importantly, solutions that can elevate Atlanta Carnival to the status that it should be. The alternative is that the twenty five years of work that various leaders have done to establish the Caribbean presence in Atlanta will become yet another casualty of poor organization and failed leadership.
SO DID ANYTHING GO WELL….?
To be fair, there were some highlights during the silver jubilee celebration of Atlanta Carnival. For the first time, in as many years that I have been in Atlanta, most of the major soca artistes performed at events for Carnival weekend. This is a win for the community because it offers patrons options and positions Atlanta as a key market for Carnival in North America. However, this highlight was negated by quite a few things.
For example, the parade route this year left many masqueraders perplexed as bands were instructed by police to turn off their music at Northside Drive. This meant for about 20 minutes masqueraders walked down the streets in the boiling sun to the sounds of silence while they and spectators (some with young children) dodged oncoming traffic that was zooming on the opposite side of the road as if it were any other day. Many who were interviewed for this article expressed extreme frustration with this, especially after they were assured that they would have music for the entire route.
There is also the question of a second Carnival movement being underfoot at the same time. Charles Baker of the band called ‘The Pan Yarders’, was one of the organizers behind this movement and insists that the intention was never to have two Carnivals but rather to challenge the status quo. He says that the current ACCBA leadership ‘mobilized a support structure that became impenetrable, arrogant, dictatorial and mediocre’. As a result, decisions were being made that did not follow the dictates of the organizations By Laws and that did not seem to be in the best interest of the bandleaders. These concerns about the direction that the 2013 Carnival plans were heading in, led to an attempt to offer bandleaders a viable alternative. Baker and a core team of five bandleaders took the initiative to reach out to the City of Atlanta for approval on a parade route. This team, however, submitted their paperwork a week later than ACCBA and the city has a policy of first come, first served. Interestingly enough, the City ofAtlanta rejected the parade routes submitted by ACCBA but decided to give them the route submitted by Charles Baker and his team.
The question about finances is a sticky one to address without having access to actual documentation to support certain accusations including lack of transparency and conflict of interests. But some verifiable truths do remain public knowledge, for example, 2013 marks the second year certain bandleaders have not been awarded their prize money. Another interesting fact; a check on guidestar.com clearly reveals that the exempt 501 C3 status for Atlanta Caribbean Carnival Bandleaders Association (ACCBA) has been revoked. The organization has been in existence since 2004 and according to sources had been operating on a surplus until 2011. The Internal Revenue Services (IRS) websites states six primary reasons why a non-profit can lose its status including; Private benefit/inurement, Lobbying, Political campaign activity, Unrelated business income (UBI),Annual reporting obligation, Operation in accord with stated exempt purpose(s). So which one of these reasons prompted the action of the IRS? Various sources have quoted ‘not filing taxes since 2011.’ Is this the truth? Inquiring minds want to know.
SO WHAT COMES NEXT?
And with all these unanswered questions floating in the wind, the most important ones are still to be addressed. These are; what happens next? And how do we prevent this from happening again?
In my opinion, leadership is only as good as the followers behind them. It will be easy to jump on the bandwagon of accusations about ACCBA’s current leadership being dictatorial and dishonest. But, the investigator in me wants to find out how did they get this much power? Dictators do not emerge in one day. They are nurtured. They test boundaries over a period of time and the more they get away with, the more they push the limits. So how did the monster that ACCBA is currently described as get created. Have too many bandleaders turned a blind eye for too long, has the indifference of the wider community allowed this to happen?
The structure of ACCBA is also one that also begs attention. ACCBA websites boasts a mission statement ‘To promote a broader understanding and deeper appreciation for Caribbean culture by seeking the interest of Atlanta Caribbean carnival groups and using theAtlanta Caribbean Carnival as a vehicle for the promotion of Caribbean culture among the broader Metro Atlanta community.’ According to Charles Baker, ‘There is an inherent conflict of interest when a bandleader is also responsible for organizing the Carnival parade’. According to Dalia Henry of the band ‘Dysfunctional Khaos’, in 2008 the structure of the committee allowed for a group of professionals to run the logistics of Carnival, leaving bandleaders to focus on their main goal of creating costumes for their masqueraders. It was one that according to her, worked well and is model that should definitely be replicated.
The biggest issue that needs to be addressed in my opinion, is the apathy from the community at large. Social media and blog sites have been the primary forums used to express disgust at the current state of affairs, but, unless these opinions are followed up with some actionable progress, then it’s no better than the very issues being scorned. There have been many suggestions being spewed about what needs to change including the resignation of current ACCBA president, the dissolution of ACCBA in lieu of another organization committed to serving the needs of bandleaders, structural changes of ACCBA or any other newly formed Bandleaders Association, bandleaders consistent presence at meetings and the list goes on. These are all great suggestions, but, at the end of the day there needs to be a clear course of action on how these changes can be implemented and a carefully appointed new generation of leaders who will follow through on these.
We need strong representation and hard facts and numbers on what Atlanta Carnival means to the wider Atlanta community. This is how we can have the necessary political leverage when discussions are being had on routes, leverage to elicit sponsorship from major corporations in and around the community and to experience certain logistical privileges and volume discounts afforded other large meetings in the city.
We need strong leadership to ensure that the art and culture that is Carnival, is not buried under the rubble of chaos, mistrust and drama. And, if the next generation of Caribbean masqueraders are to hold their head high when showcasing their culture, the change has to start from today.