J'ouvert is New York City's most controversial cultural celebration. For one thing, the raucous street masquerade, filled with its writhing, unfettered black bodies, doesn't quite fit in with the matcha-sipping, downward-dogging image of gentrified, white Brooklyn that helps sell overpriced real estate. Not to mention, the parade route for the celebration goes through rival gang territories in the neighborhoods of Flatbush and Crown Heights, giving way to violent clashes. Every year, there are national headlines about shootings, stabbings, and assaults during J'ouvert, which has led New York City officials like former police commissioner William Bratton to characterize it as the city's "most violent cultural event" and New York assemblyman Walter T. Mosley to call for it to be suspended.
But that's just one shortsighted take on J'ouvert. It's so much more than drunk asses shooting at one another. The street masquerade plays an important role in Brooklyn's Carnival, taking place in the pre-dawn hours of Labor Day as a prelude to the massive West Indian Day Parade. Brought here by West Indian immigrants, J'ouvert's origins lie in the emancipation of enslaved Africans in colonized Trinidad in the 19th century, who used street masquerades to mock and satirize their former masters. Today, J'ouvert brings together more than 200,000 people, who join in the revelry by playing mas (short for masquerade), which consists of donning macabre costumes or covering themselves up in mud and paint and chipping (a sort of marching shuffle) down the street to the sounds of riotous steel pan music.
Fascinated by all this contention and culture, VICE's Wilbert L. Cooper decided to immerse himself in J'ouvert. In the run up to Labor Day 2016, he met with old-school Trinidadian mas men to learn about its origins and its ability to speak truth to power through its satirical costumes and placards. He talked with local politicians about how they planned to regulate the festival and make it safer than years past. And he connected with the young Caribbean Americans to find out how they were carrying on the tradition and what they thought about the violence the celebration has become known for. After all the talking and intellectualizing, Wilbert realized that the only way he'd ever really understand J'ouvert would be by joining a mas camp and playing himself.
Watch Wilbert's transformative experience at J'ouvert in VICE's new feature documentary, Brooklyn's Dirty Masquerade: