The Tribe Goes To Trinidad- Soka Tribe Chief Jazelle Hunt
(Interviewed has been edited and condensed for length)
We recently sat down with Soka Tribe chief Jazelle Hunt to all things Trinidad (it’s her first trip ever to the island) culture, carnival and more, Here is part one of our conversation.
Why did you decide to do carnival now? What was the impetus to go? There was no particular impetus- just a perfect storm of things and timing. So being part of Soka Tribe and this our first official, organized carnival trip- I really wanted to go. I’ve always wanted to go to carnival, of course. But between money and not having anyone to go with– and though I have maternal family members in Trinidad, I don’t really know them. So it wasn’t like I could just go stay with them. So with all of those things together, now was the perfect time.
So obviously you’re a carnival feteran/veteran. What other carnivals have you done before?(laughs) I wouldn’t say I’m a veteran yet- I would say I’m an aspiring one. I’ve only done carnival in North America- Eastern Parkway, Miami, and I’ve been to Caribana once. But I haven’t played mas in carnival since I was a kid. As an adult, I’ve mostly been a spectator.
Going back to playing mas a child- can you talk about that a bit? How old were you?
I grew up in New York and New Jersey- I lived in Brooklyn until fifth grade and then I moved to New Jersey in sixth grade. My mom, when I was younger, would play mas in New York. Her cousins sew for one of the mas bands and she would play mas with them and I grew up seeing her do that. One year I wanted to do it, and my mom said okay. I remember being nervous the whole time- I liked the costuming and pageantry but I didn’t have the showmanship part down yet. I was really shy kid- I was six years old at the time.
What does it mean to you as a Trinidadian to be able to go home and participate in carnival?
I don’t even know where to start. It’s taken me a long time to really wrap my mind around it because of how integral it is to my culture. I’m actually second generation, my mom is first generation. Having that distance definitely changes things. My experience of my culture has been through what she has been able to give me-food, music, storytelling, and our accents. But actually not having been has been the missing puzzle piece in a lot of ways. It’s always been a need to do that and finally getting to go- it’s so much different than any other trip I’ve been on.
What’s your opinion about how awareness of Caribbean culture has increased through carnival? I’m always kind of taken aback a little bit. I follow the soca music hashtag on IG- a lot of is from the UK and other places around the world that I didn’t realize soca music had touched. Seeing something that I feel in my heart be a global thing that other people have found the same sense of enjoyment is really interesting. I love it- I think the more people who get into carnival culture, the better. I hope they are also learning the history and genus of carnival as well.
When we see carnival we see the fun of it, but the only place where we see the point made about the history surrounding carnival is at the Canboulay Riots reenactment. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that if people don’t know about that but I hope people want to know more about what it is they are doing. I don’t want people to take carnival as a light, nothing thing. Carnival is not Halloween.
You’ve been part of Soka Tribe for about 3 years now. Most people know your story about how you came to Soka Tribe, but can you recap it for us?
I came to Soka Tribe through my journalism work. I was writing a fitness column at the time and saw a Soka Tribe sticker at the U Street Metro. I told Shermica and she was like, I never made stickers but I saw it, it was properly branded and everything. (laughs). At the time, there were few options for Caribbean fitness at the time. I took the class, I interviewed Sherm and the folks in class-had a great time. It was her first press in DC. I kept coming to class-and in the 2.5 years I was running that column, it was the only thing I featured that I did more than once. It roped me in, and after a while, Sherm was like the brand has reached a place where I need help-are you interested in training to be an instructor? I don’t even have formal dance training, but I was like, I’ll give it a shot.
How do you feel Soka Tribe has prepared you for Trinidad?
I think in two ways. One, is in the practical- with physical fitness and breathing because I don’t really workout besides Soka Tribe. More importantly, it gives me a community that keeps soca music and carnival culture very present in my life. Because of Soka Tribe and my friends in Soka Tribe, I know where the fetes are and if an artist has dropped new music. Its given me a wing to go under as a first timer and also prepared me physically to not die on the road.
What are you looking forward to most when you step off the plane in Port of Spain?
I think there is something to be said about being tied to a place, especially as Black people in the diaspora.- that feeling of wanting to know where is home. So now I will be able to see myself reflected here, and things that are normal for me are reflected in everyday in culture.
How have you prepared for this trip?
After the euphoria had worn off, I had to put my practical hat on- like buying good insteps for my shoes, looking up things I can wear that are comfortable over time, making sure that things that I already have fit me like I want, because I am going to be wearing less clothes than normal. Reading a lot of articles-what to know before you go, footwear options-all the little things, like waterproof phone cases, my hair. I’ve also thought about if I want to reconnect with my family who is still there- more people who have left than have stayed in Trinidad.
What would your advice be for any Soka Tribers or anybody going to Trinidad for carnival?
I would say you want to be prepared- because the thing about Carnival is that its fun. But its huge and physically taxing- and then you add alcohol. You’re not going to be able to get an Uber- thinking about all these logistical things. Go with people you trust. Part of the reason I’m excited about going is that I am going with people I trust with my life and know that they will be looking out for me. It’s family.
I also want to put in a note about body positivity. A lot of my American friends say they want to play carnival, but then are like my body isn’t ready. On one hand, I realize there isn’t a lot I can say because I do have the privilege of having a body that is socially prized. I try to be mindful about that as I talk to my friends, but on the other hand, I want to impress upon people that as long as you’re having a good time, you look great. I don’t want them to feel their body is a barrier to playing mas. Take a shot of rum and go!
Stay tuned for part 2 with Jazelle when she returns from Carnival!