Trinidad & Tobago's 2023 Carnival regulations read more like respectability politics

Revellers covered in paint during J'Ouvert, the ritual that opens Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. Photo by Harsh1.0 on Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

There's a reason the words “Carnival” and “bacchanal” rhyme: they are inextricably intertwined. Yet, Trinidad and Tobago's 2023 Carnival Regulations seem to many to be challenging that happy partnership.

Once Carnival is taking place, these regulations, a subset of the country's Public Holidays and Festivals Act, are issued annually by the president of the twin-island republic. They contain mandates that disallow people to dress up in uniforms prescribed for the protective services, for instance, or to portray any type of masquerade that could be considered insulting to any of the country's many religions.

But then there are other regulations that seem wholly out of place in the context of the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival tradition. Section 3 (1) d, for instance, makes it unlawful to “smear or daub on any other person any substance, matter or thing, [especially] with intent to intimidate or to obtain from that other person any money or valuable thing,” which seems in direct contradiction to the role of the Blue Devils, who have made performance art out of being intimidating enough for onlookers to hand over their money.

Another regulation makes it unlawful to “have in any public place any exposed flame or any article of an offensive nature,” knowing full well that many Blue Devil characters are skilled at fire breathing, and incorporate it into their street performances, both within their communities and during J'Ouvert, the sacred ritual that officially opens the two-day street parade, were every reveller is daubed in some substance or other (paint, mud, clay, cocoa, etc.)

The 2023 regulations also frown upon singing “any lewd or offensive song,” and “indulg[ing] in behaviour or gestures which are immoral, lewd or offensive.” For anyone who understands the history of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, the legislation was an echo of the many attempts, over various centuries, to police and suppress expressions of African joy.

On Facebook, Abeo Jackson noted:

So this is our yearly dose of policing of the ritual in ways that are patently antiblack.

Carnival within our post colonial context is a physical reimagining of the resistance and subversion of black bodies against colonial violence. That is not opinion, that is historical and spiritual fact. This supposed law is the status quo fighting back.

One regulation in particular, which deems it illegal to “play in any orchestra on the road, unless the name and address of the person and the name of the orchestra are registered,” reminded Jackson of the type of suppression that eventually led to the birth of the steel pan, Trinidad and Tobago's national instrument:

Unregistered orchestra? So we cyah play pan or drum on de road den? Especially drum. Who determines what is lewd and immoral. According to who? According to which faith or belief system? Who determines what or whose representation venerates the spiritual in the mas? The mas by definition IS the spiritual and the profane. And this is an act of war.

So we leaving it up to officers on the road to decide? The courts? In a space that specifically targets and marginalizes black bodies?

So infuriated about the 2023 Carnival Regulations was Jackson that she admitted she almost changed her mind about participating in this year's festival, but then, she decided that “gatekeeping against co-opting and erasure HAS to be a must”:

Because this is a deliberate attempt to stymie an energy that status quo has realized has reemerged in de space. And dis EH HAVE NOTHING to do with protecting women or stopping crime. So try allyuh endeavor best.

Twitter user Tillahwillah was also incensed:

She started a thread that clapped back at the regulations by listing things she found more offensive than suggestive dancing:

Rapso music performer Wendell Manwarren, however, was unperturbed, telling Loop TT:

These are old rules, old laws that nobody takes on because I can’t see anyone getting locked up for wining and who determines what’s suggestive or lewd or crude behaviour? All of it is in the eye of the beholder, offense is there to be taken … Carnival is meant to be a space of affront and challenging authority and the order and it’s a time of inversion so you will get certain things happening in excess, but all of this is happening within a context. On a certain level, while it is vexing to see that these laws still exist, the reality is that the people who participate in Carnival have always responded to it by breaking those laws. The Carnival goes on, the expression goes on and people have to understand that.

An editorial in the Daily Express newspaper agreed:

The Carnival regulations issued a few days ago provoked more laughter than outrage […] largely because they are flagrantly ignored in full view of an accommodating Police Service whose members are more inclined to exercise judgment and flexibility on these matters.

Meanwhile, the Facebook page Angelo Bissessarsingh's Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago posted an image of a 1948 press advertisement which, outlined behavioural rules for Carnival:

Carnival Regulations of Yesteryear.
Did you know that Laws and Guidelines aimed at ensuring an enjoyable and safe Carnival for all in T&T have been in existence since 1919?

Fellow Twitter user Dr. Emir Crowne must have felt like he was back in 1919 as he reposted an article about the 2023 regulations with the hashtag #NotTheOnion, referring to the well-known satirical publication:

The Trinidad and Police Service (TTPS) later highlighted the restriction regarding the prohibition of glass bottles on Carnival Monday and Tuesday, ostensibly because broken bottles could be used as weapons.

Carnival has always been subversive, however, and come February 20 and 21 when revellers take to the streets for the first in-person Carnival in two years, there will be a lot of “wining,” daubing and other displays of prohibited behaviour — likely far too much to be policed.

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