Coney Island, NY under the glow of midday sun is an easy place to get lost in. Turn down one alley and you’re greeted by a line of parents and children stretching around the block, waiting for their turn on a strobe-lit carnival ride. Turn the other direction and you’ll end up squeezing your way through a crowded funnel cake shop, a “pardon me” barely audible over the hard-working staff shouting orders back and forth in restaurant shorthand. If you had been there on Sunday afternoon Sept. 12, you could have followed a thumping bass and the spiced smell of smoking chicken through a vibrant red, yellow and green tunnel to a slice of island paradise tucked away amid the sights and sounds of Coney Island magic. You would have found yourself at Afro Carnival 2021, celebrating the rich and vibrant cultures of the African diaspora and singing along to a headlining performance from the global Afropop phenomenon WizKid.
“The journey has been invigorating,” says Jelani Ramsay in a statement over email — an organizer and spokesperson for the event, produced by the BT group. “The overall purpose is bringing together people from all walks of life with a variety of cultural backgrounds with one goal in mind, ‘Melanin United.’ The festival highlights the similarities of the diaspora’s cultures while also celebrating what makes each unique.”
Hands fly into the air, flags flap proudly and cheers resound with confidence throughout the festival grounds as various DJs shout out their Caribbean and African heritages. From Jamaica to South Africa, Trinidad to Ghana, those less in number cheered all the louder for it. Under a shady canopy of Pan-African red, yellow and green, festival attendees danced, chatted and rested throughout the day. On either side of the growing crowd anticipating WizKid’s evening appearance, a cultural showcase of food, clothing and dance was taking place.
Upon entering the festival, a beautiful display of flowers and greenery featuring the words “Afro Carnival” immediately strikes the eyes. As a backdrop, the scene bore witness to a rotating cast of extravagant outfits grounded in a celebration of Afro-Caribbean heritage. A group of models take turns posing in clothing designed and showcased by Marianne Sodogandji — the owner of Eldior Sodeck. Just to the left of the vibrant scene, Malissa Williams and a friend applied intricate patterns of silver body paint to the chests and faces of a scattered line of patrons doing as much dancing as waiting. Turn 180 and follow your nose past the pop-up bars serving fruity drinks in pineapple chalices and you’ll arrive at a smoking operation that the grillmaster assures us serves the best jerk chicken in the whole city. The eagerly pooling crowd did not seem likely to disagree.
Slowly but surely, as the sun set, each festival goer found their self drifting towards center stage — subject to the gravitational pull of one of the world’s largest artists. Rocking side to side, leaping up and down, hands reaching for the stars, the carnival culminated in the moment WizKid’s global hit “Essence” drifted from his lips and blasted through the speakers surrounding the tucked-away corner of Coney Island paradise. As he turned his mic on the crowd, the effect was amplified by the venue singing in unison, “You don’t need no other body.”
“To see Afro Carnival’s continuous yearly growth is rewarding,” Ramsay says. “Afro Carnival has stood tall against the test of time here in New York City and it’s been amazing to continue to build towards the aspiration of globalization.”
— Written by Brandon Hill