by Xion Abiodun
Oakland Carnival will be celebrated on Saturday, June 3rd, 2023 at Mosswood Park
One thing about Oakland is that we have a lot of festivals. From Black Joy to Juneteenth to Pride to Hiero Day, we have festivals of all kinds! Well now, Oakland has its very own Carnival! This is huge considering the cultural significance behind Carnival. Carnival in Oakland will give Oaklanders a look into Caribbean culture. If you don’t know what Carnival is but want to know all about it, you are in luck. Today I interviewed King Theo, the lead curator of Carnival, asking him the questions we all want the answers to.
Xion Abiodun: What is carnival? What is it about? What country did carnival come from?
What are the origin stories about the festival, how, and why did it come to be?
King Theo: Carnival is a cultural festival celebrated all over the world. The largest Carnival celebrations are in Rio de Janeiro and Trinidad Tabago. We can trace Carnival’s origins to ancient Kemet in East Africa. Originally as a harvest festival, its celebration migrated to Europe and later into the Americas and into the Art forms that we celebrate today.
Under the shroud of Catholicism, free Africans enslaved by European Colonial powers were brought to the “New World” through the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade to provide free labor in the sugar, cotton and tobacco fields to the advancement of Europe as a whole. Through savage, brutal and inhuman treatment, the Africans survived and preserved aspects of their culture. Carnival was one expression where Africans were allowed to express their Joy for life.
Historically, Mardi Gras celebrated in New Orleans has served as the longest Carnival celebration. However, over the years cities such as New York, Miami, Atlanta, San Francisco and Oakland have produced Carnival celebrations in the tradition of Caribbean and Brazilian festivals.
Xion Abiodun: How did you become an organizer of the Oakland festival?
King Theo: That is a great question. Oakland Carnival has been around much longer than me. Our current Oakland Carnival offering is an attempt to retain community and artistic elements of Carijama, Oakland Carnival.
I was a volunteer for Carijama in the early 2000s and was able to witness and experience the cultural and community impact Carijama had. There were so many local artists involved, dance companies, drummers, poets and Caribbean culture was intentionally celebrated but space was also made for Africans and Brazilians.
Through a number of factors, our last Carijama happened in the mid 2000s. We introduced Oakland Carnival through stages in 2013. Initially we gathered in Mosswood park on Memorial Day, which was the traditional day of Carijama.
After passing years and conversations with community members, many of us felt it would be best to move our ambitious goals of rebuilding Oakland Carnival to Saturday. We did this to honor local artists who may not have felt enthusiastic of our goals to rebuild and create a new Oakland Carnival experience.
As a K-12 Oakland Native, my motivation has always been to make sure that we retain our cultural jem that was Carijama. As a child, I was exposed to so much culture at Mosswood Park. I feel that it’s important that we create safe creative spaces for families and children.
Xion Abiodun: Why is there a Queen and King at carnival? What is their purpose?
How can people run for Queen and King at Carnival, what do they win? Is it a closed practice?
King Theo: Oakland Carnival is held in the spirit of community and cooperation. We currently don’t have any competitions. However, in more competitive Carnivals, becoming the King or Queen can lead to a new world of access and notoriety.
Xion Abiodun: What are some things that you want people to take away from the festival?
King Theo: If there were three things we want folks that attend to leave with is: One, Oakland Carnival and Wellness festival is a free safe family friendly event. We intentionally curate Oakland Carnival and Wellness Festival to address the diverse needs of Oakland residents and residents of the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Culturally we showcase local performers, regional acts and this year were bringing in a big name Carribean DJ from New York, King Kevin Crown.
We’re increasing our offerings in the Youth Zone hosted by Higher Ground. We’re dedicating it to Monica Hastings Smith a great Bay Area singer songwriter, music educator and founding member of SambaFunk! by naming it MONICarnival Youth Zone.
Secondly, African Culture is Center stage at Oakland Carnival. Black Culture is celebrated and Black people are welcomed. The event is open to everyone, but with gentrification so widespread we need community spaces where we feel that African Diaspora culture is front and center. Caribbean, Continental African, North and Latin America.
Third, Arts and Culture are essential elements in defining Oaklands identity. Personally, I feel that Oakland is facing a Civic identity crisis. Losing all our sports teams have only added to the collective traumas Oaklanders have suffered over the years, Failing schools, police terror, ineffective leadership.
It is clear that we’re suffering from multiple traumas. You can say that we’re in the early stages of civic depression. Oakland has a vibrant past, which we often refer to and celebrate, but our present is bleak and the future doesn’t look very promising. Browning a card table phrase, Oakland is trump tight in one area, Arts and Culture and Oakland Carnival is just one example of the social and economic impact of community Arts and Artists.
Xion Abidun: What is your favorite thing about carnival and why?
King Theo: My favorite aspects of Oakland Carnival are its showcases of local talent, it’s a free, safe and family friendly event. It’s growing each year. We’ve found a way to incorporate wellness through the arts with free African, Caribbean and Brazilian dance classes. Children with parents are welcome but leave your dogs at home.
Xion Abiodun is a student at Madison Park Academy and can be reached at Xion.firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also a dancer and a member of the Black New World Journalists Society.