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From leadership disputes to the high cost of rhinestones, Boston Carnival is at a crossroads

Boston Socaholics at the William E. Reed Auditorium in 2017. (Courtesy Michael C. Smith/BostonCarnivalVillage.com)
Boston Socaholics at the William E. Reed Auditorium in 2017. (Courtesy Michael C. Smith/BostonCarnivalVillage.com)

Boston’s Caribbean Carnival parades are just around the corner, and one would expect that the bandleaders of such beautifully costumed mas — or masquerade — bands Soca & Associates and Misfit, or the symphonic steel sound of Branches Steel Orchestra, would be at their mas camps busily making final preparations for both the afternoon Carnival and early morning J'ouvert parades down Blue Hill Avenue on Aug. 27.

But Soca & Associates is seemingly no more, Misfit has pulled out, and Branches is missing its first ever Carnival since the event started 49 years ago. At the heart of many of the absences is the long-running strife between bandleaders and the Caribbean American Carnival Association of Boston (CACAB), which presents Boston Carnival, billed as the largest BIPOC celebration in Massachusetts. The conflict comes down to the leadership of CACAB’s president, Shirley Shillingford. Shillingford, who has been at the helm of CACAB almost continuously since 1990, has weathered her share of controversies, fending off everything from lawsuits by disgruntled board members seeking financial records to complaints that she and her daughter were pictured on billboards advertising Boston Carnival.

Detractors bemoan her management and communication style and say under her watch Carnival has failed to be transparent or live up to its potential as a major tourist draw. Supporters say the politically-connected Shillingford, a one-time aide to former Boston Mayor Kevin White and the manager of a Boston Public Health Commission food pantry in Mattapan, has the fundraising and permitting know-how required for such a large undertaking. The CACAB’s advisory committee includes Rep. Ayanna Pressley and former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who is seeking to regain the seat she lost after a 2010 bribery conviction.

Danielle "Ms. Hot Sauce'' Johnson, the morning show host and owner of digital radio station SparkFM, put up an online petition calling for new Carnival leadership that has garnered over 700 signatures, and says many bands are boycotting the 2022 parades. “There have been debates and conflicts for such a long time. Carnival hasn’t evolved in the last 20 years,” says Johnson, who grew up with Carnival when her uncles were part of the Tempo International Rhythm Section and helps lead the Sauce J'ouvert band. Johnson says neither Tempo nor Sauce will be on the road, and that other beloved groups like LaBoue aka Mudd Band will also be missing. She says CACAB is creating confusion by listing some of the boycotting bands in its Carnival promotion.

Johnson says she attempted to organize an alternative to the CACAB parade, but was told no permits would be granted for another event in the area that weekend. If there aren’t changes at the CACAB, Johnson says she’ll try to convince local officials to give her group a chance to show “what Carnival can be if we work intergenerationally.”

Carl Smith, who leads Branches and has been part of the steel band since 1978, says his organization supports the boycott. Smith is a former CACAB vice president and was on the board until last year, when he and Shillingford exchanged harshly worded letters, each accusing the other of misconduct during meetings.

“If she goes, we’ll be back at Carnival. If she stays, we won’t be,” says Smith. Branches is a Boston institution that has taught generations of youth the steel pan tradition. Smith says the group is staying busy with appearances at venues like Faneuil Hall and its annual picnic on Sept. 18. Of Shillingford, Smith says “she thinks the Carnival belongs to her, but it doesn’t. It belongs to the community.”

Boston Socaholics at the William E. Reed Auditorium in 2017. (Courtesy Michael C. Smith/BostonCarnivalVillage.com)
Boston Socaholics at the William E. Reed Auditorium in 2017. (Courtesy Michael C. Smith/BostonCarnivalVillage.com)

Even some of the bands that are participating in the 2022 festivities say they want to see a change. “Honestly, the only reason I’m on the road is that I already have so much money invested,” says Andrea Mercury, the bandleader of Boston Socaholics, one of the last of the pretty mas bands whose elaborate feathered and jeweled costumes were once synonymous with Carnival.

“This was supposed to be a spectacular year, we were all excited to get back out, and then everything fell apart,” bemoans Mercury. Carnival mas bands typically rely on individual revelers to pay to register for a spot in the band’s procession, with registrants given the band’s costume or T-shirt. Mercury says that registrations are a fraction of what they normally would be this close to Carnival, and with inflation, the costs of everything from the rhinestones that make the costumes glitter to the flatbed trucks that roll down Blue Hill Avenue have skyrocketed.

“I’ve reached out to the Carnival committee on several occasions pleading my cause and asking for support, and each time I get rejected by them,” says Mercury, who says she isn’t sure if the lower registration rate is the result of post-COVID economics, declining interest, CACAB politics “or a combination of all of those things.”

E-mails and calls to Shillingford weren’t returned, but CACAB public relations officer Ruth Georges spoke to WBUR on behalf of the board. Georges says the board, tasked with raising the six-figure sum needed to mount the parades, has never been in the business of subsidizing bands. “We are responsible for getting permits, for making all of the events of the Carnival happen, for the police detail, and getting money to pay for those things.”

Georges says that CACAB is now helping Socaholics with cash and a costume giveaway contest. Asked about the number of Boston mas bands that are no longer on the road, she points to the absence this year of Soca & Associates. “Their leadership decided not to continue the band, and that had nothing to do with Boston Carnival. If a band doesn’t continue, often it’s not because the band is not doing well, but because in small organizations and businesses, unless you have a legacy and a transition plan, the organization can fall by the wayside.”

Georges says the Junior Carnival happening Sunday, Aug. 21, is being expanded to include a youth DJ contest as part of efforts to make the events more appealing to the next generation. She points to the 7,000 online registrants for a Carnival kickoff event at Carson Beach, and says plans are underway for expanded events to mark next year’s 50th anniversary.

One of the most constant themes in the criticisms of Shillingford and the CACAB board comes down to tone and respect. “There’s a new generation of band leaders, and there might be some contexts that the bands are not aware of, and they project their frustration to the board,” says Georges.

While Boston Carnival may seem like an unstoppable tradition, so did Boston’s Pride Parade. But the board that ran Boston Pride dissolved amidst criticism — much of it leveled by younger members of the LGBTQ community — in 2021, and no large-scale parade was held this year.

One thing that all sides in the Carnival debate agree on is that the event is vital to Boston’s Caribbean American community. “I live for Carnival,” says Mercury. “I just hope and pray that everything goes well, and we can get back to doing what we do for the culture.”

Noah Schaffer Contributor
Noah Schaffer is a contributor to WBUR's arts and culture coverage.

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