Photo Courtesy: O’shane Howard
It’s carnival weekend in Toronto and the only Jamaican band in the grand parade is ready to jump up and wave, and represent the Caribbean island at North America’s largest fete.
Freedom Mas Carnival Band was first created three years ago after Toronto resident Johanna Grant noticed Jamaican representation was missing from the Toronto Caribbean Carnival.
Grant has been in the carnival business for three decades as a masquerader, section leader, and now a band leader.
“When I was younger, we had this reggae float, that was like the biggest thing, right, as a kid that we always wanted to see. And then when I had my own kids, it was something I wanted to share with my kids. But it wasn’t anymore. And it wasn’t coming,” she told Now Toronto.
“I realized that none of the other band leaders were Jamaican, and so they weren’t really going to bring our culture, right. So, I decided to then bring a band where I could bring my culture,” she added.
Not only is Freedom Mas the only Jamaican band in carnival, it’s one of a few female-led bands as well. This year, the band has about 150 members, and all section leaders are female.
“It was a big deal for me to empower Black women. I’m an empowered Black woman. I’ve had great role models in my life. I just believe that we need to take care of each other as women…,” she said.
Grant said one of her biggest joys as a band leader is the excitement other Jamaicans have seeing their culture represented in Toronto’s carnival.
“I love to see the Jamaicans’ pride when they see us coming, and they hear the music and whatever. So, that’s satisfaction for me.”
However, she said it can be an uphill battle being in carnival, as other bands and revellers are predominantly of Trinidadian and Guyanese descent.
“…Often getting that backlash, you know, from people saying, ‘Oh, you’re Jamaican, you have no business in carnival.’ So, that’s kind of like a little bit of the negative, but for the most part, it’s been pretty positive,” she said.
She added that carnival’s purpose is to celebrate emancipation from slavery, which all cultures recognize and honour differently.
“Jamaicans kind of celebrated emancipation through our music, right. You listen to Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and Dennis Brown in the lyrics… But at the end of the day, mas is art and fashion, anybody can do that. Right, if you have a love for it, you can do it. And then what I just do is put my Jamaican spin to it.”
Freedom Mas Band’s theme this year is “Carnival is Woman.” Grant said she has noticed a lot of misogyny in the carnival space and wanted to raise awareness about women’s significance in society and their independence by honouring them in this year’s parade.
“I noticed a lot of, you know, women, are often hyper sexualized in carnival, but they’re not actually seen for their true worth in carnival, right,” she said.
“Like we have the spending power. We’re also the ones who kind of are making decisions, I make decisions in my business, right. So, nobody is recognizing that part,” she added.
Grant said that many women might feel discouraged from participating in carnival because of the revealing outfits, and that’s why her band offers more covered up outfit options.
“I feel like a lot of women, professional women, especially like myself, will stay away from carnival, because there’s not enough or it doesn’t represent them or they feel like they have to look a certain way or wear a certain outfit. So, I decided I was going to bring full coverage, as well as, you know, mix it up a little bit.”
Grant said even though her band is small compared to others with tens of thousands of participants, Freedom Mas Band is growing and she’s proud to represent Jamaica.
For those looking to join her band, you don’t have to be Jamaican to do so. You just have to have a love for the culture.
“We’re all love over here. One Love is a ting, right…So, we don’t care. You don’t have to be Jamaican to join us. You just have to love the culture and want to embrace it, because that’s what we want to give you.”
Grant’s band, along with 10,000-plus other masqueraders, can be seen at the Grand Parade on Saturday, Aug. 4 at Lakeshore Blvd. W. & Exhibition Place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Freedom Mas Band’s float, sponsored by Wray & Nephew Canada, will feature Jamaican dancehall artist Konshens and Toronto sports host Alicia West.
The public can watch the parade for free from Lakeshore or pay admission to see it within the Exhibition Grounds.