Your only destination to all things CARNIVAL
Just past midnight, at a junkyard in South Los Angeles, the sounds of soca ring out into the air. Over a thousand revelers—Caribbean immigrants eager for a taste of the Carnival culture, denizens of LA's labyrinthine warehouse scene, black folks, white folks, brown folks, queer folks, straight folks—spray each other down with paint and powder, losing their identity and their minds in a joyful scrum. Behind the decks is foreigner, AKA Adam Cooper, an LA transplant who was born in Trinidad and raised in Caracas and Brooklyn. The city's wildest underground party is a celebration of the Afro-Caribbean sounds of the diaspora.
Prior to Junkyard Jouvert, soca didn't have much of a foothold in the Southland. "LA is a unique spot because the black immigrant population hasn't made its mark on the city in the same way it has in New York," says Chief Boima, DJ, musician, INTL BLK label head and longtime champion of the Afrodiasporic electronic sound, a blanket term which now encompasses everything from gqom to the Príncipe crew to Afro house and Chino Amobi's cutting-edge experiments. "New York is a black immigrant city and I would say LA is an Asian and Latino immigrant city. Obviously there was space for Adam to do his thing and connect with the existing communities that don't have as much visibility."
Cooper has carved out a vibrant niche in the LA underground with singular events like Junkyard Jouvert. He also throws ROADBLOCK, in which Afrobeat, dancehall and soca are presented in a warehouse strewn with used BMWs, as well as PLAY, which embraces a more open format, threading diasporic sounds into sets that also include rap, house and ballroom. "He has the keys to that city," says Hervé Kalongo, cofounder of Moonshine, a Montreal party with an equal focus on Afrodiasporic club sounds. "He's the go-to guy when it comes to Afrodiasporic electronic music."
When Cooper arrived in LA seven years ago, the Afro-Caribbean sounds he'd partied to in Trinidad, Brooklyn and at his alma mater, the historically black Howard University, seemed like a distant memory. "Initially the best parties that I had experienced would be techno and house stuff, like Rhonda, with these incredible international DJs," Cooper says. I'm speaking with him at his loft in Lincoln Heights, hours after he's returned from his first European tour. "I had come to the conclusion that we're in California man, just chill, we're not gonna hear no soca, no dancehall, you're not gonna hear that stuff. This was a really ignorant decision I had made, thinking places that played it here wouldn't compare to the East Coast or wouldn't compare to back home in Trinidad. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, South Central had a whole scene going on with Belizean crews like Illusive Sounds. Fade 2 Mind was doing work and so was Nacho."
In the early '10s, Fade 2 Mind affiliates like Nguzunguzu and Total Freedom, as well as the now-deceased Mustache Monday cofounder Nach Nava, were setting the stage for today's minor boom in Afrodiasporic sounds. "It was the Real Scenes: LA film, there was one line in there that stuck with me and I talk about it all the time, 'All of the cool, worthwhile shit in LA is behind closed doors,'" Cooper says. "You have to really go above and beyond and explore or let that three-year period pass and the good shit will find you. And that's what happened to me with the Fade 2 Mind stuff, hearing Kingdom... he has this one track called 'Stalker Ha,' I remember [Fade 2 Mind cofounder] Prince Will playing that, I had to go up to the booth, this was 2014, it had a soca kind of swing to it. People play that track to this day. And then hearing Asma and Daniel [Nguzunguzu] on Boiler Room, doing their thing. And Kelela performed. Back then I noticed those things and it inspired me to try to mix in that fashion and that's been a huge inspiration that heavily informs the way I play now."
Cooper rented a large space in the warehouse district and started throwing small parties. After a period of making mixes and uploading them to SoundCloud, he began DJing in public. "It was real hit or miss," Cooper says of these early forays. "There were a few where I played what I considered to be my sound. Crash and burn."
I ask him to describe that sound. "Afrodiasporic, to put it lightly," he says. "Playing Afrodiasporic sounds in an unexpected way and trying to draw the connections across genres so that people who know said genres understand the relationship, but people who may not have been exposed to those connections understand it in a way that they may feel is a part of their identity. Case in point, Miami bass running parallel to Baile Funk, traditional big room house linking with stuff coming out of South Africa and so on."
After a chance meeting at one of these early loft parties, Samantha Blake Goodman, AKA Muñeka, invited Cooper to join the Rail Up! Crew. Goodman, Cooper and Kelman Duran quickly found a foothold. The bootstrap parties, which featured Duran's ambient reggaeton live performances, Goodman playing baile funk and Cooper DJing a mix of afro-house, dancehall, kuduro and soca, became a phenomenon, setting the stage for the events foreigner now throws on his own.
LA has a notoriously trendy dance music underground. Within a year, a fledgling party with the right sound, crowd and ethos can draw large crowds. "The beats that are emerging as Afrodiasporic compliment and blend really well with popular music, so people can bounce to it in ways they're accustomed to bouncing to the stuff that they normally listen to," Cooper says. "It's surprising to them, but it still feels really good." Cooper recalls a Rail Up! party where he mixed Kendrick Lamar into a track from Lisbon's Deejay Mika. "The anger and the aggression of the Kendrick Lamar track was a mirror image of the energy of the Deejay Mika track and the place exploded. That was one of the earliest experiences where I was like, 'Wow this is crazy.'"
The diaspora is a concept that can snap into focus on the dance floor. The British academic Paul Gilroy writes about the diaspora's manifestation in music in his 1993 text, The Black Atlantic. "Acoustic and electric instruments are disorganically combined with digital sound synthesis, a variety of found sounds: typically screams, pointed fragments of speech or singing, and samples from earlier recordings—both vocal and instrumental—whose open textuality is raided in playful affirmations of the insubordinate spirit which ties this radical form to one important definition of blackness." The radical potential of Afrodiasporic music, Gilroy writes, is its ability to bring Africa, Europe, America and the Caribbean "seamlessly together," potential that is accelerated by accessible technology.
"Well first off, 12 years ago you didn't have SoundCloud, so I think we need to talk about the digital realm if we're going to talk about how this music has been able to reach a larger audience and how DJs have been able to access this music," says Erin Christovale, an LA-based curator who has worked with Cooper on events. "I think that's the major thing but I think in terms of why it's so popular right now… when I think about Afrobeats specifically, or I think about how trap music has traversed into the Caribbean or you have people like Bad Bunny or J Balvin, I think there's a beat that everyone understands and once they understand that beat, they don't necessarily need to understand the language. It can speak to anybody. We're in a new age of music where this type of music is just perfectly dropped in."
The ingenuity of the diaspora has thrived with cheap, accessible technology, be it through gqom WhatsApp groups, Afrobeats' proliferation online in Ghana and Nigeria, or the Lisbon crew's use of FruityLoops. Even so, parties like Cooper's ROADBLOCK as well as Moonshine, which have both hosted the likes of DJ Lag and Nigga Fox, are crucial, tangible hubs for the digitally-aided diaspora. "Even with the internet, where people seem to create pockets," says Moonshine's Pierre Kwenders, "people want to connect in real life."
Cooper affirms the LA warehouse scene has become a space of diasporic club experimentation. "You go into a raw space where you can play whatever you want—for a lot of DJs, folks who are into that music, they feel emboldened in an underground space. That's when they will try to play all the cool African shit, all the cool Caribbean shit that they know that they can't play in a regular venue in LA. Like the Dennery Segment, like the gqom, like the Coupe Decale, you know?"
LA's proximity to the entertainment industry also makes the warehouse scene a flashpoint for the migration of regional, Afrodiasporic club sounds to the mainstream. Looking through the incredible photos from Cooper's parties, I'm unsurprised to spot famous DJs, actors and prominent artists in the crowd. "You can have super mega stars that walk into these LA warehouse parties and cast the spotlight on whatever's happening there," says Leo Olofsson, who books the likes of DJ Marfox, Traxman and Tygapaw. Indeed, an upstreaming of regional, Afrodiasporic club music has led to unexpected collaborations, like Príncipe affiliate Nídia producing for Fever Ray, and DJ Lag producing for Beyonce.
Boima is skeptical about Afrodiasporic club music's interaction with the mainstream. "I'm happy the representation is there, but what I'm interested in now is how we make the leap to turn that representation into real-world changes," he says. "This is all happening at a time when it's really hard to get visas to come to the US. And as borders go up and governments get more right wing, you can spend all that money and there's no guarantee that you're going to get that visa. So it's that weird thing—yes, we've reached this place and the internet has allowed us to get there, but at the same time it feels like there are all these reactions against it that don't allow the next step to develop.
"Even someone like Rogério [DJ Nigga Fox], who is raised in Portugal but hasn't had a EU passport until recently, it wasn't worth the effort and the time for anyone to try to get a visa for someone with an Angolan passport," Olofsson says, "Even though I keep hearing from promoters and DJs in different places that his music has inspired them to start playing records and to understand how the style works—the way that he thinks about music is like a blueprint."
"[Cooper's] experiences as a migrant himself, I know the XFER party is talking about remittances and these cultures, bringing that stuff to life," Boima says. "That's another form of humanizing. I really think the wave of the creative future is this fight for humanism, especially as black artists or people who belong to the communities of African and immigrant diasporas. Because we have achieved the ability to upload to SoundCloud and to this mass cloud of information. So what is the goal of that? What is the ultimate goal? For me that's clear, it's to foreground these realities that are behind the music, the people that create the music and the communities that come out of it."
The inventiveness of the diaspora is born out in the rapid development of African-rooted club music. Historically, you see it in the impulse to use whatever's on hand to create something new, from Jamaican-American DJ Kool Herc extending the break in the Bronx, to early jungle producers cutting up hip-hop samples, to Cooper deciding to turn a junkyard in South LA into a Saturnalian carnival party.
"It's essentially a philosophy of demonstrating power in numbers. Helping break down some of these barriers or bridge a chasm between different factions in the diaspora. That's a dream of mine," Cooper says. "Because a Trini in Brooklyn is so similar to an Angolan in Portugal, in direct or indirect ways, but on the surface we don't connect, because clearly, geographically, there's no way, but the music does eerily have a similar reflection of Caribbean or Afro-Trinidadian sound. So deep down, I think about that as well. The immigrant experience for a first-generation black person in Europe. There's a limited amount of career paths and opportunities for them. These motherfuckers are doing music out here. Which is probably the gamble with the worst odds. And so many Trinis or Jamaicans or Nigerians come to the US and have that similar moment of truth, like am I gonna be a doctor or lawyer or engineer like my mom says, or am I gonna do what I love. So to create opportunities for one another, that spiritually makes me feel that I'm doing something that can make first-generation black immigrants feel like, 'I can do whatever the fuck I wanna do.'"