Third Horizon Conversation: A Conversation With Adam Cooper on Avant-Caribbean Culture

DJ working

When most people think of the Caribbean, they think of reggae music, pristine beaches and rum. All great things, to be sure, but there’s so much more to the region. It’s nothing less than the crossroads of the world in both history and geography, a pivot around which the east came to the west and the old world became the new. A group of tiny islands and nations shaped by several centuries worth of migration and colonialism, it’s home to every race and creed imaginable and perhaps the most concentrated cultural diversity you’ll find anywhere. Simply put, the very idea of the remix was born in the Caribbean, which is just as much a process as it is a place.

For the last three years, my collaborators and I have been staging Third Horizon Film Festival in Miami, a showcase of cutting-edge Caribbean cinema, music and visual art. It’s been an incredible experience introducing this work to new audiences, working to reposition the Caribbean in the popular imagination, and growing our tribe by meeting other Caribbean artists coloring outside of the lines.

One such person is Adam Cooper a.k.a. Foreigner, an incredible DJ, event curator and thinker who’s energized LA’s Caribbean community in innovative ways with parties such as Rail Up and the all-night paint spectacle Junkyard J’ouvert. In summer 2018 he flew out to Miami to DJ our festival, and next Sunday, July 14, we’ll finally be joining him out in LA at Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles for the closing night party of Third Horizon in Los Angeles, our two-day pop-up of cutting-edge Caribbean film (and food) at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. In preparation for the coming weekend, I had a conversation with Foreigner along with Third Horizon’s creative director Keisha Rae Witherspoon on what to expect when we land and why the cultural bridges we’ve started building are so important. — Jason Fitzroy Jeffers

Jason Fitzroy Jeffers:
Adam, you came out to Miami to play the film festival last year and now we’re coming to your city. We’re super excited to be out there. What distinguishes the Caribbean vibe in LA from New York or Miami or other cities with major Caribbean populations?

Adam Cooper:
Caribbean people are everywhere and intersect differently in every city. Our community has a unique vibe because it’s much smaller than what you’d find in New York or London plus it’s also dominated by Belizean people. That’s particularly interesting because many Latin Americans don’t necessarily consider Belize a Latin space — even though it’s in Central America — while some Caribbean people don’t consider it Caribbean. Lady X, one of the leading Belizean DJs in LA calls Belize the “stepchild” of the Caribbean. Then you add to all of this the fact that LA is very far from the major Caribbean capitals, so we’ve ended up this tiny Caribbean satellite that flies under the radar. What that means though is that a lot of the Caribbean community here is doing really underground stuff. There are so many warehouses and social halls, particularly in South Central that are run by Belizean people that aren’t thinking about flying in international DJs. They have their own thing going on. What’s changed in recent years is that plenty of people from the East Coast and from different parts of the world are moving to LA and they’re looking for nuanced Caribbean and African experiences, not the corny under-the-sea Little Mermaid shit. A lot of us are trying to meet that demand. There are some who are taking the more glossy, stereotypically hyper-premium route, but there are some of us who are taking the DIY underground approach and it’s working. I’m excited about Third Horizon coming to LA because it connects with this vibe and while there are some people out here who are trying to do the curation and programming that you all do in Miami, they’re not from the Caribbean or the diaspora. I think Third Horizon coming to LA is a bigger deal than you realize. A lot of people will be excited once they learn more about what you guys have been doing over the last few years.

We’re at the dawn of it all.

Jason Jeffers

Jason Fitzroy Jeffers:
Well, damn. We’re excited too about the possibilities that can grow out of us taking this first step out west. It’s especially exciting because we’re in a moment where the understanding of what the Caribbean is and what it represents — even among Caribbean people — is expanding. There’s a certain spirit the Caribbean has deep access to that feels really relevant now, because as Caribbean people we’ve been dealing with the kinds of immigration and climate “emergencies” — our bigger neighbors are now coming up against; those things have forged who we are and because of it, our various Caribbean cultures have so many pertinent ideas and stories and lessons to share. What’s more, there’s the fact that, with our focus being film, we’re finally coming to Hollywood. That’s interesting because the Caribbean has been relegated to the background of so many movies, it’s really just window dressing in James Bond movies or Pirates of the Caribbean and countless other films. The fact that our filmmakers are now rising to counter that with authentic stories on film is invigorating so I’m eager to see that in dialogue with the film community over there. Beyond just film, I really just can’t wait to finally connect with the community you’ve helped bring together out there as I live vicariously through so many of your Instagram videos. I love how raw the scene there is, how the fact that it’s underground has almost made it a little bit more true to the untamed spirit of the Caribbean, a spirit that gets a little more inhibited, suburban and sanded-down when it makes its way over here to America. I really feel you’re tapping into a certain homegrown wildness I’m familiar with from back home. Am I right or is that just my fanciful thinking?

Adam Cooper:
No, you’re absolutely right. The luxury we have in LA is that we don’t necessarily have such a rigid, classist social vibe that you see at a lot of Caribbean carnival events around the country, and even increasingly back in Trinidad, Barbados or wherever. In a lot of places there are more and more hoops to jump through for what is marketed as authentic carnival culture, $100 tickets, committee approvals, and that kind of thing. What we’re enjoying in LA is the luxury to do the total opposite of that. Our messaging and pricing is a lot more inclusive: 10 bucks, come one, come all. That’s really important because again, it’s not many of us here. Making the events accessible to people who are curious about these crazy Caribbean people who are throwing paint from midnight to 8am in the morning keeps it vibrant and keeps it real. It’s how we evangelize the culture. We’re also in a moment where it’s thriving. It’s the reason why you’re starting to see so many people that look like us and move like us in the film world, in the art world, and in the music world. Look at someone like Erin Christovale, Associate Curator at the Hammer Museum. She’s a beacon of light because she’s young, she’s black, and she came up doing her own thing with Black Radical Imagination. These are different signs that point to the potential and momentum of the work we’re all doing. It’s really coming together and reaching new spaces.

A scene from Foreigner’s popular underground party in Los Angeles, Junkyard Jouvert

Making the events accessible to people who are curious about these crazy Caribbean people who are throwing paint from midnight to 8am in the morning keeps it vibrant and keeps it real. It’s how we evangelize the culture.

Adam Cooper

Keisha Witherspoon:
Adam, I just have to say what you’re doing is not light work. It’s really vital and important. The region has experienced so much grief and we’re very familiar with it. It’s at the heart of a lot of what we create, but we’ve also figured out how to transmute that into a certain kind of unfiltered joy that’s really needed right now. People need this. Everywhere. So that’s a gift we collectively have to give. I’m just really happy that we’ve connected with you.

Adam Cooper:
I’m really happy we’ve connected too, and yeah, I’ve noticed that joy is a key ingredient missing from a lot of events these days. A lot of it is too serious, be it art or film, and especially music. You’ll go to parties that play techno or hip-hop and it’s harsh and aggressive. Music like soca is so uplifting. Non-Caribbean people are starting to get an understanding of the joy that comes from jumping up to soca. The thing is, a lot of times in LA or elsewhere in America, this music is presented out of context. It’s presented in a club designed to play Top 40 or by people who aren’t from the region and don’t fully understand it. There’s room for everyone but it has to be presented in the right context. With the parties that I’ve been doing, an older Belizean woman or some CalArts student who has taken the long drive all end up dancing together. Everybody is welcome. It’s all therapy, whether it’s putting on a costume or wining on somebody, squeezing them up close. That does something spiritually. It’s fun and it’s sexy, but it does a lot for your well-being in a place and time where we’re seeing constant images of black and brown bodies getting destroyed and abused every day. We’re lucky to come from societies that have carnival. It has a function. Cities in America could use more spaces, events and rituals like these. Together, we’re making steps towards that. This isn’t product.

Jason Fitzroy Jeffers:
Yes, man. New rituals. We’re at the dawn of it all.

Third Horizon in Los Angeles takes place Saturday, July 13 and Sunday, July 14 at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. All screenings are free with RSVP. The closing night party with music by Foreigner takes place Upstairs, on the rooftop of the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, July 14 at 9pm.

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