The sun shines a little brighter in Barbados over summer. Crop Over, the country’s annual two-month-long festival, unofficially started in May but by the time you hit the last couple of weeks of July, this Caribbean island is ablaze with the very best soca music, dancing, parades, arts, food and so much more. As we edge towards the UK’s series of far smaller carnivals, let us draw your attention to one of the oldest, longest and coolest festivals of the lot. If there’s a vibe you’re going to wish you’d jumped on, it’s this one.
The secret to surviving weeks of partying? "Rum and stamina," jokes Carol Roberts-Refer, CEO of Barbados’ National Cultural Foundation. We meet on Kadooment Day, the final day of the festival which takes place on the first Monday in August. Over the weekend prior, there had been the mimosa breakfast party (champagne at 9am, anyone?) the famed Foreday Morning overnight paint parade (we dance-walked through Barbados covered in paint and spilled drinks until 8am), food and craft celebrations at Bridgetown market (another day, another walk in the street with my reusable drink bottle), another early morning breakfast party at centuries-old George Washington House (10am prosecco this time) and countless intermediary fetes. We were on the road from dusk to dawn and all the way back again. There's no time to flag. Thankfully, it's easy to jump back on the wave when bass from the most infectiously joyous songs is rippling through your system. Look up chipping. Once you start moving it's really hard to stop, no matter how tired/drunk/hungover you are.
This day was a big one, though. Kadooment Monday is when the first lady of Barbados, Rihanna jumps (takes part in the parade) with Aura – one of the 20 or so bands that lead hundreds of people dressed in carnival costume through the streets of Barbados. "She’ll be stopping off for a couple of minutes to put her blessing on it," says Carol, with the resolve of someone who is accustomed to one of the coolest people in the world nipping down from her party float to say hey to the Bajan tourism team. I am not like Carol.
When I arrived in Barbados the week before, I was caught out by my British accent. A couple of women at a local shop asked if I was in town for Crop Over. "Yeah! It’ll be really fun to get involved. And hopefully see Rihanna, of course!" I told them. "Oh, Robyn?" one said. "She here all the time."
Though the nonchalance around Robyn Rihanna Fenty’s return to the streets where she grew up makes sense – many of the people closest to the singer turned beauty mogul are those she was tight with long before Jay Z offered her a record deal – it doesn't quite translate to the thousands of tourists who flock to the island to soak up some of its magic. Her brother, Rorrey Fenty, hosted a party at Nikki Beach club in the build-up to Kadooment Day. Photographers started gathering by the front entrance, one of the toilet cubicles had been locked and there was a sudden surge towards the door. "She's here!" one American accent bellowed through the growing crowds. "Rih-ann-AHHHHH!" someone else screamed. I hung back and tried to play it cool, watching international Ri Ri fans freak out while the staff and locals accustomed to her fame waited for the mania to calm down. Don't get me wrong, there’s an unmistakable sense of pride within the Bajan community when she does come up in conversation. But no one I met was about to climb over tables barefoot in a bikini to snap a blurry photo on their iPhone.
"Well, to be honest, Barbados has been recognized through Rihanna," 24-year-old Kimberly told Refinery29. She’s Bajan too, but is taken out of the country quite often for work. We met as she passed by The Sands, a brand new resort where I'd been staying, where she was taking photos on the beach. "Every time I travel people say, Where are you from? I say, I’m from Barbados. They go, Barbados? I say, Rihanna? And they say, Oh!"
The international understanding that Rihanna is a big part of Barbados’ culture helps bring awareness of Crop Over to more people, Kimberly explained. But beyond the social media excitement around beautiful costumes, all-day parties and impressive quantities of rum, there’s so much more to know about Barbados’ landmark celebration. "It’s like one big family coming together, everybody united to celebrate culture and it’s very educational for people."
It’s only through visiting that you sense how deeply this period of time is ingrained in the communities who celebrate it. Crop Over marks the end of harvest. Dating back to the 1780s when Barbados was the world’s largest producer of sugar, at the end of the growing season there’d be a huge celebration by the enslaved workforce of the time. The tradition carried through emancipation, paused when the sugar industry declined in the 1940s and has been running in its modern form since 1974 as one of the most defining and unique iterations of Bajan culture. "If you come to the country, you just think it’s all about jumping up, wukking up and enjoying yourself [but] there’s more to it than that. It goes way back."
To the uninitiated, wukking up is a type of dance that Carol describes as "the movement of black people". Descended from Africa and cemented in Caribbean culture, the wuk up has since transformed into various modern versions with which many of us are familiar (think twerking and whining) and out on the streets over Crop Over you’ll see various iterations of the hip-heavy dance style.
Twenty-five-year-old Megghan is a dancer who performs and teaches with a class called Vybe25. Unsurprisingly, the culture of performance is a huge part of her Crop Over experience, which, like Kimberly, she’s been immersed in since she was a child. "I’ve definitely seen it change. Now I’m older I get to model for big bands on stage and I get to play mas on the road [dance in the parade] which is absolutely amazing for me."
Her favourite part of the island’s celebrations isn’t the big climax on Kadooment Monday, though. It’s the fetes, the slightly smaller events in the build-up to the final day, which are more directly about the local talent and essentially getting hyped up for the end of the carnival. "The fetes are amazing. I love a show, I love fashion, I love production. So for me personally, I love band launches because that’s the start of Crop Over."
There’s a lot of sentiment in most aspects of the festival. Megghan said that some of the costume inspiration might come from sugar cane, flowers in the Barbados colours and the country’s green monkeys. For locals, having someone like Rihanna so heavily associated with the festival from an international perspective doesn’t necessarily make Crop Over about her; rather, it's this rich culture reaching those of us overseas who can’t grasp the magic of it through an Instagram post. "Rihanna has made it big," Megghan added. "Everybody wants to see her and paparazzi come down just to see her. But you can also see carnival just by the click of a button, then everybody wants to come down and [share] that same vibe for real."
On the beach, away from the parade trail in the early evening of Kadooment Day, I met two women who didn't want to be named on record. Though they recognize Crop Over as a huge attraction for tourists interested in visiting Barbados, they spoke of small concerns about Barbados being seen through one lens – be it Rihanna or Crop Over festival by extension – and giving the rest of the world, and those of us eager to visit, a limited view of what Bajan culture is about. "I’m not really into the Kadooment thing. It’s not just drinks and partying, you know?" one of them said.
Whether the sentiment is shared by the majority of young Bajan women is difficult to tell. The nature of Crop Over is immersive, heartfelt celebration. It’s fun. It’s carefree. It’s liberating and full on. Inclusivity is second nature – you'll commonly stumble upon floats representing neighbouring Caribbean islands – as are visiting revellers from the rest of the world. It’s clear to see that when you're in it, you're in it, and once you're there the energy is infectious.
"If you’re going to join us here you better wuk up!" Keela says as a few of us gather next to her in the street. We're in prime position for Rihanna's scheduled pit stop and, more than willing to follow instruction, I dance to "Savannah Grass", one of the hottest soca songs of the year that, after spending just one week in Barbados, I was able to recite word for word. "[Crop Over] means everything," Keela said. "I would not miss this for the world. I’ve been coming from birth, I’ve jumped in the parade once and I always end up stopping here. It is the most amazing party that you will ever experience in your life."
Travel and accommodation were provided to the author by Visit Barbados for the purpose of writing this story. Visit Barbados did not approve or review this story.