Allenton Riley stands tall as he wanders his Capitol Heights neighborhood.
It’s hard to ignore a 12 foot tall dancing teenager.
The stilts double Riley’s height, who is 6 feet tall, as he trains in a t-shirt and shorts. But when he dons his costume, he also stands out from other waders who perform at street festivals around Milwaukee.
He walks on stilts like a Moko Jumbie, a spiritual figure who started in West Africa and later became a key part of festivals in the Caribbean. As far as Riley knows, he’s the only Moko Jumbie in the Milwaukee area.
Riley, 18, a recent graduate of Milwaukee High School of the Arts, dreams of bringing his talents to the world and teaching the tradition to others.
His love for the Moko Jumbie began at the age of 5 when his parents took him to a UniverSoul Circus show in Milwaukee.
During the show, his cousin whispered to him: “Watch out for Moko Jumbie”. Next thing Riley knew, men on 10- to 15-foot stilts stormed out, dancing around the stage.
“I’ve been fascinated ever since,” he says.
His interest grew with his friends at Darrell Lynn Hines Academy, 7151 N. 86th St., many of whom came from places like Jamaica, Trinidad and the US Virgin Islands.
“My friends and I would pretend to have Carnival in the halls,” Riley said. “We were singing to music. We would have fun there.
Their imaginations took them to the Caribbean Islands in elaborate and colorful costumes, singing soca (Trinidadian) and dancehall (Jamaican) music.
When Riley broke his leg at age 7, it didn’t slow him down. Instead, it gave him an idea.
While her parents were away and her sister was babysitting, Riley took the crutches to the basement and practiced riding them. He placed his feet on the bar in the middle of the crutch and tied them up.
He watched Moko Jumbies videos online. Finally, he could walk on the crutches, and then finally dance with them.
He showed his parents what he learned himself.
“We were really surprised, and honestly a little bit crazy, we just paid off all those doctor bills,” her mom Wendy Riley said. “It was a little strange, but we wanted him to sink into his element.”
Once Riley was in college and cleared for a Facebook account, he began posting videos of his stilts walking on crutches. The videos reached Ali Sylvester, founder of the Brooklyn Jumbies group in New York.
“I saw videos and I couldn’t believe it. He used crutches as stilts, ”Sylvester said. “He really inspired me because it was the same motivation I had when I started.”
Sylvester and Riley connected after Sylvester spoke to Riley’s parents. They’ve never met in person, but Sylvester still guides Riley in her role as Moko Jumbie.
“I want him to take it a step further and take it to another level himself. Now that he’s graduated, I hope he can make a business out of it,” Sylvester said.
Sylvester made stilt walking a business when he founded the Brooklyn Jumbies in 1994. He moved to Florida in 2015 after getting married, but stilts still roam his neighborhood every now and then.
“Al surprised me because I’ve never seen a kid grow like this in all the years I’ve been doing this,” Sylvester said. “He’s really different.”
Train with crutches
This form of stilt walking takes its name from villages in West Africa where the word “Moko” means “fake” and “Jumbie” means “ghosts,” Sylvester explained. Other accounts define “Moko” as a word for healer or for an African deity.
Villages used Moko Jumbies to mock ghosts so that they stay away. They also used them to lead parades.
Later legends would say that the Moko Jumbie would use its long stilts to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.
Although it is folklore, the Moko Jumbie continued to live in the hearts of the people of West Africa once they were captured in slavery, Sylvester said.
In 1987, Glen ‘Dragon’ De Souza revived art by founding the Keylemanjahro School of Arts and Culture on the island of Trinidad.
He has since taught hundreds of Moko Jumbie children.
Thousands of miles north, Riley watched videos of people like De Souza as he continued to teach himself on crutches. In eighth grade, he performed Moko Jumbie at his school in talent shows and in a Black History Month program.
He was jumping on a crutch, while holding the other leg and the crutchin the air. He crouched on his feet, while maintaining his balance.
The more videos he posted on social media, the more attention he would gain from around the world.
“I started meeting people from groups in Trinidad. I started to learn more and more about the things I needed to know,” said Riley.
He became friends on the Internet with a man in Trinidad, whom Riley now calls his uncle.
Mocked, but he came back strong
But at home, kids her age began to discourage Riley’s stilt walking.
“When I brought it to school, that’s when I started being judged. People would say it was very weird,” Riley said. “I never understood why when people here see it they don’t ask what it was until they laughed at it.”
Once Riley started high school, he stopped walking on stilts all together.
“I started to get lost,” Riley said. “I tried to fit in because it’s different. I tried to fit in where I didn’t really fit in.”
But Sylvester, people in Trinidad and friends from elementary school kept asking if he was still doing Moko Jumbie. Finally, a friend told him not to pay attention to people who laughed at him and that he should get back to doing what he loved.
During his freshman year of high school, Riley built himself stilts nearly 6 feet tall and returned to practicing, but the bullying continued.
In June, someone posted a video on Facebook of Riley walking on stilts near the corner of West Medford Avenue and West Baldwin Street. The post was captioned “The (expletive removed) you see in Milwaukee is just different.”
People laughed at Riley. At first he was upset, sharing the video himself and saying that people’s reactions were the reason he wanted to leave Milwaukee.
“I know when I saw the post I was just angry and upset,” said Stella Nathan, Riley’s academic and professional advisor at Milwaukee High School of the Arts.
She said Riley would talk to her for hours about Trinidadian culture and sing her soca songs.
“Not all kids want to play basketball and football,” Nathan said. “Some kids are on stilts, or singing, or doing fashion. I think it’s so important to nurture these talents and support them in the things that interest them.”
Nathan posted a message defending Riley, saying he is “one of the nicest people you can meet.”
“I implore you to dig a little deeper and be a little more open-minded,” she wrote.
Riley messaged the person who posted the original post and asked them to take it down. The poster explained that he had shared it because he thought it was funny to see something different. He ended his message by telling Riley to “kiss him”.
So Riley did. He shared more videos and photos of his stilt walk.
Friends also shared the video and other messages congratulating him.
For the Milwaukee Juneteenth event, Riley was the Moko Jumbie with a Chicago-based Mas Carnival band. He hopes to do more performances this summer.
Riley plans to attend Milwaukee Area Technical College in the fall, with the ultimate intention of studying zoology or marine biology.
His goal on stilts is to join the UniverSoul circus.
No one can take away the joy Riley has when he’s the Moko Jumbie.
“When I’m on stilts, I feel free,” Riley said. “I feel like I’m in the halls with my friends playing at the Mas, singing soca songs word for word.”