After a three-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, London’s Notting Hill Carnival is back this weekend and promises to be better than ever. In less than 24 hours the annual community-led event, which takes place across three days over the August Bank Holiday weekend, will open with a traditional celebration before sunrise of J’Ouvert – a colourful Caribbean practice which involves carnivalists covering their bodies in coloured paints, mud and oil – before rolling into the Children’s Day Parade and finishing with a fun-filled Adults Day.
Linett Kamala, board member and carnival organiser, tells ELLE UK that planning for the next event starts ‘as soon as the carnival finishes’, and involves working with countless ‘community partners on theme announcements, food vendors and static soundsystem stages’. ‘All of the things that go into making carnival the celebration it is,’ she adds.
Unity and collaboration across the Caribbean community and the Black British diaspora has always been central to the carnival’s mission, explains Kamala, ‘due to its ability to bring both life and a feeling of home to people in the local Black community in Notting Hill and surrounding areas’. With two million people estimated to attend this year's event, and around 40,000 volunteers, Kamala describes the carnival as a ‘a melting pot for all things Caribbean’. ‘You have the steel pannist with roots from Trinidad and Tobago alongside soca, with its origins in Barbados, alongside food vendors cooking up the best of Jamaican cuisine – you have it all at Carnival!’
Despite its current position as the second biggest street carnival of its kind (second only to Rio de Janeiro’s), its beginnings were far from smooth sailing. The festival, which was first conceptualised by activist Rhaune Laslett and Trinidadian journalist and activist Claudia Jones in 1959 before being developed in 1973 by Leslie Palmer, was born out of a need to improve race relations between Caribbean migrants who moved to Britain after WWII to help rebuild the country, and rid the west London area of community hostility.
In the face of overt and systemic racism, migrants from the Windrush Generation were funnelled into the area, in order to occupy large ‘houses of multiple occupancy’ (HMOs). Despite the accommodation’s cramped and unsafe conditions, in addition to unscrupulous landlords, Notting Hill became one of the few areas in London to allow West Indian immigrants to rent. Tensions between the predominately white working-class residents for manual jobs and housing, as well as an anti-immigrant rhetoric instilled by far-right groups such as Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, led to an unrelenting wave of abuse towards Caribbean migrants.
Racial tensions reached a high in 1958 following a dispute between a Swedish woman, named Majbritt Morrison, and her Jamaican husband, Raymond, which prompted a predominantly white crowd to come to her defence (which she didn’t want), and a fight between them and Raymond’s West Indian community. The incident sparked a racial assault across Notting Hill, involving up to 400 Teddy Boys – a 1950s youth movement – and resulted in a riot that lasted five days and ended in 140 arrests and 108 charges.
Kamala explains that the Notting Hill Fayre – or Notting Hill Carnival, as it’s now known – came about as ‘a much-needed healing and unified response, with a clear message of “no fear”’. She continues, noting that the event showed the local migrants that they had the ‘freedom to take up space in the community, which they were helping to build’.
Although a lot has changed since the carnival’s turbulent beginnings, thanks to improved police presence, reportage of the carnival has been known to be skewed by a bias crime rhetoric that exaggerates the number of arrests that take place during the event, despite comparable levels of crime at large British festivals and large-scale events.
On the image of Notting Hill Carnival's crime, Kamala says that crime is an issue the charity has been working tirelessly to decrease and combat, with the presence of initiatives this year like the ‘Ask Angela’ campaign. ‘We’ve gone through training with projects like WAVE (Welfare And Vulnerability Engagement),’ she tells us. ‘Despite the fact security issues at Carnival are oftentimes exasperated, we are, and have always been, a grassroots community-focused event, so we will always work hard, year after year, to make sure everyone feels safe and welcome at Carnival.’
The charity’s message of unity was vital for its survival during its three-year hiatus as a result of the global pandemic, which caused the carnival to move from the streets to online for the first time in 54 years. ‘We made the decision quite early on to cancel and put the safety of all that love Carnival first,’ Kamala explains.
Despite the carnival being a digital-first event during the pandemic, she says it ‘ultimately led to even more connection, with it becoming more accessible than ever’. ‘We even had other carnivals reaching out and asking for us to help them figure out how to go digital,’ she adds. ‘Even though monetarily we “lost out” because no free event is actually free, we gained so much.’
Black commerce, from the selling of countries’ flags to Guadeloupean food stalls and intricately crafted mas costumes are a major part of the event’s success. ‘We are so pleased to be back and be right there on the streets giving back to the community in person,’ Kamala adds. ‘There’s a huge economic ecosystem around Notting Hill Carnival with the ability to buy from Black vendors and really inject a boost to the local community – people come from far and wide, so it’s important to have a wide offering.’
Big brand partnerships which are rooted in historical connection also play a huge role in the event. This year, attendees will see brands like the Jamaican alcohol label Wray and Nephew take over the Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance Park stage ‘to pay homage to the island’s considerable contribution to music over the years’, says Kamala. Paying it forward musically, as well as paying respects to carnival and Caribbean history, is a fundamental tenet of the event, she says. ‘I look after the Lin Kam Art Soundsystem Future Programme, which is a project that allows teenagers and young people to get involved in both the production and performances are carnival.’
Of course, it wouldn’t be Notting Hill Carnival without the eclectic mix of music on offer. Kamala, who became the carnival’s first female DJ aged 15, started playing at the event after attending the weekend’s festivities as a child with her parents. ‘I started off playing electronic, scratching and emulating some of the things that we saw US Hip Hop artists doing, which at the time was quite a change when compared to the soundsystems at the carnival playing reggae and more traditionally Caribbean sounds,’ she recalls. For Kamala, the carnival’s appreciation of music across different parts of Black communities means ‘we have music from different places across the diaspora’. ‘While playing mas you’ll be sound tracked by soca, but you'll also hear afrobeat. And for the first time this year the hugely popular South African band, Amapiano.’
Looking ahead to this year’s Notting Hill Carnival, it’s important for Kamala that she – and the local community – follow in the footsteps of her parents, who were a part of the Windrush Generation, and pioneering women like Jones and Laslett. ‘That’s exactly what Carnival is and will always be – [a celebration of] the young, next to the old – in unity,’ she says.
Find out more about the Notting Hill Carnival here.
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