Over its fifty year history, the Notting Hill Carnival has evolved and shifted to continually serve London’s ever-changing black presence, Lloyd Bradley looks at why.
Every year around this time, when people start looking forward to Carnival, questions get asked as regards its relevance over a dozen years into the 21st Century. Or, more specifically, of its relevance as a representation of either the Caribbean or the Caribbean in London. Equally inevitably, more than a few of those conversations will be concluded with “It’s not what it used to be”. And that’s quite right, too: after more or less fifty years, there’s absolutely no reason at all why Carnival should be anything like it “used to be”. It isn’t supposed to be: a point which, with admirable efficiency, addresses the first part of the discussion as to Carnival’s consequence in this day and age.
Carnival in London is, and always has been, a cultural shape shifter of heroic proportions, offering itself up as different things to different generations of black Londoners. Most importantly, though, Carnival’s one constant is that since its beginnings at the end of the 1950s, it has served the evolving needs of London’s evolving black presence.
Under the slogan “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom”, the first Carnival of consequence took place in St Pancras Town Hall on January 30th 1959, organized by Claudia Jones, community activist and owner of London’s first black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette. Against a background of increasing and increasingly vicious racist attacks in the capital, her intention was to lift the spirits of Caribbean immigrants with a defiant, unadulterated display of joyous West Indian culture featuring costumes, music, dance and London’s first black beauty contest. As a morale-booster it was massively successful: over a thousand people packed into the brilliantly decorated hall, with as many outside in the chilly winter evening; BBC TV broadcast part of it; and immediately afterwards preparations began for the next year’s event at the much larger Seymour Hall near Marble Arch, and then to the Lyceum Ballroom in the Strand, which offered even greater capacity.
For the next five years, Jones’s Carnival became “the” event on black London’s calendar, and may well still be today had she not passed away in December 1964. However, by that time, Carnival was reinventing itself as something far closer to the current manifestation, by taking to the streets of Ladbroke Grove and making itself accessible to absolutely everybody, in true Caribbean style. On the August bank holiday of the same year Jones passed, the three piece Russ Henderson Steel Band, were playing a children’s street party in Portobello Road, when Henderson decided to lead the kids around the block on a mini road march, to give them a taste of what Carnival was really about. Said block took in Ladbroke Grove, Bayswater Road, Queensway and Westbourne Park Road, attracting such a large following of locals – mostly but by no means exclusively West Indians – the police ended up stopping traffic for the procession.
Locals so enjoyed the impromptu parade it was repeated the next year, then in 1966 joined forces with the organisers of Jones’s Carnival (who hadn’t held one in 1965) to create what would be recognisable as the Notting Hill Carnival. This open-to-anybody, and by now committee-organised, street parade of steel bands, floats, dancers and increasingly fabulous costumes grew year on year to become black London’s perfect expression. Yes, it was very Caribbean, but so were the majority of London’s black population, therefore such an event was a proud, liberated statement: this who we are, this is what we do and this is where we live. Claudia Jones would have loved it, but for precisely the same reasons it cut progressively less ice with the sons and daughters of the sons and daughters of the Caribbean.
By the middle of the 1970s the Born Here Generation were coming of age and, for the first time, were establishing a self-serving black British culture that borrowed from the West Indies, the USA, Africa and the UK itself. To many, Carnival meant little more than something their mums and dads did, and the notion of spending a perfectly good bank holiday following a steel band – “a what?” – around some uninspiring streets in West London didn’t have a huge appeal. Once again, Carnival osmosed to meet a new set of requirements and much of the focus shifted on to the sound systems that became so prominent in 1973 and 1974. Suddenly the previously unenthusiastic teenagers had a situation that could totally represent them and their black culture as lovers rock, roots reggae and funk boomed out up and down All Saints and Lancaster Roads and underneath the flyover. Perhaps most importantly, the sound systems were static so a vastly preferable standing about replaced anything as taxing as a road march. This may not have been anything at all like it used to be, but it served the contemporary constituency, inasmuch as such a swing once elevated Carnival to black London’s can’t miss event.
Whether it was this stationary quality, the generational shift, wider feelings of frustration, heavy handed policing or all of the above, as the 1970s rolled over into the 1980s, Carnival gained notoriety as a battleground between black youth and the Forces of Law & Order. There was talk of shutting Carnival down, or Health & Safetying it to the point of pointlessness, which almost happened and in doing so allowed the event to once again serve its original purpose. By becoming strictly regulated – designated routes, closed off streets, evening cut off times – Carnival became almost as much a tourist attraction as a cultural expression, meaning regular white people felt less intimidated. While many Carnival veteran bemoaned such a thing (or even such a t’ing), at first obliquely, then directly, it allowed the event to far better reflect and be partaken by the kind of multi culti London crowd you’d find at grime or dubstep raves. I’m loathe to call it post-racial, but the fact is British black music’s audience – and protagonists, for that matter – was far less segregated than it had ever been.Ebony rehearsing on the drag in Notting Hill 2010 Panorama. “Musical Fire” Arranged by Samuel Dubois, Video courtesy Steel Drum Trust’s
Whether you chose to believe this particular balance had tipped too far or not doesn’t really matter, as Carnival’s internal compass has once again realigned itself. Today’s reinvigorated search for unsullied black culture among so many Londoners has found representation at Carnival by quietly building up a deeply significant aspect: j’ouvert. Get down to Ladbroke Grove early in the morning on Sunday or Monday – and we mean hearly! – and you’ll find festivities kicking off as almost exclusively black groups of dancers and revelers take to the streets throwing paint or coloured powder over each other. It’s a tradition that dates back to Caribbean slavery and has it’s roots in mocking the planters’ masquerade balls and covering up so as not to be recognized and punished. But these days in West London it’s a lot of fun and an important part of continuing to connect Carnival to its core audience.
So of course its changed, and if we’re lucky it will continue to do so.
Contributing Editor: Lloyd Bradley who is author of Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital, and Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King
Photography: Neil Kenlock Publisher, Editor, Photographer, Media professional and Deeper The Beats Mentor.