Welcome back to another edition of Tropic Takes on Racism, this time we’re discussing the celebration of culture and heritage that is Notting Hill Carnival.
Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s largest street event, has been named an icon of British legacy. In the Black British experience, however, Carnival is much more than another street party. It is a pocket of elation, an act of resistance, of culture and resilience that is native to our community. Carnival has planted its roots of cultural legacy in the heart of West London, preserving a culture that guides the city’s history. In bringing together and celebrating Caribbean and Black diasporic communities, Carnival is a challenge of structure – of overcoming animosity and division for a weekend of loud, open-hearted, all-encompassing joy and community pride.
But despite its cemented place in London iconolatry, Carnival continues to fight back against controversial media narratives, over-policing, and risk of gentrification.
The beginnings of Notting Hill Carnival can be traced back to St Pancras Hall, January 1959. Organised by Miss Claudia Jones, the Trinidadian ‘Mother of Caribbean Carnival’, the first ever indoor event was curated as a response to the 1958 race riots. The riots, sparked by the assault of a young Swedish white woman and her Jamaican boyfriend by white working class ‘Teddy boys’, led to violence on the streets as mobs of around 400 white youths launched attacks on West Indian properties and residents. Carnival is described by its organisers as a celebration of freedom – a protest in itself.
“Within Carnival, there’s a mission of spirituality, a celebration of freedom. The procession is the representation of the freedom of movement that we didn’t have before.” – Fiona Compton
Today, Carnival welcomes more than two million people onto the streets of Ladbroke Grove, and represents the rich culture brought over from the Caribbean islands that heavily resides in so much of British identity. Opulent carnival costumes, mas bands, dance performers, food stalls and dazzling floats fill every inch of space between its partygoers. Reggae, calypso, soca, dub, dancehall and house are inescapable in the streets, mirroring every corner of music and culture that West Indian art has so heavily influenced.
Racial tensions continue to overarch Carnival, with assertions of over-policing at the event being unnecessary and rooted in stereotype threat. Media narratives of high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour have followed Carnival annually, despite rates of arrest being comparable to that of Glastonbury festival, with the years 2016-2019 seeing 3.76 arrests per 10,000 people at Notting Hill Carnival and 3.1 arrests per 10,000 people at Glastonbury. The highest rate of arrests stands with Creamfields, with 23.67 arrests per 10,000 people.
Introduction of knife-detection gates, extended stop-and-search powers and facial recognition cameras (widely criticised for their inherent technological bias against Black faces) have begged the question – why are large Black-led gatherings automatically deemed a threat? Why is a celebration of Black culture, a moment for a community, so intertwined with police harassment and trauma, encompassed by such hostile procedure?
The future of Carnival
As Carnival culture thrives, its support systems are diminishing. Concerns over gentrification loom over the street festival, and as housing prices in Notting Hill have risen exponentially over the past two decades, Carnival supporters have been vocal about the threat of communities being priced out and losing Carnival’s cultural roots in favour of white middle class residents and high-profile tourism. Bringing in an estimated 93 million pounds to London’s economy, it’s imperative for tangible support to be fed back into the community behind Carnival weekend for survival of the festival’s honest essence – for what makes Carnival, Carnival.
This August bank holiday saw another year of painfully quiet air amid the streets of Notting Hill, as organisers announced that there will be no official event in 2021 due to ongoing concerns with the Covid-19 pandemic. However, if there’s one thing to take from the philosophy of Carnival – a sentiment to commit to memory between the buzz of the streets, striking costumes and swirling music – it’s that Carnival is as resilient as the communities that built it and the culture it was built upon.