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August 24, 2020
Europe’s largest street festival Notting Hill Carnival was due to take place across the bank holiday weekend from 29th to 31st August 2020, however the physical event has been cancelled due to Covid-19 and will instead be going digital for the first time in the events history. The carnival is renowned world wide for being a huge cross-cultural celebration that has defied racial tensions for decades. Notting Hill Carnival has taken place every year in the Notting Hill area of Kensington, London since 1966. Attended by well over 1 million people each year, we wanted to take a dive into the rich history of Notting Hill Carnival and share what makes it so special to so many people all around the world.
Regarded by many as the "Mother of Notting Hill Carnival", Claudia Jones was a radical political activist who came to Britain after being forced to leave the USA. Born in Trinidad, she was a well known journalist, communist, feminist, black rights campaigner and orator, she was also an incredibly important figure in the early struggle for racial equality, and worked tirelessly throughout her short life to promote revolutionary politics worldwide. Upon arriving in the UK, Jones quickly got involved in the struggle of London’s West Indian community. By 1958, she had founded the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News, which she edited and ran above a barber’s in Brixton. It was the UK’s first weekly black newspaper, and was crucial in her efforts to help organise the black British population in campaigns for equal rights in employment, education and housing, and access to the welfare estate and services. Racial tensions had been growing throughout the 1950s, following an influx of West Indian migrants who came to fill the post-World War labour shortage. Notting Hill and Brixton in particular attracted concentrated numbers of immigrant communities as these areas were impoverished and overcrowded areas that were cheap and accessible. The situation escalated with the Notting Hill Race Riots and frequent attacks on and even murders of black men by white men. It was then that Jones had the idea of holding a carnival to celebrate Caribbean culture in the hopes to relieve racial tensions and create a positive experience for many of the black migrants who were new to the UK. In January of 1959, the first Caribbean Carnival was held inside St Pancras Town Hall, and televised by the BBC. The celebration mirrored the spirit of Mardi Gras, for which her city of birth and many others were famous. The carnival featured calypso music, steel bands and a grand finale jump-up. Though, strictly speaking, this may not have been the first Notting Hill Carnival (Rhaune Laslett is now considered to have organised the first event from which today’s carnival grew, in 1966) it set a precedent for the celebration of Caribbean culture through public events, and was inspired by the same anti-racism that would lead to the creation of the Notting Hill Carnival.
Leslie Palmer, who was director of Notting Hill Carnival from 1973 to 1975, is credited with getting sponsorship, recruiting more steel bands, reggae groups and sound systems as well as introducing generators and extending the route. He encouraged traditional masquerade, and for the first time in 1973 costume bands and steel bands from the various islands took part in the street parade. As well as this he introduced stationary sound systems that were distinct from those on moving floats which helped to create the bridge between the cultures of carnival, reggae and calypso. The carnival was also popularised during this time by live radio broadcasts by Alex Pascall on his daily Black Londoners programme for BBC Radio London. By 1976 the event had become definitively Caribbean in influence and style, with around 150,000 people attending. However, in that year and several subsequent years, the carnival was marred by riots, in which predominantly Caribbean youths fought with police due to ongoing racial tensions and the harassment the young black population felt they were under. During this period, there was considerable press coverage of the disorder and for a while it looked as if the event would be banned. Leila Hassan (editor of Race Today and political activist) campaigned during this time for the Arts Council England to recognise the Notting Hill Carnival as an art form.
Notting Hill Carnival is still an incredibly diverse, community-lead event to this day. It's ever increasing popularity over the last 5 decades has allowed it to continue to grow and diversify even further, creating a festival where everyone is welcome. With over a million visitors joining the carnival festivities every year, today's carnival is second in size only to Brazil's Rio Carnival, and it is considered one of the world's largest annual arts events. Whilst Notting Hill Carnival is rooted in Caribbean culture with its Windrush generation roots remaining strongly evident to this day, it is at the same time a celebration of the uniqueness of modern-day London. It is the only carnival in the world to feature static sound systems to this day, after being first introduced by Leslie Palmer in 1973. The live performances that the carnival is now so well known for were first organised by Wilf Walker in 1979, heavily featuring reggae and punk bands. These early live stages featured performances from emerging talent, including the likes of ASWAD and Eddie Grant. This spirit is very much alive today, with the carnival reaturing live performances from both new, emerging talent and established names alike. In recent years, Jay Z, Lil' Kim and Busta Rhymes all gathered on a Notting Hill Carnival stage to perform live in the same year! Notting Hill Carnival continues to attract people from all over the world, from young children to the elderly. The tradition of carnival has always been one of unity and togetherness, something that is incredibly fitting for the uncertain times we find ourselves in. If you want to get involved with the digital carnival this year you can register online for access all areas and experience the magic of the carnival from the comfort of your home (until next year at least.) You can also check out No Signal's biggest hip-hop, Afrobeat, dancehall and R&B playlist over on Spotify to get into the groove or enjoy 5 hours of tunes from last years carnival.
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