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Notting Hill Carnival – A window into the past

  • Written by  Abigail Spink
  • Published in Cultures
Notting Hill Carnival – A window into the past
23 Aug
As one of the biggest displays of Caribbean culture in the world, the legacy of Notting Hill Carnival is steeped in both celebration and struggle. After the Windrush scandal threatened the security and identity of thousands of Caribbean people in the UK, Carnival 2018 is pledging a return to its ‘roots’

The sound of renowned Calypsonian Tobago Crusoe singing Miss Tourist, a song composed by Empire Windrush passenger Lord Kitchener, at the Notting Hill Carnival 2018 press launch set the tone for this year’s event. Crusoe’s version of the song, an uplifting account of a visitor learning the art of carnival from locals in Trinidad, acknowledged the origins of Europe’s biggest street party while recognising one of the most influential first wave Caribbean migrants.

The public unveiling of the plans for the 52nd Notting Hill Carnival, which will take to the streets of West London over August bank holiday weekend, was held in the Tabernacle in Powis Square. Described on its website as once being ‘the centre of Peter Rachman’s slum empire, the West Indian blues club scene, and the 1958 Notting Hill race riots’ the Tabernacle church-turned community centre is a symbol of London’s multicultural heritage, a reminder of the struggles faced by immigrants in North Kensington in the mid-20th century, and a present day focal point for London’s black communities.

Notting Hill Carnival

The choice of the launch’s location and performers, which also included the Tabernacle Youth Group which recited a poem honouring Windrush migrants, confirm the Carnival Village Trust’s (this year’s organisers) pledge to honour the traditional and community-led elements of the event. The youth group will perform again over Carnival weekend, honouring those who settled in Britain between 1948 to 1971.

The Notting Hill Pioneers Community Festival, a celebration that has taken place prior to Carnival for the past six years, took place on 12 August. It honours those who played a significant role in the founding of the event, and similarly paid a special tribute to Windrush migrants, to mark the 70 years since the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, along with Vincent ‘Duke Vin’ Forbes, who launched the first Jamaican-style sound system in the UK.

shutterstock 90778994

The festival organisers claim: ‘While Notting Hill Carnival is rooted in Caribbean culture, with its Windrush-generation influence remaining strongly evident, it is at the same time uniquely London – today’s London.’ While the love for Carnival has grown alongside its capacity, the reminder of why it began remains ever-present. Founded by human rights activist Claudia Jones and social worker Rhaune Laslett, the first Carnival in 1966 was an expression of West Indian culture and unity in the face of hostility towards those who came from the Caribbean post-war. Alison Williams writes for My Notting Hill Carnival that ‘it was partly a response to the feeling of exclusion and discrimination that gave rise to the Notting Hill Carnival. Carnival meant the opposite of exclusion. For the first time, migrants and their children could take to the streets and feel free to express who they were.’

The Carnival Village Trust, which also relaunched the Tabernacle in 2009, has a new vision to create greater awareness of carnival arts and promote key artistic traditions of the Caribbean islands. This has been understood as an effort to inject ‘localism’ back into the event in order to honour its history and cultural significance for Afro-Caribbeans living in the UK.

Windrush protesters march on Whitehall in MayWindrush protesters march on Whitehall in May

These changes, along with the renewed emphasis on the Windrush generation, are timely given the impact of the Windrush citizenship scandal on Caribbean migrants and their families in April. Tiana- Maria Irwin, who starred alongside her family in the 2016 BBC2 documentary Back in Time for Brixton exploring Caribbean heritage through the decades in London, stresses the UK’s subsequent need to bring its black history to light. ‘Obviously carnival is very important,’ she says, ‘but I feel this year it is particularly relevant because of what has been going on in regard to the Windrush scandal. The biggest problem that I believe we have is that nobody knows what Caribbean people went through to get to this country, therefore there is often a lack of respect and understanding for communities that live here.’

Attitudes such as Irwin’s may be inspiring the change of tone at this year’s event. There is also a renewed sense of hope among directors and participants that Carnival 2018 will attract positive press, as much of its publicity in the past has focused on ‘high levels’ of crime and violence. Vincent John, chairman of the Association of British Calypsonians, praises the growth of carnival against the odds, telling Geographical: ‘Carnival Discipline Organisations have succeeded in elevating the Notting Hill Carnival to the status of Europe’s largest street carnival, with London Notting Hill Carnival Enterprises Trust being awarded “Most Diverse Carnival” by the Spanish Carnival community, all despite obstacles and unfair media coverage.’

Williams, the editor of My Notting Hill Carnival, similarly told us that ‘detractors of Carnival claim we [the Caribbean people] do not belong on the streets of Notting Hill, when actually we, (as the Windrush generation) first lived in West London.’ Although, she now hopes that ‘thanks to Grenfell and Windrush, the coverage of the Notting Hill Carnival will be good this year.’

The Grenfell Tower disaster is still strong in Carnival-goers minds this yearThe Grenfell Tower disaster will still be strong in Carnival-goers minds this year

Tiana-Maria Irwin reports that the media struggle Carnival faces each year, along with a historically strained relationship with the police force, is reflective of the country’s wider racial inequalities. She tells us: ‘Every year I hear people (generally white British people) saying how Carnival should be shut down or it should be moved and that it’s too dangerous. Most of the time they have no idea what the history is behind it nor do they know about how the media disproportionately report crimes at Carnival compared to other big events such as football matches where the rate of crime can be much higher. Typically, it feeds into a pointed narrative about how the country attempts to portray Carnival to a wider audience.’

It was reported in 2015 that Notting Hill Carnival was statistically safer than Glastonbury, with a crowd ten times the size and with fewer than ten times the offences committed. The publicity that Glastonbury receives however, is usually more favourable. Grime artist Stormzy tweeted in response to the police releasing information about large numbers of drug busts in the run up to last year’s Carnival: ‘How many drugs did you lot seize in the run up to Glastonbury or we only doing tweets like this for black events?’

Carnival has been said to be a far safer event than other high-profile public festivalsCarnival has been said to be a far safer event than other high-profile public festivals

Although Carnival has experienced a turbulent past and continues to battle critics, it remains one of the world’s biggest multicultural celebrations and has become an integral part of London’s contemporary identity. Its significance this year can be understood in relation to the struggles that black and ethnic minority communities face against detrimental politics. However, emphasis on the historic journey of Caribbean communities and the renewed sense of hope among organisers points to a brighter future.

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