What comes to your mind when you think of the August bank holiday weekend? Is it the extra day off? The end of summer? For me and other Black Brits, it’s Notting Hill Carnival. Since I can remember, my bank holiday plans have revolved around the yearly event.
In truth, who needs any other plan than Carnival? For some, it’s simply an all-day party, but for Black Brits, especially the Caribbean community, it’s also a celebration of culture. I associate Carnival with community, resistance and freedom. And the history behind the street celebration is a powerful one.
Notting Hill Carnival was created as a response to the Notting Hill race riots in which a group of Teddy boys attacked the local West Indian community in 1958. In January 1959, Trinidadian journalist and activist Claudia Jones held the first event, dubbed Claudia’s Caribbean Carnival, at St Pancras Town Hall, which was televised by the BBC. It moved around for a few more years until it settled into its rightful place in west London, the last and biggest party of summer.
Carnival has gone from strength to strength and now sees up to a million people roaming the streets of London W10 and W11 every August, and all the style, sound systems, food stalls, and all-important afterparties that go with it.
Due to the pandemic, Carnival was put on pause in 2020, along with so much else – and then again this summer, meaning we’ve missed out on two years.
“Notting Hill Carnival is a cultural staple all over the world, but especially for the Black British community and the generations of African and Caribbean elders who’ve helped establish such a strong legacy over the year,” says Matthew Phillips, the CEO Of Notting Hill Carnival Ltd.
“It’s a shame we’re once again off the streets due to the pandemic, but it’s important we continue keeping the spirit of Carnival alive through new and interesting ways, no matter how big or small,” he adds.
Members of that absolute Carnival mainstay, the famed Rampage Sound System, are even clearer. “Carnival is the most important date in the Black British calendar. It’s the day we come together with the rest of the tribe and celebrate the past and the present, our culture,” they tells HuffPost UK.
“It’s important to chart Black British culture through yearly events like Carnival because as the culture evolves we can see important and stand out moments, from the first Windrush settlers wiring up speaker boxes on a street corner in west London to national treasures like Stormzy performing to 18,000 people for the first time at our stage way before a mainstream breakthrough.”
Though Carnival won’t be happening this weekend, some Carnival-like events will be running – from a performance by the UK National Panorama Steel Band in Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance park in North Kensington to Rampage + Friends’ Carnival Weekend at E1 London.
Sure, we’ll miss Carnival this year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still celebrate it. HuffPost UK spoke to British Caribbeans about what the weekend means to them and invited them to share some pictures of happy carnivals past.
‘It’s a reminder of how we got to where we are now’
Jessica Morgan, 28, editor, London. Country of origin: Jamaica
“Losing out on yet another year of Carnival obviously breaks my heart. I usually plan my whole year around the August Bank Holiday because of carnival, simply because it’s the last weekend of the summer where everyone comes together to celebrate Caribbean culture. My culture, which we don’t get to celebrate very often. I’m gutted I won’t be able to hear the steel bands perform, or see the Mas costumes.
“Carnival is incredibly special to me because it’s a reminder of where we came from and how we got to where we are now. Whenever I think about Carnival I always remember that it started as a protest for equality for Britain’s Caribbean community who came over to the UK on false promises that they would have a better life, better jobs and better housing. Most of all, I’m going to miss the wide variety of food, Carnival link ups and not receiving an influx of post-carnival texts from all the men. I still think about ‘Jermaine wit the gold teef’ from 2019. Good times. Good vibes.”
‘Carnival is the place where I feel most liberated’
Isaac*, 28, legal counsel, West Yorkshire. Country of origin: Dominica
“Carnival is my connection to about four centuries of ancestry in the eastern Caribbean. Within the modern era (with the exception of world wars one and two and the 1918 pandemic), we’ve always had carnivals in the Caribbean. Missing it again for the second year in a row is quite heartbreaking because it’s the biggest display of Caribbean culture in the UK and is the place where I feel at my most liberated.”
‘I joke that Carnival is my religion’
Steva* 24, London. Country of origin: Saint Lucia
“I grew up in St Lucia and remembered going to Castries carnival and the local carnival at a young age. My most memorable carnival was the year I was given a headpiece by one of the masqueraders at Castries, and how excited I was to wear it and take it home. When I came to this country I wasn’t too keen on going to Notting Hill Carnival because of the rumours about how unsafe it was.
“My first time going was as a teen with a group of friends and it was the most amazing experience ever, I was hooked and continued to going yearly. I now joke that Carnival is my religion because of the amount of joy and euphoria I experience when I’m in the zone. In 2019, I decided to get involved and joined a band for the first time ever. And I had so much fun I decided that 2020 would be better as I was no longer a newbie, but then Covid happened. I was disappointed, but the whole world was locked down so I wasn’t too upset. I now look forward to going in 2022 so I can make up for 2020 and 2021!”
‘Without, it, I lose a part of my soul’
Adisa* 26, video editor and personal trainer. Country of origin: Guyana & Barbados
“Losing another year of Notting Hill Carnival feels like I am losing another part of my soul and my identity. My first memories were with my family in my household, playing soca, blowing whistles, and dancing. Growing up, I have come to understand the history and significance of Carnival and the history of the event in this country as well as the Caribbean.
“It helps me express my identity by allowing me to dance, shout, scream sing and now video myself and others in unison. It connects with others from the diaspora in a joyful, non-violent manner. Now Carnival isn’t happening, I will be attending Dreamland J’ouvert and commemorating the event with some vlogs and on Instagram. I did the same for Jam J’ouvert in July. And throughout the bank holiday, I will be trying to go to other ‘carnival-inspired’ parties.”
‘I love seeing all islands coming together as one’
Clara Louse, 28, model and garment technologist, London. Country of origin: Jamaica and Barbados
“I love seeing all islands coming together as one and uniting our differences to enjoy two days of music, laughter, and good food. It’s an experience that comes once a year and I’m able to enjoy and celebrate my culture outside my home. I’m from Jamaica and Barbados and both islands are different. But what unites my heritage together is the love for celebrating at carnival. It’s a time to pay homage to my grandparents who came here via Windrush to make Britain Great! I’m fiercely proud of my heritage and I won’t want to trade it for anything”
‘It’s a weekend to be our most authentic selves’
Khaleal*, 26, employment advisor, London. Country of origin: Jamaica
“Carnival gives Black people in the UK a brief respite from all the code-switching and perpetual tiptoeing and granting us a weekend to be our most authentic selves. That is why we gather to smile, laugh, chip along, and celebrate West Indian culture come rain or shine because that rare feeling of absolute freedom is so important to us.”
“As a West Indian, Carnival means so much. It demonstrates our ability to turn pain and resilience into joy and power. What started out as a response to racially motivated attacks in West London in the late 50s has grown to become one of the largest outdoor events in the world with massive significance within Black British culture. Since Covid took it away from us two years in a row, summer hasn’t summered the same and this has been felt across the entire Black community. I anticipate 2022 will be one to remember!
‘Nothing beats the shared buzz’
Yasmin Thomas, 26, writer, Hackney. Country of origin: Jamaica and Cuba
“As a second generation of the Windrush migrants, Carnival is everything to me. Carnival was something my family attended every year. I think the first time I went was when I was eight or nine, the whole atmosphere was exhilarating. I then went on my own for the first time when I was 17 – the experience seemed a lot different. The excitement grows when you’re at the train station, and you feel the shared buzz of everyone going to the same place. Nothing beats it!
“Notting Hill Carnival is a way for us all to dance and honour our heritage. When going the first thing you’ll see is people representing their flag. It’s displaying our pride, enjoying our native food, acknowledging our predecessors that have come before us – who fought for us to get to this place of freedom, to unapologetically be ourselves. The absence of that for nearly two years has been a prominent thing for us all.”
‘Carnival is freedom, rich waistlines, and richer traditions’
Jay*, artist. Country of origin: St Vincent and Barbados
“I’ve been going carnival every year a the same friends since I was 15. Seeing grandad drinking malt in his hand with the same six friends he’s had for years makes me smile. I love the walk down from Kensal Rise, a cooler of rum punch, and a belly full of baselines. Carnival represents for me post-colonial freedom, rich waistlines, and richer traditions. Finding long-lost family members, old flames, and new friends. One of the rare sites Black men can express their sensuality through dance and rhythm. Black beauty in all tones shapes and sizes celebrated and embraced. My grandma was carnival queen back on her island and each year I go I imagine the same light within her burning within me.”
Some surnames have been omitted at the interviewees’ request.