An event that began as an attempt to lift the spirits of West Indian immigrants has survived controversy and violence, but now the street party is also big business, Nadia Khomami, reports in this article for London’s Guardian.
The first memory Mikey Dread has of Notting Hill carnival is a warm one. His now famous sound system, Channel One, had just finished playing a show in a giant shed in Portobello Road to 2,000 people. They had begun to take down the equipment in anticipation of doing it all again the next day when a group of local men in their 60s approached them. “They said to us ‘no, there’s no need to pack up, we’ll stay here and look after your stuff’. And they did. They stayed up the whole night playing dominoes and looking after our sound system.”
That was 31 years ago. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the West Indian community-led carnival but, after attending every year for three decades, Mikey Dread and his partner, Ras Kayleb, almost didn’t make it this time around. Only a few weeks ago, Channel One, along with two other sound systems, Sir Lloyd and Killawatt, were embroiled in a battle with Westminster council after they were told they could no longer operate under their temporary licence. It was only an online petition, signed by more than 8,500 people, that helped save the day.
“Residents had complained of vandalism, noise and trespassing,” Kayleb said. “We were excited to beat the council, but the remembrance of what carnival is really about is gone. New residents have come in, and the Caribbean community aren’t interested in carnival any more.”
The carnival, which takes place every August bank holiday, is a delight to the million visitors who attend each year. It has become one of the largest street festivals in Europe, but its origins were remarkably different from what we see today. “These days people think carnival is supposed to be just a big party,” said Don Letts, film-maker and host of Sunday night’s carnival special on BBC Radio 6 Music . “It partly was, but carnival started for political and social reasons and people have forgotten that.”
The carnival can be traced back to 1959 when, after white youths murdered Kelso Cochrane, a 32-year-old Antiguan immigrant, an indoor “Caribbean carnival” was organised in St Pancras town hall by Claudia Jones, founder of the West Indian Gazette and now known as the “mother of Notting Hill carnival”. It was created to lift the community after the Notting Hill race riots of the previous year, when 400 white men had rampaged through the area, attacking homes and businesses belonging to West Indian people.
The exact birth date is contested – some claim it was in 1966, others, including the Greater London Authority and the Metropolitan police, date it to 1964, when former social worker Rhaune Laslett organised the London Notting Hill fair and pageant, the first organised outdoor event in Notting Hill, to promote cultural unity. A street party for neighbourhood children turned into a carnival procession when Russell Henderson’s steel band went on a walking tour and most of the community joined in. Laslett said at the time that her vision was to “take to the streets using song and dance to ventilate all the pent-up frustrations borne out of the slum conditions”.
The Mangrove restaurant, run by Trinidadian civil rights campaigner Frank Crichlow, became an informal community hub and office for organisers. It was here that the first signs of racial tension and vocal dissatisfaction began to emerge, after the restaurant became the target of police attention that seemed designed to close it down. The restaurant was raided 12 times between January 1969 and July 1970. A protest march demanding “hands off the Mangrove” ended in violence and the arrests of nine protesters – including Crichlow – now known as “the Mangrove nine”, on charges that included conspiracy to start a riot.
“The Mangrove nine case is undoubtedly important to Notting Hill carnival,” said author Julian Mash, “but it’s also important to Britain as a whole by exposing the racism within Notting Hill, the way the police were treating the Mangrove as an almost colonial outpost.”
The 1971 trial is now celebrated for the acquittal of all nine on the incitement charges, and five of them on all charges. Mash said: “In his summing up, the judge mentioned evidence of racial hatred, which was unprecedented.”
After some peaceful years, riots broke out in 1976 when 3,000 police officers were allocated to the event, 10 times more than at previous carnivals. Tensions grew over the use of the “sus” law, under which anybody could be stopped, searched and held. Police reports say violence erupted after officers attempted to arrest a pickpocket, who was immediately defended by the surrounding crowds. More than 100 officers and 60 other people ended up in hospital.
The Race Relations Act of 1976 followed and black community dissatisfaction with the police grew, culminating in the 1981 Brixton and Toxteth riots.
“Black youths were feeling marginalised and disenfranchised because of the sus law,” said Ishmahil Blagrove, author of a new book on the carnival. “1976 was a coming of age of the first-generation black youths born in this country expressing themselves and forging an identity separate from that of their parents; letting the state know that these weren’t the same type of naive, Christian, immigrant visitors they were dealing with before. The state began to realise the fear of the black male; it made the state aware of the forces of black anger.”
The essence of the carnival changed over the years and is no longer seen as a vehicle to express anger. “Each generation brands it and embraces it and transforms it into how they see it,” Blagrove said. “It was seen much more as a celebration of culture, as a freedom of expression when it first began and a lot of that’s transformed into being a big rave on the street. It goes through these waves where you hear comments from black people saying ‘the white people have taken over, it’s our thing’. Yes, it is our thing, but it’s our thing as a nation, as a British people.”
The ethnic culture of carnival is not the only thing that has evolved; the music has also shifted from steel bands to all-day electronic parties. In 1973, Leslie Palmer, the man who started the first recognised carnival committee, introduced sound systems and live bands to the event. The high-powered, bass-heavy sound systems spoke to younger people in a way that the steel bands could not.
“I wanted to empower my community. I wanted to show we were not a bunch of pickpockets and no-gooders,” Palmer said. “Sound systems were extremely popular at the time: they were the voice of the youth and the only way to hear music coming from your homeland. We didn’t go to pubs because they were unwelcoming and alien places, and the radio wasn’t playing our music, so we used to have house parties with these big sound systems. If the sound systems provided entertainment for the other 51 weeks of the year, why leave them out on the most important week?”
Letts added: “Since carnival got hijacked by the Jamaican sound systems, everything has come into the mix. All tribes are represented: you’ve got music now from Asians and South Americans – it really reflects the evolution of urban music. Carnival was never conceived as an all-black affair. Rhaune Laslett wanted to galvanise the community and saw it as an all-inclusive affair. Now it’s more reflective of Laslett’s dream.”
In 1973 Radio London began the first live broadcasts of the carnival, followed by Alex Pascall in 1974 with the Black Londoners programme, and then Capital Radio in 1975. This exposure was instrumental in bringing in the crowds to the carnival. A report by the London Development Agency on the 2002 carnival estimated that the event contributes around £93m to the UK economy.
The various stages now have corporate backing: Basement Jaxx are headlining the Red Bull stage, Katy B and Chase & Status the Rinse FM stage. “The only thing you see of the Caribbean effect now is the odd shops and food,” Kayleb said. “The corporates are trying to push them out, because the sponsors are trying to change it from a London carnival to a London festival.”
Notting Hill today has become more Richard Curtis than Bob Marley, occupied by bankers and wealthy foreign investors. Portobello Road has been transformed into one of the capital’s most expensive streets, complete with multimillion-pound houses, a spa and a smart wine bar.
“I think gentrification has had an effect, in that those more well-heeled characters have bought into the area without buying into the essence of carnival,” Blagrove says. “They’re here for the fancy coffee bars and high-ceilinged homes. They complain about the noise, the music, the smells.”
Despite the complaints, Mikey Dread said he would continue to return because of his love of music. “Channel One is about breaking down barriers – it’s about taking reggae music to places where you cannot go. There’s nowhere else in the world you can get 40 sound systems on a street other than in London. We don’t have anyone telling us what music to play and how to play it. The day they do, I’ll stop.”
A BRIEF HISTORY
1959 The precursor to the west London event is an indoor party held in St Pancras town hall. Organised by “mother of Notting Hill carnival” Claudia Jones, it is intended as an uplifting response to the riots of the year before.
1964 The carnival moves west after community activist Rhaune Laslett is granted permission to hold a week-long summer fete. More than 1,000 people turn up to the closing parade and the Notting Hill carnival is born.
1976 Violence erupts after officers attempt to arrest a pickpocket. More than 160 people are injured.
2000 After the murder of two youths at the event, London mayor Ken Livingstone establishes a review group. The parade’s existing route is altered and policing and stewardship expanded.
2008 Clashes with police lead to more than 300 arrests, raising fears that the carnival might again become notorious for violence.
2013 More than a million people are estimated to have turned out for the final day of what is now one of the biggest street festivals in the world.
For the original report go to http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/aug/24/notting-hill-carnival-town-hall-to-corporate-stage-50th-anniversary