In the run-up to the August bank holiday weekend, which is usually made significant for many by the Notting Hill Carnival – cancelled again as a result of the life-stealing and soul-crushing Covid-19 pandemic – Ruebik looks at the festival origins and the true meaning behind this colourful, loud, and one-of-a-kind celebration. In addition to diving into the history behind the event, we also highlight a wonderful initiative aimed at supporting the artists deprived from performing for a second consecutive year.
On a normal year – and oh, how we miss normal! – Notting Hill Carnival draws in over a million visitors, and is considered to be the largest street event in Europe. The festival attracts lots of attention and appears inviting to everyone, as it features dancers decorated in mesmerising costumes, and the multiple sound systems – first introduced to the carnival back in 1973 – create an atmosphere of freedom and entertainment. While exuding a great time and providing major party vibes for everyone and anyone, the Notting Hill Carnival is much more than a popular visually pleasing street festival. First and foremost, it serves as a display and celebration of Caribbean culture in Britain.
The first Notting Hill Carnival is a subject of debate – it is said to have taken place sometime between 1964 and 1966 – and there is also a lack of consensus in crowning the original creator of the carnival. Some credit the founder of Britain’s first black newspaper – The West Indian Gazette – Claudia Jones who, back in 1959, launched an indoor Caribbean carnival in St Pancras, with the idea of bringing people together in a stance against the race riots that took place across Britain at the time, as well as the racially motivated murder of young carpenter Kelso Cochrane that same year.
Others claim the community activist Rhaune Laslett to be the true founder of the Carnival. In 1966, she organised the Notting Hill Fayre, in collaboration with the London Free School and various key members of the local community. It is reported that Laslett got the inspiration from a vison, in which she saw people of different races dancing together in the streets. Such dreams symbolise unity, and while the festival can hold multiple meanings to different people, togetherness is always at the core of this celebration.
In brutal contrast, what led to the euphoric Carnival’s inception was ethnicity-based segregation and race riots, ridden with hate and violence. The fights are said to have been ignited and fuelled by the working class youth, referred to as “Teddy Boys”, displaying hostility towards the West Indian immigrants – or the Windrush generation – who were initially promised a warm welcome in exchange for their help in rebuilding the country after World War II.
In the spirit of creating a positive outcome from a negative situation – which is partly what the Notting Hill Carnival embodies – let’s not focus on having to skip the celebration this year and instead look ahead at 2022, when the festival will return in all its glory.
A series of fundraising events are being held to ensure the means for an impressive comeback, and, most importantly, the performers who have no doubt been affected by the cancellation have not been forgotten. The hardship fund set up by the Carnival is supporting the artists who make the festival what it is – an unforgettable celebration, created with an intent for unity, equality and peace.
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Written by Hannah James, Delivery Consultant at Ruebik