The Notting Hill carnival is here to stay because it “means too much to too many people”, its organiser has said before the event’s return after a three-year hiatus.
Matthew Phillip, the carnival’s chief executive, said Europe’s largest street festival, which was forced online during the pandemic, was stronger than ever, with 2 million people expected to gather and celebrate in west London this bank holiday weekend.
“Carnival means too much to too many people to ever go away and not come back,” he said. “For the last two years we haven’t had carnival, we’ve used technology to celebrate it online, but you can’t have carnival if it’s not on the streets.”
Phillip said the event was a proud display of the capital’s diversity, “a signal to say ‘we’re here and we’re proud to be here. This is our identity.’”
He added: “Human beings are social creatures, and carnival has to be the ultimate social event, especially after the last two years we’ve been through. It’s quite rare that you can see so many people from different walks of life, backgrounds, religions, just essentially at ease with each other, enjoying and expressing themselves, whether they’re musicians with a steel band, operating a sound system or in costume.”
The carnival, which has taken place on the streets of the Notting Hill area in London since 1966, celebrates African-Caribbean culture and unites disparate communities in London. And the hunger to participate in the event has not diminished. The number of mas bands and static sound systems has increased this year, to 84 and 38 respectively.
Mikey Dread, whose sound system Channel One has been a fixture since 1982, said two years of lockdowns and isolation had made carnival more important than ever.
“It’s a chance to get out and listen to music all day long for free. Everybody’s looking forward to coming back,” he said. “A lot of people because of the pandemic have a different mindset now, they’re thinking: well, I’d better go and enjoy myself because you never know what tomorrow may bring.”
Dread, who took the name Channel One as homage to the legendary Channel One studio in Jamaica, said he and his brother Jah T’s mission was to break down barriers with reggae music. “We entertain people, that’s what we’re in the game for. The music we play hasn’t changed. No doubt there will be a lot of new people who have never experienced carnival before who will discover roots music by seeing us live.”
Linett Kamala, an artist, DJ and educator, said the significance of carnival’s return was huge. “As the biggest community-led gathering of its kind on the planet, it was tough not being able to gather and celebrate in the way which we’ve been used to,” she said.
Nicknamed the “sound system queen”, Kamala became one of carnival’s first female DJs at the age of 15. Thirty-seven years later, she is the manager of the same static sound system that hosted her first performance, Disya Jeneration, and a board director of carnival.
This year she has created a new mural outside the Studio West gallery celebrating the largely unknown story of Rhaune Laslett, a community activist and the principal organiser of the first Notting Hill festival, which would evolve into carnival.
“Being back is the moment that millions of Notting Hill carnival lovers like myself, the west London community and Caribbean communities have been waiting for,” Kamala said. “I think it’s important to pay homage to those who gifted us this incredible legacy, such as individuals like local activist Rhaune Laslett who back in the 1960s worked in partnership with those who arrived from the Caribbean, sometimes referred to as the Windrush generation, to create a small children’s parade which over the years has morphed into an event attended by millions.”
Three years of work has gone into organising this year’s event, with planning beginning just after carnival in 2019. For the first time this year, the parade will be streamed in its entirety on the event’s website and YouTube channel, while a new ramp stage will give judges a clearer view of masqueraders and costumes.
Members of the Emancipated Run Crew, a running community that aims to increase diversity in the sport, will lead the parade dressed in green, in honour of those who died in the Grenfell Tower tragedy five years ago.
Another first is the inclusion of a fully electric truck, the first step in working with bands to look at more sustainable options for the years to come. Developed by Carnival Village Trust, the truck was given its debut outing at Glastonbury festival in June.
Phillip said: “In the future we aim to replace the diesel lorries and diesel generators with new and emerging technologies like battery power.”