A response to racist attacks in 1960s, the Nottinghill Carnival has survived gentrification and stigma. The Grenfell tragedy has re-energised it as a symbol of endurance, writes Yepoka Yeebo.
By dawn, the streets of west London are already spattered with paint. It’s the Sunday of a long holiday weekend. Steel pan bands are rolling through the streets; revellers throw paint, glitter and coloured chalk. The first bands struck up at 4.30am, well before sunrise. Many have been up all night. This is J’Ouvert, the beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival.
Cedric Taylor is blowing a conch shell. “We’re welcoming the spirits from the ocean, from Africa, from everywhere,” he says. He is dressed as an iconic carnival character, Jab Jab, covered in black paint.
Taylor, originally from Grenada, points to all the flags on display at J’Ouvert. His home, he says, is one of the few places that kept Jab Jab culture alive. When Jab Jab players covered their skin and wrapped themselves in chains, they thought about their ancestors being led out of their homes in West Africa to the waiting ships. “That’s why we take it personal,” Taylor says, “It’s a reminder.”
Taken from diable, the French word for devil, the story of Jab Jab begins with sugar, the crop that built empires for Spain, France and Britain. It was a brutal business. Its labour force was made up of people abducted mostly from west Africa, shipped across the Atlantic and sold to the highest bidder. In the Caribbean, when the cane fields caught fire, enslaved people were forced to pick the sugar cane as it burned to save the rest of the crop. Some were thrown into pits of boiling molasses as punishment.
In Trinidad, the French planteurs (planters) had masquerade balls where they would dress up and mock the people they were brutalising by frolicking with burning sugar cane stalks—cannes brules—and covering their skin in stale molasses. The people they had enslaved were banned from participating.
After emancipation in 1834, the people who had won their freedom took the masquerade balls as a prize of war, imitating their captors imitating them. They covered their skin and paraded through the streets of Port of Spain, lit with burning sugar cane stalks. Cannes brûlées became the Kreyol Canboulay.
The celebrations were banned. But carnival does not die; it adapts.
The Notting Hill Carnival takes over a swathe of west London every year. For three days, the area’s roads are lined with people selling food, souvenirs and alcohol. Local residents place speakers outside their front windows or sell homemade curried goat. There are drummers and dancers and groups of people playing capoeira. This is Europe’s biggest street party, and the world’s second-biggest carnival, drawing an estimated 2.5 million people over a three mile route.
This is Europe’s biggest street party, and the world’s second-biggest carnival, drawing an estimated 2.5 million people over a three mile route
After J’Ouvert, some revellers wander Carnival covered in paint for the rest of the day. Others go home, take a shower, pick up their kids and bring them back for the Children’s Day, a miniature version of the main event. Children play mas, putting on full masquerade costumes, and join famous mas bands on the road.
Children’s Day is how many children of Caribbean immigrants, and their friends and neighbours, first learn the traditions their grandparents brought to Britain. For a long time, it was organised by Lee Woolford Chivers. She received an honour from the Queen of England for services to the Carnival and in the Caribbean community.
On the Friday before Carnival, Chivers was sitting outside a community centre near Portobello Road, in the middle of the carnival area. She had arranged a celebration for older residents of the neighbourhood. Police barriers made it hard for even the ones who live just minutes from the procession to get there.
Chivers sat by the gate greeting old friends. She wanted to make sure that older revellers could have some good Caribbean food, dance to some music and still feel part of Carnival, even if they couldn’t be there. They had watched each other’s children grow up and had turned their neighbourhood from a slum into the most desirable property in London.
In 1948, a ship docked in Kingston, Jamaica. Around 494 men, women and children from Jamaica, Trinidad, and Bermuda, would eventually join its voyage. The vessel had been a German cruise ship that provided cheap holidays to Nazis. During the second world war, it was used to ferry people to concentration camps. At the end of the war, the ship was claimed by the United Kingdom, and in 1947 it was renamed the Empire Windrush.
After the second world war, Britain was a ravaged wreck. The government started recruiting workers from the weakened empire to rebuild. They advertised cheap tickets—£28 (around £1,000 or $1,260 today) for one-way passage to London on the Windrush.
The passengers who disembarked from Windrush at Tilbury Docks on the 22 June 1948 would change British history. One, world-famous calypso musician Lord Woodbine, would later help a group of young boys from Liverpool get their start. He literally gave them rhythm, persuading them to hire a drummer. Locally, they were known as Woodbine’s Boys. The world would come to know them as The Beatles.
Another passenger was Lord Kitchener, Trinidad’s most famous calypso musician. As he got off the ship, a British Pathé news reporter asked the King of Calypso to sing. The song he had just composed—London is the Place for Me—would come to define the era.
“A beautiful place like the Caribbean, you come with the arts in your mind, consciously and unconsciously,” said Alex Pascall, a pioneering broadcaster who arrived in Britain in 1959. “When you come to a dim, dark place like Britain, you realise that you have to add some sort of life and colour into a country that just came out of two wars.”
The children who arrived on the Windrush and on the ships that followed travelled on their parents’ passports. While their parents are still listed on the ship’s passenger manifest at the National Archives, the children are not. Landing cards recording their arrivals were destroyed by the British Home Office in 2010, triggering an international scandal.
Each day of Carnival at 3pm, the sound systems are turned off, the bands stop playing, and everything stands still for 72 seconds – a second for each of the victims of the fire at Grenfell Tower
An estimated 500,000 citizens from former British colonies—including the Windrush arrivals—moved to the United Kingdom before the empire collapsed. They were granted indefinite leave to remain in the country in 1971. But when the Windrush-era records were destroyed in 2010, the British government made an entire generation of British residents into undocumented immigrants overnight. Many were wrongfully imprisoned. The government still doesn’t know how many were deported. The full impact of this action is yet to be revealed.
Back in 1948, when the Windrush docked, a man named Ivor Cummings was the only senior black civil servant in the Colonial Office. Cummings (who was openly gay at a time when this was dangerous and costly) arranged accommodation for many of the first arrivals in south and west London. He is the reason why they—and immigrants to this day—live in neighbourhoods like Notting Hill.
At the time, Notting Hill was run by slumlords. They charged high rents, but because few landlords were willing to rent to the new arrivals, they had no choice but to pay for the crowded housing.
“They were in shock,” said Isaac Eloi, a 26-year-old trainee solicitor and mas player whose grandmother arrived from Dominica. “They were colonised, they were lied to and brainwashed, so they thought England was this wonderful place, the streets were paved with gold … They were ashamed, so they didn’t often tell the people back home what life was like,” Eloi added. “They didn’t want to say ‘Yeah, we’ve moved in, and we can’t go out at night because the Teddy Boys will attack us’.”
Facing these difficulties head-on, the Windrush generation changed British law, culture, and society for the better, Eloi said. Their experiences led to the Rent Act, which was designed to shut down slumlords, as well as the Race Relations Act, the first British law that made it illegal to discriminate against people openly. “If they hadn’t migrated, who knows what Britain would look like,” said Eloi.
This year, as the Children’s Carnival wound down, the crowds swelled, quickly becoming older and tipsier. Sunday evening is for Londoners; people turn up to see old friends and meet up with family.
“It’s really beautiful when you see the same faces walking down the street all the time. You become friends,” said Keith Franklin. Franklin is the DJ for KCC and the Rocking Crew, a sound system that has been playing house music at Carnival for 30 years. “Because we’ve been there for so long, we’ve seen people grow up. You’ve seen people come, they’ve met they’ve got married, now they’ve got kids, and their kids come.”
Sound systems emerged in Jamaica in the 1950s, some becoming mobile clubs, pioneering new genres of music like ska. There are 36 sound systems at Carnival, many of them London institutions devoted to a specific musical genre. Franklin DJed from the back of a truck parked under a tony (fashionable) new apartment building with Caribbean flags hanging from the balconies.
Franklin came to Carnival for the first time when he was 10. He was in awe of what he saw. “Initially, we were following floats, and there were bands and the costumes,” he said. “Then I stumbled upon a sound system. I’d never seen anything like it in all my life,” he added. “With the bass coming right through your body, and shaking you, it was amazing.”
Also, Franklin said he had never seen so many black men together in one place. “For me, growing up as a young kid in early 1970s London—which is a completely different place to what it is now—it was an eye-opener. It had an emotional effect on me that stuck.”
Carnival changed west London. Many of the first immigrants who moved into the area stayed. They built businesses, bought homes, raised families, and helped turn slums into attractive neighbourhoods. In 1995, a one-bedroom flat on Portobello Road sold for £168,000 ($212,500). This year, it changed hands for £1.5m ($1.9m). Some of these wealthy new arrivals asked that Carnival—and, implicitly, the people behind it—be moved out.
“The people who want to move it moved in when it was already there,” said Franklin. “And they probably moved there because Carnival made it an attractive area.” There’s no way it could be moved from west London: “That’s where it started, that’s where it needs to stay.”
The neighbourhoods the Carnival passes through are just to the west of the historic centre of London. The right-wing local council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is notoriously apathetic towards its working- and middle-class residents.
In the early hours of the morning of 14 June 2017, a fire started on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower. The 24-storey building, constructed in 1974, had just been cheaply refurbished. The tower had been covered in what turned out to be flammable cladding. The fire quickly spread over the outside of the building.
Residents were told to stay inside their homes in the event of a fire. While many residents managed to escape, others could not. It took hundreds of firefighters 60 hours to put the blaze out. People searched for their relatives for weeks, papering the neighbourhood with “missing” posters.
Residents had warned, repeatedly, that the building was not safe. It needed urgent repairs, including a £200,000 sprinkler system. The borough declined to pay. That year, the same authority had spent £200,000 on legal fees for two wealthy neighbours who were feuding over noise from a piano.
From most of the major roads along the carnival route, you can see Grenfell Tower. Each day of Carnival at 3pm, the sound systems are turned off, the bands stop playing, and everything stands still for 72 seconds—a second for each of the victims of the fire at Grenfell Tower.
Carnival always remembers.
Yepoka Yeebo is a journalist and writer based in London & Accra