Black Britain’s biggest festival hit pause. But the music didn’t stop.

Why We Wrote This

The pandemic is forcing the cancellation of many community-defining celebrations. One of the biggest was to have taken place this past weekend: West London's Caribbean-flavored festival, the Notting Hill Carnival.

Toby Melville/Reuters
Caribbean soca dancers display their costumes as they promote the first digital Notting Hill Carnival, in London on August 28, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the annual parade, which has been held since the 1960s.

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The Notting Hill Carnival, held annually this month in West London, is the second-largest carnival in the world, attracting over a million people each year. The carnival showcases Black excellence, and celebrates and empowers Black beauty, in any shape or form. And it’s deeply rooted in the community, which is manifested by the many different generations that attend, organize, participate, and celebrate the carnival.

This year, like so many community events around the globe, the Notting Hill Carnival has been canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers instead held a “digital carnival” this past weekend. But in recent years, the official parade has featured more than 25,000 people dressed extravagantly, from colorful bikinis with feathers to mas, or costume, gowns, while performing in steel bands and dance groups on the elaborately decorated floats.

When Halina Edwards, who was born in Jamaica and raised in the Midlands of England, moved to London in 2014, the carnival felt like a warm bath full of community love. “It felt like a nice and safe place. But it’s also a moment to remind us why we’re here and the long history we have.”

When Josephine Julien arrived in Britain by boat from the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1956, she remembers encountering hostility from locals toward Black people. She saw written notices in the windows with slogans such as, “No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs.”

But Mrs. Julien was able to find a home in the Notting Hill neighborhood in West London, one of the few areas of the city where Black people could find apartments to rent.

So too, she says, were four young men who had formed a steel band on the same boat from Grenada. And in the 1960s, they went on to help start what was to become Britain’s largest annual Black cultural event, the Notting Hill Carnival.

Now, 54 years later, it is the second-largest carnival in the world, attracting over a million people each year. For Black Britons, even to those who aren’t of Caribbean heritage, the carnival showcases Black excellence. This is evident through the productions that take months of preparation and commitment. It also celebrates and empowers Black beauty, in any shape or form. And it’s deeply rooted in community, which is manifested by the many different generations that attend, organize, participate, and celebrate the carnival.

This year, like so many community events around the globe, the Notting Hill Carnival was canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers instead held a “digital carnival” this past weekend. It was the first time Mrs. Julien, now 82, couldn’t attend the Notting Hill Carnival.

But the event remains a fixture for her children, grandchildren, and most of the close to 600,000 people of Caribbean heritage in Britain. “It’s not only a celebration of our culture,” she says, “it’s our cultural heritage.”

Costumes and rhythms

There are varying personal accounts and narratives on the origins of the Carnival. It is generally believed there were several Trinidadian bands and masqueraders who paraded the streets of Notting Hill in those years. There was also an indoor Caribbean Carnival organized by human rights activist Claudia Jones in 1959, in response to rising racial tensions in London. Major incidents included rioting by white young men in Notting Hill in August 1958, and the murder of Antiguan expat Kelso Cochrane by three white men a year later.

This led to several initiatives being organized within the British Caribbean community that eventually all merged into what is now known as the Notting Hill Carnival. It is a celebration that is important to Mrs. Julien: “We have suffered a lot. This is the one time of the year we get to be openly proud of our culture and customs.”

In recent years, over 25,000 people dress extravagantly, from colorful bikinis with feathers to “mas” (costume) gowns, while performing in steel bands and dance groups on the elaborately decorated floats that form the official parade. The diverse and hyped crowds dance along with the soca beats blasting from the floats along the 3.5-mile route. The parade itself is surrounded by sound systems at different locations. The never-ending variety of Caribbean food stalls adds a flavorful barbecue smell to the festival. The cancellation means the city of London missed out on about $130 million that the weekend would have added to its economy.

Yui Mok/PA/AP
Juliana Campos poses in her carnival costume in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London, on what would have been the weekend of the Notting Hill Carnival, Aug. 30, 2020. The carnival held a "digital" version instead, which featured steel bands and dancers performing online.

But the cancellation of the parade due to COVID-19 doesn’t mean it will pass by unnoticed. Debi Gardner, who is of mixed Guyanese heritage and is a director of the carnival, says bands recorded their performances without an audience during the past month, which were broadcast during the online event.

Mrs. Gardner, who has a full-time job as a housing associate manager, gives her entire life to the carnival and the community that goes with it. She plays with the famous Mangrove Steel Band, named after the West London restaurant known for its fight against racial injustice in the 1970s. She’s been a steel band player since the early 1990s and is also a part of their management team.

The band practices twice a week throughout the year and, pre-pandemic, used to travel all over to perform. “We also do a lot of activities throughout the year for young people, and within the creative arts,” Mrs. Gardner explains. “So not being able to do that has been disappointing.”

“It’s a moment to remind us why we’re here”

The pandemic may have put a temporary stop to the carnival, but it is not the only challenge that the event has been facing. Since its launch, media narratives around the carnival weekend have focused on crime and arrests. Organizers, participants, and attendees feel it is an unfair portrayal. Data shows incidents are comparable to festivals attended by a more white audience, such as the famous Glastonbury Festival. And Notting Hill is shifting toward a largely white and affluent demographic, one that is less keen about having the parade at their front doors.

Halina Edwards, who was born in Jamaica and raised in the Midlands of England, hopes that education can help remedy that. “In my school, we only had one lesson on Black history,” she says, “and they put on the movie Roots. I don’t think they realized how insensitive that was.”

This year, Ms. Edwards joined the social enterprise The Black Curriculum as a researcher, and hopes to contribute to changing the way Black people are represented and spoken about. The project focuses on delivering Black history programs for young people, and has created a magazine focusing on the Notting Hill Carnival.

When she moved to London in 2014, the carnival felt like a warm bath full of community love. “It felt like a nice and safe place. But it’s also a moment to remind us why we’re here and the long history we have,” she says. “If people had a better understanding of the context and the history of why it started there, they might understand there is a reason why we go onto the streets and celebrate this.”

It’s still too early to say if there will be a lasting impact on the carnival now that it’s not happening for the first time in its history. But change is inevitable, according to Mrs. Gardner, who has seen the carnival become a more diverse and inclusive event in the 25 years she’s actively been involved.

One thing is certain: The community cannot wait for 2021. Mrs. Julien walked around Notting Hill this past weekend to pay tribute to the long history of the carnival. “It’s not only us losing out when it’s not happening. The carnival has always been a bridge between different communities.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our pandemic coverage is free. No paywall.

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