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The Notting Hill Carnival was canceled last year. But it likely wouldn’t exist at all without the efforts of Claudia Jones

By Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

From these beginnings, Carnival evolved into an inclusive annual street party, thanks to the artists and organizers who followed Jones’s lead. In 1966, Rhaune Laslett, a community leader in Notting Hill, revived the festival as the Notting Hill Fayre, which brought Russell Henderson’s steel-pan band in to the streets, in an impromptu performance that is said to have launched the Carnival procession we know today. Leslie Palmer, an activist from Trinidad, introduced Jamaican sound systems to Carnival in 1973, which drew in the larger crowds and opened the festival up beyond the traditions of the eastern Caribbean islands.

Mr. Prescod noted that, at the time, there was “real confrontation, great argument” about the inclusion of sound systems, which involved shows built around the ascendant genre of reggae, played over elaborate amplification systems. But the sound systems stuck, he said, because “this is what brought, suddenly, masses of more people” to Carnival.

Prescod also pointed out that, “Carnival’s got two sets of roots — it’s got two feet. One foot here in Britain and the other in the Caribbean.”

Indeed, Notting Hill Carnival was modeled on Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean, which were themselves “the intervention of the emancipated Africans,” said Attillah Springer, a writer and activist. Enslaved people in areas of the Caribbean, and specifically Trinidad, took elements of European masquerade balls and subverted them, using their own rituals and traditions to find freedom in adopting masquerade — or “making mas” — and becoming different characters.

After emancipation, many of these traditions were merged into Carnival celebrations, including J’Ouvert, a pre-dawn ritual of abandonment that often sees revelers doused in mud and oil. “For a lot of people (myself included) J’Ouvert is the most important part of the celebration,” said Ms. Springer. “It’s dirty and dangerous and anonymous. It’s also highly spiritual and unapologetically political.” Ms. Springer called Jones the “ultimate jouvayist … to situate her within that consciousness of the transformative nature of those pre-dawn hours.”

...In 2020, those days of celebration in Notting Hill were, for the first time in decades, silent. It was an especially difficult blow, given yet another summer of protests for racial equity and a pandemic that, in Britain, has disproportionately affected the Black British Caribbean community. As Notting Hill Carnival now takes place in August, there is still hope that Carnival might happen in 2021. But either way, its spirit persists. For Black Brits, it is “our Mecca,” in Ms. Compton’s words, or “our Christmas,” as a friend described it to me on Twitter.

At my first ever Notting Hill Carnival, as a young child held in my dad’s arms, I remember so desperately wanting to climb over the barriers and join the beautiful women sashaying down the road to the beat of the drums. I remember one woman fluttering her feathers at me. I cast her in a high regard that I had only ever previously held for princesses.


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