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Carnival goers dancing together
Photograph: Universal Images / Getty

The history of Notting Hill Carnival: how riots inspired London’s biggest party

As the city’s best shindig returns, here’s the story behind the celebrations

Rosie Hewitson
Written by
Rosie Hewitson
Ellie Muir

Every year, over the August Bank Holiday weekend, 2 million people trek through the streets of west London – tinnies in hand – led by a soca beat thudding in the distance. Their destination? Oh, just this little event that’s actually the second-biggest street party in the world (after Carnival in Rio de Janeiro). With thousands of kaleidoscopic costumes, more than 50,000 performers, 40,000 volunteers, hundreds of parade floats and 38 mega soundsystems, Notting Hill Carnival is the best party in the city.

But it’s much more than just a party or an excuse to get piss-faced. Behind the origins of Carnival is a turbulent story that follows Notting Hill’s West Indian community after it protested at the 1958 race riots to establish its identity in London and unapologetically celebrate Caribbean culture. Though Londoners may come to Carnival without the foggiest of ideas about why the event exists, the political significance of Carnival is as important today as it’s ever been.

For Matthew Phillip, Notting Hill Carnival CEO, who started attending the parade when he was still in a pushchair, the beauty of Carnival is its inclusivity, he tells Time Out. ‘Seeing people of all different racial and religious backgrounds, whatever their sexual orientation is, everybody is at ease and enjoying themselves.’

Looking at the dancers in bedazzling feathers and sequins, the old geezers, the MCs, the tipsy art students in Burberry check, gun fingers in the air, it’s obvious why Notting Hill Carnival is the biggest event of the year for many Londoners. And no matter whether they come for the music, the food or just to shake a leg with their mates, Carnival’s charm is undisputed. ‘That coming together of people is my favourite part of Carnival,’ says Phillip. 

But before you grab your Red Stripe and hop on the scorching hot Central line to Notting Hill Gate this August bank holiday weekend, get to know the history behind the celebration.

August 1958: Notting Hill race riots

In the 1950s, Notting Hill was home to a large West Indian community following the arrival in London of the ship SS Empire Windrush in 1948. They travelled from the West Indies to the UK to fill post-war labour shortages. But the area was also a stronghold for Oswald Mosley’s far-right Union party, which included a large group of far-right, young white men, including Teddy Boy gangs, who attacked London’s Black communities in Notting Hill and the East End.

Dancers at London Caribbean Carnival
Photograph: Monty Fresco Morrowpix / Getty

1959: tensions rise

In an attempt to soothe ongoing tensions, Trinidadian-born activist Claudia Jones organised a Caribbean Carnival at St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959. The event had many of the elements that NHC has today: masqueraders, a steel band, calypso performers and dancers, plus the iconic Carnival Queen competition. But events in Notting Hill were about to take a darker turn. 

On May 17 1959, 32-year-old Antiguan-born carpenter and aspiring lawyer Kelso Cochrane was killed in a racially motivated attack by a gang of white men, causing outcry among Notting Hill’s Caribbean community, and adding impetus to the call to make Black Londoners more visible and more celebrated. 

‘We cannot forget that the only reason that Notting Hill Carnival exists today is because that young man was killed on the streets,’ says Clary Salandy, who runs Mahogany Carnival Arts, one of Carnival’s oldest costume-making businesses, formed in 1989. ‘There was a reaction from the communities that said “We need to get together.” That’s why Carnival is about freedom and making our voices heard.’

1966: a promising start 

Moving from a town hall to the streets, Carnival began to take shape in 1966. Community activists Rhaune Laslett and Andre Shervington organised a street ‘fayre’ for children in Notting Hill in that year and invited well-known Trinidadian musician Russell Henderson, who conducted an impromptu procession through the streets, led by the distinctive beat of calypso music. Together with elements from Claudia Jones’s 1959 London Caribbean Carnival, it formed what we now recognise as the iconic NHC: music, community and processing through the streets of Notting Hill.

1973: the soundsystems arrive

Crates of records. Stacks of speakers. Bassy vibrations shaking the pavements. Sounds of reggae, ska, groove, samba, blues, calypso and hip hop are what fuel the energy of Carnival each year. First arriving at NHC in 1973, Carnival’s soundsystems were pioneered by early musicheads Duke Vin, Count Shelly and Count Suckle, whose legacies shape the 38 static soundsystems dotted acrossed the NHC map today. 

Soundsystem at Carnival
Photograph: Richard Braine / Getty

1975: Carnival booms and booms

The tenth Carnival in 1975 was a watershed for the event: attendance jumped from 100,000 to 250,000, and it featured on Time Out’s cover for the first time of many appearances. As more soundsystems arrived, along with more bands, costumes and thousands more people dancing in the streets, Carnival was crowned London’s biggest street party.

1976-79: the bad bits

The authorities started to view the growing Carnival with suspicion. The Metropolitan Police arrived in 1976 with a large force of officers, which led to clashes between them and Carnival goers, leaving 60 attendees needing hospital treatment, while 66 people were arrested. 

In Time Out’s report of the 1979 event, we said that ‘the revellers were almost outnumbered by blokes in blue-and-silver costumes, assisted by a helicopter’. But if you looked past that, it was still ‘the best Carnival so far without a doubt,’ according to former Carnival director Selwyn Baptiste.

Steel band at Carnival parade
Photograph: Stuart Nicole / Getty

1980: Mangrove steel band comes to Carnival

As one of the oldest steel bands in the parade, Mangrove Mas Band always impress at the annual UK National Panorama competition, a musical jam taking place every year on Carnival Saturday. The tradition sees the band swell up to 75 members, who give up their summer to rehearse and perform an original ten-minute composition. At Panorama, bands can play any genre of music they like, as long as they use only their steel drums. While finessing their skills on the pans, the bands play to impress the judges and try to win the coveted title: Champions of Panorama.

Three DJs
Photograph: Jess HandPictured above is William 'EQ Profile', Linett 'DJ Thunderbird' and Michael 'Tempz' of Disya Jeneration in 2022

1985: the first woman DJ performs at Carnival

Linett Kamala, AKA DJ Thunderbird, was the first woman to get behind the decks at NHC, aged just 15. Playing at the Disya Jeneration soundsystem at Powis Gardens, W11 – one of Carnival’s oldest soundsystems that she co-founded alongside Michael ‘Tempz’ and William ‘EQ Profile’ – Kamala had no idea that she was making history while spinning records as a teenager.

‘I'm from Harlesden, which is the root of reggae music in the UK. I grew up with soundsystems everywhere,’ Kamala tells Time Out, reflecting on the first time she performed at Carnival. ‘I had been practising for ages leading up to Carnival so I was prepared when the time came. I remember scratching the records, playing electro music, then I grabbed the microphone and said “Make some noise” and I just felt, “Wow, this is incredible!” I think that’s the moment I got bitten by the Carnival bug,’ she says. ‘I just remember this moment of joy, I was absolutely hooked.’

Surprisingly, being the first girl DJing at Carnival didn’t phase the young Kamala. ‘Looking back, I didn’t think anything of the fact that I was the first girl to perform at Carnival, I was focused on the music,’ she says. ‘DJing at Carnival is one of the hardest things. I’ve seen DJs who have played to 30,000 people and they’ve just gotten too nervous. If you can really smash Carnival, it’s a good thing.’ 

‘Only now am I appreciating the significance of the fact that I was the first girl to play at Carnival, now that I’m one of Carnival’s board directors and people ask me about my connection to the event. It’s only over the past three years that I’ve told my story and seen the impact,’ she says.

1986: more than just a party

Carnival continued to be a form of resistance, as more people from outside the Caribbean community joined the event. ‘All oppressed people of the world are warriors,’ Mangrove Steel Band founder Arthur Phillip (Matthew Phillip’s father) told Time Out in 1986. At a time when the area of Notting Hill was experiencing 75 percent unemployment, and the police’s suspicion of the event continued, nobody could ignore Carnival’s political importance. 

Collection of Time Out Notting Hill Carnival covers
Photograph: Time Out

1989: Mahogany Carnival Arts arrives

Carnival’s amazing sparkling costumes are what make the weekend so recognisable. Costume-maker Clary Salandy and structural engineer Michael Ramdeen formed Mahogany Carnival Arts, a tow-person costume powerhouse, making some of the tallest (and widest) costumes in the parade. Today, Mahogany employs 30 people who craft 150 intricate, sculptural costumes that range from tiny children’s outfits to 10ft-high structures.

‘Each person in Mahogany does something; the sewing, the structure,’ says Salandy. ‘And suddenly this thing rises, the structure comes together. Every person has added something and when it stands, it’s just amazing. And then the person puts it on and it comes to life.’

Group dances together at Notting Hill Carnival
Photograph: Universal Images / Getty

1999: Destiny’s Child perform at Notting Hill Carnival

Tons of celebs have passed through W10 and W11 during Carnival weekend, but to imagine that Bey herself, Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett (these were the pre-Michelle Williams years) hopped on a plane to perform streets of west London is ridiculously cool.

Even a couple of years earlier, in 1997, hip hop heavyweights Lil’ Kim, Jay Z and Busta Rhymes took to the stage, which only confirms the global impact of Carnival, even 20 years ago. But when you speak to Carnival’s organisers, their fondest memories are never the big names that attract the headlines, or the amount of people that burst through the gates of Ladbroke Grove station, it’s seeing everybody (megastar or not) coming together to celebrate Caribbean culture year after year. 

Masqueraders at Notting Hill Carnival parade
Photograph: David Tett

2017: Carnival commemorates Grenfell

Following the tragedy of Grenfell Tower in June 2017, where a fire in a high-rise block of flats in North Kensington killed 72 people, Carnival’s organisers had to respond to a catastrophe right on their doorstep. 

‘It was a really tough, challenging year for everyone,’ says Linett Kamala. ‘We were all affected, we’ve got family personally closely connected to it, so it was very emotional.’

Carnival’s response to the tragedy was astonishing. The organisers coordinated a three-minute silence so complete you could hear a pin drop on the streets of W10. ‘Think about it: there were more than one-and-a-half million people and we got them all to be silent,’ says Kamala. ‘That’s pretty epic, to be able to reflect and focus on the positives.’

2020 and 2021: virtual Carnivals

For two years in a row, Carnival was forced off the streets and on to a dreaded pandemic-induced live-stream. Though its organisers weren’t together in the streets of W10, they were determined to keep the Carnival spirit going, through showcasing the finest costumes, dancing and music, albeit at a distance.

Carnival in 2022

Not two Carnivals have ever been the same,’ says Matthew Phillip. ‘Carnival changes every year. There’s an organic nature to it that’s so unique. It’s made up of a patchwork of 100 to 200 creatives and artists that lead and mould the individual masquerade bands, soundsystems or steel bands each year. And they have complete creative freedom.’

This year, Notting Hill Carnival 2022 kicks off at 10am on Sunday August 28 and at 10.30am on Bank Holiday Monday, August 29. If you fancy seeing the Mangrove steel band in action, head down to Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance Park for the annual National Panorama steel band competition from 6pm to 11pm on Saturday 27. On Sunday and Monday, the static soundsystems will run from midday to 7pm, while the children's day parade is on Sunday morning, and adult's day is on Monday. 

The words ‘cultural institution’ get tossed around a lot, especially in a city like London. But judging by the footfall year on year, Carnival has got to be London’s most beloved cultural institution. And this year, Carnival is going to be bigger, noisier and even more feathery than ever.

Want to join us at Notting Hill Carnival this year? Check out Time Out’s ultimate guide to the weekend.

It’s easy to get lost at Carnival, we’ve all been there. Here’s our route map and a guide to the area.

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