This feels like a particularly intense year for London’s Notting Hill Carnival. Although it’s considered one of Europe’s biggest street parties – expecting an estimated two million people this year – many members of the Caribbean community that inspired Carnival’s political roots have been made to feel unwelcome in the country they’ve called home for years. If you’ve been following theWindrush scandal story broken by the Guardian earlier this year, you’ll know the basics. The British government invited the so-called Windrush generation of Caribbean people to help rebuild Britain after the war, with most arriving between 1948 and 1971. Each new arrival brought with them not only personal hopes but also vibrant traditions and music.
Carnival in London began in 1959 at St Pancras town hall, to celebrate the Caribbean diaspora that had blossomed in parts of the capital like Notting Hill. It came a year after the Notting Hill race riots, when Teddy boys attacked West Indian families at their homes and causes serious racial tension. Carnival later grew into a street party and parade in Notting Hill in 1964, soon becoming the massive three-day event you and every white girl gearing up for her annual attempt at a dutty wine knows and loves.
In a year that’s seen a still-unknown number of people of Caribbean descent wrongfully deported, on account of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” strategy during her tenure as Home Secretary, this Carnival feels particularly special. In a way, it’s fraught too, with most positive and more traumatic emotion. With that in mind, we spoke to members of London’s Caribbean community about the importance of Carnival in this particular year and how they’re looking forward to sharing and celebrating their heritage.
Tina Samuels-Edwin, 44: "Carnival reminds people of home, no matter what island you're from"
My family is from Jamaica. Though my parents met over here, they both came over as part of the Windrush generation as teenagers. My mum came here at 14, my dad at about 12. Neither of my parents liked England. When you're coming from a hot country, and then you come to this country, it’s too cold – it's a bit of a shock to the system. Also, what people believe when they are back home is how great this country is. When my mum came here, they spoke about the streets being paved with gold. My mum thought, ‘this is not gold, all I see is dog shit’.
Every Caribbean island has its own carnival, so Notting Hill Carnival reminds people of home. My mum used to go all the time. She started taking me when I was 14 and I've been going ever since. It's big, it's our celebration and it doesn't matter what island you're from, you have a float that represents you. You enjoy it together.
For me, I've always had it embedded within in me from a young age to know yourself, your background, and be proud of it. So, being of Caribbean heritage means a lot to me because I sit in between being a third-generation Jamaican and also just being British. I’m basically sort of balancing the two cultures. I keep a lot of stuff from my background and my family, but the bottom line is, I understand here more because that's what I know. When you look at it like that you have to accept it regardless of your parents. It doesn't matter which way you put it, I’m British.
I’m furious about the Windrush scandal this year. This affects my community and this can happen to anyone within it. They picked on the Caribbean people first because, as a community, we're not as strong as others so they thought it was going to be easy pickings to do what they did. If it was pre-internet, people wouldn't know. Everything is shared online now and people get angry together.
If you go to Carnival this year, seek and the enjoy the true Caribbean experience. Go to the sounds systems and check out the floats. They’re trying to take carnival away and make it a festival. Carnival is not a festival, it's just carnival.
Letisha Swamy, 23: "At Carnival, you can just live your best life"
My family is from Guyana. My dad moved here when he was six. So, he grew up here the majority of his life. He went to Open University, he works for BT and has been working there for nearly 40 years. He's loved being here, he met my mum being here. She grew up in Guyana and came her for a better life. I feel 70 percent English and 30 percent Guyanese, though I’m very true to my Guyanese roots.
My mum used to take me to Carnivals as a kid. When I was seven, my mum's best friend had a float, but one day we were in a crowd and I almost got trampled on so I wasn’t allowed to go for a while. When I turned 16, I started going back. I just love the music, I love the food. When you go there, no one cares, you can just live your best life. I definitely think the whole idea that it is full of violence and gangs isn’t true.
I think there will definitely be a different vibe this year because of what has happened with the Windrush scandal. If people don't care or people think a certain way to a different culture, I think they shouldn't be there. Have fun, look after others, experience other people. There’s so much to learn out there.
Jerome Bernard, 14: "People believe Caribbeans are 'ghetto' or violent – that's not true"
I started going to Carnival when I was around eight years old. I go every year. Sunday’s the kids day, but I tend to go on both days. This year I’m wearing costumes with the adults. I like going to Carnival because I think it’s a good experience to have. I like seeing everyone happy. It just brings everyone together.
A lot of people believe that Caribbeans are rude and ghetto, and that they are always stabbing and killing. That’s not the truth. They are the nicest and most accepting people. Carnival proves that. They don’t body-shame anyone, they don’t care about ethnicity or background. If you go, you’ll see what carnival is actually about. You’ll love the people and the costumes. The costumse are my favourite thing, and the music, because it’s a way to bring out Trinidad, where I’m from.
The people in Windrush brought carnival here and I think it’s amazing because we’re celebrating our ancestors, generations of the Caribbean people and 70 years since the first Caribbeans arrived on the Empire Windrush.
Matthew Phillip, 46: "I wouldn't describe it as a festival – it's an event like no other"
I am the executive director of Notting Hill Carnival this year, but I've been involved in carnival since I attended in a buggy with my parents when I was a child. My dad is from Trinidad in the Caribbean, and mum's Irish — both immigrants that came over here in the 1960s.
I'm as proud of my Irish mother as I am of my Trinidadian father. They struggled when they first came here especially in Notting Hill. There was a whole issue with housing. There used to be signs on the doors of houses for rent that said, “no black, no dogs, no Irish.”
Carnival is two days of the year, where people take to the streets and express themselves. For me, it’s a big expression of freedom. Rhaune Laslett, who started Notting Hill Carnival, is quoted as saying that the idea was that Carnival was an opportunity for so many people from different races and cultures to come together to celebrate. That is the true ethos of carnival. People and unity. There no reason to have these barriers of race, gender or what class you come from.
There is no other event like it, it's drawn from other events from around the world: Trinidad Carnival, the Carnival in Brazil and Jamaican sound system culture. It's unique and that's what people can look forward to.
In terms of Carnival being a festival, it depends what your interpretation of the word festival is. It is not a festival like V festival and Glastonbury. It’s different, it's a street event. That expression of freedom is about taking an event which is normally in an enclosed space to the streets. So, I wouldn't describe it as a festival.
Katherine-Michelle Showunmi, 26: "Carnival has the power to change perceptions of the Caribbean community"
I am of Nigerian and Jamaican descent. My mum was born in Jamaica and she came over in her pre-teens. My dad was born in Nigeria and he came over a little bit younger than my mum did. I grew up in northwest London, in Neasden, which was an area of high poverty back then as well.
My mum had many stories of going through racism at school when she was younger. She said it was very difficult. She didn’t have the opportunity to dream big at the time, just to make ends meet. My dad, however, he refused to let anything stop him from dreaming big.
I believe Carnival has the power to change perceptions of the Caribbean community to a certain extent, but we have to address that a lot of people don't believe they deserve to be here. A lot of people who feel unwanted. When Windrush first came in, people were promised a great life and when they came here, they were in poverty. They also came into racism, they came into being treated badly by the police and then the Teddy boys.
I actually know somebody very close to me that's caught up in the scandal. She's been in this country since she was two or three years old and she’s now 28. She missed her mother's funeral back in Jamaica because her papers were uncertain. She didn't know if she would be able to come back into the UK, where she's been most of her life. Carnival is going to hopefully make us feel loved again. People are embracing our culture that means they are embracing us.
Notting Hill Carnival runs from Saturday 25 August to Monday 27 August – find out more on the event's official site.
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