The street party that revolutionised Britain | Sunday Observer

The street party that revolutionised Britain

1 November, 2020

The Notting Hill Carnival is one of the world’s biggest and most electrifying, outdoor events. As it goes digital for 2020, Lou Mensah reflects on its historical and political impact.

This year, to keep people protected from the pandemic, the Notting Hill Carnival (NHC) will be streamed online as a series of events celebrating its origins and driving spirit. Even if people can’t gather face to face, it feels more vital than ever to channel that spirit.

This has been a challenging year, with the pandemic punctuated by street protests following the murder of George Floyd in America. How are we as black Britons to process these troubles and heal? In part, perhaps, by appreciating the strength of our community – which is where Carnival comes in. We have six decades of shared memories, that resonate from St Pancras town hall to the present day.


Carnival has always reflected the energy and activism of the times, while being many things to many people. My journey with it started in the 1980s, when my Ghanaian father would drive me from our home in the London suburbs into the heart of the street festival. Dad was a taxi driver, whose raison d’etre was conversation: he revelled at the chance to chat with more than one person at a time and exchanged a ceremonial ‘hello!’ with every passer-by, which left little time for dancing.

However, my experience of Carnival changed when I attended with my extended Trinidadian family. This was the early 1990s, by which time the crowds seemed to have doubled. I remember holding our cans of Red Stripe above our heads to avoid spillages, bodies pushing heavily behind us, as we navigated our way towards the sound systems. Our traditions of jerk food and dancing continue today, but the experience is now enriched by taking my daughter to enjoy the painted revellers and costumes along the parade.

To historian and NHC ambassador Fiona Compton, the origins of Carnival are revolutionary. They go back to the 17th Century when, as European colonisers held Lent masquerade balls, enslaved Africans staged their own festivities. But as Compton said, these were a form of rebellion.

“They would observe, mimic and incorporate their own African masteries, music, costume making and so on; a ridicule of their oppressors,” she said. “Within Carnival, there’s a mission of spirituality, a celebration of freedom.

The procession is the representation of the freedom of movement that we didn’t have before. There were laws that you couldn't use this skin or whatever to make drums, so the steel pan is an improvisation. ‘We can’t use a skin drum? Okay, well, we could use oil drums.’ Everything in Carnival is revolutionary action.” Compton was born in St Lucia.

She moved to London 20 years ago to take her place on a photography course at the London College of Printing, one of the UK’s most respected creative institutions. However, she was disappointed at the lack of Caribbean representation within the work she studied there. “I felt like, even within the active Black British photographers that they brought up during the course, I didn’t find it relatable because a lot of Caribbean history has a Jamaican focus. If you’re going to speak about the Caribbean, you’re put this under this one umbrella. I felt frustrated.”

Compton left university with her degree, but wanted to improve on the education that she had received and teach others about the Caribbean’s rich history. “What about people from St Vincent? The people of Asian heritage from Guyana, the Chinese Jamaicans, Guadeloupe and the Francophone Caribbean? They have little voice within the Caribbean narrative. In many ways in college, we were oppressed by the narratives that were being put forward about my own people. So that became one of my main focuses.” Today, she holds education workshops through her online platform.

Its musical impact

Artistically, Carnival’s influence on British music cannot be underestimated, via the calypso and reggae tunes that have been at its core. “When you look back, it’s music filled with bravado and political and social commentary,” Compton said. “Children who are second and third generation Caribbean see how their parents would respond to the music, or just pick up some of the lyrics; that has a lot of influence, maybe as much as American rap music.

“It is that kind of showmanship as well, you know when you are battling,” she added, referring to the influence of the sound system culture of Caribbean music, where members of different crews of musicians pit their skills against each other. “All of this develops into what we see in the UK music scene now.”