Saturday August 26, 2000
Nine years ago, when I decided to publish
a weekly African-Caribbean newspaper, Black Briton, I knew
there was only one way to launch it. So on the weekend of
the Notting Hill carnival our staff all went down to put up
posters, stick balloons on floats and flood the place with
At the time it was the place to make an
instant connection with hundreds of thousands of our target
readers. And we weren't the only ones: the Voice newspaper
had launched in a similar way nine years previously; and the
carnival was synonymous with the Caribbean Times, who gave
away thousands of papers, had their name on numerous floats
and bedecked the main music stage with huge banners.
Call it commercial if you like, but each
of these was consistent with the carnival's original ethos
of black people reclaiming the streets, in a demonstration
of cultural pride undimmed by racial hatred and discrimination.
During the 90s, though, things changed,
and the carnival of today bears little resemblance to the
idealistic hopes of its pioneers. Nowadays, the corporate
sponsors have moved in: Heinz Salad Cream, Bud Ice and Asda.
The official carnival guide is now produced by London's Evening
Standard, a paper whose constituency is 25% ethnic minority
but whose editor was fiercely criticised in a TV debate two
years ago for having next to no black staff.
Is it really possible to attract such sponsors
yet keep the carnival spirit alive? Not only that, but what
used to be definitively a "black thing" has now become, in
adman's language, "a glorious celebration of integration and
Yes, it may be true that they are expecting
2.2m people this weekend; but that means that, even if every
single Afro-Caribbean man, woman and child in the country
visited for one of the days, they would still be out numbered
by more than two to one.
In reality, nowadays only a small proportion
of the "revellers" are black, and an event which used to be
by and for African Caribbeans, now just has a small core creating
the music and the atmosphere, all for the benefit of a separate
audience like a music concert, but with a few more black entertainers
and where the customers get it all for free.
Just like Notting Hill itself, the carnival
has become "gentrified", somewhere young trendies go to show
off their "cool". Where once there was the ruthless landlord
Rachman exploiting the impoverished residents, today the streets
are home to rows and rows of property millionaires. Where
once August bank holiday was the high point of the year for
the locals, today the wealthy homeowners make sure they get
the hell out for the weekend.
When the first steel bands took to the
streets of west London in 1964, the problems highlighted by
the Notting Hill race riots and the murder of the Antiguan-born
Kelso Cochrane during the late 1950s had still not been resolved.
Soon Trinidadians added the flavour of their own carnival,
which had itself grown since 1833 as a celebration of freedom
from slavery and a satirical jibe at their former masters.
The Notting Hill festival grew in popularity,
although it never fully took off until 1975 when reggae sound
systems, brought in the previous year for the first time,
attracted far more younger people and increased the crowds
to 500,000. Shocked at these numbers, the local constabulary
(pre-Scarman inquiry, pre-Macpherson report, pre any admissions
of "institutional racism") swamped the area the following
year, sparking riots which have stained the carnival's name
For the next decade, the event was reported
in the media purely as a crime story (number of muggings,
number of arrests), although it continued to grow in popularity.
It was during this period that I started going, attracted
by the huge mass of people, the thumping bass booming through
my body, the smells of samosas, ackee-and-saltfish and herb-smoke
wafting through the air, and amazed at the utter chaos of
it all, with teenage boys charging through the crowds selling
Red Stripe lager from their shopping trolleys.
In 1987, however, a mini-riot and the murder
of a man following an argument over a Coke can sparked a media
furore which threatened the carnival's very existence. In
a compromise deal, restrictions were placed on the carnival
route, and it was forced to shut down before dusk (when, for
many people including me, the fun was only starting).
In 1988, dogged by years of underfunding
and mismanagement, the carnival was on the brink of bankruptcy,
its organisers forced out shortly afterwards by a new administration
which effectively ended the festival's years as a "community"
The new group, known today as the Notting
Hill CarnivalTrust, sought to maximise revenue through sponsorship.
But, just as I discovered in the newspaper business, it was
very hard to sell anything "black" to white people, and the
event became repositioned using phrases such as "cross-cultural
harmony", ","racial tolerance", ","cosmopolitan" - the die
In a way it worked: slowly, sponsors who
a few years ago wouldn't be seen dead giving money to anything
black began opening their wallets. This year, the carnival
organisers will receive £300,000 in sponsorship, and more
will go to the floats. But the donors aren't necessarily targeting
black people - their audience is just as likely to be the
trendy whites who now dominate the carnival crowds.
The whole thing has become a nauseating
display of mutual backslapping between audience and advertisers
for being so "cutting edge" - yet another example of what
the black academic Tony Sewell described this week as "a commercial
culture which doesn't appear to be able to market trainers,
CDs or mobile phones without a black image".
All this makes me wonder whether I'd ever
go to another carnival, but I would never want to take anything
away from the Masqueraders, Calypsonians, steelband players,
DJs and stallholders who continue to make the event such an
attraction for its visitors. They keep doing what they've
loved for decades and won't have their enjoyment spoiled by
the New Order.
On the official carnival website
there's an interview with Joanne, who's been serving up roasted
corn husks for the past 25 years. 1976 was a good year, says
Joanne: "There were a few riots, but I've never sold so much
as I did that year." That truly is the carnival spirit.