This weekend, the world’s (second) biggest party returns to the streets of west London for the first time since 2019. Notting Hill Carnival, a British summertime institution, attracted up to two million partygoers annually before the pandemic put a pause to its IRL plans. A relocation into the digital world failed to scratch the collective itch for a true “carni” experience and, three years on — with social distancing a distant memory in the UK — organizers are anticipating a record attendance.
As ever, Carnival’s main events fall on the Sunday and Monday of the August bank holiday weekend, with the former typically noted for its family-friendly feel. However, the unofficial start of this year’s festivities is being marked by the National Panorama Steelband Competition — the only ticketed part of Carnival — kicking off from 4pm BST on Saturday, August 27.
While this summer saw music festivals return en masse throughout the UK, tickets to some of the biggest and best were impossible to acquire for most. Notting Hill Carnival, on the other hand, is a free-for-all, and music — the great equalizer — is at the heart of both the carnival and the Caribbean culture it celebrates. Those descending onto the three-and-a-half mile route this year can expect to find all the familiar sights, sounds, and scents that make the carnival so legendary. Freshly-grilled jerk chicken and ice-cold cans of Red Stripe will be soundtracked by a choice of 38 different static sound systems dotted around, and just off, the main parade. In compliment are the inevitable pop-up side-street parties, hundreds of parade floats, horns, whistles, and steel bands accented by a sea of dancing smiles and a kaleidoscope of intricately crafted costumes. Oh, and dancing police, if you’re lucky (we guess?).
Some of the unmissable stages returning this year include the Channel One Sound System which marks its 40th year providing the people with roots and culture; Deviation, the brainchild of London-born DJ and long-time Virgil Abloh collaborator Benji B, which is taking over the Killerwatt Sound System on Sunday; Rampage Sound, which is ramping up for another carnival roadblock; and certified carnival institutions like Cecil Rennie’s sound system, better known as King Tubby’s, is set to return return along with original dubmaster Aba Shanti I.
“Carnival is an important milestone in the year symbolizing the huge impact of Caribbean culture in all its forms and influences Travel site Trippin has created a helpful downloadable digital map featuring a curated selection of “the best sound systems, stages, parties, food stalls, toilet access and safer spaces across Notting Hill Carnival”, which can also be used offline in case of bad cell tower reception. We’ve also heard that community greengrocers Trapfruits have linked up with another Black-owned, London-based brand, BAYAB, for a special carnival punch collaboration. These will be handed out for free at secret locations throughout the weekend (so don’t expect to find these on Trippin’s map).
Rivaled in size only by Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval, London’s Notting Hill Carnival is a colourful, three-day celebration of Caribbean culture spanning the musical to the culinary and everything in between. Since the late 1960s, the annual event has brought together generations of Brits (and beyond) through a shared love and appreciation of “island life” — albeit a slightly sunnier version than the British Isles are known for. This not only reflects the indelible impact the UK’s Caribbean community has had on modern-day Britain but speaks to the larger influence Black culture has had on the arts across the western world over in the past century.
But, like similar celebrations born of strife — think Pride and the Stonewall Riots — the Notting Hill Carnival is rooted in a slightly darker place: the 1958 race riots of its namesake neighbourhood saw a 300 to 400-strong fascist mob attack the neighborhood’s West Indian residents and their houses. Post-war Britain was inevitably a period of great change, but the cultural shifts that came with this could not have been predicted: while Britain was on the winning side of the war, the British Empire was fast losing territory and in 1948 the British Nationality Act gave Her Majesty’s colonial subjects the right to UK citizenship. Soon after this, the SS Empire Windrush arrived at the port of Tilbury, near London, bringing with her the first migrants from Jamaica, many of whom settled in the then-dilapidated west London neighborhood the carnival is named after. These two events would not only shape the UK but arguably popular culture as we know it today, impacting music, fashion, art, and culture worldwide.
“This is the biggest celebration of Caribbean culture” Hypebeast spoke to a couple of long-time carnival goers ahead of this weekend’s event, including London-born photographer, Ollie Trenchard, whose work captures a side of carnival most don’t see: arriving at the crack of dawn, he shadows some of the vendors and performers working on behind-the-scenes build-up to highlight the full spectrum of love that goes into creating Europe’s biggest gathering of people. “Notting Hill Carnival coming back means everything! As a proud Bajan, this is the biggest celebration of Caribbean culture. It shows how it permeated all aspects of the UK from music to fashion and food. It’s such a unique event, it must be treasured.”
Leila Fataar, the founder of culture-catalyst Platform13, echoes this saying “(it’s) where everyone I know, regardless of age, color, the background comes together. Pure joy, pure vibes. An important milestone in the year symbolizing the huge impact of Caribbean culture in all its forms and influences”.
As always, expect surprise guests throughout the weekend. In 1997, a young Jay-Z surprised fans with an unplanned performance, and in 1999 a pre-Carter Beyonce Knowles performed with Destiny’s Child. Given the love shown to London by stars from across the pond, it shouldn’t be a stretch to think some will make the trip over for this year’s event.
In other news, adidas just released a special Carnival edition double-pack consisting of a Samba and a Campus, two of the brand’s silhouettes long-associated with dub culture, and Arsenal F.C. are launching a new jersey celebrating the club’s Jamaican supporters.