FESTIVAL OF THE FUTURE CITY: My Unwritten Rule
Grace on the right to the city and what Notting Hill Carnival represents to so many young Black Britons.
This essay was commissioned as part of a series in collaboration with Festival Of The Future City. Find out more about the festival here
It’s a weekend that strikes fear into the Metropolitan police.
Purported as the most expensive party and clean-up in London, the wealthier side of Kensington pull down the shutters of their three-storey houses to take refuge on a beach while two million revellers have their wicked way in the streets. It’s a weekend that strikes fear into the Metropolitan police.
This year, much like every year, the Met police reported a drug bust in a faraway borough, tenuously linking it to the celebrations. Stormzy and a host of public figures and journalists asked the question: how was it related? A Metropolitan police spokesperson told The Guardian’s Nosheen Iqbal, ‘We don’t know that these people were going to turn up at carnival’. Without any evidence to suggest a connection, they did so anyway in a subtle code that demonised a predominantly black event. Glastonbury, which has a crime rate of 0.05% to carnival’s 0.02% and is the choice festival of the white middle-class, never seems to get the same negative fanfare.
Carnival can get precarious. There are over one million people huddled into a small space, which is a pretty good cover for criminal activity. It’s hot and tempers get high as the alcohol flows. It’s easy to look at it as young black people taking two days to run riot, but it’s the only weekend where we can celebrate our culture openly.
How often do we get to parade through the streets to our music, eating our food, sporting our flags and dancing the way we know how without fear? Especially in plain sight of the London Metropolitan police, who on an average day only come in contact with people who look like us during a stop and search? A friend who lives in the area told me he usually avoids the route because he feels out of place and uncomfortable. I surprised myself by suppressing a bitter laugh. I wondered if he realised that I felt that on an average day.
Notting Hill Carnival has been embedded in my life since I can remember. Slung onto the shoulders of my dad in turn, my sister, brother and I would walk the streets with him on the Sunday, taking in the colours, the smell, the crowds. Booming sound systems propelled basslines into the air, fusing with smoke from the jerk pits. In the streets, dancing women shook all they had to steel pans. And at the end of their calypso, you could find them beside the float, shouting for someone near to refill the mysterious juice in their flask.
Growing up, our attendance was an unwritten rule. My parents never lectured on how important it was to see so many black faces milling through the streets, or the need for a reminder of ‘back home’; it was much later I learned of Claudia Jones, an activist who sought to unify the community following the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane. No, back then the only goal was pure joy, and that was enough to keep us going back every year.
No, back then the only goal was pure joy, and that was enough to keep us going back every year.
Well, almost. Once, a man no older than 20 pulled out a gun and sent the crowd into a frenzy. He was directly in front of us, and I remember mum grabbing me and running with the speed of an Olympic sprinter. That began a five-year stint of observing the festivities through social media.
It was only after this absence I realised how important it was to me. I went back, aged 18, and carnival felt like mine. The streets I’d walked with my parents had transformed. From ‘kids’ Sunday’ to ‘adults Monday’. No parents, no one deciding our route, and maybe a cheeky dance with a boy who I would only know for our one-minute encounter. It was pure freedom. Going for all those years filled me with a confidence. I was certain those streets belonged to me. It belonged to all the young black bodies united in making our backbones obey the beat.
To move freely, without fear in the place that we call home: that’s our right.
But of all the years, this one meant more than most. Carnival continued in the wake of the Grenfell fire tragedy, stopping only for one minute each day and to respect the silent zone that lay in the shadow of the tower block. As I passed the site, I held it in my gaze. Victims my age lost their lives. The young people from the neighbourhood who survived still have to live with the psychological and physical reminder of losing their neighbours, family and friends. They don’t have the choice to look or not. I can imagine some of them may have stayed away, but some wouldn’t have been able to resist the joy of stamping around their neighbourhood, just like I had for years.
What was once an unwritten rule for me is now part of my life’s mantra: it is important that an event as special as Notting Hill carnival continues. Fifty-one years after its inception, a bunch of young black Britons are still showing up to celebrate life; a life lived in their city. To move freely, without fear in the place that we call home: that’s our right.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on young people’s right to the city. Tweet us @rifemag and use the hashtag #futurecity17 or let us know in the comments.