What do you get when you put 40 or so carnivalists in a room and tell them to solve Notting Hill Carnival’s problems? Surprisingly (some may think) not a cacophony of passion and prejudice, but a wealth of good ideas.
That was the output from a well-conceived brainstorming session organised by Reclaim Our Carnival (ROC) at Paddington Arts on Sunday 14 January. Those present included many well-known Carnival practitioners, so there was a wealth of experience to draw on.
Participants were allocated to different tables according to their knowledge and interests, so Soca News’s reporter naturally gravitated to the group discussing Media and PR. Between four and six people sat on each of the nine tables and had a couple of hours to come up with six key suggestions. These were then presented (after some very welcome refreshments) to the other delegates. The afternoon ended with a brief general discussion, which threw out more useful points.
The encouraging aspect was that everyone took the exercise seriously and worked together in a proper spirit of co-operation and mutual respect. Some of the ideas we heard were familiar ones, whereas others were innovative and new. Quite how they can be put into practical effect in the current conditions is the big question that no one can answer at the moment.
It would be impossible to cover all the suggestions raised at the workshop, but some common themes emerged from all the groups – though that doesn’t mean that everyone necessarily agreed with them.
On de road
There was a strong desire to return Notting Hill Carnival to its cultural and artistic roots, particularly by dedicating at least the first half of Children’s Day (Sunday) to children’s bands. Some felt that dutty mas could follow on when all the kids’ bands had completed the route, while others clearly believe that T-shirts and dutty mas have no place in Carnival at all.
A similar difference of opinion was evident when static sounds were discussed. Are they integral to London’s carnival and part of what makes it unique? Should they have a music policy, as the CMA imposes on soca sounds on the route? Should they be ousted altogether from Notting Hill? It’s a familiar debate and will probably run for a few decades more.
The clash – or at least competition for scarce space on the road – between visitors who come to listen to the statics and masqueraders on the route occurs because most of the sound systems are located inside the circular route. To reach the sounds and leave them, people have to cross and re-cross the route; some resort to barging through the mas bands, causing annoyance and risking injury from trucks, ropes and barriers. When the statics shut off, their crowds pile on to the same roads the mas bands are trying to negotiate. Neither side wants the other in the way, so unsurprisingly people get impatient and fractious. That much we know, but what’s the solution? One suggestion was to move the static sounds outside the route – but that would require the councils and police to agree to enlarging, or at least revising, Carnival’s ‘footprint’. The Royal Borough says its residents will be inconvenienced if static sounds spread any further, while the police are frightened of the consequences of loosening the noose they have put around Carnival for the past 20 years.
So we have stalemate, but the issue cannot be ignored any longer. Simply reducing the number of static sounds the authorities’ favoured ‘solution’ – without tackling the root causes of overcrowding will achieve nothing. In fact, it may make matters worse by concentrating far more people on fewer sites, leading to even greater congestion. The suggestion, which came from the council’s crowd control consultant, Movement Strategies, shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the way Carnival works.
There was some support for a return to the old (anti-clockwise) route and moving the judging point back to Westbourne Grove. Former Carnival CEO Claire Holder pointed out that the old location attracted valuable sponsorship for Carnival. Another recommendation was to reverse the reduction in entry points from eight to three.
Return to the roots
There was widespread agreement that traditional Carnival arts should get more exposure, both on the road and on the music stages. Education of both children and adult carnival-goers will foster appreciation of the traditional artforms, it was suggested; at the moment, too many people see Carnival as nothing more than a street party instead of a cultural event that comes out of a strong history. Education could be carried out by carnival practitioners, teachers and volunteers. While outreach is vital, premises will probably be needed for workshops and conferences, so there will have to be partnering agreements with other organisations.
Much greater effort should be made to show people who are ‘Carnival curious’ about the ways they can get involved, for example by joining a mas band or steel band, or even taking part in the calypso competition. The awareness campaign should be run several months before the August bank holiday, so that people can put money down for a costume or sign up for pan lessons, for example.
Greater respect should be given to steelpan by moving Panorama, which currently takes place in a cramped space on Kensal Road on Carnival Saturday evening, to a larger and more appropriate location, such as the Linford Christie Stadium in White City.
Talk yuh talk
The need to improve communications cropped up in many presentations. LNHCET and heads of the arenas such as CAMF were criticised for failing to keep carnivalists and the community informed and being less than transparent in their activities. One delegate asked for bands to be told what the judging criteria are and to receive feedback after judging; another said that the arenas are only be managed when what is needed is leadership. We should use the power of social media to contact and mobilise Carnival’s supporters directly, it was suggested.
For external communication, the Media Group felt that Carnival needs a dedicated media team. These would have to be volunteers initially until money can be found to hire in media and PR professionals. Use of volunteers would offer opportunities to train youngsters in the media, thereby attracting funding. Better branding would not only contribute to the event’s professional image but also open up trading opportunities – for example in Portobello Road Market in the heart of the Carnival Zone.
The priority should be to change the negative ‘narrative’ of Notting Hill Carnival. The event’s bad press comes about because organisers have been uncontactable during and after Carnival and have failed to create bonds of trust with journalists and broadcasters. As a result, national media often base their reports on press handouts from the Metropolitan Police, which aggressively pursues its own news agenda. That agenda will only be changed if Notting Hill’s media team is proactive and adopts a professional attitude – for example, by responding quickly and confidently to negative stories. The team will need to compile a database of contacts so that positive relationships can be forged with individual journalists.
A competition (with a suitable prize, of course) could be held for Carnival Journalist of the Year, it was suggested. This might encourage a better standard of reporting – hopefully from journalists attending the event itself rather than writing it up from a desk many miles away.
Making contacts will be essential if ROC – which, it was emphasised, is not a body of activists but encompasses everyone who’s actively involved with Notting Hill Carnival and the local community – is to gain political support. Friendly MPs, organisations, radio stations, universities, other UK and overseas carnivals and individuals, as well as ministers and government departments, all ought to be lobbied. Some form of standard letter could be distributed for supporters to sign and send to their MPs. (This approach, targeted on marginal constituencies with large numbers of Caribbean voters, was used with great success in the fight to revise the air travel tax known as Air Passenger Duty.)
Current policing policy at Notting Hill Carnival is chaotic and dangerous, the Sankofa group asserted. Delegates discussing the route and stewarding issues felt that heavy-handed policing this year created an atmosphere of fear rather than of safety. One example was the use of stop and search on the route, which can often be counter-productive, creating confrontation in crowded areas. This sort of security operation should be kept to the entry points and outer zones, the group believed. Police officers need to be properly trained so they understand it as an event rather than as a public order problem. Overall, the role of the Metropolitan Police at Carnival has become blurred and needs to be better defined, the group stated.
Stewards and standards
Stewarding (by contractor McKenzie Arnold) was equally of concern, with reports this year that there were stewards who didn’t know the area and who were not even able to speak English. Stewards should be recruited from the local community, and their role should be to ensure the smooth flow of bands along the route and to maintain public safety. Once again, poor communication was identified as a problem, so it was suggested that a proper command and control structure be put in place. Each band on the road should have two or three stewards assigned to it, who would be in touch with Stewarding Gold.
It would also be helpful to have clear standards for floats and music trucks at Carnival. Recognising that risk assessments, not to mention grant and funding applications, can be onerous, the larger, more professionally organised bands should be encouraged to lend their expertise to smaller and less experienced groups. Co-operation could also help reduce costs, through bulk purchase of supplies and services.
Tapping in to the Carnival diaspora
Notting Hill Carnival is part of a worldwide family of carnivals, so sharing experience and problem-solving benefits us all. Several groups highlighted the fact that Carnival is a year-round activity, and certainly not confined to two days in August as the media would have us believe. Many groups and individuals – mas bands, steelbands, DJs, calypsonians and sound systems – take their talents, their music, mas and dance around the UK, Europe, the Caribbean and even Africa, China, India and the Indian Ocean. In doing so, they act as global ambassadors for Notting Hill Carnival, for London and for Britain – and this should be celebrated loudly, it was agreed.
These activities should be showcased on a new NHC website, on its social media platforms and brought to the media’s attention in press releases. Appropriate links should be made with other cultural and historic events, such as the Windrush 70 celebrations this year, to keep Notting Hill Carnival in the public eye in a positive way.
The combination of a more professional public image and more balanced media coverage will help the event attract more funding. Attempts should be made to gain sponsorship from the many London businesses – hotels, transport services, supermarkets etc – that benefit directly and indirectly from Notting Hill Carnival.
Confrontation or collaboration?
At the end of the day, just as at the beginning, the message was clear: “We are in crisis”. Carnival needs a strategic plan, strong leadership. It was clear, too, where many delegates felt the blame for the current crisis lay: “We need to make clear we’re against the process by which RBKC chooses the Carnival organiser,” said one. However, that organiser has already been chosen and, so far as the authorities are concerned, it’s a done deal. Not so, some in the room argued: “It doesn’t matter what the authorities think they have in place, it’s unacceptable.” Another added: “They [RBKC] have no right to that licence they are trying to sell.”
We have to be prepared to work and to fight for our Carnival, was the rallying cry, but we were warned, “people are playing off carnivalists against each other”. Unity, though, is a hard thing to achieve in such a diverse community as Carnival, and as delegates chatted on their way home it was clear that not all were convinced that a head-on clash with police and councils was necessarily the right strategy.
During the afternoon, several people said that Notting Hill Carnival needs more input from younger people. That’s been a mantra repeated over the years, though to little effect. It’s hard to see why young people should bother to involve themselves in an event that’s been run by the same group of mostly elderly men and women for years and who seem to have no intention of letting go of power until the Midnight Robber finally tells them they’ve reached the las lap. The under-40s have been absent from positions of responsibility in Carnival for years, and the ROC workshop was no exception. So it was no surprise to find that tactics for wresting the community’s carnival from the grasp of the council recalled those tried in the late 1980s. How well they succeeded then is one for the historians to argue over.
The future of Notting Hill Carnival hangs in the balance. Will it be confrontation or collaboration that tips the scales?
ROC’s next meeting will take place on Monday 22 January from 7pm at the Maxilla Social Club for more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.