Notting Hill Carnival is still first and foremost a community-led event, rooted in Caribbean culture
Run by a handful of dedicated (mostly voluntary) organisers, and with no headliners, the event’s vibrant tradition is proving as popular as ever, attracting more than one million people on 25-26 August, making it second only to Brazil’s Rio Carnival in size.
Whilst Carnival’s Windrush-generation influence remains strongly evident, it has also embraced modern technology and new genres down the ages. The event is also the only full-scale carnival in the world to feature multiple static sound systems – a feature introduced in 1973 by the then NHC organiser Leslie Palmer MBE.
The first stages were organised by Wilf Walker in 1979, chiefly featuring reggae and punk bands. Early live stages featured performances from emerging talents Aswad and Eddie Grant, but the event has also featured electric appearances from the likes of Jay-Z, Stormzy, Craig David and Wiley.
The festival is also a boon for the local economy, generating an estimated £93m. Access examines the people and suppliers behind this world-class event.
The man behind the magic
Access catches up Notting Hill Carnival’s executive director Matthew Phillip to talk tradition, branding and young talent
How is the team behind at Notting Hill set up?
There’s a group of companies that form the festival, but no one is full time, we all have other jobs, but there’s seven people. Come August, it becomes a community-led setup, based in a community focused building that sees all walks of life coming through it. This is fitting and in tune with what carnival was set up for in the first place.
We have various partners in the Council, and our team works with Police, holding monthly meetings that never stop, then after the event we hold a de-briefing, then it’s back to the planning again, which involves everything from deciding on anything from the location of the toilets to the placement of stalls, and working with vehicle entry, the Police, Ambulance, carnivalists, bands and sound systems. It’s a huge event, but it’s also more than 150 little events linking together.
The event has modernised significantly over the last few years, with apps, etc. What have been the major updates to the event from a visitor perspective and what prompted them?
Having increased our technological innovations, and digital presence on social media means we can share the story of our community with a wider audience. It’s often misunderstood, so this is a great chance to convey how unique this event is. It’s not just a party, there’s a great magnitude behind this event and the stories behind it. It had been difficult before, but social media has been a great help in giving us a direct way that we can talk to the public. We’ve also changed how the media looks at us, and we’re very pleased the event’s role is finally recognised in bringing community cohesion.
Notting Hill has been influenced by the Caribbean carnivals from Trinidad since its inception, but it’s now a very different event that has grown organically through the input of many people over the years. This sense of freedom is also what has shaped it, so as organisers we don’t want to control too much. We want to encourage and promote artistry, new costumes, stories, and you can’t put too many controls on that. We support the true artists and our role is to organise and manage it and make it easy for them to get involved.
What sorts of changes have you made to make the event more accessible? Travel and logistics-wise.
A lot of the logistical elements, stations and bus stops, are already there, but we work to increase awareness. We produced an all new booklet this year that gives plans of the site, a schedule and details of any closures. We also have a dedicated app produced by Second Screen.
We make a lot of use of social media now, and give info to people on a variety of issues – from where the disabled toilets are to where the vegan stalls are. The app is a great way to do that as well and it makes the whole event a lot more accessible.
How do you attract big brand involvement and what sorts of guidelines do you have to keep it being too commercial?
We’re a not for profit, but we do seek brand partnerships and welcome the conversations. It’s important we maintain a balance, and are mindful of unsuitable brand associations. We’re looking to secure a headline sponsor, but they must be the right partner that upholds our values. We’re the largest community led event in the world so there’s a big responsibility. Certainly there’s a fine line between being commercial and public funding while growing the event in artistic quality.
We’re not in the market for bigger artists. Our aim is to attract more grassroots acts, and find ways to make the carnival a platform for these people. We provide a way for artists to get used to working with big crowds. It’s not an event that needs a headline act. We get the odd big act pop up but that’s impromptu. It must stay in the community and give younger people and designers a chance. We welcome organisations aboard that nurture talent and support this aim.
What were the highlights of the event this year?
Every person experiences a different journey, but there was an increase in children’s bands, and it was great seeing the future of the carnival shaping up. That’s where I began, in a steel band, so it’s great to support the next generation.
What big organisational challenges came out of the blue?
We’ve only been organising since 2018 as a company, but I’ve been involved from a young age so I’m not coming in unexperienced. There’s always different logistical challenges that cover all the areas of our expertise, but we have such a broad range of skills in our team with many people involved since the event’s inception.
In what ways is the event redefining itself?
The event is becoming more free to roam with greater opportunities for talent to participate and it is becoming increasingly easy to navigate over the two days. It will never become a stand alone festival in a green field; it’s about bringing people together in the streets of Notting Hill.
Stewarding: Mckenzie Arnold
Staging and hire: