Side hustles – the ultimate millennial hobby, amiright?! Alongside my job here at Secret London, I volunteer for a mas band in Notting Hill Carnival’s parade, and have done so for the past five years. While many Londoners will be familiar with the all-singing, all-dancing parade on the August bank holiday weekend, there is so much more that goes into it. So, here’s a little peep behind the scenes of Notting Hill Carnival and five things I wish all Londoners knew.
1. You can actually be in the parade yourself
You know the people getting covered with paint, or dancing in dazzling costumes? They’re not trained professionals; they’re regular folk like you and I. Every year, Notting Hill Carnival Ltd release their lineup of ‘dutty mas’ Sunday bands and ‘pretty mas’ Monday bands, and you can buy a package to actually join one of the bands and be in the parade yourself.
‘Dutty mas’ or j’ouvert takes place on Sunday, often considered ‘family day’, and takes place after the children’s parade. Masqueraders (customers in the parade) are covered in paint or chocolate as they dance. ‘Pretty mas’ takes place on Monday, when the parade is filled with gorgeous costumes.
What’s included in your purchased package varies from band to band. I volunteer for Colours Carnival, and they include food, unlimited beverages, a brand-filled goodie bag, commemorative cup, access to their own toilets (IYKYK how essential this is), a security team alongside the band, and of course, either your t-shirt or captivating costume. Costumes are made bespoke to your sizes, and there are different styles to choose from each year.
2. It’s not just a weekend thing – it’s a year-round project
Over two million spectators descend on Notting Hill every August bank holiday weekend, but there are hundreds of people at work well before then, getting everything ready. We start our prep a few weeks after the last carnival has finished. What follows is 11 months of planning, preparation, collaborating, sewing, selling, building, and much more. From the fun stuff like coming up with our costume concepts and designing the trucks’ wrap-around, to the more logistical stuff like truck building and liaising with food suppliers, everything is done from scratch.
Part way through the season (usually between February and May), bands have a big fete called a band launch. This is where we present our costumes for the season ahead to the public, and start selling costumes. Behind the carnival itself, this is the second biggest event in our calendar. It is effectively a fashion show and party.
International Soca artist Bunji Garlin released a song in 2021, when carnivals around the world were on hold, entitled ‘Heart of the People’, which captures the sentiment perfectly. The lyrics speak to how many folk see carnival as people dancing provocatively, but there are so many other people who are hard at work behind the scenes to put on this event, and in some countries, carnival is a livelihood and only source of income. Also, it’s an absolute banger of a tune – check it out on YouTube here.
3. The reason we have carnival in the first place
In a similar vein, do you know the history of carnival? I can’t say I did before I started volunteering for a mas band, but it is paramount to understanding what goes on behind the scenes at Notting Hill Carnival. I just knew it was the one weekend a year I felt a stronger connection to my Caribbean heritage.
Caribbean carnivals have their roots in the celebration of rebellion against enslavement, with very early iterations dating back to the 1800s. This history of Notting Hill Carnival itself began between August 29 and September 5, 1958, when there were a series of race riots in the Notting Hill area. Less than a year later, Claudia Jones, a London-based human rights activist from Trinidad, put on the first BBC-broadcasted Caribbean Carnival in response to the race relations at the time.
This first one actually took place at St Pancras Town Hall, but seven years later, in 1966, the first outdoor festival on the streets of Notting Hill took place. It was organised by Rhaune Laslett, featuring a well-known steel pan player, Russel Henderson, and his band Sterling Betancourt, Vernon ‘Fellows’ Williams, Fitzroy Coleman, and Ralph Cherry.
4. The crime stats are often misrepresented
Sadly, racial tensions still exist today when it comes to Notting Hill Carnival, and it is most evident in the reporting of the crime stats at the event. Notting Hill Carnival is not any more unsafe than any other large festival, and the rhetoric that surrounds the event is pretty frustrating.
An investigation into the policing of UK festivals back in 2019 revealed arrest rates at Notting Hill Carnival were almost identical to Glastonbury, while according to Gov.uk, there were 209 arrests at Notting Hill Carnival 2022 – less than 1% of the total attendees. Of course, like with any crowded place, it’s good to have your wits about you. Is it loud? Yes. Is there an absolute ton of a lot of people? Most definitely.
5. It’s arguably the most freeing experience
On Carnival Sunday and Carnival Monday, I’m no longer a volunteer if I can help it – I’m a masquerader having fun. Just dancing in the street as music blares and I’m surrounded by my friends and family is one of the most freeing experiences. While I love feeling like an absolute Carnival Queen in a gorgeous costume on Monday, my favourite day is Sunday. Getting covered in paint and not caring what you look like while you sing and dance is so freeing, and worlds away from what we experience in daily life.
So, there you have it, a little look behind the scenes of Notting Hill Carnival. Time to grab your whistle, your brightest garms, and potentially a rum punch, and get ready for the August bank holiday weekend!