5 Performers & Organisers On What Carnival Means To Them

"There’s still that feeling of anticipation and excitement. It’s just that it’s all going to be digital this time."

by Alice Broster
Courtesy of Notting Hill Carnival

For the London's Afro-Carribean community, August bank holiday means one thing: Notting Hill Carnival. A time to come together, celebrate community, share food, listen to music, and, yes, party. As a space of relief and expression, it is the cornerstone for the community and for Black British culture at large. But, with the carnival becoming another cultural casualty of the pandemic, the streets of west London will remain empty this weekend. And the cancellation feels all the more heartbreaking after the events of the past year.

Like most other events this year, celebrations for Notting Hill Carnival 2020 are going virtual. The official Notting Hill Carnival website will host Access All Areas, a diverse programme of steel bands, costumes, recipes, and DJ sets, that will bring the party into homes around the country. Spotify has also curated a selection of Carnival-ready playlists, and Samsung is putting on an adapted version of Carnival in the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus on Aug. 28, too.

Here, five performers and organisers tell me what Carnival means to them and how they’ll be celebrating it this year.

Fiona Compton, Carnival Dancer

Notting Hill Carnival

"Carnival is a spiritual experience for me. It’s brought out an emotion in me that I didn’t find anywhere else. It’s a combination of the ritual of the preparation, the design process, music, and the fêtes. Usually, I think the few days before Carnival are filled with good stress. You always say you’ll never do it again, but it’s a labour of love. You’ll go to events, see people you only see once a year, and be finalising your outfits. There’s very little sleep involved.

Carnival never leaves us. Even if we’re not on the road; it’s ingrained in our culture. This year there’s a silver lining in that we can reflect on the artistry and love that goes into Carnival. Sometimes you can turn up on the day and you miss out on the culture because people are drinking and partying. Now it’s online, it allows people to look back and really reflect. There’s so much going on around Carnival that some things can get lost."

Melissa Simon-Hartman, Carnival Costume Designer

"I love to tell stories through my art and for me, Carnival is the best time to do that. I look at the streets as an open air theatre where you can portray anything. Even though we’re not going to be on the road, the essence of Carnival is still there. There’s still that feeling of anticipation and excitement. It’s just that it’s all going to be digital this time.

Normally, I don’t get the opportunity to attend fêtes like the others. Usually I’m stressing out, making sure everyone has what they need and they’re ready for the road. Costume distribution and fittings can be difficult. Once that’s out of the way I can breathe.

This year I’m still working on costumes, and once they’re all done and the launch party has finished, I'll spend some time with my family to partake in the online celebrations. In some ways, this year is even more inclusive because the whole family can take part – even my very elderly relatives and young family memebers. There’s no restrictions."

Rhonda Allen, Sheffield Carnival Director

"For me, Carnival is a personal and lived experience. I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, the home of Carribean Carnival, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve designed and worn costumes, danced on the street, and embraced every aspect of Carnival. It’s a love, passion, and part of my DNA.

I was super fortunate in that I went to Trindad this year and could dance in the street. Usually, in the run up to Carnival this bank holiday weekend, I’d be preparing to go to Leeds where I’ve judged on the road. Instead, this year, we’ve contributed clips for virtual Leeds Carnival. We’ll be coming together to watch the launch on Friday night in London.

I feel like people are already so ready for Carnival next year. They’ll be looking for a release. And because Carnival is such an expression of freedom and creativity, people will grasp and run with it in 2021."

Andrea Wallace, Carnival Dancer

"Carnival is a time for me to be me; to dance and to express myself. It’s like a wedding day, in some ways, because you’ve really got to prepare for it: you’ve got to get your hair and nails done, and there's a massive build up.

While it isn’t going to be the same this year, I think next year will be even bigger. I hope people will see the different elements to Carnival through the online celebrations this year and realise that it isn’t just one day, but all the parties leading up to it.

For this weekend though, I’m running a fitness event which we do every year, but obviously moving it online. I’m also focusing on the big launch in Piccadilly Circus."

Nicole Villaroel, Sheffield Carnival Director

Courtesy of Nicole Villaroel

"Carnival is a history lesson. You know where you come from so you know where you’re going. People might think Carnival is all beads, bikinis, and feathers, but it runs so much deeper than that. History is expressed in the form of art. As kids we would take part in something called Old Mas. We’d come together, create our own costumes using nature, and we’d perform for our neighbours.

You only have to look at people’s social media posts about Notting Hill, Sheffield, and Leeds, and you can actually feel the emotions. They can’t wait for next year."

These interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.