An illustration of a black woman dancing in a red, yellow, orange and green dress, with festively dressed partygoers all around her in bold colours.

‘Mas is for everybody’: why Notting Hill Carnival is so vital

In this extract from the essay ‘Welcome to the Masquerade: How Carnival makes space for everyone’, from the book Black Joy, author Isaac James digs into the historical roots of the Notting Hill celebration, and why it remains a crucial part of the culture.

Isaac James

To those of us second- and third-generation Caribbean Brits, the Carnival season is everything. Past and present, we have made our presence known with Carnival celebrations from Luton to Leeds, and from Cardiff to Coventry. The biggest of these is Notting Hill, which began in 1959 as the indoor Carnival spearheaded by Trinidadian journalist Claudia Jones. Over time it has blossomed into the biggest Caribbean Carnival outside of the Caribbean itself, with over two million attendees each year. Carnival becomes the hub of the local mixing with the national blending with the international.

Carnival is the one time in which all of the cadences and flows of the music rock your body and you can simply let loose. Everyone is on show. It doesn’t matter if you are fat, thin, tall, short, of darker or lighter complexion, whether you are disabled or non-disabled – Mas is for everybody. During the pre-Mas fetes and J’Ouvert events (the daybreak tradition of Carnival), we fling paint, powder and water at each other gladly: yuh cya play Mas if yuh fraid powder. This is a preternatural, spiritual and ancestral experience only comparable to the highest forms of human pleasure. The essence of the siwo (the effervescent Kwéyòl term for Carnival) is captured in the concentrated frown of your brother, the longing eyes of your sister, the flailing limbs of your lover and the closeness of our bodies as we embrace one another for the whine – deep, fast, slow and tender. This is serious business.

Since the beginning of time, African peoples have been at the forefront of great discoveries and creations. Pliny the Elder, the Roman natural philosopher, even commented that ‘semper aliquid novi Africam adferre’ – Africa always brings something new. Now, over six thousand kilometres away from their old home, the descendants of the Yoruba, Fante, Wolof, Mandé, Fula and Mandinka continue the great tradition of kwèyé hòd anyen, creating out of nothing. Each time I gather with my people to continue this four-hundred-year-old tradition, we make it anew.

Who would have thought that the greatest genocide the world has ever seen, the transatlantic slave trade, where over ten million Africans were kidnapped and trafficked into slavery in the Americas from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, would generate such an ardent culture, burning bright with the fires of resistance? Despite the multiple attempts by European colonial powers to crush the West African heart within the Caribbean, it kept beating.

Carnival is the tie that binds me to centuries of history and it means the world. I can be my fullest, truest Caribbean self within it, and the winds of the Ramajay, as Trini people call Carnival, carry me through the season. I feel rooted, like I’m a branch on a wide tree of my heritage, like my father and his father before him.

Carnival is a culture that belongs in the hands of the rebels, the downtrodden and those at the bottom of the pigmentocracy. The most predominant form of Carnival – or, as those of us close to the culture know it, Mas – began in the French Caribbean colonial territories of Guadeloupe, Dominica, St Lucia, Martinique and Grenada. The colourful masquerade balls and dances were a strong feature of the French ruling class of plantation owners who enslaved Black people throughout the Antilles in the eighteenth century. From Samedi Gras to J’Ouvert to Mardi Gras, when the French estate-owning classes visited each other they held great Creole fetes. Meanwhile, in a colourful and very West African fashion, our ancestors danced outside, imitating those who enslaved them, and enjoyed the few moments of respite they were able to receive under the blistering heat of the sun. When we do the same thing in the twenty-first century I feel such pride. Who would have thought that we’d continue to honour our ancestors’ traditions from the 1600s? No matter how hard they try, they can’t hold us down.

'Carnival is a culture that belongs in the hands of the rebels, the downtrodden and those at the bottom of the pigmentocracy'

I think about my childhood and how attending Leeds Carnival was a special trip. On the few occasions when I did attend, I remember my mother holding me close as my eyes widened in surprise at seeing people with skin tones just like mine celebrating the Vaval in fiery and electric ways, gyrating their waists in such a strange but rhythmic manner. I remember being around nine years old and asking my mother, ‘Mum, what’s that that they’re doing? That hip thing?’ She laughed. ‘Welcome to the culture, little one,’ she replied. ‘This is whining. It’s a dance and it’s how we dance.’

I longed to be one of the lucky children masquerading down the road on Children’s Day, which took place on Sunday and was the only day I could attend. I also wanted to go on the Monday, but my mother said that was a no-go. I didn’t understand why until I was about twenty-four and I first attended Carnival as an adult . . . and, well, then I understood completely. Carnival Monday is wild. Carnival Monday for us in the UK is Carnival Tuesday for people in the Caribbean. It is the fulcrum of the Carnival experience. It’s the day of Pretty Mas, when everybody dresses in their finery and the exquisite skill of Carnival costume designers is finally revealed. Every detail is on show, and if you are a masquerader your costume is the ticket to the hottest festivities of the year. The night before is the most exciting and spine-tingling. I always feel slightly nervous – I’m going to be on show. When I don my costume for Pretty Mas, I am transformed. I quite simply look and feel divine and everybody knows it.

Carnival as we know it in the UK is hundreds of years old. It was born out of the convergence of three movements of empire: the Spanish, the French and the British, after all three had colonized various Caribbean islands and enslaved Africans for centuries. Carnival in the UK is modelled on Trinidad Carnival, which came about after King Carlos III of Spain approved the Cédula de Población in 1783, a law that allowed immigration into Trinidad from neighbouring French Caribbean islands, giving slave owners tax breaks.

'When I don my costume for Pretty Mas, I am transformed. I quite simply look and feel divine'

Within a decade of the approval of the Cédula, Trinidad’s population had boomed to over 18,000 residents compared to a few thousand only a decade before. French planters, along with those they enslaved, and free people of colour all flooded into Trinidad, and this is where the magic began. The enslaved from different islands mixed with the enslaved in Trinidad, and a beautiful, much larger culture was born. It is this mixture of Caribbean people that we see replicated in Carnivals up and down the United Kingdom. As Caribbean people, we are always migrating and creating hubs and networks wherever we settle.

We continue the same traditions in the UK as we chip down di road with our call and response to the soca songs, the prosody of which perfectly match the riddim and the lyrics, replicating the chanté Mas while proudly singing the lavwé chorus. Like our ancestors of old in the Caribbean, we are the matadors, the djamettes, the red ochres, the bad-johns and the sensay who meet the djab molassie, the lansé kòd, the djab djab and the nèg gwo siwo that stain the roads black with tar and paint, donning chains that represent the cords used to bind their ancestors, along with horns to appear even more frightening. The anger of our forebears is alive and well. As we pass down each road, we flirt with history, reality and fantasy.

As we head to the streets, I am reminded of how, after being emancipated from slavery, the freed people brought the Masquerade to the streets from the estate. I think of how in Dominica in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in the towns of Portsmouth and Roseau, the labourers, fishermen and domestic workers were joined by the bands from the villages across the island to destroy the lofty behavioural standards of the ruling class. They would become loud, unrespectable and effectively uncontrollable people. The ruling class, also participating in Mas, did the reverse, performing as characters such as the nèg jaden, the field slave. People would take the opportunity to reverse societal status for a day, showing us that, in a way, class and identity are human fabrications.

'Carnival is a space where you can just be free. Everyone, irrespective of body size or shape, is welcome.'

There are still those who seek to reproduce patterns of harm by bringing patriarchal terms and conditions to the Val. There are times in certain bands and spaces where people feel entitled to women and objectify them, or dominate over queer and trans people. It is common to hear people speak on social media of how they have felt uncomfortable after experiencing violence at the hands of men when attending Carnival, and these traumatizing experiences make people not want to attend in the future. But what I love most about Carnival is that there is great power and liberation within it. Women create safety units to whine and to enjoy being together. There is no trouble, simply enjoyment. Queer and trans people build whining circles where we let freedom reign. It is a space where you can just be free. Everyone, irrespective of body size or shape, is welcome.

Carnival represents the ever-expansive potential of African creativity even under the worst circumstances. They say it takes extreme pressure to create a diamond; Carnival culture is one created out of the most extreme stresses any human could ever endure, and at Carnival there are millions of diamonds shining bright. This is the one time where we can forget about the pain we endure. From sunrise, we are bards turning stories into a beautiful chorus, harmonising in unison. I feel at peace with my friends and those who respect the culture.

It is at the closing of the day, when I am on my way home at sunset, that I am reminded that this is the greatest show on earth . . . and I’m damn proud.


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Illustration: Eugenia Mello for Penguin

This extract is an edited version of Isaac James’ essay ‘Welcome to the Masquerade: How Carnival makes space for everyone’ from the book Black Joy, edited by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and Timi Sotire (out 2 September 2021).

Isaac James is a writer and lawyer, and the co-founder of the Black Men in Law Network.  

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