Notting Hill Carnival facing challenges says British activists

By Lincoln DePradine

Zainab Abbas and Ansel Wong

The future of England’s Notting Hill Carnival is “challenging’’ and there is “dissonance’’ around the festival, says Ansel Wong, a Trinidad-born cultural and political activist.

“In terms of the United Kingdom context, carnival can’t be stopped because it’s deeply rooted in the fabric of the society. It’s the major tourist event of London. It generates fantastic income for everybody. So, there’s no way they will stop it,’’ Wong, said Monday in Toronto. “They will change it. And that’s the risk we must look at – the extent to which we change it from a community festival into a tourist attraction.’’

Wong – who moved to England in 1965 – and Zainab Abbas, a British-born women’s rights activist of Egyptian parents, were the main speakers at a University of Toronto forum titled, “Survival and Liberation: Student Politics, Pan-Africanism, and Black Power in Britain’’.

Decades ago, the two were involved in activities of the Pan Africanist movement and were leaders of the now defunct Black Liberation Front (BLF), a revolutionary organization founded in North London in 1971.

Abbas, discussing life in Britain today, called it “a very bad period in history’’, referring to Brexit – the withdrawal of  the United Kingdom from the European Union – as being about people not wanting immigrants in the UK. “The racism in Brexit is white people against white people,’’ said Abbas, the first black Briton with her own public relations and public affairs company. “That’s why it’s stupid that Black people voted to leave the EU. It’s just ridiculous.’’

Abbas, a former international secretary of the BLF, said extremism is on the rise in Britain and Europe. “It is a very dangerous time (and) it’s really is not a good place to be,’’ Abbas told the forum that was co-sponsored by U of T’s African Studies, Caribbean Studies, and the Women & Gender Studies Institute. “There is so much injustice out there,’’ said Abbas. “It’s up to you to keep Pan Africanism alive.’’

Wong, a former board chair of the Notting Hill Carnival, is founder of a mas’ band that he takes to carnival in China each year. The challenges facing modern carnival, according to Wong, are “millennials’’ – the younger generation – versus “dinosaurs’’ like himself; and the police view of carnival as seen through the “national lens of terrorism’’.

“Carnival, in the last five years, its operational modus, its displacement and its occupation of the public realm, is very much defined by the notion of health and safety and terrorism,’’ said Wong, who now is advisory council chair of Notting Hill Carnival.

“Carnival then suffers through an imposition of conditions of participation that places more emphasis on its operational dimensions as opposed to its artistic and cultural development,’’ he argued. Wong added that the way he sees carnival, unlike his children and grandchildren, is creating dissonance.

Wong also referred to Trinidad-born Harold Phillips, a calypsonian and music promoter. Phillips, whose calypso sobriquet was “Lord Woodbine’’, was involved with members of The Beatles in the early formation of the famed British group.

“Lord Woodbine had a club and he used The Beatles in the club. He introduced them to some of the calypso rhythms and helped to really mold their musical development,’’ Wong said.