Molara WoodFriday, September 3, 2004
London, UK



arnival weekend has just come and gone in London. And since I was not in town to take it in, I thought I'd share my experience of last year's edition, below. Enjoy…

Two days a year, over the August Bank Holiday weekend, the whole length of Ladroke Grove, west London, turns into a river of people for the Notting Hill Carnival - a celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture. I met up with two friends and together we joined the flow and began to inch our way forward in the teeming throng.

We passed a policeman putting a young black girl on his bike so her mother could take a memorable picture. Come carnival time, the British police shed their cloak of institutional racism and become especially cuddly. At the Notting Hill carnival, it is good to be black, white, asian, latino, or whatever. Boundaries of age, race and gender are broken down, and the revellers become part of one multifarious humanity.

Amid the frivolity, politics made a stand: two activists were handing out leaflets about a film fund-raiser for the Palestinian cause; a huge anti-capitalist banner billowed from a first floor window; and men from the Nation of Islam, in their trademark suits and bow ties, were trying to interest carnival-goers in the movement's newspaper. In the week marking the 40th anniversary of the historic march on Washington at which Martin Luther King delivered his seminal I Have A Dream speech, the Nation's paper had a King related front page, but perhaps not in a way that would impress King's disciples.

There were herbal essences in the air. In one of his rhymes, the American rapper, Nas, once wondered what it would be like to smoke weed in the street without cops harassing. Well, he clearly has never been to the Notting Hill carnival, where it is not unusual to see such goings on while the cop nearby busies himself gyrating with one of the scantily clad ladies in the parade. Nas, a new millennium Black Panther whose lyrics identify strongly with Africa, would have felt at home in Cambridge Gardens W.10 - carnival's Naija corner. He would have been welcome too, since we Nigerians like to claim Nas (one of whose names is Olu-Dara) for ourselves.

From the late 80s to the mid 90s, I was a veritable member of an impossibly glamorous pack of young Nigerians living in London, known as the North West set. Though a large percentage of us lived in north-west London, the North West had more to do with a state of mind than a geographical location. Ours was a glossy crowd, but not without its rules and conventions, observed even during carnival. And in those days, Naija Corner was a poseur's paradise - everybody knew nearly everybody but one would not always acknowledge the other's presence. We were fabulous. Or so we thought.


As the nineties kicked in, people either became sick to the teeth of everything the North West stood for, or life caught up with them (in my case, it was both). But old habits die hard, and many former members of the North West set are now highly visible as Big Girls and Big Boys on the Lagos society party circuit, and on the pages of softsell magazines (I never knew it was that! easy to be Big). The rest of us, relieved it's all over, retreated into the soothing embrace of obscure England lives, and for some, this has meant avoiding the carnival altogether.

After staying away from the carnival for some seven years therefore, my decision to go this year was not taken lightly; and it was with some apprehension that I approached the place where many a Nigerian foot takes a carnival pause, Naija Corner. The territory was already marked for the motherland on Day One, with huge green-white-green flags tied to trees on both sides of Cambridge Gardens. Catering outfits selling jollof rice, suya and drinks were already in position, servicing the small crowd. It was all pretty easy going; the real test would be on Day Two, when the pilgrims land en-masse at this, their holy ground.

Day Two, and what a difference a millennium makes. It was Nigerian Corner, and how liberating it was for me to find I knew no more than five of the hun!dreds of faces there! The giant flags had been joined by small hand-held ones waved by many in the crowd, and the Nigerian football jersey was the outfit of choice for quite a few of the men. Dayo "D1" Adeneye could be seen filming the proceedings for BEN TV, a UK based Nigerian station; and Tony Tetuila's My Car boomed out of the massive sound system, above the usual cacophony of carnival noises.

Making our way through the crowd was like fighting through thick forest. A woman struggled past us, shouting at the rapidly disappearing back of one man: "Dont lost me o!" We reached a tiny clearing in the crowd and were about to take deep breaths when we found ourselves right in front of a presenter from BEN TV. Microphone in hand and cameraman ready, she asked us for an interview and we declined. Were we shy, she asked. Feeling sheepish, as we could not articulate our reasons, or the lack of them, we shook our heads and dived on into the crowd.

Fela's Gentleman came on, and the effect on Naija Corner was electrifying. The men amongst us started to sing along at the top of their voices, stressing every word, like they were trying to tell us females something: I be African man, original / I no be gentleman at all o. One neanderthal rubbed up against my friend to prove his point. There was much chest-beating and gesticulating as the men san!g. It was a declaration of unapologetic masculinity. I thought of the many women's anthems I have known, to which females have made similar declarations: Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive; Cher's Believe; the Emi O Ba T'orogun W'aiye chorus by KWAM; and the famous floor-filler by Salawa Abeni, to name a few. In the spirit of gender equality, I thought it was only fair that the men should have their own anthem too, and if they must, who better to sing it than The Black President himself?

The MC, DJ Abass, later introduced the group KUSH, who were on a promotional tour of the UK. One band member, Toyin Sokefun, was going to lead us in singing the national anthem. But as she started on the first line, the crowd made their feelings clear; they were not terribly keen on Arise O Compatriots. The MC did some quick thinking on his feet and asked us to sing the old anthem instead. To me, the old national anthem has always been imbued with more meaning, and has more resonance, than the new. And so in this little corner of England, we paid homage to our homeland by singing Nigeria We Hail Thee, in one voice, with feeling.

KUSH treated us to some of their songs then handed over to the Solek Crew. Naija corner became one big owambe party as the Solek Crew gave us their brand of juju music peppered with R'nB and UK garage influences, even the few whites among us could not stop dancing.

One lost looking brother stuck out from those around him and seemed like a non-African who just found himself in Cambridge Gardens by accident. That was until the MC cut into the music to whip up the crowd by asking: "Are there any Nigerians here? Let me see your hand." The brother also put up his hand, and, seeing the surprised faces, shouted for all to hear: "Ah, l'aiye! Omo Nigeria ni mi now!" The matter, shall we say, was beyond dispute. A white policeman passing through Naija corner caught the infectious mood. He took off his hat and boogied down owambe style for a few minutes, to the roaring approval of the crowd.

Things started to wind down and we headed home. That evening on the news we heard about a black woman whose leg was amputated only to be offered a white prosthetic limb. If she wanted one for black skin she would have to pay extra, she was told. The story was a dose of reality into the racial harmony of carnival; next day the status quo would reassert itself. But for the two days of carnival at least, it was great in modern Britain to be black, white, asian, latino, or whatever.