Bless you for trying, Notting Hill Carnival, but a virtual party can’t satisfy true soca and dancehall fans

Like everything this year, the event has moved online. There were some great sets and it was a valiant effort, but only highlighted the contact we're missing

Last year, I got to see my community parading down Ladbroke Grove, west London, wearing their flags as capes. With alcohol, sweat and even a few extensions flying through the air in the hot August sun, it’s always safe to say that Notting Hill Carnival means guaranteed good vibes. Instead, this year, many of us anticipated spent the weekend sitting on our couches scouring the net for some cool alternative to our day-drinking traditions in the heaving heat.

Ready to (try and) save our Bank Holidays, Notting Hill Carnival went online – which initially seemed utter blasphemy.

At the very start of the UK’s lockdown (which, remember, was only meant to be a few weeks) carnival and festival season was our only hope of fun this summer. But as the lockdown got longer and the fear of the Coronavirus grew, everyone was ready to hibernate in their homes until 2021. Initially I didn’t know how different a virtual carnival would be to putting a DJ Larni mix and dancing to the riveting bashment or soca sounds in your own living room.

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For decades, Notting Hill Carnival has been a celebration of the Caribbean’s richly diverse culture after the ghastly race riots in 1958, when Teddy Boys openly demonstrated against the influx of West Indian migrants into the country. And the famous street party has happened every year without fail, turning a miserable thing into one of pure joy. There was a danger that virtual Carnival would simply mean watching others have fun.

And, true, the virtual live shows were mostly just a DJ and a MC behind some decks, shouting out to their non-existent live audience. If it wasn’t one MC, it was a bunch of them blocking out the DJ and having more fun together than I was on my sofa watching them.

There were a couple great sets, too, thanks to BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ Jeremiah Asiamah, who brought along a bunch of his friends – such as dancehall’s main star IQ and our own bubbling pop superstar Alicai Harley, who showed up looking like a twinkly star in her golden carnival costume. Harley performing her afroswing-influenced tunes to the camera – it wasn’t new to someone who, like me, has seen her three times in the past year. Yet while she performed nearly the same set, she was still an incredible watch. Exuberant as ever, she kept up with the high energy experience that was curated by Asiamah with the help of Island Records.

Plus, there was a bunch of new talent bursting with promise – especially Midas The Jagaban, whose viral ‘Come We Bill Eh’ has amassed nearly 1.25 million views on YouTube. Performing live, she’s a masked vigilante in the name of good vibes. Yet it’s true that other than the Jeremiah and Friends set, the lines-ups got a bit samey. Having the constant reminder that “we’re staying inside this year”, “we’re online this year” and even hearing calypso songs all about the coronavirus just rubbed in your face that 2020 isn’t a regular year.

There’s a sort of electricity you feel run through you when you experience something as great as Notting Hill Carnival was others in the flesh. The skin-to-skin contact when you’re dancing up on one another is, for some, the whole point of going to Carnival – catch some whines and grab as many numbers as you can to your heart’s content. A livestream won’t fill that huge void in the hearts of true soca and dancehall fans out there.

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Without the lingering scents of curry goat and nearly knocking over the coconut stalls, going to the virtual Notting Hill Carnival is nowhere near the 54-year-old street party. And although you won’t get jellied legs from the endless dancing for the whole day, sitting on your couch this August Bank Holiday could never feel the same as the real thing.

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