Notting Hill Carnival 2023: an oral history of all-female sound systems

Notting Hill Carnival 2023: an oral history of all-female sound systems
As the event marks its 50th anniversary, we speak to some of the pioneering DJs still working to make carnival an empowering and inclusive space.

With their towering, custom-built speaker stacks blasting a myriad of Black sounds from the Caribbean and beyond, pumping out a bass so powerful that it seems to rise from beneath the tarmac, travel up your legs and rattle your ribcage, static sound systems are a fundamental part of the Notting Hill Carnival experience. This year’s carnival marks the 50th anniversary since their introduction by Leslie “Teacher” Palmer, as part of a series of innovations that drastically grew the event and secured the funding required to keep it going. Numbers swelled from 3,000 at the beginning of the 1970s to nearly 50,000 by the end of the decade.

Originating in Kingston, Jamaica in the late 1940s, sound systems served as a means for young, working-class people to occupy public space and listen to the music they wanted to hear. The method: pack out a van with the necessary gear – generator, speakers, a turntable – then bring the party to the streets. Vincent “Duke Vin” Forbes, who arrived on this cold island as a stowaway in 1954, is credited with setting up the UK’s first Jamaican-style sound system soon after, and played London’s underground circuit of blues parties and shebeens that allowed the city’s growing Caribbean diaspora to connect amidst a backdrop of institutional and street-level racism. The Notting Hill riots of 1958, and Kelso Cochrane’s murder by racists a year later are reminders of the importance of these spaces as communal relief.

In 1973, when Palmer – a Trinidadian teacher who’d go on to serve as carnival director for the next two years – introduced food and memorabilia stalls, Mas bands and static sound systems to the celebrations, Duke Vin’s sound was one of six that played. “Mr Leslie Palmer saw that sound systems were the voice of the youth,” says Linett Kamala, whose association with Notting Hill Carnival began in 1985, when she became one of the first women to DJ at the event as part of Disya Jeneration sound system. “He was the one that really listened and didn’t ignore what young people wanted. Back then, sound systems really were the only way you could hear the music you wanted to hear. The radio wasn’t playing the music that young people were listening to. And the size of these constructed speaker boxes allowed you to really feel and experience music that you hadn’t heard before.”

Top to bottom: Notting Hill Carnival 2022, by Humothy.

While the introduction of static sound systems appealed to the youthful first generation of British-born Caribbean people, it also broadened the scope of Notting Hill Carnival’s celebration of Caribbean culture by speaking directly to the Jamaican community. “I think it helped reflect the experience of all Caribbean people,” says Marilyn Dennis, AKA Lady Banton, a DJ and carnival stalwart who co-founded Mellotone sound system – the first all-women sound to play at carnival in 1994. “To include that wider audience, I think it was a positive move, because sound systems were our experience. It [carnival] was something that had to evolve to attract and include all of us.”

In the 1970s, reggae overtook ska and rocksteady as the dominant sound of carnival’s static sound systems, roaring defiantly onto the streets of West London from sky-high speaker rigs. It became the most popular branch of Jamaican music both at home and in the UK, where its messages of liberation resonated with a disenfranchised young Caribbean diaspora, confronted by racist ‘sus’ laws and the rise of the National Front. In 1973, the year Bob Marley and The Wailers released Catch a Fire, the genre entered carnival with the introduction of static sound systems. “The various genres of carnival are all social commentary. Soca, calypso, they all have their origins in oral commentary on what’s happening,” explains Marilyn. “And reggae music is the poor people’s governor. To bring reggae on board, with all its social commentary, was something that had to happen at that time.”

In the 1980s, other Black-built sounds like dub – reggae’s reverb-drenched cousin – electro, hip hop, funk, lover’s rock and soul made themselves heard too. Norman Jay’s Good Times sound system and The Mastermind Roadshow sound system were early pioneers of that sonic expansion. Linett’s debut carnival DJ set in 1985, which featured experimental cuts like “The Word” by Junkyard Band and Warp 9’s “Light Years Away,” was inspired by her “heroes” over at Mastermind. 

“I was only 15 and had been practising with two turntables, scratching,” she remembers, laughing. “Scratch Professor, the soul singer Omar’s younger brother. He was 11-years-old and had to wait to DJ after me. We were just kids, but we were helping make history by bringing in that hip hop element. Propelling the MC, the rhymes and all of that, it can be traced back to Jamaican sound system culture.”

“My site is one of the busiest there is, and it’s always been empowering, because it’s driven by women. Look on our website, it’s just one bagga gyal!”

Marilyn Dennis, AKA Lady Banton, Co-Founder of the Mellotone and Seduction City sound systems (Photo: Notting Hill Carnival 2022, by Humothy)

Marilyn was fully immersed in Jamaican sounds in the 1980s. As a carnival reveller, she was drawn to Virgo International sound system’s reggae-focused site, and her own carnival site, which she proudly describes as “all Jamaican,” is a joyful celebration of the island’s music. She began developing her skills as a DJ during girls-only sessions at her local youth club in Hornsey, North London, after discovering a double turntable tucked away in a cupboard. In 1989 she formed Mellotone sound system with Julie Henry, AKA Night Nurse, and they made their historic debut at carnival in 1994 on Telford Road, where Marilyn still plays with her current all-women sound system, Seduction City.

“We only played on Sunday [in 1994], because that’s all we could afford, and we played out of this van,” she remembers. “We were playing away, doing our thing. And there was this guy. He took one look at us, kissed his teeth and carried on into Ladbroke Grove. We felt so embarrassed. But I’d love to meet that guy now, because he wouldn’t even be able to get down the road, it’s so packed. Twenty-nine years later and we’ve gone through all of the dismissiveness because we’re women, and we’re still here.”

Confronted with what she describes as “toxicity” from some of her male peers, Marilyn has fiercely and unapologetically centred women throughout her career. “My site is one of the busiest there is, and it’s empowering for young women. It’s always been empowering, because it’s driven by women,” she says. “Look on our website, it’s just one bagga gyal!”

Photo: Notting Hill Carnival 2022, by Humothy.

Fundamental to the vibe of empowerment she’s cultivated is safety, which she believes is down to her interactions with the crowd and the selection of music she blasts. If Marilyn sees harassment in the crowd, she will call it out. “I don’t feel no way to stop music and do that,” she says. “If you wanna drag up women and carry on a certain way, then this place is not for you. I never want a woman to feel uncomfortable on my site, where she can’t get rid of a man. I’ve experienced it myself.” Since her daughter’s birth in the late 1990s, Marilyn has promoted “clean dancehall” music. “I don’t mind innuendo and I don’t mind swearing, but I won’t play slackness. If a young DJ on my site wants to play those songs, they need to find radio edits,” she explains. In dancehall, “slackness” refers to the sexual content of some of the lyrics. “I think that’s helped me have the audience that I have.”

Centring women in sound system culture and making sound systems more inclusive spaces has been the driving force of Linett’s journey, too. “The reason why so many people were taking photos of me during my first DJ set was because I was a girl touching records. It was going against the norm, which was that women didn’t DJ,” she says. “Women weren’t visible in sound systems. They’ve always been there, but perhaps they were the ones providing the funding or working and supporting their partners who were running a sound system. But I’m very visible as a woman in sound system culture and I’m only still here because of my tenacity. So I’m always looking to bring more visibility and champion women around sound systems, and celebrate us.”

Through the Lin Kam Art Sound Systems Futures Programme, Linett has provided mentorship to some of the emerging young women DJs in sound system culture. Her first cohort made their carnival debuts last year. “They absolutely smashed it,” she says proudly. She’s also helped open a gateway to Black queer representation amongst carnival’s sound systems, supporting resident Disya Jeneration DJ Carmen London’s idea to give Pxssy Palace a platform on their site in 2022. “Carnival and sound system culture is supposed to be about unity, love and acceptance,” Linett explains. “So any discrimination is out of sync with it.” At this year’s carnival, Linett is launching the Original Sounds Collective with Guinness, to inspire more women to enter the scene. A host of women DJs mentored by her will be playing with Disco Hustlers on Monday.

Now in her mid-30s, London began DJing at the age of 17, has bossed numerous Radio 1Xtra takeovers and is well known on the queer nightlife scene. She’s been a resident DJ with Disya Jeneration sound system for nearly a decade. “I’ve always felt welcome with them, but last year I wanted to do more for the Black queer community,” she says. “I brought in Pxssy Palace – their DJs and dancers – and gave them set times. You could see the crowd change, with LGBT flags flying around. It was mind-blowing and I think the rest of the crowd embraced it.” This was an important moment of representation for Carmen and her community. “The queer scene can be white-dominated, so bringing a Black queer collective to carnival was really special,” she explains. “I definitely felt noticed and accepted by my sound system.”

“Carnival and sound system culture is supposed to be about unity, love and acceptance. So any discrimination is out of sync with it.”

Linett Kamala (Photo: Notting Hill Carnival 2022, by Humothy)

Carmen’s presence as part of Disya Jeneration has developed their site’s reputation as a progressive, LGBT-friendly space. “We’re not homophobic. There are sound systems that do play homophobic songs and they don’t care,” she says. “We’ll never play those songs. There is so much dancehall music to choose from that isn’t homophobic. Or you can just play clean versions of songs. We’re very conscious of the music we play and how we’re perceived. And I want people from the queer scene to know this is a space for them.”

Over on Telford Road in 2022, Marilyn’s Seduction City sound system was giving a platform to the youngest girl to ever DJ at carnival – 13-year-old DJ MLA. “That’s what carnivals should be like – getting young people on the systems, ready to evolve what we do and eventually take over,” she explains. “Having the foundation and the future there together is what it’s all about. And my girl is the youngest to ever do it. She tore it down!”

MLA tapped into her mum and dad’s love of music, most notably dancehall and soca, which originated in Trinidad and Tobago and is the music of the road at carnival. She taught herself to DJ during lockdown. “At that time, she was doing a lot of online sets via Twitch. Marilyn came across her and recognised her talent,” MLA’s mother Hasna explains. Plans were made for her to play a carnival set in 2021, but the pandemic scuppered those. “That gave her more time to continue working and perfecting her skill.” MLA’s carnival debut in 2022 involved playing on a moving float first, where she dropped the soca anthem “One More Wine” by Machel Montano. “That was my favourite song when I was in Year 2,” MLA says. She then legged it to Telford Road to make history with Seduction City. “On the sound system stage you really have to play to the crowd, so you’ve really gotta read them. All eyes are on you. There’s pressure, but it’s good pressure,” she says.

In sound system culture, pioneers like Linett Kamala and Marilyn Dennis have tirelessly platformed women in the scene, nicing up the dance across decades and kicking down doors for the next generation to step through. With the likes of Carmen London and DJ MLA, women in sound systems will continue to bring the vibes at carnival for a long time. “When people are enjoying what you’re playing, it gives you a lot more confidence,” DJ MLA says. “You feel like you’re in charge. It feels very empowering.”

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