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DJ Carmen London on Notting Hill Carnival and making space for LGBTQ people

"A straight person will never understand what a queer person has to go through every single day."

2020-08-28

This isn't Carmen London's first rodeo. A quick Google search will tell you that she's been around the block, spinning decks and honing her craft since the tender age of 17.

Now 32, and with a tenured queer nightlife and DJing career, which includes a number of BBC Radio 1Xtra takeovers under her belt and a treasured spot as a resident Notting Hill Carnival DJ, and DJing for Kojo Funds on tour.

The global COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate and radically alter our way of life, rendering large public gatherings such as this year's Notting Hill Carnival (a glorious annual celebration of the Black British experience and the biggest street party of it's kind in Europe) impossible to hold in their current form.

But all is not lost. While it might be some time before we flood the streets in joy and excited abandon, this year, for the first time in the event's history the organisers have taken the Notting Hill Carnival experience entirely digital.

We caught up with Carmen to discuss how she's coping with lockdown, her career trajectory, and just what we can expect from this glorious virtual shindig. 

You're this queer DJ promoter nightlife aficionado - how are you coping with the loss of physical spaces and music venues especially when this is a rallying point for like members of our community?

I'm not going to lie, at first it was this big shock to the system. It was weird to be stuck in our houses like this, it didn't seem real. So it just felt really surreal. But I think I've slowly adjusted to lockdown life and after all this, I just feel grateful because of everything going on right now. I just feel grateful, happy because, you know, like, we have got good sun, got good weather. We can still communicate with our friends and our family, and obviously, things are slightly different, but doesn't mean bad. It can mean we've learned new things to do, [new ways] to be more creative, you know, so yeah, I feel great. I feel good. I feel happier. 

In lieu of physical events we are seeing a lot of incredible, creative and constantly evolving uses of digital spaces and platforms. How have you found engaging with this cyberspace?

Honestly if it wasn't for lockdown I don't think you know, I would have done Instagram lives. I wouldn't have met different people online. I wouldn't have done Zoom parties, I would have never done this there's so many other things that we've had to think outside the box that how can we entertain people? How can we still have raves? How can we still DJ How can we still do things, but not be in physical contact with people? You know? So it makes you think outside the box, it makes you start downloading new software, learning new things (I've learnt so much more about software!) People interact with you via [written comments], it's not really like physical but they'll say "you're sick!" [and you can feel their intent]. I'm definitely a people person, but I feel like we've locked down people's energy is still there. You can't fake energy. You can't fake people having a good time! Whether it's zoom, whether it's instagram live, whether it's [socially distanced] in a park, whatever the atmosphere is we can still show people a good time, be creative, think outside the box, and people are more willing to go with what your what you what you created and enjoy it and appreciate it. It's the little things that people appreciate now, you know?

Can you tell me a bit more about your relationship to Notting Hill Carnival and your involvement in this year's virtual celebration?

So I became an official DJ for Notting Hill Carnival about six years ago, and I think from there, my career's skyrocketed! This year, our sound system, Disya Generation. We have basically created a vibe: the same fibre, same energy, but in the comfort of your own home so you can see us DJing, playing all the bangers, r&b, hip hop, bashment, soca; we've got our horns, we've got our flags. Literally we're doing our thing! It's like we're on a float, but we're in a studio that has been literally decorated like you're at carnival, we've got the big speakers, we've got the decks, the hosts, everything. NHC Access All Areas is basically trying to recreate the carnival but online. We've got the steel pans, cocktail makers, people teaching us how to make jerk chicken. It's literally the whole two days full of fun: it's a whole mood for Notting Hill! I'm actually buzzing for it, I think it's amazing: the fact that we can still have something and we can actually rebrand and bring back the culture and bring back the original meaning.

There's this misconception that NHC isn't for queer people: how do you think that perception can be changed so more LGBT people feel welcome?

I've talked to a lot of different people and I heard different people's views on [how we make space for] the LGBT community at Notting Hill Carnival. Some people say, we need to have our own spaces there, and have our own sound, our own float where queer people, LGBTQ people can just be themselves: dress how they want to dress, listen to music and just feel safe and in a safe part of carnival. Others say, no everyone should be all together. I'm kind of in the middle, in a sense, because I'm, I'm a DJ and I work on both the LGBT and the [cis-het] scenes, so I understand everyone's point of view. I believe there should be a survey or something to say, 'What do LGBT people want [from their experience at NHC]?' Because at the end of the day, safety is so important. A straight person will never understand what a queer person has to go through every single day [when they step] outside.

You've been DJing since you were 17! How did you get your start?

DJing for me, started for like friends, friends of friends, [doing] people's birthday parties every weekend. So I feel like when I first started it was actually by accident: I was at a house party one day and the DJ kind of walked off somewhere. I'm not too sure where he went. No one was DJing at the time, so I thought let me jump into decks, you know! I didn't know what I was doing. But I jumped into decks and I built a vibe, everyone's dancing and I thought "oh, I like this!" I was still in college these times, so I think I saved up my money, my EMA money that I've got from college. I saved every single penny I could get, and I bought my first decks, and I bought some speakers--I bought everything I needed to be a DJ. I invested in what I wanted to do. I kept it up for many, many years doing house parties, doing people's birthdays and halls, christenings, whatever it may be, but it was never in a club. And obviously, as a DJ, or whatever field you want to be in, you want to do it professionally. You want to kind of try to make it your career, you want to make money off it, you know? So in 2013 I launched my own event, 'Bad Bitches. Yes, that's correct. So bad is when I launch my own event. And from then on, on keeping networking I've been talking to promoters, talking to other DJs. They got to know me, and I just started getting booked more and more and more for different types, straight and of LGBT events and show events. I joined a radio station called Pulse 88 Radio. From there, I got even more bookings [both here and abroad], people shipping me out to Greece, Jamaica, France etc. It just grew organically. I've never had any expectations or any specific goals in regards to DJing. I might have had a thought in my head, okay, I want to travel the world or I want to do tours, I want to, you know, be on the radio but everything has happened at the perfect time for me. So it just grew. It just grew through word of mouth and networking.

As a Black, visibly queer woman how have you found navigating the scene and the industry?

There has been ups and downs, but I'll say there's more ups than downs. I am a lesbian and I am a tomboy. I do wear men's clothes and I do have dreadlocks, you know, I'm, I'm very out there and you'll notice me straight away. [In some places] I've had [stares and slurs], but, I just literally give them a look. them a look or ignore them. I don't really put too much energy or focus into things like that because this is negative. I let my music do the talking for myself. So people don't look at me going 'oh but she's a female, what can she do?' So when I actually do go in and I'm playing the bangers, I'm mixing it good, I'm on the mic and I'm doing my thing, and people are like 'Rah you're kind of good you know? We would have booked you.' That's the best feeling, when people underestimate you, for whatever reason, whether it's my sexuality or the colour of my skin, or because I'm a woman [and prove them wrong]. Whatever it may be, there's always something people complain about, I realised that life, just focus on your goal, focus on what you're good at. And everything else will just dissolve. And that's the only time honestly so I just try to keep that. I try to think positive and not and not let people judgement distract me.

 

Any advice for young queer people who see you and want to do what you do?

They need to have passion, they need to have hard work. Passion is what drives you. It's what motivates you and what elevates you to work hard. If you've got a passion for something, it's not gonna seem like hard work. [Passion] is the main thing. and hard work is what kind of feeds your success. So whether that's going out to buy the decks, buying the speakers by the microphone, whether that's seeking someone to teach you how to DJ, you know, just putting in the work. Patience, perseverance, hard work and passion for what you do.

What's next for Carmen?

I'm actually teaching myself how to produce music, so that's what I'm trying to focus on right now. I've got the time I've got all the time in the world. There's no demand to be [anywhere else] here right now. So yeah, making music, events are definitely on top of the list [once we can safely have them]. Still doing radio!

Notting Hill Carnival 2020: Access All Areas at home this August Bank Holiday - Saturday 29, Sunday 30 & Monday 31 August, with guest performances from Koffee, Protoje, Conkarah, Stylo G and more. Watch it all at www.nhcarnival.org