Why I love Notting Hill Carnival

Notting Hill Carnival is both a physical, and spiritual embodiment of my ancestral traditions; a concrete roadmap to my awareness of self. At times where it may be difficult to find my place in the world, the Carnival is both the light that shows me where that place is, and the bridge to get there.

The Mangrove Steel Band, the steel orchestra I had played for during my late teens and early adult life, had won the 2011 Panorama Steel Drum competition, after many years of battling against formidable opponents. The band played an integral role in my personal growth. Learning a 9 minute orchestral piece, and preparing that performance takes months of discipline and physical human-power, all amidst a 9 to 5 or academic studies. (Setting up instruments whose average weight were 20kg meant that we didn’t need gym memberships).

The growth I saw in myself as a man, was the growth I saw in the band as a family, as the faces of fatigue and frustration, turned to embraces, and tears of joy, when the judges announced that we had won.

It’s hard to discover my first carnival experience, as I have never missed a carnival since birth, largely due to always having lived 30 seconds walk from Portobello Road (Portobello Market). My earliest experiences were either 5am wake up calls to help set up my mum’s food stand. If not that, then watching Bashy perform his underground smash and empowerment record “Black Boys” for the first time on the infamous Rampage Sound stage.

From the perspective of a musician, the music of the islands such as Trinidad, Grenada, St Lucia and many others, tends to be Soca, and at times, Calypso oriented. The black sound of London however, finds its home in Grime, Afro-Swing, and going further back to UK Garage, Jungle, and eventually Dancehall and the many colours of Reggae (Dub, Revival, Ska). NHC in my opinion, is unique mainly because of its marriage between the world of afro-Caribbean culture, and its home today.

Therefore, there is no outdoor period of celebration on planet earth, other than here, that has both a historical and contemporary celebration of black music, black history, and black culture, in such density, or variety.

And that is my favourite thing about the NHC experience.

A lowkey legend, Shakka has long been the featured artist of choice for anyone after a touch of authentic British RnB, but after celebrating a massive year with platinum hit Man Down, co-writing Ella Eyre’s hit single Answerphone, bagging his first publishing deal with Black Butter and signing with iconic Island Records, this homegrown hero is finally getting the mainstream love he deserves. He might already have two MOBOs for Best RnB/Soul Artist already sitting in his studio and a stack of collaborations with some of the UK’s greatest urban artists – we’re talking Wiley, Jme, Idris Elba, AlunaGeorge, Basement Jaxx, Ghetts and more – but Shakka is now prepping what’s set to be the biggest achievement of his storied career so far; his own debut album.

“It’s mad, because I’ve always been putting out music, so it doesn’t feel that crazy or like it’s taken ages,” explains Shakka of the long-time-coming release, which follows acclaimed EPs The Lost Boys (2015) and The Island (2016). Set to come out in the middle of 2020, the album will see the Ladbroke Grove songwriter plugging into his authentic self and letting his powerful vocal take centre stage as well as making time and space for vulnerability, not forgetting a bunch of massive summer R&B bangers.

But first let’s take stock of Shakka’s incredible accomplishments to date. He burst into public consciousness with trademark panache, guesting on musical mentor Wretch 32’s mellow hit Blackout, his smooth delivery taking the track straight into the Top 10. Then there were the three years he spent travelling the world with Basement Jaxx, fronting not only Rock This Road, his track from the dance duo’s last album Junto, but also timeless tunes like Jump and Shout. “I learned so much from both of those artists,” beams Shakka gratefully. “Plus it meant I could pay my phone bill!”

Or how about the Spandau Ballet-sampling belter Say Nada, his seriously decent silver-selling collab with BBK’s elusive Jme, which has racked up a cool 9 million YouTube plays? Or that guest spot on the zingy Wide Awake from Idris Elba’s Luther-inspired album Murdah Loves John? We can’t not mention Wiley calling him up last year to get him on the clubby Certified, one of the highlights of Godfather II. Then there’s AlunaGeorge, who added her airy vocals to Shakka’s pop-inflected Man Down, which has since gone platinum and Sean Paul, for who Shakka wrote the Stefflon Don collab Shot & Wine. Most recently Nigeria’s biggest export Mr Eazi joined the Shakka fanclub, firing over a verse for his last single, the Afrobeats inflected Too Bad Bad.

Then there’s the stuff you might not even know about, like the fact that Shakka wrote the theme tune for Michaela Coel’s BAFTA Award winning sitcom Chewing Gum, the pair firm friends since appearing together in the National Theatre’s production of Home. Perhaps most importantly of all, he was one of the Artists For Grenfell, taking part in not just the charity single with Stormzy and Rita Ora, but also helping out the day after the tragedy, bringing water and clothing to victims of the disaster, which happened only streets away from his own home.

Growing up in a house filled with the booming sounds of dub, thanks to a Rastafarian father who moved from Dominica to Notting Hill in the 1960s and made his own tunes, music has always been in Shakka’s blood. “I was a child of the reggae scene and of a unique cosmopolitan bubble comprised of people from many different parts of the world; a Turkish scene, an Eritrean scene, an Italian scene, a Chinese scene, a Polish scene,” he explains. “The ranges of races and cultures where I grew up was like Skittles.” It’s this global perspective that’s funnelled into Shakka’s own inclusive sound, as well the rap his big brother played, the garage and Kate Bush his older sister introduced him to and schoolmates who listened to everything from Incubus and Blink 182 to Gorillaz. “I’d be like woah, Blur’s kinda cool and Travis sounds really nice... ”. As for his dad, well, he’s still making music too. “I taught him Logic and he smokes and makes dub riddims,” laughs Shakka. “If there’s anyone whose lifestyle I’d like to follow when I’m 72, it’s him!”

Before that happens though Shakka has important work to do. His current sound is a mixture of many things, with Sade, Khalid and SBTRKT all in heavy rotation while he was writing the new record. When it comes to flow and delivery it’s set to be a very British R&B album, but there’ll also be a strong Carribean element, with dancehall, soca and calypso adding to the unforgivably uptempo vibe.

Lyrically though, you can expect to hear something rare when it comes to British R&B – a certain vulnerability. “It’s definitely coming from the place of a semi-introverted nerd, who couldn’t quite find his place in the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” explains Shakka, who’ll be leaving textbook braggadocio and swagger behind in favour of something more expressive and real.

“I want to challenge hyper-masculinity,” he states. “If you’re black and you’re doing music in the UK, 8 times out of 10 you’re expected to have a bustdown, a luxury watch that’s worth more than £6K. You’re expected to drive the whip that’s very difficult to get. You’re expected to go to a venue at least five man deep. You’re expected to boost yourself up – even if you’re going through mental anguish or don’t have the money in your account.” That kind of extreme pressure, says Shakka, has led to artists losing their way, both in their career and in their state of mind. “It’s very easy to look over your shoulder and be scared to do you but people have crumbled under that sort of pressure. I want to change the status quo because a lot of us don’t fit that brand.” This then, is Shakka 2020, a man comfortable with not being comfortable and an artist ready to truly shake things up.