Some individuals are visionaries, can think about making decisions that will impact generations. That is the mindset of some of the most wealthy families and business men on the planet. They are not just thinking about securing for themselves and their children, but their children’s children and so on. They think about generational security. And I can’t help but wonder what the security of Notting Hill Carnival would look like if certain structures had been put in place and pivotal decisions were NOT made. Make no mistake, Wilf Walker was a visionary whether others want to admit it or not. He knew about the power of content and ownership decades before the rise of Information Technology/social media and the phrase ‘Content is King’ was coined.
This man’s early beginnings has not been easy. He has lived. Maybe that’s why he was able to have such insight and clarity and look well into the future. To condense all what this man said into this short article is my criminal offence. A necessary offence. But here it is. Wilf invites us into his home to have a conversation.
I love your home. Is this space reflective of you? Yes, pretty much. For me the location is perfect. Across the road is the sports centre and I swim every day, between 1000m and 1500m. I started swimming in my early 40s as I started having back problems. My osteopath said, ‘Look Wilf, I can keep taking your money, but I suggest you learn how to swim’. So, I did.
Are you a bit of a traveller? That is a big map. [Wilf has a full wall sized map of the world] Well, I don’t go too far these days. I stay within the Mediterranean basin now. I ‘ve just returned from Malta, I’ve been to Spain and will be going to Cape Verde at the end of the year. I’d go to the Caribbean, Ghana. I’ve been as far as Caledonia. I’m 73 but will be 74 next month.
You’ve done so much in your life… Well I haven’t done that much. Let me tell you something, basically if I had ever been afforded an opportunity, ever, I would have done more.
Is there anything you really would have liked to have done? Well for example, Notting Hill Carnival. I used to work with Michael Leavers in the early days of Glastonbury before it began to be successful. At the point where I got involved, that’s when it turned around and started to make a profit, that was 1981. The year I worked with Michael, I was chair of carnival. Glastonbury is the biggest festival in the world. But I got more involved in Notting Hill. And that is one of my regrets.
Do you have other regrets? I did a festival for Nelson Mandela in 1984. That was at a time when Nelson Mandela was still considered a terrorist. I managed to get 7000 people at Crystal Palace Concert Bowl. But 7000 in that venue is not a successful event, you need 10,000. Or more.
That number remains quite formidable. How did you do that, despite all the odds in those days? I got my strength from my formative years, my early past. I came to this country when I was 16 and the first nine, ten years of my life here was very difficult. The only thing I had in terms of introduction was a letter from my parish priest when I came to England, from my church and I was a very active member of my community. Talking to you… because you are talking to me like for real, in terms of what it is about, I only feel sadness. I get all kinds of reputation out there, people say all things about me. One thing I regret is putting my name on the posters, because they think you have money. But I had been invisible for so long, I wanted profile. But then I didn’t have anyone to guide me in any way. I felt that I had suffered so much injustice that I had to fight my corner.
Why did you decide on a stage? After carnival those days 1977,78, people didn’t want to leave. Tuesday, Wednesday after carnival, people still hung around. After the riots, the police tried to change all that. They had the shields and had a proper strategy. That’s when I thought about having a stage in 79. I put all the reggae bands in the area; Aswad, Brimstone… and I got some of the white bands. Cause when I first started doing concerts, I would have two rock bands and one reggae band. That was during the ‘Rock against racism era’. It was the time I did more reggae.
I saw an interview when you said you leant more towards the rock hippy music? Yeah hippy, Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, all you need is love man. [laughter] I believed it. When I came to this country, I didn’t have any black friends. That is how it happened.
Back to the stage, I booked all the acts. I carried the tarpaulin for the stage and put it up myself. I swept the entire length of Acklam Road. Cause I was excited about what we were going to do. We entertained the people for 48 hours. We had 20,000 watts of sound. When we told people, it was over and it was time to go home, most people left. So, when the police came with their big charge, there was no one there. That I think is when we saved Notting Hill Carnival. The assistant commissioner returned in the dark, shook my hand and said, ‘Well done’. But no one knows that. It grew from one to three stages. The stages were very important for our community. What Aswad did when we recorded them, they created product that could have helped develop the carnival. If we think about product and how we can extend this, there are so many acts we can be putting on carnival, live and direct from Notting Hill. The potential was limitless. This is stuff I wanted to do back in the day.
You received an OBE. I was awarded an OBE for the development and promotion of live black music. I put Aswad in the Royal Albert Hall, we were totally successful. Freddy Mc Gregor, I took care of him for two months. We toured.
What would want people to know about you? If you treat me correctly. I am a gentle soul. What does treating you correctly look like? You afford me the opportunity that human beings are supposed to afford each other. If the opportunity emerges.
Would you ever get back into carnival now? I would do, the man who is running it now, Mathew, he is a good brother. He is passionate about it; his heart is in the right place and he knows what he is talking about. The only thing that he lacks is the experience. I would work with Matthew.
Conversation with this man was mind blowing, humbling and brought so much understanding and knowledge that when others speak sometimes on particular subjects, you want to say, ‘You have no idea what you are talking about’.
Passionate, forward thinker, survivor, resolute, candid. Walker achieved success independently and against all odds. He has a talent for surviving and is transparent about his past. His journey, moving from difficult early years to influencing carnival and music in London and internationally is simply inspirational and is the stuff of novels. A remarkable, inestimable man in the history of Notting Hill Carnival.