@capturedbyjoy for Guinness Original Sounds

The DJ promoting women at Notting Hill Carnival

Linett Kamala on her programme to bring more female artists into the sound system scene
September 6, 2023

On a warm Sunday afternoon in late August, Linett Kamala is DJing in front of hundreds of sweaty people at Notting Hill Carnival. She’s dancing and posing for photos in a black Disco Hustlers T-shirt and Doc Martens, with a Jamaican flag tucked into her waistband and jewellery to match her silver braids. She’s been here on her sound system since 7am and will return on Monday to do it all over again. Three performers from her mentoring programme the Original Sounds Collective—SHVN, Gin and Chlxxe—will also be there tomorrow. ‘“It’s about time, innit?” she laughs. “We’re kicking down the door.”

The “door” in question is the traditional male dominance of sound system culture. Sound systems—collectives of DJs and MCs manning customised, super-amplified speakers—originated in Jamaica in the 1940s. They’ve been part of Notting Hill Carnival for 50 years.

I took to the mic and started talking… and that was it

During Covid, when the carnival was online-only, Kamala, who has been one of its pioneering female DJs since the 1980s, began to reflect on the gender imbalance. “There are women within sound system, there always have been, but they’re not as visible,” she says. “It made me think, well, why is that?”

I first met Kamala a week before carnival, as she made the final preparations in her Kilburn studio—a rainbow-striped building occupied by plants, digital art and a paint-splashed boombox. She sits on Notting Hill’s board of directors which means that, right now, she’s frantically busy. “Oh my gosh,” she says. “I need to sort out the measurements for the banners… I’m doing the entire production for the sound system… security, health and safety, the infrastructure, staging, the PA system, barriers, security, DJ scheduling, all the line-ups.”

Kamala’s interest in music began very young. Her father, who had migrated from Jamaica to Notting Hill in the 1950s, was a musician who performed cover songs in pubs across the UK. One of Kamala’s earliest memories is copying out lyrics by hand into a book for him to take on tour.

She would experiment with DJing as a teenager: “I was going to record shops, to buy records and just practise on the decks.” In 1985, aged 15, she performed at carnival for the first time. “I remember playing my music, and, at first, people were like, ‘hmm’—cos it was different sounds, you know? And then people started dancing. And then I took to the mic and started talking… and that was it. The crowd loved it.”

From that moment, she was hooked. “But I didn’t realise back then—no one did—what hip hop and that whole culture would become, and the way that dancehall sound system culture has gone on to influence the way people perform around the world.”

As well as a musician, Kamala is an artist and lecturer in performance at Central Saint Martins. The digital paintings on her studio walls—of people with brightly coloured hair, nails and jewellery—are based on photos she took of people in a West End nightclub that played Jamaican dancehall music in the 1990s. “I was really blown away by the fashion sense there,” she tells me. “They were groundbreaking at the time. Now it’s quite commonplace to see long nail extensions and hair extensions in different colours. But this was all directly Jamaican culture, and it’s very much been shaped in the UK.”

And it’s through Original Sounds Collective—which she runs, working with fellow mentors Ella’D and Dubplate Pearl—that Kamala is shaping that culture for herself, by helping female DJs get better access to equipment and performance spaces. “It’s really about celebrating, amplifying and inspiring to get more women into sound system culture,” she tells me.

As the crowds disperse from this year’s carnival, Kamala has already opened applications for more women to join the programme. “I’m hoping it will leave a legacy,” she says. “Because, after all, Notting Hill Carnival was founded by a woman.”