It’s hard to write a post that full encapsulates, gives justice to, celebrates, and raises the voices of Black lives, voices, instruments in the musical industry, and their voice and music amongst lets face it, a continued history of repression, inequality, and downright injustice. Black Lives Matter. It is a matter of historical fact that Black people have had, and still have it stacked against them. The music industry is no stranger to whiteness and white privilege. That is just a fact.
Since the brutal murder of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer there has been an outpouring of grief, and righteous anger. This has resulted in mass worldwide protests, rioting, and the toppling of the statue of a slaver in Bristol (my home city professionally – I work at the University as a Professor. Ok, more on that in a second). Goodbye Colston. The statue being dumped in St Augustine’s reach (listen now to “Augustine” by Blood Orange) is symbolic, but also a moment in history that has catapulted a movement to topple and decolonise systems of the oppression of Black people. And yet, the injustices against Black people in the US goes back 450 years (at least). This has been waiting to happen. For. A. Very. Long. Time.
Let’s get the facts straight. During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, over 12 million Black enslaved Africans were transported across the Atlantic, stripped of their names, identities, made property through ownership, tipped overboard if they perished during the journey, and forcibly made to work the land on pain of death. Millions died. The endemic and huge negative impacts of slavery exist today, still impacting generations of Black people later, right across the African diaspora. If you want a good summary of the economic impact of this on Black African Americans then watch this video. In my article, I’ll do my best to put this in the words of those affected – Black people.
The music of this suffering and oppression is one of survival then. Emerging from this came gospel, blues, soul, jazz, dance, hip-hop, rap….basically the face of modern music should be Black. If we are to decolonise music, we have to de-centre, which in plain language means “stop putting yourself at the centre, and listen“. Language is also very important in this de-centering, so here I use capital ‘B’ for black, de-centering from the default “white”. This is something that goes back to the 1960s, and is covered here. I also won’t use BAME, or BME – bad terms, let’s get rid of them!
We have to use decolonisation as a tool of anti-racism. From the point of most oppression come the sounds of most resistance. However, if I am to come to this as a white man, then I also need to know that I am definitely part of the problem. Racism is a social construct and I am in that construct and have to accept my role, often in perpetrating it by staying silent, neutral, while also benefitting from it. In music, and my appreciation of it, my purchasing of it, and my influences, I have to own up to those benefits and privileges too. Some people have said to me, why listen to Black music, you don’t understand/relate to it? Well, if I want to understand other people’s perspective I would read a book. The same is true about some Black music, although it gets more complex than that. Or more simple – it’s also just great music! To assume that every Black artist must represent or be represented by their race is to discredit the diversity of contribution to that music by Black people. There is diversity in diversity. No need to always speak, sing, play, in that context. The fact that so few Black artists are credited as musicians within a wide range of genres is sometimes because of that classification – it being portrayed as ‘Black music’, rather than music by Black artists.
So, I decided that I wouldn’t go for the usual suspects for my selections on this evening when we chose to focus on Black Lives Matters. I should point out that Nick, Rob, and Tom also made selections too. I’ll leave them to write up those in their own words, but I especially enjoyed the range of their selections too. Much did focus on Black African American artists. I went for a wide range of music by UK Black artists, but also of UK bands that had Black artists in them, where perhaps their contributions or themselves were invisible, or not given due credit. I also tried to cover tracks that had come into my life at some point, but I was also trying to unpick some of the racism of Black contributions to music itself. I am trying to de-centre here, if you like decolonise the musical contributions of Black artists. They are varied, and complex statements of identity. My playlist is here if you want it (although I only played a few of these on the night).
You might want to listen as you read…
It does include some selections that do cover, sometimes presciently, the state of the US today, and how Black Lives Matters has once again thrown into sharp contrast the lives of Black men and women. One of these, “The Revolution Won’t Go Viral” by Third Root points a well-pointed finger at academics posting in coffee shops:
“Many lies spread by keyboard activists, never putting theory into practice. Inaccurate. Intellectual academics stuck in coffee shops, posting articles but stay away from the block“
Yes, guilty as charged….
The track also takes a pop at Kendrick Lamar’s genius album To Pimp A Butterfly, but I include one track from there in my list anyway (“King Kunta” which references a Black slave Kuta Kinte from the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley).
Dead Prez, with “Police State”, were just way ahead on the BLM thing. They had it nailed 20 years ago exactly with Let’s Get Free. Saw behind all the lies and told it how it is. They start with that age old contradiction of a police state and a police service, serving the community. The same problem exists in the UK. The police have actively oppressed Black people, and through institutional racism have maintained that oppression both in the US, and here in the UK too. Just read the MacPherson report. It’s all in there, and not much has progressed since then. Note progress, not change. Plenty changed, but plenty did not progress.
I’ll start the official write-up on a sombre note. As I write this post it is the 3rd anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster (14th June), tragedy,….although any of these words fail to capture the institutional racism that led to the event. I work as an engineer. If there was anything that would represent institutional racism in my profession, where engineering would be an active tool in this racism, it is Grenfell. So, I played “Prayer for Grenfell” by Ruby Rushton from the album Ironside. It’s a haunting 4-5 minute flute solo, with pain, anguish, and heartfelt notes – quite astonishing really, and a fitting tribute. RIP to the 72 who died. A disproportionate number were from ethnic minorities. Many were Black.
I played Joan Armatrading’s “Like Fire” from her debut album, which was released in 1976. I don’t think Joan is given enough credit for being a highly accomplished guitarist. When did you ever see her appear in a list of best guitarists ever? Typically you might catch Jimmy Hendrix in there for Black representation, but what of others? “Like Fire” has an incredible finger picking intro, very folksy, but then turning to funk. It is stunning, and not too dissimilar at the start of the track to Bert Jansch, who I covered in a previous round. Why are Black people noticeably absent from “Greatest Guitarists of All Time” lists? Then ask yourself how many of those in the lists are Black women?…..
Next up I played Rip Rig & Panic’s “Change Your Life” from their debut album God. Going back to my original forays into music, via punk and post-punk, I have recently been trying to pick up albums that came out during this time that did not fit the norm. [Krautrock influenced bands who later sold ‘pap’ to a MOR audience (more at a future meeting hopefully) are but one example – go on, guess who?]
Rip, Rig and Panic burst onto the early 80s Bristol scene, uniquely fusing jazz, punk and world music (I’m not always keen on that term). People sometimes think the ‘Bristol Scene’ might refer to Tricky (hear “Black Steel” and its anti-war, anti-state lyrics), or Massive Attack. Bristol has had a long history of its Black artists forming and shaping new music. This track by RRP is incredible, and so positively full of vibrant energy. Nothing beats watching that Pan-African joy of them live, as this clip shows. For the uninformed, Rip Rig and Panic started the career of a young Neneh Cherry (also in my playlist), but also Andi Oliver (now a famous chef). Tragically Andi’s brother, Sean Oliver, also a bandmember, died in 1990 of sickle cell disease at the age of 27. Sickle cell disease particularly affects people of African and Caribbean descent. It’s one of the reasons that Black people are particularly susceptible to Covid-19. Just one of the many things that are stacked against Black people. Just one of the many….
Neneh Cherry is an artist who is massively underappreciated. Here is a woman who has morphed and taken on a white man’s industry, suffered for it through not wishing to compromise to it, and made a set of music that has power, strength and a will to survive (listen to “Kong” – stunning!).
I also had another Black woman, Poly Styrene, in my playlist but under three very different guises. I’ve covered Poly before (Poly Styrene – Translucence), and her mixed heritage (Somali-UK), and her identity. Poly’s identity is often confused, being portrayed as one of few (maybe one of one) Black female punk artists. She is so much more than this. Her debut single – released as Mari Elliot (she was born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) – was one of my curve-ball selections (“Silly Billy”). I was going to try the element of surprise with this one. It’s a reggae dance hall number. Released in 1976! She goes from this to X-ray Spex and ‘Identity’. Like Neneh, Poly is perhaps one of the most shape-shifting artists I know of. In her relatively short life she went from this, to punk, to hippie trip-hop, to Hare Krishna and back again. Incredible, shaping many identities. There’s a picture in a book I have on her life that says identity without words (see below). Look at the connection between the two Black artists in the front (Pauline Black of Selector, and Poly). Pauline Black talks about this in the book, about how they naturally gravitated to each other at the photo shoot. How the focus was the white girls at the back. You can almost feel the connection between the Black girls at the front, not really feeling part of the shoot…
Okay, I did actually begin with an Afrika Bambaataa track (‘Planet Rock’) on the night, since I had played Kraftwerk – Computer World in my last official album round. Bambaataa famously sampled Trans Europe Express, and Pocket Calculator (from Computer World) on this single release. Now seminal, it is still delightful. I hadn’t heard it for years until I played it on the night. Many of us hadn’t heard it all the way through before. You cannot underestimate the contribution and influence of this track on modern music. It came out in 1982. Only a few years later Gerald Simpson, a young Black man flipping burgers in Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester, would under the name of A Guy Called Gerald release “Voodoo Ray”. He had been studying the music and technology of Bambaataa, amongst others. When I heard Voodoo Ray as a young teenager on John Peel I thought it was being beamed at me from outer space! Not enough credit is given in the UK to Black artists who took the dance music coming over the water from US Black African artists and created the dance and rave scene here. Footage from Mosside Community Centre in Manchester in 1986 shows it was young Black men and women who first embraced this dance music, not white ravers in the Hacienda, as is so often portrayed in the media. Lazy journalistic racism if you ask me. This story needs de-centering if ever one did.
One blast from the past that I actually played on the night, was by Credit to the Nation. Who remembers them? Rob and I recalled that we had perhaps been to the same gig in Leeds when they played there in the early 90s. Credit were fronted by one Matty Hanson. “Call it What You Want”, released in 1993 starts with something familiar, a sample of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Credit to the Nation mixed hip-hop with lyrics that challenged racism, homophobia, sexism and were deeply political. I’ll have to dig that album out again. We forget the political elements of UK rap music. I include also a track by Ruthless Rap Assassins (from Manchester) “Three the Hard Way”. Less political, and more a list of who they are. But seriously, if you thought UK rap started with Stormzy then you need to do more reading my friend. On that note, Stormzy recently apologised to Skin, from Skunk Anansie (also in my list “Hedonism (Just Because You Feel Good)”), for claiming to have been the first Black artist to have headlined at Glastonbury. I saw Skunk Anansie live a few times in the 90s. They were a great live act, but I also recall a lot of the music press would label Skin with the “angry Black female” tag that so often gets associated with Black women who are just being assertive of their opinion, or even just having an opinion full-stop.
I now want to talk about subtle racism in UK music, but nevertheless racism. It is what it is. We’re attuned perhaps to the more overt forms of racism e.g. name calling, microagressions, and perhaps not the simple overlooking of Black artists’ contributions to bands’ music. I had a whole list of tracks that give some insight into this. Would bands like Orange Juice have sounded the way they did without the presence of Zeke Manyika (“Rip it Up” – almost an anthem to decolonisation – ‘Rip it up and start again‘; “Hokoyo” on the album of the same name is written by Zeke and he sings it in his native African tongue of Shona), or Gilbert Gabriel in Dream Academy (“Life in a Northern Town” – reminds me of living in Glossop, a northern town with a vibrant world music scene, and sadly an indoor market that sold Gollys), or DC Lee, a Black female artist in her own right, with the Style Council (“Shout to The Top”). Was she a great backing singer (she performed this role in Wham) or did she deserve more credit? Should she have been more at the front? I have to think so. This idea of the visible/invisible other is a theme that is ever present for Black people, not just in music. In music though, countless bands, not just in the 80s but through to the present day, will use Black backing singers as a visual identity that “they got soul” R&B; a visible and yet invisible use of Black artists as a commodity to sell records. But, having said this you should take care not to judge or have preconceptions.
Lisa Fischer, a famous Black backing singer, once said of the profession
“I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more. I love supporting other artists.” and “Some people will do anything to be famous. I just wanted to sing.“
It would be interesting to know just how many current UK backing singers are Black? Certainly a chart compiled 6 years ago in the Guardian had a fair proportion of Black artists in there. I am not aware of any studies on this, although a film some years ago – 20 Feet From Stardom – did cover the general topic of backing singers, with a fair few of the featured artists being Black. It’s a complex mix of intersectional racism, sexism, and class politics being played out here, with many Black, mostly female, backing singers literally on the breadline trying to be famous.
[In a postscript to this we have just heard of the untimely death of Denise Johnson (RIP) who sang with Primal Scream, A Certain Ratio, Electronic, and many other Manchester bands. With both the Manchester Evening News and the Guardian printing the wrong picture – of another Black woman – of Denise it only goes to show how deep and pervading this racism is. To say it’s just a mistake is to ignore the very deep nature of racism and how Black women time and time again are not acknowledged for their contributions]
The example I chose of an erasure of Black contributions to a group was that of Joe Leeway’s, a band member of Thompson Twins. Aside from the problematic issues of race in Tintin (for those of you who don’t know the Thompson twins were the identical twin detectives in the stories that had questionable attitudes towards ethnic minorities), Joe’s contributions to the group are almost forgotten. Joe was born to an Irish mother and Nigerian father, and played percussion in Thompson Twins. He wrote two of the tracks, and was lead vocal on three, on their second album ‘Set’. I chose to play “Tok Tok” from this album. The sound has a very strong African music (Fela Kuti-esque) sound, with Burundi beats of Bow Wow Wow. How did they go from this to ‘Doctor, Doctor’…?
After the first two albums you would almost say that Joe, and his influence is invisible – when the commercial success came with all the hit singles that they had. Was this a deliberate act of racism? I can’t help but think that it was. But equally did he always have to play the role of the band member with Black African heritage? The 1980s music scene seems somewhat polarised between Black and white music, and what was marketable as such. Aside from Two-Tone there are only one or two exceptions of successful mixed groups, and none really without some political association of that mix. One perhaps unique example is Fine Young Cannibals. I include them since Roland Gift was told that a band fronted by a Black man would not sell records in the US. Released in 1985, “Suspicious Minds” was a worldwide hit – stick that racists! But there’s a more subtle message of Black power here. Public Enemy write in “Fight the Power” (also in my list)
“Elvis was a hero to most but he
Elvis was a hero to most
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain“
I don’t know what is more powerful, Public Enemy singing that, or Roland Gift, a Black man singing white man’s music back to a mainly white audience? I don’t know if this was something Gift ever considered? Anyway, it stands out of one of the greatest cover versions of all time. He owns it. Elvis famously stole the music of the Black south. Gift takes it back (although ‘Suspicious Minds’ was written and originally recorded by a white man in 1968 – Mark James). It was also recorded by a reggae group – The Heptones – in 1971! So, influences hey. Back and forth….
What about cultural appropriation? The music scene is guilty of this on so many levels, and yet influence, and the appropriation of Black music has enriched and created popular music today as we know it. Period. The wearing of dreadlocks by white artists is another matter. During the early 90s there were no end of bands that did this (crusties, white rastas – is that possible?). Can white people use this element of Black culture, so entwined within the struggles of that group, without acknowledging their struggles and discrimination? As one of my Black friends once told me, “My dreadlocks are not a fashion statement!”. For Black people they are a necessity for keeping and maintaining Black hair, alongside braiding and other things we white people typically think are just ‘styles’. There are historial connections too. Mothers of young children about to make the journey across the Middle Passage into slavery would weave rice into the braids to conceal food while aboard the boats – see this for information. These are symbols of oppression, symbols of survival.
But here, somewhere lies many difficulties in musical history. Ari Up (later of the post-punk Slits), who is credited on ‘God’, the Rip, Rig and Panic album (see before) famously, despite being a white middle class woman, joined Rastafarian communities in the Caribbean, and would not take cancer treatments on the basis of her religion (and for fear of losing her dreadlocks). She sadly died young from cancer. Was she appropriating? Were boundaries crossed, or barriers broken down? Music and the arts more broadly can often claim to do the latter. Pointing fingers is not activism, as Barak Obama says in this video. We do well not to leap to judge here. Agree to disagree on this one, but it is complex. Ari spent the best part of her later life promoting and recording with Black artists, much as she had done with Rip, Rig, and Panic.
I also talk about this because in about 1994 I went to see to Aba Shanti I (“Jah Bible” is in my list) at the West Indian Centre in Chapeltown in Leeds. I went with a white mate of mine, who had dreadlocks. He came from a broken home, a poor white “working class” (I’m never sure this term works since it is just often only associated with ‘white’) kid, unable to read or write (I spent some time helping him with this). He eventually died of a heroin overdose (RIP). But there, in the West Indian Centre, it felt like he shared at least some of the struggles, if not racial, of the young Black men and women that assembled with him. I didn’t by the way – just loved the music, still do. I make a big assumption here about the struggles of the Black people in the room, but at the time poverty, poor housing, lack of health and education were big issues for the Caribbean community in Leeds. Still are issues….But Black and white lives intersect in these communities. Raising it up for Black people can only help everyone. Then all lives will matter.
It was a great gig by the way with plaster falling off the ceiling with the bass racked up high. Years later I saw Aba (not Benny, Bjorn…) again in Camberwell. One of the best gigs ever. I was in the minority as a white guy – I counted 3 other white people (me, my ex-wife and the girl selling merch). But despite being told at University by my student hall warden not to go to Chapeltown, I always found it the most welcoming, accepting, come-all society I have ever had the pleasure to be in the company of (fond memories of blues parties in Leeds and Manchester). We can come together in unity. We talked a lot about that in those days. On the Credit to the Nation track he ends with a call for “Unity”. It’s sad to see so much division these days in our post-Brexit Britain. Social media is partly to blame I feel. Polarising views. Less understanding. We’re all part of the system…
In somewhat of similar vein I also went to see Goldie (“Inner City Life” on my list) in Manchester. Goldie said during the gig that all the white people “should get to the back of the room”. I was already there getting my ears blasted by the speakers! A few white people around me seemed offended by this. I had, and still have no issue with this request. I’ve always felt there is a time to stand up, and alongside, but there is a time to stand back and listen. You can’t always claim to share the same world in the same way. There is no complete equality of experience. Would I want to be Black? No way. So why claim to have similar experiences? If you are white and want to be Black then may be have a think about what that would mean for your life. You can’t just take the ‘good bits’ of an identity. I say just accept and see that difference, and come together in some unity around fighting oppression. Use your white privilege to do that though. Support Black causes. I sit on the Windrush Commemoration committee, and we hear all the time terrible stories of people being deported, UK citizens unable to prove their Britishness, all because of the colour of their skin. I include here Jashwah Moses (“No War”), a Black man in Bristol, a local reggae superstar, who sadly died just after finally getting his UK passport. You can hear his story here. Go write to your MP. Give money to Windrush causes. Speak up. Don’t just like a post. Get active.
Political blackness is not a term you hear that often these days in the times of so-called identity politics – I find this term is often used to erode anti-racism though. Asian Dub Foundation, another great live band, were founded on the basis of political blackness. Read about it here. I have “Culture Move” from their album Rafi’s Revenge, which is a wonderful mix of Bhangra, drum and bass, and dub reggae. Real unity against a common enemy of racism. In the early 90s a young Sikh lad came late into my University class in Manchester with his eye out like a golf ball, all bruised. I asked him what had happened. He said the police did it in a cell that night. That brought it home to me. That and me witnessing a police van rocking from side to side when they had nicked a young Asian lad out on Eid. And yes, we didn’t have phones then to video either. Sort of brings it home to a white kid, who can just walk on by. Passing through his education. None of those hurdles my friend. That was my culture move. You can’t stay neutral after seeing these things.
Finally, what about the effect that racism has on the individual? Two tracks in my list cover this. Dr Jason Arday has written about racism and musical scenes – particularly the Cool Brittania period in the UK. I also know that he is a big fan of Bloc Party (themselves fronted by a Black man – Kele Okereke) . Giving a talk at my University he used the lyrics of “Like Eating Glass” to describe what it is like to be on the receiving end of racism.
“Like drinking poison. Like eating glass“
Solange, on “Cranes in the Sky” sings about how she “tried to dance it away“. I have heard from, and read about how Black people feel real pain when receiving racism. Stories of having to spend days in bed afterwards. Songs like this ought to generate some understanding. Surely….?
So, Black Lives Matter, but as we can see music has its fair share of celebrating. I love “Made it Back” – Beverley Knight for this – pure dance joy!“Your Love is King” – Sade. Kings and Queens will know what this means. Black love and sexuality is so misrepresented.”Stay High” by Brittany Howard is almost the modern equivalent of Macy Gray’s “I Try”. I went to see Macy live in the early 90s. Such a fun and engaging stage presence. Black Grape (“Kelly’s Heroes” – “Jesus was a Black man. Jesus was Batman. Oh no that was Bruce Wayne“) were just great fun.Music by Black artists can be tender too, while having a strong message about Black womanhood (hear “Selfish” by Little Simz – one of the standout albums of last year was her Grey Area). Black Female UK rap artists seem in short supply – Wiki gives a list of 20 (total!), compared to 120 Black male artists. “You Ain’t the Problem” by Michael Kiwanuka became my earworm for the day after I’d heard him play it live on Jools Holland. After that I bought all three of his albums. I cover one of them here.Black musical history also includes the Irish-Black heritage of Phil Lynott, lead singer of Thin Lizzy (“Whiskey in the Jar”), who was also the son-in-law of Leslie Crowther. Come on down, Black history does not get better than that! Rock music, and more specifically Heavy Metal, has not been well-represented by Black artists. Perhaps one notable exception is the band Living Colour (listen to “Cult of Personality”), who blend heavy metal, hip-hop, jazz, punk, and funk with lyrics tackling racism in the US.
Music has erased contributions from, and shielded subtle and overt forms of racism against Black people. The contributions of Black artists need to be reappraised, decolonised, and addressed/confronted. But they also need to be celebrated as great music. It’s too easy to focus on negatives. But this should not only be in words, but in deed. Financial gain from Black artists is being eroded, even in R&B and hip-hop, rap, as this article points out. Occupying space, appropriation, all have consequences, some of which are financial. If Black Lives truly Matter then we need to confront and question this, de-centre the narrative, and decolonise…. We have a choice to not remain silent. Turn it up, or as Cameo said “Word Up!”.