Pauline Black looks back on her band's resistance to the right-wing, from Thatcher to today
Photo by Dean Chalkley
When I reach Pauline Black for our interview, she’s in Coventry, England, where her band The Selecter first emerged over three decades ago as one of the pioneering bands of 2 Tone, Britain’s vibrant ska revival movement of the late 70s.
In the bleak context of disaffected Thatcherite Britain, 2 Tone’s spark – lit by The Specials and nurtured by frontman Jerry Dammer’s 2 Tone Records – was bright. 2 Tone bands, multiracial and often mixed gender in their lineups, were unafraid to take a stance of unity against the racist fear-mongering stoked by fascist organizations like the National Front.
This could not always be said of their fans. 2 Tone bands were distinguished not just by their politics and commitment to the musical and sartorial style of ska, but also their proximity with skinheads, many of whom began to adopt far right-wing beliefs. This sometimes led to violent clashes and confrontations at gigs, though as Black is quick to remind me, such “boneheads” were almost always in the minority.
I only speak to Black for an hour, but even over the phone it’s impossible not to grasp her razor sharp intelligence and fiery conviction in justice and betterment for all. Despite lulls of inactivity and lineup changes, Black and The Selecter have continued to make music, most recently releasing the album Daylight in October of last year. For a Trump and Brexit era document, Daylight is remarkably hopeful and joyous – a reminder that rough times can and will pass, especially if we live our truths and push for the world we believe in.
KAREN GWEE: When The Selecter and The Beat and 2 Tone emerged, it was a rough time, full of political turmoil, especially surrounding race relations. What was that period like for you?
PAULINE BLACK: 1979 was a time when Margaret Thatcher was coming to power, so there was a conservative government in this country. A lot of manufacturing factories and car makers were closing down, and both Birmingham and Coventry, where we come from, relied heavily on the motor industry. As soon as those jobs went and those factories closed and moved elsewhere, in the global shift, obviously that impacted the communities around at that time.
So all those jobs that young people at least had the option as to whether they wanted to do, those jobs that were there during a lot of 60s and early 70s, they were gone, which led a lot of young people onto the dole up and down the country. And, of course, what follows from there is a lot of disaffection.
Normally conservative-style governments rely heavily on splitting the youth along racist lines. If they’ve got disaffected youth on their side, the National Front and those kinds of fascist organizations, a little bit like the Brownshirts and the Nazis, they’re used in that way to stir up trouble among working class people and pit them against each other. You’ve got to remember that in 1979, words like ‘racism’ weren’t really openly used in the way they are now. Certainly words like ‘multiculturalism’ hadn’t been invented. People didn’t really think about that. Many people had a complete ambivalence to immigration, and were less than happy [about] the waves of immigration that had happened since the late 50s, first of all, Caribbean immigration, and later Indian and Pakistani people, those displaced in places like Kenya.
We came together, the bands of 2 Tone – which was us, The Specials, Madness, The Beat, the Bodysnatchers. We represented, I think, for young people, what things could be like. What things should be like. Why allow outsiders with evil intent to make these divisions between us, when the one thing that does bring people together is music? That’s pretty much what we did. It was, in our case, a predominantly black band with one white member. In The Specials’ case, there were two black members and five white members, and with the Bodysnatchers, a black female front singer, Rhoda Dakar. 2 Tone was supposed to be against the twin evils of racism and sexism, I think people actually forget the sexist bit. A lot of those things we were talking about then have come full circle now. They’re common parlance and discussed ad infinitum, really, the whole kind of identity politics that’s going on. But I would say that that was firmly begun back then, all those years ago.
What kind of audiences were you attracting at the beginning? Was it initially your friends, like-minded folks along the political spectrum?
No, not at all. It’s always been this sort of weird dichotomy, almost. The music was obviously originated from Jamaica, ska music, black in origin. It had been taken on board by a lot of skinheads in this country, who are seen sometimes as quite right-wing figures, quite nationalistic. But in the early days, it was a way of dress, a very kind of working class-styled way based on young black men who used to work on the docks. Rolled up jeans, monkey boots, Doc Martens. They used to listen to each other’s music. It would be quite common in the 60s for white skinheads to be listening to rocksteady, blue beat records, that kind of thing.
But within that faction of skinheads, there were real right-wingers, known as boneheads, [who] really didn’t get the contradiction that they might hold views about immigration which were not progressive, but nonetheless they were listening to music of black origin, coming from the Caribbean, that would never have ended up in Britain were it not for immigration. But alongside that, there was also much more progressive thinking, punks, people who just had alternative lifestyles. People who would consider themselves socialist, politically, and all those things. It was like a melting pot, both black and white. Some young Indian and Pakistani people would come as well.
We came together, the bands of 2 Tone – which was us, The Specials, Madness, The Beat, the Bodysnatchers. We represented, I think, for young people, what things could be like. What things should be like. Why allow outsiders with evil intent to make these divisions between us, when the one thing that does bring people together is music? That’s pretty much what we did.
Were the right-wingers inciting violence at your gigs?
Yes, yes there were. There were times where we were out with Madness and The Specials on the 2 Tone tour in the late 1970s, where we would have to stop playing because there was an element of right-wing skinheads in there who were sieg heiling at the stage. It was impossible to carry on. But you’ve got to remember, there could be 1,500 to 2,000 people in these dancehall venues that we played in at a time. And probably there were twenty, thirty at most of them. So I think it has to be kept in perspective. It wasn’t like half the audience was baying for our blood in some way. But nonetheless, thirty disruptive people at a show can make things very unpleasant for people. So it was sometimes difficult to deal with, but it got dealt with.
When you said it got dealt with, was it the crowd taking it upon themselves to get rid of them?
Pretty much, yes. And if we were onstage when it was happening, we would call upon the rest of the audience to express their displeasure, for want of a better word, without resorting to violence.. That would then lead to a lot of booing and hissing and normally a bunch of bouncers would throw the offending right-wingers out. Sometimes that worked, and sometimes it didn’t, and at one particular venue, it escalated and we had to not play a full set. But it wasn’t like every time we turned up at a show, there would be trouble.
In the US, where I’m based, there’s been a flurry of discussion on how to respond to a Nazi. You might have seen that video of the Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched in the face, and that kicked off a lot of people, especially liberals, asking ”Can you reason with a Nazi? Can Nazism be held in any sort of productive discussion?” Whereas others, including many who like you came up from music scenes where they had to deal with Nazis, have said there’s no other way to respond to a Nazi besides kicking them out.
Well, there is no other response. Reasoning with a Nazi? I don’t believe that can be done. People are fairly entrenched in their views, and when I look at some of the vitriol and bile on the internet – I mean, it’s always been bad. It was bad during the Obama years; what you could find was absolutely brutal. But now they have been given a free pass, as it were, with your present president, to advance whatever they feel like advancing, and now they’re all coming out of the woodwork.
I always thought that I’d rather have a visible Nazi than an invisible one. And that’s pretty much how we felt in 1979. What I hate about racism is the fact that if you’re a person of color, when you’re walking down the street, you really don’t know who holds racist viewpoints, who holds closet hatred towards you. You do not know. At least a racist, a skinhead makes it explicit, if that’s his intention. And I would rather have people like that visible.
Have there been recent moments where that feeling of uncertainty, not being able to tell who on the street hates you and your existence, has manifested strongly for you?
Most recently, I would say in Germany. We’ve been to Leipzig twice this year, and we happened to fetch up there I think in July, to do a festival, and there was a fascist demonstration going on. Our tour bus was stopped from entering the city and searched, which we actually couldn’t understand, because the place seemed to be pretty happy that some fascists were marching. They weren’t searching them, but any sort of outsiders, or whatever, that were there, they thought were going to cause trouble. We thought it was a bit rich, really.
Reasoning with a Nazi? I don’t believe that can be done. People are fairly entrenched in their views, and when I look at some of the vitriol and bile on the internet – I mean, it’s always been bad. It was bad during the Obama years; what you could find was absolutely brutal. But now they have been given a free pass, as it were, with your present president, to advance whatever they feel like advancing, and now they’re all coming out of the woodwork.
When you started seeing this resurgence of the far right in Europe, where you’re based, and also the United States, how did you feel? Was there anything about this time round that was particularly alarming to you?
Well, it did come as somewhat of a surprise, I suppose. I think both sides of the pond had been lulled into some kind of false idea that people had actually embraced the idea of multiculturalism, when you [had] arguably the most important office in the world occupied, for the first time, by a black man with a black wife and a black family living in the White House. And he actually managed to stay alive for eight years. That was extraordinary. So I think we got lulled into a false sense of security. Then suddenly the orange person comes along, and it’s like all bets are off.
But he’s not some phenomenon that’s sprung out of left-field somewhere. ‘Oh, he’s sprung fully formed as a fascist.’ No, I think it’s been a movement that’s been happening under the radar for some number of years. I mean, Steve Bannon with Breitbart, people being paged to put in content into Twitter of a right-wing nature, see how that plays. All of those kinds of things. They’re very, very alarming. And that mixed with anti-Muslim sentiments throughout Europe and most certainly in North America at the moment, is a powder keg. But nonetheless, it seems to have polarized people in America, and certainly that was the sentiment that I got when we were out there on tour in August. It has actually sharpened up the contradictions that exist. So many American people came up to me and said, “We’re just ashamed at what’s going on. We didn’t vote for him!” And I daresay there are many countries in Europe where the right-wing have garnered support in making forays into governments, that people similarly think that way. All you can do is push the opposite agenda.
Multiculturalism is something that you, The Selecter and 2 Tone have been embodying since the beginning. Was there a point where you thought this alternative agenda you’d been pushing – of multiculturalism, of racial justice – had begun to take root? Or were always cautious about this seeming embrace of multiculturalism that you were seeing around you?
When I go onstage, people have paid money, they’ve paid for a ticket, they know what we’re about. We don’t pull any punches. Some of the commentary in our songs, or the albums that we’ve put out most recently, it’s there. The message is there. People want to see that. I don’t feel like people go back out into the world thinking, “My goodness, isn’t multiculturalism a non-starter.” I don’t think that at all. You have to chip away at people’s entrenched ideas. They’re not usually their own ideas, they’re usually ideas put into them from without. People aren’t inherently racist. They learn it from somewhere. There are plenty of visual cues out there among the media and all of those kinds of things. So I feel it is incumbent on us within the band to be something and stand for something that maybe some young person or just people in general might consider something worth standing for.
I wanted to ask about your adoptive family. You’ve said you experienced a lot of awful casual racism from your white adoptive family, including your parents, and I was wondering if you ever managed to talk to them about the ideas they had about you that they had taken from their racist surroundings?
No, I didn’t. It was one of those situations where I felt that for my own sanity, the best thing to do was leave home, unfortunately. I went off to study and those ties [got] loosened. I never really take it upon myself to argue vehemently with people who [can’t be argued] with. My parents were a lot older than I was and adopted me late in life. They weren’t going to change their opinions. It wasn’t like they were awful to me. They loved me like the daughter that I was. But what’s in your own home isn’t what’s out there, and somehow white folks seem to be able to compartmentalize this. There’s always an other, isn’t there? When I was in the home, I wasn’t an other. And therefore racist remarks could be made in front of me about other black people, how they felt about immigration, all of that kind of business.
When people come into close contact with a person from another race, normally they get on like human beings. They find something to talk about, and before they know it, they’re talking about… can they grow dahlias? Their parking habits, something innocuous. Their cooking habits! Things like this, things that make us human. And one thing people always come together on is music. I know plenty of people who may have all kinds of ideas – they don’t like immigration – but they will listen to people making music and think absolutely nothing of it. Therefore, my mother liked people like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Racism is a construct, isn’t it, therefore it doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or real reason. People think it does, but it actually doesn’t, when you get right down to it. Therefore it was, like you say, casual racism. And my parents were no different from any other white family of the working class, or any class, really, in this country.
What you’re saying about people consuming art made by the very people that politically, they despise – that reminded me of this line in “Things Fall Apart” from your latest album: “If you take you better give me something back.”
To a certain extent, yes. Cultural appropriation has been going on since time, and certainly since anyone started listening to music on some kind of phonographic device. Certainly my parents would have thought that jazz music was invented by Bing Crosby, who as far as I remember was white. Cultural appropriation is there. Sometimes it manifests itself as something which is pretty horrendous. I would cite here Eric Clapton, who is fairly famous for having made a complete and utter living out of playing blues music, and not only that, covering “I Shot The Sheriff,” a Bob Marley song, and at the same time in 1976 having what he calls a “drunken breakdown,” but what I would call a racist rant, on the stage of the Birmingham Odeon, and agreeing with the worst conservative racist politician that we’ve had in Britain, Enoch Powell. And now he tries to backpedal, and say ‘Oh, he didn’t think that, he was drunk.’ Well, that does not give him a card to pass. That’s what I mean by “if you take, you’ve got to give something back.” You don’t pretend that you were drunk. You just ‘fess up to the fact that you were racist then, and you show me that you’ve changed.
I love that “Things Fall Apart” is such an intertextual song. Achebe, of course, comes to mind, and in the song you have references to Baldwin, Roots and so on. What was your state of mind when you wrote that song and Daylight in general?
Most of the songs were written against the backdrop of the Brexit vote that had just happened and also Trump coming to power. So that year of the right wing becoming ever more explicit and beginning to get a voice. I felt I needed to counter it in some way or another. I was quite conscious about Things Fall Apart, the Chinua Achebe book and what that represented – colonialism coming to a place that was tribal in essence, and the way that everything just fell apart in Nigeria as a different cultural and political way of being took hold. That in a way has left the mess within Africa that we now have: just drawing lines on a map and saying “That’s this, that’s this, it’s ours.” In a way, that’s relatively similar in the way that the right-wing is rushing in and delineating this and that and saying, ”This is the way things really are, multiculturalism is wrong, rubbish, blah blah blah.”
I was quite angry about the Brexit referendum here. I would rather stay in Europe, because I think it’s important for people to stay together, in some way of feeling that you belong to a continent, not just a nation. That nationalist and right-wing thinking are bound up together a lot of the time. And I felt very strongly that that whole referendum played into the hands of people who were anti-immigration, jingoistic, pulling up the drawbridge as it were and not allowing anyone in, whereas it was the mere fact that it is the people allowed into Britain from the waves of immigration since the late 50s make it the culturally diverse and vibrant place that it actually is. So yes, that was pretty much what I was saying: sometimes things just have to fall apart – we’re in that process at the moment, I think – before people get on board and decide which side of the fence they’re actually going to come down on. That can be quite traumatic, worldwide, but sometimes these things have to happen.
Daylight is a really joyous album. How do you keep that going in a time where the news is depressing and politicians everywhere around the world, especially where the far-right is emerging, are doing unspeakable things?
By not dwelling too much, really. Pointing those things out, yes, but in the long term, they’re not motivational for people. I do think people do have pretty long memories. We’ve lived in the past century and the beginning of this century with news footage that we never ever had before, of what war means. Mechanized war: mechanically killing other people, not standing in a field and hitting each other with clubs and axes. I don’t think anybody, really, wants a wholesale move towards such things, because they know what that means. There is footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do people really want that? I honestly don’t think they do. If you sit people down in a room, I think war is a thing they really will not stomach. So I have, ultimately, faith in human beings being human, and humanity winning out. These other people who have some other agenda, you have to stop thinking about them at some point in time. They will have their agenda. The thing is we build something that is a new agenda, and something that can take things forward. In this country certainly there is a glimmer of hope, I tend to think, with a new way of thinking that is attracting a lot of young people towards it, with socialist ideas. What is the alternative?