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Island and the rise of black Britain

The story of Island is a Caribbean story, a minute fragment of a huge picture that sketches black life over centuries. C L R James, the historian, takes us back to the very beginning of Caribbean song. He writes of the African slaves in Haiti, minutes away from Jamaica: “One does not need education or encouragement to cherish a dream of freedom. At their midnight celebrations of voodoo, the African cult, they danced and sang unusually this favourite song . . . ‘We swear to destroy the whites and all that they possess; let us die rather than fail to keep this vow.’”

This is the well from which Bob Marley springs. The colonists tried to silence those voices, but they returned with a vengeance in the haunting tones of singers recorded by Chris Blackwell, born in 1937 to a white Jamaican colonial family.

We black Caribbeans began another chapter in our story after the Second World War when we journeyed to the metropolitan centres of the world, sucked into factories and service industries from Toronto to New York, Paris to London, to live alongside the white working classes of the inner cities. The radio, the television, the record player revolutionised the distribution of music to each and every immigrant home. Jukeboxes had appeared in the Caribbean at the very moment we left. “Blackwell, him one” (an expression from the Jamaican vernacular) established Island Records as a vehicle for a new product.

We settled in the cities of the United Kingdom, fumbling our way to a novel music in a strange land. The dulcet, modern tones of our hopes and aspirations were referred to crudely as “jungle” music – and, by official society, as noise.The power of the British state was set in motion to continue the oppressive work started by the colonists in the Caribbean. Raids on homes became commonplace, driving us further underground.

The blues dance emerged underground – literally so, as they were held in basements. Local councils invented the term “noise abatement”. Yet our musicality thrived, sometimes defended with intense violence. Behind the back of official society, war between blacks and white racists exploded. Police violence became a Saturday-night ritual. A sergeant at Notting Hill Police Station introduced the practice of dunking the heads of black men in a used toilet bowl and flushing shit in our faces while he chanted: “Bongo, bongo, go back to the jungle.” Meanwhile, Blackwell distributed his records in markets and shops across the capital and beyond. The emergence of the Notting Hill Carnival was inevitable, born out of our resistance.

It is in these oppressive conditions, these dread times, that Bob Marley walked into Blackwell’s London office to announce that he wanted a record deal. Blackwell made out a cheque and the LP Catch a Fire was born in 1973. Note the title! Music, long before pen journalism, had captured the inner-city Caribbean.
We have come a long way, yet the end is not in sight. To identify “higher-risk events”, the Metropolitan Police now requires concert promoters to fill in an application form for permission to hold a public dance.

The new colonists in the 32 London boroughs who administer this bureaucracy – Form 696 – require the organisers to state what type of music is to be played: bashment? R’n’B? Garage? All genres popular with black audiences. An early version of the form asks: “Is there a particular ethnic group attending?”

Their attempts to eliminate our music were in vain centuries ago – and they continue to be. Island Records was a rare alliance between progressive colonials and the sounds from the wretched of the earth as we inched ourselves further along the road to liberation.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!