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75 Years After Windrush: A Love Letter to the Sounds of Black Britain

Photo by Friedrich Magnussen via Wikimedia Commons (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

On June 22 1948, HMT Empire Windrush arrived in the UK, bringing around 500 passengers from the Caribbean with it. The term “Windrush Generation” has become symbolic of the Commonwealth citizens who came to settle in post-war Britain between 1948-1973. Despite their hopeful attitude towards the journey, upon their arrival the passengers were disillusioned by hostility from the government and the general public alike; be it the blatant coldness from neighbours, tightly-crammed living conditions, or the lack of acknowledgement of their professional skills. The recent 75th anniversary of Windrush’s arrival at Tilbury Docks is an opportunity to reflect on the extent to which conditions have progressed, and also pay homage to the seminal mark that the Windrush generation left on UK society and British culture.

Britain would not be the Britain it is today, if it weren’t for the contribution of the Windrush generation. For example, their perseverance against overtly racist systems and policies led to widespread social change. In 1963, after months of boycotts towards Bristol bus companies for not employing coloured bus drivers, came an eventual change of policy, which marked the movement's first successful call for anti-discrimination legislation in 1965. These sacrifices, from a generation which refused to take things lying down, have changed Britain indelibly.

Of all the ways that the generation has changed Britain, though, the impact of Jamaican music on British culture has undoubtedly been one of the most vital. What Jamaican music offered to a grey and exhausted post-war England with limited diversity, has served as a testimony to music’s potential to bring people together, in marking Britain's first multicultural pop movement.

The seeds for a multicultural society were originally sown in the 50s, on the dance floor of Treasure Isle: a popular bar in Jamaica owned by Duke Reid, which boasted a powerful sound system. As the American R&B and Boogie records they played became outdated, Reid started producing his original records and inviting local musicians to the studio, which developed into a thriving industry. This marked the genesis of the ska and rocksteady genres, characterised by offbeat guitar upstrokes, bouncy up-tempo rhythms and prominent basslines. Reid’s densely arranged and danceable hits dominated the Jamaican 60s scene. (The STRAND previously interviewed Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander, who talked about his experience of playing in Duke Reid’s early ska records!) Along with the music came the urban Rude Boys: a group of discontented youths which emerged due to severe economic decline and a wave of violence sweeping the streets of Kingston. The iconic subculture, which was characterised by roughness, suave suits and pork pie hats, would go hand-in-hand with ska and rocksteady music.

Between 1955-63, over 100,000 people emigrated from Jamaica to Britain, exercising their legal right as Commonwealth citizens to settle in the UK, bringing Jamaican music along with them. Despite the mistreatment that the Jamaican population faced, they would find sanctuary in the sound system gatherings. Another factor which helped the scene to emerge in England was the Trojan Record company, which initially showcased the works of Reid to Afro-Caribbean British communities, before launching an ambitious programme of issuing singles on a variety of labels, drawing attention to talents like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Desmond Dekker. A documentary film called Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records (2018) uses archival footage of reggae luminaries and a rich soundtrack to map the journey of the company, and how they became responsible for era-shaping act which introduced the world to reggae music in the late 60s-early 70s. It seems significant that the year Trojan Records was founded, 1967, coincided with MP Enoch Powell’s infamous speech which reacted to the rising levels of immigration, revealing the public’s ugly prejudiced attitudes against the consensus on immigration. Whilst thousands turned to the streets chanting “we want Enoch”, Trojan Records gained increasingly more momentum in England. This contradicted Enoch’s concern that immigration would “erode the national character”, because the flourishing Jamaican music only added to British culture.

As reggae took over from the slower rhythms of rocksteady, there was a cultural shift between its reception by the immigrant population to the wider British population. Imported reggae records from Jamaica appealed to a growing market in the UK through the proliferation of sound systems and pirate stations. This allowed reggae to continue to spread its message to the masses, despite the refusal of major radio stations to play the genre, in an effort to marginalise the music within the social sphere. Eventually, reggae would reach the discontented, white working-class youths, and resonate with the Skinheads. Not to be mistaken for the notorious White Power Skinheads movement which came later, the original skinheads were motivated by social alienation and working class solidarity, and were characterised by their Doc Martens and shaved heads. Not only did they endorse the sounds of Black Britain, but their style was also influenced by rudeboy subcultures, showing how black and white youths united through their love of music and style. Perhaps the integration that reggae, ska and rocksteady inspired owes itself to the nature of the music; the displaced accents on the 2nd and 4th beats of each bar create a joyful buoyancy that makes anybody, regardless of race, want to dance. The collective solidarity that this music inspires was evident during the Reggae Festival at Wembley Stadium in 1970, when over 10,000 black and white young people came together to enjoy each performance, making it clear that the Jamaican music had found another home in England.

To now reflect on the present: have we made as much progress as politicians would like us to believe? Indeed there has been improvement in the 21st century, but just because the problems aren’t as egregious, that doesn’t mean that they no longer exist. The celebration of Windrush Day and Notting Hill Carnival by the government are arguably little more than acts of virtual signalling, especially when considering that many migrants in the UK are still being unfairly deported, mistreated and denied legal rights. Today, there are still thousands being misclassified by the UK as illegal immigrants without compensation. Furthermore, the antagonistic relationship between Black British citizens and police culture persists, with the MET’s recent police scandals making entire communities feel unsafe. It’s undeniable that there remains a constant and sustained residue from Britain's past, which continues to bleed into the present.

But 75 years later, should the word “Windrush” immediately be followed by the word “scandal” when remembered by our generation? Broadcaster and former politician Sir Trevor Phillips recently expressed in a Sky News Daily podcast that the Windrush doesn’t need to be another story of victimhood, whereby white people exerted power over black people. Although it is important to problematise what has happened and is still going on, to conflate race with racism is still a Eurocentric perspective that doesn’t celebrate what cultures have truly achieved.

Instead, Phillips advocates that the most important lesson the Windrush generation has offered is the possibility for people to move from one place to another, and become part of the new population whilst bringing along something new, leading them to claim both identities equally: “After time, there doesn’t need to be us and them, there will just be us.”

The way in which Afro-Caribbean British and white working class youths both claimed the music as “ours” proves how the sounds of Black Britain have brought people together, and played an integral role in the social history of music in England. We can also consider how the legacy of Jamaican music persisted throughout the rest of the millennium, with the punk fascination of ska and reggae being unmistakable in The Clashes’ ‘Guns of Brixton.’ Or the 2 Tone Ska Punk movement that had white people and black people within the same band, united by a desire to transcend and defuse racial disturbances in Thatcher-era Britain, as exemplified by the bands such as The Specials and Madness. Today, so much of popular music in British culture owes itself to the sounds of Black Britain; be it the development of rap, the UKG genre, or the emphasis on bass. Respected DJ and videographer for The Clash, Don Letts, elaborates in a documentary for Trojan Records: “The impact of reggae speaks volumes about the possibilities of culture to bring people together. Church didn’t do that, the government didn’t do that, politics didn’t do that. Music did that”. The legacy of Black British sounds offered by the Windrush generation serves as a testimony to how music can profoundly change how we feel about ourselves, how we view the world, and its power to bring about change.


Edited by Talia Andrea, Editor in Chief


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