Before rap became the designated voice of black youth — or “the black CNN” as Chuck D called it — the black experience in England was best expressed through Reggae, particularly the records of poet Linton Kwesi Johnson who read his angry rhymes in a heavy patois over skanking music provided by producer Dennis Bovell’s Dub Band. Unfortunately the black experience in England wasn’t all that great.
If you were a young black man in England during the late 70s and early 80s you probably felt like you were living in a police state instead of Jolly Olde Blighty. The hated “Sus” law gave the police the power to stop and search anyone they suspected of having committed a crime (or be about to), a power they mostly used to hassle young black men on the street time and time again. Also notorious were the uniformed thugs of the Special Patrol Group, a “elite” mobile unit of the Metropolitan Police whose idea of combatting crime and civil disorder was smacking people about with their truncheons (or killing them in the case of Blair Peach.) No wonder many Reggae songs of the era referred to England as “Babylon.”
Download: Inglan Is A Bitch – Linton Kwesi Johnson (mp3)
The combination of this heavy-handed policing with chronic unemployment made England’s inner cities pressure cookers that could blow at any minute. There had been a riot at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival where the police had to defend themselves with dustbin lids from a hail of bricks and bottles thrown by black youths (which inspired The Clash to write “White Riot”) but far worse was to come. The shit really hit the fan in 1981 when Brixton exploded into one of the worst riots the UK had ever seen. Over a weekend in April cars and buildings were set on fire, the police were attacked with petrol bombs (the first time those had ever been used in England) and fire engines were attacked when they tried to put out the flames. By the end of it the place looked like a war zone.
A school friend of mine who joined the police force told me he was on duty in Brixton during the riot and had to spend the night in a police minivan parked near the “frontline” on Railton Road. When he woke up some of the other coppers had written “NF” in the condensation on the windows (but backwards so people outside could read it.) Lovely bloke, the good ol’ British bobby.
It wasn’t so much a race riot (white kids joined in the action too) as an anti-police, anti-state “uprising” fed by anger at the state of the nation: 2.5 million unemployed, crumbling inner cities, poor housing, and a Prime Minister who gave speeches about the country being “swamped” by alien cultures while giving the police a huge pay rise.
Download: Di Great Insohreckshan – Linton Kwesi Johnson (mp3)
1981 turned into a a long, violent year as riots broke out all over England, from Handsworth in Birmingham, to Toxteth in Liverpool (that was a bad one), and Moss Side in Manchester as well as smaller incidents in other cities. I remember one night back then news went round that a riot had broken out in Fulham where I lived, it just turned out to be some kids having a fight outside McDonald’s but it shows how on edge the whole country was. In one of those rare moments of pop culture capturing the zeitgeist The Specials “Ghost Town” got to number one in July that year, it’s eerie sound perfectly reflecting the tense, nervous state of the nation:
This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry
It happened all over again in 1985 with more riots in Brixton and Toxteth, but the worst was at the Broadwater Farm estate in North London where a policeman was hacked to death. Race relations in the UK have improved in lots of ways since then, but as the Stephen Lawrence case showed, the more things change the more they stay the same.
Buy: “Bass Culture” (album)
Buy: “Forces of Victory” (album)
Buy: “Independant Intavenshan: The Island Anthology” (album)