British Reggae: Prejudiced Vibrations

ON THE SURFACE it looks as though there has been something of a major breakthrough for reggae in Britain.

Reggae, reggae – we’re all talking about it. Big money is being spent promoting it. Bob Marley is almost a household name and, with U.K.-based artists like the Cimarons, Aswad, Mutumbi and Delroy Washington increasingly playing to white audiences, the scene for reggae seems to be healthier than ever.

The inspiration for the music might still be in Jamaica, but a new reggae heart is beating in our midst.

Yes, breakthrough there certainly has been. But, as many black reggae musicians are bitterly observing, why, if the music is as important and dynamic as the music press has insisted these last 18 months, don’t we get to hear more of it?

Why did Bob Marley’s latest album, Rastaman Vibration (Island), sell no more than 55,000? Why do rootsy reggae singles never break into the national chart.

Why can’t we just flick on the radio and hear, at least once a day, one of reggae’s all-time geniuses like Bob Marley wailing through a superb three minutes of, say, ‘No Woman No Cry’?

The answer is simple. Commercial radio stations and the BBC still cling to the threadbare myth that there is no audience for reggae. It is a minority sound, they say. So they just don’t play it.

Oh. there are special reggae programmes tucked away in the off-peak hours.

But reggae doesn’t get played unless, of course, it’s Paul McCartney’s ‘C Moon’. That was a hit. As was Eric Clapton’s version of Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, and Paul Nicholas’ ‘Reggae Like It Used To Be’, and Typically Tropical’s ‘Barbados’.

If you can think of any other white artists who had reggae hits over the last two years then it proves the point – there is a huge discrepancy between the myth and the reality. There obviously is an audience for reggae music.

When you really dig down to the nitty-gritty, when you get to the people who are trying to promote reggae records, there’s a point beyond which it’s impossible to progress.

Talk to a black plugger and you’ll tumble into a pit of irrationality which defies logical explanation.

Beneath the genial front of resignation most pluggers show you when discussing The State Of Airplay, there is a rarely expressed feeling of hopelessness among black pluggers, because it has little to do with music and much to do with the colour of skin.

Apart from the general plugger rat-race – where the representatives from small companies (white and black) have to shoulder it with the heavies from the big corporations – black pluggers allege they have to deal with a humiliating amount of bad manners and ignorance from many producers.

Yvonne Claude, a plugger for Virgin, says: “The producers say reggae is very difficult to programme. They say it’s a minority music. But to me it’s not a minority music!

“There’s no two ways about it: during the daytime they are definitely not interested. Most of the producers hate it, so they don’t play it. It’s as if they were frightened of it.”

As anybody in the music industry will say, airplay is essential if a music is to become a commercially viable proposition. And it’s the irrational lack of support from the top of the music industry which is bearing down on reggae, putting up insurmountable barriers and preventing reggae musicians from taking their rightful place in the album and singles charts.

It’s been a struggle on every level for the black reggae musician living here. And it still is. The musicians are all very broke. There’s been much cynicism poured on Bob Marley because he drives an expensive car, but, big deal.

The sad fact is that he is still the only Jamaican musician ever to have made it financially. They lack equipment. They lack the money to do anything but token tours.

When they play live, it’s for the odd £10, and the live venues are restricted because, promoters say, with reggae music comes the culture and that brings the police.

For years, the reggae-buying public have considered British reggae inferior, both lyrically and in feel, to the Jamaican real thing. If there is any truth in this, then it’s hardly surprising when fine reggae musicians like Jene Rondo (he had a reggae hit with ‘Ramblin’ Man’) have to make a living as a disco-jazz-soul session-man.

But the myth about a soft U.K. reggae sound is slowly being proved wrong. A year ago the Cimarons exported their British-produced version of Marley’s ‘Talking Blues’ to Jamaica and it was No 1 in the chart there for over six weeks.

Today, the best U.K. reggae can easily stand alongside the best from Jamaica.

Ironically, if conditions in the last few years had improved for black people in our community, had they become more integrated, reggae music might not be as alive and kicking as it is.

Today, reggae is much more than music. As the Cimarons’ Rastaman keyboards player, Carl Levy, told me last week: “Reggae is now a social necessity for black people in England.”

With its emphasis on black cultural heritage, a new generation of black youths, mostly educated, if not born, in this country, are turning to reggae to find a sense of self-pride and identity.

“It’s the only music for us really,” said Tony and Bruce, both 20, from Shepherds Bush. “We’ve been listening to reggae a long time. If you believe in roots and deep black music then that’s the music for you. Reggae music is helping us. It keeps us as one.”

Why, I asked Franklyn Dunn, the Cimarons’ bassist, was it necessary for black people to develop their sense of identity? “Because you’ve got to know yourself. You’ve got to become aware of what you are. Black people have been taught to destroy themselves and become something else.

“For instance, when I was in Jamaica going to school, I learned about Christopher Columbus and English history and the spinning wheel, and I don’t know anything about black people. I don’t know about I self.

“Jamaican education is essentially English. You are taught English culture utterly. You’re taught to worship and think in the English philosophy.

“Pick up a book and all you’re reading is about white. Jesus is white. At school I remember even when I draw a woman she is white with long hair. So where are you personally? The names most Jamaicans have are American names to show ownership from the slave days. You’ve got your freedom but you still have the chain. It is still there from the name, like a vaccination.

“I was taught that anything that didn’t have the English system in it wasn’t worthy. And if you don’t fight against it even you yourself sell yourself out.”

Carl Levy continues: “You feel as if you’re being brainwashed into something. Forced into something – to become, shall I say, more manageable.

“You not only had to think like white, you had to look like white, too.

“You have little kids growing up with their parents pinching their noses so that it won’t be flat – it will be straight out. And you have to have a clear skin and wear a bow tie to get a nice bank job. And that’s not really you.

“And I get a vibration coming up from my parents that it’s not necessarily right. It’s steadfast and strong things that are right. One doesn’t have to come to England and live and try to be white to be a man. You can be black and be a man.

“But you didn’t get that vibe at school at all. Learning about yourself is what reggae and the Cimarons are trying to do.”

Delroy Washington, whose album I-Suss (Virgin) is one of the most successful ever produced in the U.K, is 24.

“The feelings I had when I left school are difficult to put into words,” he told me. “It’s a frustration, you know. Like having a dream and then seeing it busted up. All the teachers at school boost you up. I was the best artist in the school without doubt. I got my ‘O’ level when I was 14.”

Did he remember having any aggressive feeling towards white people before he was a teenager? “To tell you the truth, when I was eight or nine I wasn’t even thinking about being aggressive. I didn’t know what aggression was.

“I was just wandering around trying to check things out.

“I never really got into being aggressive until right at the last moment and then I thought ‘well, if they’re going to beat me every day, well, I couldn’t really take it. I used to get beaten anyway. But at least I went down fighting.”

Do the new black reggae ‘stars’ feel a special responsibility to the youths in the community who must see in them many of their hopes for the future?

“There’s a funny thing about responsibility,” says Delroy. “I don’t really like responsibility in that respect. I can advise people on what to do.

“But what is happenin’ is that people start saying that you’re different from somebody else. In reality I’m not so different. Everyone is faced with the same problems daily and if I can help someone get over the problems I’ll try.

“But when you really check it, God say in the Bible you must not be master over many people. That means I don’t really feel that I have the right to take too much of a responsibility on my head – to be utterly truthful.

“I would like to see youth in the community deal with progress. But I don’t want to be considered a hero. When people get me up as a leader and all that, it is a dread thing. You can’t really lead anyone. Not if you really look at it.”

Winston, the Cimarons’ 23-year-old lead singer says: “The responsibility on us is very heavy. You just have to watch it that you don’t fade away from the culture. You must keep the message going at all times.”

One of the most promising developments on the U.K. reggae front is the gradual increase in the number of young black people who are forming bands and playing reggae music.

Aswad was formed seven months ago and their average age is 19. Their debut album, Aswad (Island), recorded at Hammersmith and Basing St. studios, reveal the political awareness of these grass roots musicians.

In their live set (including a song about the riots at the Notting Hill carnival this year) they sing ‘I A Rebel Soul’, ‘Can’t Stand The Pressure’, ‘Back To Africa’ (which was a No. 1 reggae chart hit) and ‘Concrete Slaveship’. But many people allege that they are too well off, compared to how it was in the old days, to sing rebel songs.

“We will always look to Jamaica and Africa, but it’s what’s happening now that’s important. We can’t stay put and sing about what was happening in Jamaica seven years ago,” says Brinsley (Chaka B) Forde.

“Some people say what we sing is imitation, but we can identify with suffering. We realise that our culture was hidden from us and, when people are holding onto what they’ve got, that’s when you fight hardest.”

“We play reggae,” says Angus Gaye, their drummer (he’s also worked with Delroy) “because it’s our music. It’s the closest thing to us It’s reality. It’s the suffering of black people. It’s something you know.”

© Caroline CoonMelody Maker, 9 October 1976

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