THERE IS A special role in British life for young black pop musicians, involving a task more serious than could ever be demanded of their white contemporaries. Like the black soccer players who are making an increasing impact on the Football League (though not, alas, on the national team), musicians of Caribbean extraction can play an influential part in the establishment of a proud and optimistic self-image for the black community.
Of all the black bands active on the British pop scene, two in particular stand out, and the contrast between them may be instructive.
The first is Linx, an organization built around two men, the singer David Grant (25) and the bass-guitarist Peter “Sketch” Martin (27), who have enjoyed so many hits this year with their effervescent pop-soul singles that they have become virtual residents on Top of the Pops. The second is Aswad, a reggae group formed six years ago, whose struggle for acceptance has survived many crises and has finally been translated into almost universal critical (although not yet popular) recognition.
Assets shared by the two groups are highly developed instrumental gifts, a compositional imagination which makes the competition sound hopelessly artificial, and an authority conferred in Aswad’s case by their bitter reverses and in Linx’s by their spirited intelligence.
The differences, however, are just as pronounced. Linx base their style on American soul music, predominantly up-tempo, danceable and covered with an instantly attractive surface glitter; they are good-humoured, upwardly mobile and sport stylishly understated South Molton Street fashions. Aswad opt for the measured, sometimes mournful, tread of “roots” reggae, with lyrics divided between the militant chants and Biblical invocations characteristic of the Rastafarian faith, which they espouse.
The significance of these divergent paths can be seen in broader terms, as offering to black youth two contrasting ways of coping with their environment. The choice, if it is ever made by a majority, could be of lasting importance.
In the manner of the American black middle class, Linx choose to deal with the prevailing social system and to beat it on its own terms. They take pleasure in a profound understanding of the professional aspects of their career, to which they served apprenticeships – Martin as an assistant in a record shop, Grant as a junior press officer with a record company.
Aswad, on the other hand, make a virtue of retreating into a culture tied more closely to their African heritage, symbolically shutting themselves off from the white world by means of the Jamaican patois with which they address one another.
The three musicians at the core of Aswad are Brinsley Forde (28), who sings and plays rhythm guitar; Angus Gaye (22) who sings and plays drums; and Tony Robinson (24), who plays keyboards. Respectively of Guyanese, Grenadan and Jamaican descent, they were all born in west London, which is perhaps why they find a more romantic allure in Caribbean culture than do the Linx duo, who were born in the islands (Grant in Jamaica, Martin in Antigua) and arrived in the East End of London during childhood.
Forde, Gaye and Robinson have been deeply committed to Rastafarianism since the middle 1970s, with the late Bob Marley as their original symbol (and, eventually their friend). Their beliefs lead them to predict nothing less than the imminent collapse of western civilisation and they preach the necessity, meanwhile, of finding God, whatever His name.
At first, they say, their parents shared white people’s instinctive suspicion of Rastafarians; they reacted towards their children’s conversion with the kind of despair shown by white families whose sons grew their hair during the Beatle era. These attitudes seem to be changing, catalysed by the Deptford fire and last summer’s riots, which have drawn parents and children closer together. “Our parents didn’t grow up in the street, as we did,” says Forde, a former child actor who starred last year in the disturbingly prophetic film Babylon. “They didn’t understand how we felt about the police because they didn’t see what we saw. The riots changed their minds.”
Both groups, who independently expressed considerable admiration for each other, are highly conscious of the example they set to black youth, and of their general relationship to the community.
“Black people who are successful now and in the future will not be able to dissociate themselves from the community,” David Grant says. “The community is quite small, and people watch you all the time. They can be very critical when you do something wrong. So wherever we go from here, we have to be true to ourselves and to them.”
Brinsley Forde remembers his attention being engaged by the examples of Bob Marley and Muhammad Ali, the latter a hero during his schooldays “when black history was hidden from us. It’s like Marcus Garvey says: a nation without history is like a tree without roots. When a youth sees a footballer or a musician succeeding, he starts to think, ‘I can do that’. So in that way it’s getting better all the time.”
© Richard Williams, The Times, 26 November 1981