The photo above shows a man walking down the street past a wall that’s been sprayed with some graffiti – it says ‘Powell For P.M’. I’d imagine that most people under a certain age would completely miss the relevance of this image, having no idea who this Powell was. Maybe they might pick up on the clue that it has some reference to race, as the man in the picture is black, but without understanding the context its message has been lost with the passage of time. Anyone looking at it in the years following the milestone date of April 20th 1968 would be left in no doubt of its potency, but whilst children in British schools are now taught about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and key aspects of the US Civil Rights movement during the ’50s and ’60s, the story of what happened in this country, following the mass immigration of the post-war period, remains a largely hidden history. Without the knowledge of what went on back then, it’s impossible to properly understand what’s going on now, for Enoch Powell MP, and what he had to say in Birmingham that fateful April day almost 44 years ago (which, at the time, a Gallup poll told us was supported by almost three quarters of the UK population), set the agenda for the race debate in this country – a heated debate which has very much reignited in the past few months.
The issue of racism is well and truly back in the news following recent events – the Stephen Lawrence trial, the murder of Anuj Bidve, an Indian student in Salford, the ‘My Tram Experience’ YouTube clip, the Suffolk ‘gollywog in the window’ case, the Diane Abbott ‘divide and rule’ tweet, and, of course, a whole series of football related incidents, which have blown-up to a level that few could have envisaged when I made my ‘Racism In English Football’ post just a few months ago, at the end of October: http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2011/10/racism-in-english-football/
Amidst all the ensuing debate, one of the themes that has become apparent is that there are a lot of people in this country who seem to be totally unaware as to what constitutes racism – there’s a genuine confusion as to which words would be deemed racially abusive and which wouldn’t. It’s this lack of education that needs urgently addressing, for, in a zero-tolerance society, ignorance is not going to be accepted as a valid excuse.
“You’re never going to have any kind of understanding of what’s going on in black people’s lives unless you actually get out and meet some.” Anderson Hinds 1991
This is a quote that gets right to the core of the matter. If you want to find out what would be insulting to someone of a different ethnicity, ask them. It’s this type of dialogue that’s essential if, as a society, we’re going to properly clarify things, leaving everyone in no doubt as to what’s unacceptable in this multicultural nation of ours.
Anderson Hinds, aka Dangerous Hinds of the Ruthless Rap Assassins, spoke those simple, yet still substantial words of wisdom in an BBC radio interview, which I sampled for the crew’s 1991 album ‘Th!nk – It Ain’t Illegal Yet’. Anderson would teach me much about the prejudices that black people faced in their day to day lives back in the late ’80s / early ’90s when I managed and produced the Assassins, both via his lyrics and, even more importantly, our personal interaction.
My own take on the issue of race has mainly come from listening, directly and indirectly, to what black people have to say – initially via the lyrics of songs from the ’60s and ;70s. In 2009, Berlin based DJ and writer Finn Johannsen asked me to pick a record that has strong personal associations for his ‘Sounds Like Me’ blog. I went for ‘Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)’, a key single of my formative years by The Temptations, and, as I mentioned in my blog post about this last April here, he came back with a whole heap of insightful questions that really caused me to get deep into my reasons behind this selection, including my views on its socio-political relevance, which outlined my earliest memories of how issues of race affected me:
I was just a kid, aged 10 when this was released, fresh out of primary school, but, despite my obvious naïveté, tracks like this, along with others including Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, Marvin Gaye’s recording of ‘Abraham, Martin And John’, Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ (another Norman Whitfield / Barrett Strong composition, originally recorded by The Temptations, Starr’s version also produced by Whitfield) and even stuff like ‘Love Child’ by The Supremes and Clarence Carter’s ‘Patches’, really struck a chord with me at the time and got me thinking about deeper issues. This is a perfect illustration of the power of music to inform, although the main connection was on an emotional rather than an intellectual level – Soul music, even when the lyrics weren’t really saying anything poignant, could still affect me in a profound way.
I remember thinking ‘how can these people be treated so badly when they make such wonderful music’. I was certainly aware of the racist (or racialist as they said back then) attitude that black people were somehow lesser than whites – Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech had taken place a few years earlier and I’d no doubt picked up on the race / immigration debate via the TV, newspapers and overhearing peoples’ conversations on the subject, it was certainly a hot potato of an issue back then.
Although I didn’t know any black people at the time, unlike many others of my age I fortunately wasn’t burdened with the ignorance and prejudice of the previous generation. I never heard any racist remarks from my family, to the contrary, my father was a big boxing fan and his hero was Muhammad Ali (going back to when he was still Cassius Clay), so my own first impression of a black man was totally positive.
I think it was my sister who explained racism to me, and the whole thing crystallized via these remarkable records, which connected with me on a deeper level than the music by white Pop artists (which I was also very much into) because I realized, at a very young age, that this Soul music was tied into a greater struggle.
The next part of my personal education came via one of my biggest heroes, the late great Richard Pryor, who, back in the ’70s, told it like it was in his seminal stand-up routines, which boldly punctuated the laughs with hard hitting truths. Uncompromising in his examination of racism, Pryor didn’t pull any punches – an ultra-streetwise teacher, he was a massive influence on all who followed – Eddie Murphy, Bill Hicks and Chris Rock included.
His live albums weren’t released in this country, so most people in the UK knew him via his acting appearances, especially those opposite Gene Wilder in the comedies ‘The Silver Streak’ (1976), ‘Stir Crazy’ (1980), and later ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil’ (1989). These were a world apart from his no holds barred live recordings, which I discovered when I met English DJ’s Nicky Flavell, Paul Rae and Primus, during the month I spent in Skien, Norway in 1978. We would often sit in their accommodation listening to Pryor’s albums, ‘That Nigger’s Crazy’ (1974), ‘Is It Something I Said’ (1975) and ‘Bicentennial Nigger’ (1976), which they’d picked up on their travels. Before I returned to the UK I’d copy these to cassette
His ‘Live In Concert’ performance, from Long Beach, California in 1979, is described by many as the greatest stand-up routine ever recorded, which is something I’d certainly concur with. This was broadcast on Channel 4 soon after the station launched in 1982, and I managed to capture it on my newly acquired video player. That VHS tape was played within an inch of its life, and I could probably still recite the entire show word for word. I eventually replaced this about 7 or 8 years ago with a pristine re-mastered DVD recording – just checked on Amazon and they have copies for a ridiculously bargain basement £2.99: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Richard-Pryor-Live-concert-DVD/dp/B0002475ZC
Pryor’s scattergun use of the N-word helped to disempower it as a racist slur, the black community claiming it as their own, although later, after a trip to Kenya, he swore he would never use the word in his stand-up routine again. He recalled;
“When I was in Africa, this voice came to me and said, “Richard, what do you see?” I said, I see all types of people.” The voice said, “But do you see any niggers?” I said, “No.” It said, “Do you know why? ‘Cause there aren’t any.”
His book, ‘Pryor Convictions’, is a must read, and his recordings, both audio and visual, are a lasting document to black self-awareness throughout the harsh and turbulent realities of the post-Civil Rights period.
Back to Anderson Hinds who, along with Kermit and his brother Carson, taught me much about institutional racism (a term coined by Black Panther, Stokely Carmichael, in the late ’60s), which I witnessed up close during the years the crew was signed to EMI. By 1990 / 1991, when their albums were released, the racism was less overt, but scratch slightly beneath the surface and you saw the obstacles that were still continually placed in their way. Changing the minds of individuals is one thing, but changing whole systems and organisations takes a lot longer.
Anderson had a very firm but fair way of looking at things – he was strong in his condemnation of racist action in its various forms, but understood that much of this was purely down to ignorance. He’d give someone a second chance, but not a third one.
His lyrics, especially those on his best-known compositions, the singles ‘Justice (Just Us)’ and ‘And It Wasn’t A Dream’, are testament to his social insight. ‘Justice’ deals directly with the issues of institutional racism that affected the black community, whilst ‘And It Was A Dream’ was a heartfelt ode to his parent’s generation, and their naïve belief that emigrating to England would bring them a better life (in 2006 its quintessential Englishness was recognized when Mojo Magazine named it as one of ‘The 50 Greatest British Tracks Ever’, alongside classics including ‘Penny Lane’ / The Beatles, ‘Itchycoo Park’ / The Small Faces, ‘God Save The Queen’ / The Sex Pistols, ‘Wuthering Heights’ / Kate Bush, ‘Ghost Town’ / The Specials and ‘Common People’ / Pulp).
I’ve written about ‘And It Wasn’t A Dream’ elsewhere in the blog, in last year’s ‘Killer Album’ here and ‘Where Were You In 1990?’ here posts, but I should draw attention to a key line in the track, where he’s talking about how people who were renting out accommodation back then would put signs in the window saying ‘No Irish No Blacks’ (and, for full dehumanising impact, sometimes throwing in ‘No Dogs’ for good measure). By highlighting this, Anderson referenced the fact that, whilst black people couldn’t avoid being subjected to racial insult, exactly because of their skin colour, racism wasn’t exclusively aimed at blacks. Although the Irish could blend in as far as skin tone was concerned, the moment they opened their mouths they also opened themselves up to a barrage of abuse and the threat of violence. This was a shared experience that many people of Irish descent had never previously considered. Marian Buckley, then a writer for Manchester’s City Life magazine, whose parents were Irish, spoke eloquently on the subject in an interview filmed for the 1991 Channel 4 documentary about the Rap Assassins, also called ‘And It Wasn’t A Dream’ – her incisive words can be heard between 3.24 – 7.03 in the clip below:
You can watch the video to ‘And It Wasn’t A Dream’ here:
Although racism wasn’t prevalent in my home environment, there was no avoiding it in the schoolyard where it was within earshot right from the get go, via the children’s counting rhyme ‘Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe’. In this way, words and phrases can be planted into your mind, words that you don’t understand the full weight of until later down the line, when you realise that they’re not quite as harmless as they appear on the surface and carry a much more sinister undertone once you take time out to stop to think about them, or when others point out your unintentional insensitivity.
Back in 1983, at a time when I was fully embroiled in the black scene, I remember an instance with Kermit, in the pre-Rap Assassins days, when he was a member of the later to become legendary Manchester breakdance crew, Broken Glass, who I then managed (in addition to my DJ work). I love him to bits, but, by nature, Kermit can stretch your patience to the limit and, one time, whilst I was trying to get him to hurry up for something or other, exasperated, I said to him ’c’mon Kermit, play the white man’, which was a phrase that I’d never realised had racist connotations, despite the fact that it’s so obvious once you consider it. I’d always though that it was purely a quirky way of saying ‘c’mon, be fair’.
Kermit didn’t say a thing, but just looked at me with raised eyebrows. The penny didn’t drop for a couple of seconds and, confused, I asked ‘what?’ He still remained stony silent. Then I got it – it was like looking from the other side of the mirror for the first time. I immediately apologised, but there was no bad feeling – he understood that there was nothing untoward meant by my comment, but by the same token I needed to sink into my skull the reason why this is a term that would no longer pass my lips. ‘Indian giver’, is another example – this goes back to the European settlement of North America in the 1700s, and implies that Native Americans weren’t to be trusted, as they’d give you a gift, but then want it back.
Then there was a time that my friend Christine Quarless picked me up on using the term ‘half-caste’ in reference to someone of mixed-race (or, as others prefer to describe themselves, dual heritage). This was a surprise for me because I’d heard plenty of black people use the term myself. As someone of mixed parentage, she pointed out the negative association with the term, dating back to colonialism. The fact she found it personally offensive was enough for me to know that whoever might use it, white or black, it wouldn’t be me any longer.
What gets me is when people try to argue these points with someone who’s telling them they’re affronted, more or less accusing them of over-sensitivity, which is pretty belittling to say the least. It’s those people who are but an embarrassingly patronising breath away from repeating another much quoted children’s rhyme, which, as the years go by, we come to realise, like Santa and the Tooth Fairy, belongs to that more innocent time in our lives – ‘Sticks And Stones Will Break My Bones But Words Will Never Hurt Me’.
Once you have the knowledge that the words you use would be regarded as offensive to some people, by continuing to use them, even in the company of those who wouldn’t feel personal insult, is a knowingly racist act.
It’s all about education – the germ of insult is largely spread in ignorance, and few of us can claim never to have spouted out opprobrious shit about someone who doesn’t look / talk /act the same as we do. It’s only when we feel shame for this type of conditioned behaviour that we can begin to combat it in ourselves, de-programming whatever it was in the past that would make such inappropriate words come of our mouths.
Whether people like it or not, Britain is a multicultural nation and will remain that way. It would do us well to try to comprehend the trials and tribulations of our fellow citizens who’ve suffered, and continue to suffer abuse and discrimination because of their skin colour and / or religious differences. Only then can we set about the task of fully integrating, embracing diversity and building communities where all are allowed to properly contribute in an atmosphere of mutual respect. This open-mindedness and human empathy would surely serve to enrich our culture no end as we contemplate the fresh challenges of the 21st century.
Rivers Of Blood Speech Wikipedia:
Ball Of Confusion Wikipedia:
Richard Pryor Wikipedia:
And It Wasn’t A Dream Lyrics: