In the official version of the unravelling of the British Empire, that is to say, the BBC version, in among the tales of Nehru and Gandhi, the Mau Mau and the Irish Troubles, there is something predictable to the part of the story reserved for the decolonisation of the West Indies. The programme will always feature archive film of smiling, waving Jamaican passengers aboard the MV Empire Windrush, arriving at Tilbury in Essex in 1948, before the director cuts seamlessly to some drab monochrome shots of post-war austerity Britain, and then one of the notorious signs displayed in pub windows that read “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”. On or around this little mini-montage, you will be guaranteed to hear Lord Kitchener’s London Is The Place For Me.
The famous calypso song, delivered by Kitchener as he disembarked the Windrush and was by chance caught on camera, is a fascinating cultural landmark – over the following decades Caribbean immigrants and their descendants have made a truly extraordinary impact on Britain through music. Now in a new film, Showtime!, the London-based reggae collective The Heatwave have commemorated the recent decades of Caribbean-British vocal music, the postcolonial permutations of the Empire Windrush lineage that have lit up and transformed British pop music. In an essay accompanying The Heatwave’s 2008 compilation album An England Story, they explained how British reggae came to find its own voice: “DJs like the legendary Duke Vin had been playing Caribbean music in England since not long after the Windrush docked,” but the revolution came with the next generation, the youngsters who were, as Tricky put it in Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, of “English upbringing, background Caribbean”.
During the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of sound systems were to be found in centres of Caribbean population across London and most of the larger British cities, keeping dances or “shebeens in community centres, church halls and private houses”.
Showtime! is a feature film, focused on one historic British reggae “stageshow” in London last summer that boasted a once-in-a-lifetime line-up, around 20 stars of the microphone, spanning the generations, from 1980s legend Asher Senator, to 1990s heroes Glamma Kid, Skibadee and General Levy, to 2000s heroes like Wiley, Riko and Stush. Intercut with highlights from the show are interviews with the show’s main protagonists, telling the story of Jamaican music in its new home, as it evolved through the 1970s and 1980s into dub, lovers rock, fast chat, and then eventually ragga jungle, drum ‘n’ bass and grime and dancehall. The film has been wonderfully curated by director Rollo Jackson. Leaping the perennial hurdle for filmed concerts, namely “you had to be there” (I was, and the film does the concert justice), he captures the night’s heady energy and frenetic rotation of talent at the front of the stage. The close-up camera positioned in the front row of the crowd keeps getting excitable arms flung in front of it, perfectly capturing the thrills of the dance floor.
The interviewees all have a stab at explaining why a reggae dancehall show is not like any other kind of live show – speaking to its inclusiveness, and the shared spirit between performers and fans celebrating together, and more than anything, just the sheer excitement: the word “hype” comes up over and over again. It’s a spirit best articulated in a fleeting shot of Heatwave member Rubi Dan walking through the crowd at the concert, his arms cradling about 30 brand new conical horns – for that authentic (and deafening) carnival spirit.
MCs don’t perform songs, as such. The selector, or DJ, plays an instrumental rhythm track, and the MC responds with some of their pre-memorised lyrics, semi-improvising to fit the rhythm. The nature of the rhythm – whether boisterous and cluttered, bold and simple, slow and sensual – dictates the mood of the piece, and as the fundamental building block of the music, the DJ is effectively running the live show, along with the crowd, whose raucous cheers can be enough to see a track abruptly and climactically pulled back to the beginning when the emotion and energy demands it.
The highlights are too numerous to mention, though female MC Stush performing on the Pow rhythm has the 20-odd people crammed onto the stage going as berserk as the crowd themselves. There is a sense of history to this stageshow not just in the individual epochs and genres it celebrates, but in and of itself. “Wiley and Skiba in one place, you know!” jungle legend Skibadee says as he takes the mic from the “Godfather of Grime”, like he can’t quite believe it himself. When they step outside of their comfort zone it’s a chance to see those musical roots bloom afresh: the grime MCs Riko and Wiley performing over the seminal reggae rhythm Sleng Teng is a rare thrill, but it becomes even more poignant when you realise that the next MC waiting to take the mic, Stylo G, is as old as the track itself – both originate in 1985.
As MC Lady Chann explains in one of the interviews, this history is not only important, its importance is understood: there would be no grime, no 21st-century urban takeover of the mainstream, no Tinie Tempah and Dizzee
Rascal, without the reggae pioneers who laid the foundations of their success. They discuss sound systems like Saxon and Coxsone, and Chann mentions one particular MC, Smiley Culture. It was his 1984 hit Cockney Translation which became not just a transformative record in the history of black British music, but black Britishness.
Professor Paul Gilroy records in There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack just how important the record was in the formation of a new consciousness. “Cockney Translation transcended the ‘schizophrenic’ elements which composed the contradictory unity that provided the basic framework for a potential black Britishness. The record suggested that these elements could be reconciled without jeopardising affiliation to the history of the black diaspora. It initiated a new response to the fundamental contradictions of being both British and black.”
Last year in the most mysterious of circumstances Smiley Culture died during a raid on his home by the British police – one of a disproportionately high number of unexplained black deaths in police custody – and his death is the subject of an continuing Justice for Smiley Culture campaign. Appropriately, given that the concert occurred only three months after his death, a substantial section of Showtime! is devoted to his legacy. First the music is cut out for a short rallying cry, demanding explanations from the authorities, and an acknowledgement that “we lost a legend”. Then, rather than a minute’s solemn silence, the host calls for everyone to make as much noise as they possibly can. The camera pans around and the packed, multiracial crowd raise their yellow, green, orange, red and black airhorns to the ceiling, and on the count of three, they sound as one, as glitter rains down from the ceiling; it’s an awesome and touching tribute.
In her backstage interview, MC Stush reflects on what’s changed since Cockney Translation: ultimately, that fewer translations are necessary – that the “unofficial” black slang that Smiley explains in the track is “in the forefront now”: it’s become at least a part of mainstream British pop culture. And that’s happened, at length, because of the passion and determination of black British musicians to create spaces for creativity and conviviality in spite of continuing prejudice. “When I think of all the different raves these MCs have performed at over the years,” The Heatwave’s Benjamin D reflects, “every time the mic is passed it’s got all those different stories weaving through it”.
In Paul Gilroy’s Postcolonial Melancholia he sounds a small note for optimism in the face of the reactionary mythmaking, fudged policies, and mistold histories that characterise race relations in modern Britain. There is still a possibility, he writes, of “the continuing pursuit of a world free of racial hierarchies ... If we are seeking to revive that goal, to make it sound less banal, more attractive, and more political by showing where it touched and still transforms modern dreams of substantive democracy and authentic justice, then we will need to reconstruct the history of ‘race’ in modernity.”
It’s a huge challenge, to get past not only the racism still alive in British society, but also the vacuous simulacra of postcolonial harmony sold by people who have never experienced racism. Arguably the necessary work described by Gilroy is already being done, in a small corner of Britain, and it’s being done with a microphone, a pair of turntables, and an arm full of rave horns. Less banal, more attractive, and more political? Sounds about right.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.