Sounds Like London: from Windrush to Wiley

Lloyd Bradley’s new book offers a passionate history of black music in the capital.

David Bowden

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So, how did you respond to Miley Cyrus’ ‘twerking’ at the VMAs last month? Was it a mixture of disgust and outrage? Did you look at the erstwhile Disney star gyrating in a flesh-coloured bikini and think that what the girl needs is a short stay in a race studies class? Were you rubbing your eyes, smacking your lips and gnashing your teeth at this modern-day ‘minstrel show‘? As the former Hannah Montana stuck her tongue out and rubbed herself up against singer Robin Thicke, could you see nothing but ‘the annexing (of) the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies’?

No? Me neither. Assuming you paid any attention to it at all, you may have felt a degree of awkwardness over a tween icon suddenly launching into such a sexualised display and perhaps surprise that this controversial thing called twerking was what you’ve seen people do in clubs for at least a couple of decades. Yet chances are, if you’re from the UK, the nature of the controversy would have left you a bit baffled.

While he might caution against the smugness, music writer Lloyd Bradley certainly would agree that the UK has a very different relationship to black culture – or at least its music. His new book, Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital takes as its starting point the seeming cultural triumph of urban music in Britain, pointing towards its ubiquity in last year’s Olympics celebration and the global success of young black musicians such as Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah in the ethnically diverse, but London-derived, grime and dubstep scenes. As the book title implies, a significant part of the world’s most popular music can trace its roots back to London, and the huge diversity of subcultures it is home to.

Also mindful of the way ‘black’ music has, until recently, eluded mainstream acclaim, his history here focuses exclusively on musical styles created by London-based black artists for London’s predominantly black audiences. While there are some surprising omissions (no two-tone and only brief mentions of British soul/R&B), Bradley’s book is an absorbing history of some of the more overlooked genres, such as lover’s rock. More importantly, it presents us with a rich cast of characters ‘most of whom refused to play by the rules’ to make an impact on musical culture, often in spite of indifference from the music industry or wider institutions.

They range from classically trained Guyanese clarinettist Rudolph Dunbar, who went from the Harlem jazz scene to becoming the first black conductor of the London Philharmonic in 1942; showboating calypso singer Lord Kitchener, who came to England on the Empire Windrush in 1948 and, not missing a beat, sang ‘London is the place for me’ to the Pathé News cameras that documented the ship’s arrival; Cy Grant, a former RAF bomber and German POW who made his way, via a successful calypso career, to being the voice of Lieutenant Green on Captain Scarlet; and Claudia Jones, the Communist activist who founded the forerunner to the Notting Hill Carnival to raise local community spirits following racist attacks.

Bradley is a hugely experienced music journalist and he writes like one: there are times, amid the matey interviews and glowing over ultra-obscure recordings and memorabilia, that you long for a more sharply interrogative tone. Still, there’s no doubting his passion for the subject and he isn’t without his criticisms. He is dismissive of the braggadocio and gangster poses of contemporary grime stars, exaggerating their edginess to credulous white folk.

Racism has an undoubted place in Bradley’s narrative, but racism is invariably a conscious and political entity that emanates from the specific political attitudes of Britain’s elites; it is not the unconscious force springing from the minds of individuals that we are constantly encouraged to keep in check today. He observes that in the early, post-Windrush days, social friction was as likely to arise from the insularity of economic migrants – seeking only a short stay and understandably suspicious of their hosts – as it was from the jazz-loving hipsters or white working classes beleaguered by post-war austerity. It is only after the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act that a more overt, vicious racism started to appear on Britain’s streets – provoking as much solidarity as it did street thuggery.

If anything, and this is where Bradley’s book starts to pick up, ‘solidarity’ proved something of a mixed blessing. The steel drum had been enthusiastically embraced as a proto form of multiculturalism by the Inner London Educational Authority in the late Sixties, who saw it as an easy way to engage socially disadvantaged Caribbean kids. As one contributor observes, ‘After three or four lessons, they’ll play a simple tune like “La Bamba” or whatever, and they’ll play for the assembly and everyone will clap. But try to teach “La Bamba” on the trombone or something, and you know where you’re heading for – you’re heading for nothing.’ The legacy of this, Bradley notes, is that the UK educational authorities continue to keep alive an authentic Caribbean cultural tradition – on an international scale – which even the UK’s ’most knowledgeable steel pan archivist’ concedes would have long died out otherwise.

There is a recurrent theme here of cultural elites fixating upon an idea of ‘authentic’ black music. Early jazz and swing musicians from the Commonwealth would pretend to be Cuban, who were en vogue but often fell foul of border controls. South African jazz band The Blue Notes recall their white pianist having to black up to get around Apartheid-era segregation laws. Yet having escaped South Africa’s racist laws, the band found that European audiences would accuse them of selling out for playing with a white guy or be disappointed they were playing more experimental work rather than music with a township flavour. Similarly, Bradley observes the difficulties faced by black musicians, amid the anti-racism politics of the Seventies, who wanted to make more lighthearted and funky music but struggled to find a mainstream audience.

Ironically, Bradley credits Thatcher’s authoritarian Public Order Act as the source of today’s cross-over urban success stories, as the law forced ravers back into the diverse cities and sweaty warehouse parties and away from the more ethnically homogeneous countryside. Similarly, Ofcom’s obsessive policing of pirate radio stations created a unifying siege mentality, encouraging creativity, and giving new sample-heavy dance music – often made by black (and white) DJs ripping off old black (and white) musicians – an irresistible cool.

This is ultimately the closest that Sounds Like London comes to a thesis: that in spite of officialdom, people will devote an enormous amount of time and energy to dancing, loving and coming together. The results may not always be to your taste, and will hardly last for the ages, but it’s pretty damn authentic in its own ramshackle, cosmopolitan way. Bradley has succeeded in writing an informative and often enjoyable tribute to black musicians, paying homage to some pretty impressive individuals and tales, and opening up a treasure trove of musical history to explore.

David Bowden is a columnist for spiked. He is chairing the Battle Satellite, Hipster International? Music in a global age, at London’s Cockpit Theatre on Monday 23 September.

Sounds like London: 100 years of black music in the capital, by Lloyd Bradley, is published by Serpent’s Tail. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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