With Hey Colossus releasing their eighth album, In Black & Gold, earlier this year, guitarist Jon Richards presents an personal essay examining the spectrum of artists – and faces – across the British music scene.
I recently had the great pleasure of being able to witness the Songhoy Blues concert at East London’s Oslo venue. I was part of a crowd enjoying new music, played by a conventionally set up band (Drums, Bass, Guitar and Vocals) and I was struck by how refreshing it was to see excellent performers completely engage an audience, despite a language barrier and some cultural differences.
The band come from Mali, Africa and I can only imagine how surreal it must have been for them to travel so far from home and play their music to a sold out venue of rapturous fans. They seemed like such a cohesive unit. A very strong sound and appearance. With so much expectation and love coming from the crowd. Part of Songhoy Blues’ appeal, for me, is their otherness. Young black men playing live instruments, singing and dancing. Holding down a zeitgeist show in packed club, the way The Strokes or The White Stripes did at the turn of the century. An antithesis to the Brit school studied pop, or the officer-class acoustic troubadours, or the grime MCs, or the pseudodelic rockers and all that we take for granted as being the best in popular music trends in 2015.
I found myself trying to remember the last time I had seen a young black guitar group and – more to the point – had I ever seen it from UK band? Sure, there are always non-white faces to be seen in bands on stages all over the world, but an all black UK rock band? After much head scratching, I found myself reaching all the way back to the 1980s for examples such as Musical Youth, Aswad, SoulII Soul and Roachford. Really.
How can it be that we are celebrating an exoticness in rock music so well by championing fantastic acts like Songhoy Blues, Tinariwen and Tal National, to name but a few, whilst the current pop landscape seems to be almost bereft of non-Caucasian rock bands and musicians here in the UK?
As far as I can decipher, the above musicians are taking as much influence from western music as from their own sonic traditions. But whereas they choose to take to guitars and drum kits, young black musicians in the UK are perceived to use pocket electronics and auto-tune almost exclusively. So what has happened to the fine tradition of live music within the UK’s black community? And why haven’t we seen more indie bands, in particular, that are comprised of non-caucasian band members?
It’s great that there is currently such an interest in African music, but I think that considering the amount of British citizens who are of African descent, there must an equivalent black rock band right here on our own doorstep.
If we look back at the last 100 years of popular song we will find a roll call of black artists who have broken the mould and pushed musical boundaries. From the original punk rocker Chuck Berry, the early distorted guitars of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Buddy Guy (before The Kinks), Booker T And The MGs, Jimi Hendrix (still considered the best guitarist of all time), Motown and Stax (both feature amazing session musicians), James Browns’ JBs, Arthur Lee and Love (a racially mixed band who are practical godfathers of indie music), Sly And The Family Stone, Funkadelic, Fela Kuti’s bands, Taj Mahal, The Jackson 5, Bob Marley, King Tubby, Lee Perry, Sly And Robbie and CHIC to Bad Brains, The Specials, Prince, Lenny Kravitz and D’Angelo.
These are still just the tip of the iceberg. Mostly American acts sure, but after years of the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US – both politically and culturally – there is more than enough in this short list to resonate with and inspire a young black British person.
Here in Britain there has been a tidal wave of exciting new music and talented multi ethnic artists over the last 25 years. MCs, R&B singers, rappers, pop stars and DJ/producers, many of whom have been pushing boundaries in recording, composition and performance. But can this really be the entire picture of the outpourings of imagination coming from our non-white musicians? What makes some of our young decide to pick up one kind of instrument and others choose to use tech to make their sounds? How can it possibly be a racial choice?
I’m certainly not saying one style of music is superior to another but I think that if balance, open-mindedness and imagination can’t exist in 21st century music, then they probably can’t exist in any other aspect of modern life. The notion that all black kids are only growing up on council estates in states of near deprivation is very outmoded. This means the class factor is ruled out. Even then, what is to stop a youngster from a low-income home from having their imagination fired up by a drum kit or electric guitar?
I understand that technology has always been the main catalyst for musical progression, from the invention of audio recording, electronic amplification, PA systems, synthesizers and metallic tape right up to ProTools, Garageband and Ableton. And black musicians have always been at the forefront of the utilization of new technologies. But something doesn’t sit right with the thought that only white musicians want to use the classic rock line-up format. We are all people and we and our thoughts are not defined by the colour of our skin.
We have lots of black artists participating in our indie music scene but they are scattered. One hundred peppercorns mixed into one million grains of salt. It’s like 2 Tone never happened for rock music.
Shingai Shoniwa from The Noisettes, Gary Powell from The Libertines, Kele Okereke from Bloc Party and Lightspeed Champion aka Dev Hynes all must have been a big inspiration to young black people over the last decade. So where is the sign of this musical social mobility? Where is the equivalent of Tinariwen from Birmingham for example?
Our musical landscape in Britain seems to be divided. Guitar wielding rock bands appear to feature almost exclusively white middle class males, while black musicians are presented to be solely interested in electronic sounds and club lifestyle. Can this really be a totally accurate picture? I fear it’s only what is presented to us by labels, charts, press and algorithm obsessed marketing teams and A&R people. Those who will plough their demographics field until an artistic state of stasis is achieved. Where nothing new can grow.
White people can participate in, and in some cases become, major players as MCs, R&B singers, Rappers, Popstars and DJ/Producers in the UK, so why can’t it work the other way around? Where is the modern Terry Callier supporting Mumford and his Sons? Why isn’t a black, Hendrix-like artist headlining Reading and Leeds Festival?
Strangely, these ideas do seem possible in America but not on these shores. T.V On The Radio and The Bots, both modern American bands who represent intellectual visions of blackness that is at odds with the dominant images we see from “in duh club”, “on the streets” or “in the ghetto”. No less African-American…just a different picture. Closer to the long-term goals of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, I suspect.
Do we have a home-grown T.V On The Radio whose recordings have never been heard by even the most investigative of A&R people? I’m asking if there are still very fixed and defined roles for all of us that get played out in front of us without us ever being able to stop and focus on what is being said. Between the lines.
Over the years there may have been a silent, creeping in of a kind of musical segregation in the UK. Not necessarily our fault but something that may have happened because we may have stopped taking notice. If there hasn’t been a commercially successful all-black rock band since the 1980s, perhaps this sends a message to some of our youth; that it’s a better bet to conform to a stereotype which may not truly fit you, in order to stand a chance in a highly competitive industry.
I was lucky enough to have been raised by a forward thinking white woman, I was always encouraged to be myself and follow my own interests even when they are not necessarily the same interests of my cohorts. I am a mixed-race guitarist who has been performing on stage since my teens (21years). I’ve played Hardcore Punk, Post-Rock, Country and Blues, Noise-Rock and Heavy Psychedelia. Rock music mostly, but always looking further afield for influences and perspectives removed from English speaking issues and concerns.
I didn’t think anything of joining in the scene I encountered through my first experiences of rock gigs. Race was not an issue for anyone bar a small few. Deptford and New Cross’ music landscapes were a melting pot of Ravers, Rastafarians, Crust Punks, Space Cadets and Britpoppers (Debbie Smith, Echobelly’s guitar player was a black Britpop star who I used to look up to in those days). In 1994 - at the time of Stephen Lawrence’s murder at the hands of those racist beer boys - music was one of the few things in life that brought people together in South London, as opposed to splitting us up. The seemingly disparate elements of some of the bands I saw back then gloriously illustrated this.
I knew I wasn’t wholly white. I knew I wasn’t wholly black. And I could never claim to speak on the behalf of either group as a consequence. Those matters were not important. I had enough self-possession to know what I wanted to do with my young life. Learning to play an instrument gave me a focus and an identity, which was invaluable to me as a young man. The essence of Rock And Roll… Be yourself.
Hey Colossus recently played a sold out show at London’s Lexington and while I don’t spend my time onstage counting and categorizing our audience, I was pleased to spot about ten non-white faces in the crowd. Small successes!
It’s not that I ever feel alienated from all of the friendly and supportive (mostly white) people I luckily get to meet while we travel about playing our shows. I’m of mixed heritage. A bridge. I love it. But it’s still kind of dispiriting to feel like a minority at my own gig. I sense that any kind of racism in the rooms we play would be shut down pretty quickly by the crowd. So why are non-white faces so under-represented at a shows by bands like my own? We tend to play to progressive people who would think of racist behaviour as being intolerable. Most rock scenes are like this. The ones that aren’t are producing music that is probably best left alone.
With so much of Rock and Pop’s roots being based in various styles and socio-geographic backgrounds (Blues = Black music + Country = White music = Rock And Roll for example), talking about music in terms of racial differences may seem absurd in the multi-coloured sonic soup of modern pop. But maybe we’re too busy looking in the appropriate places and only finding appropriate pop stars for appropriate times. Meanwhile, the potential star has faded or simply accepted the role that he or she feels society expects of them.
Music is supposed to be free from such restrictions. A place where rules are repeatedly broken. All to further the artistic endeavours of all of humanity. Whichever shape or form we may take.
I’m trying to suggest that the United Kingdom probably has a deeper and more diverse talent pool than we could ever imagine. One that is comprised of all colours, languages, genders and sexualities, all of them representing the age in which we live, where most of us have access to the infinite music library that the internet has enabled and the eclectic tastes that it has naturally produced. Jon Richards @heycolossus
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