STEEL PULSE - ARTICLES
Chris Brazier in Melody Maker
9 September 1978
Young British blacks are beginning to counter racism, using reggae as a cultural focus. Chris Brazier visits two notorious black areas - Handsworth (Birmingham) to meet Steel Pulse, and Notting Hill (London) for the Carnival - and hears frightening tales and determined words.
The original idea for this article was to take that stirring lyric ['Handsworth Revolution' by Steel Pulse] by Britain's most successful reggae band ever at its word and see Handsworth as microcosmic of black communities throughout Britain, to take its steel pulse at the same time as getting behind the group to see how a home area which is clearly very important to them has moulded them and their attitudes. The plan was open-ended and tentative, given that I have little direct experience of 'black culture' or reggae music, and I ended up being led from Steel Pulse and Handsworth to the Notting Hill Carnival, to an important album and to the overview of a black sociologist in search of the true nature of the problems facing black people in Britain today. The more I learned, the more thoroughly abhorrent racialism in all its forms became to me.
Handsworth is the most infamous area in Birmingham, a notoriety due almost entirely to the unstinting efforts of both national newspapers and local rags such as the Birmingham Evening Mail. Attention has always centred on black crime in the area, so that the impression conveyed is of an area composed largely of muggers and rapists in which it's totally unsafe to walk after dark. The picture has been so successfully drawn that I quite expected a very heavy district, and was rather glad to be working with Dennis Morris, the best black photographer in England, so that we would stick out a little less as 'white media-people doing their token-piece on black problems.' In reality, Handsworth, in the summer of '78 at least, could even be called a quiet, docile place.
Lying in the north-west of Birmingham, the picture it presents of an urban area running down is by no means exceptional, and is instead very familiar. It has the usual plethora of shabby, terraced streets staggering on their last or penultimate legs, occasionally interspersed with rubble-scarred open spaces that look like bomb-sites but which actually mark the former presence of houses which are to be usurped at some (doubtless obscure) later date by flat-blocks which, if existing examples are anything to go by, will probably be further testaments to architectural idiocy....The deadening aspect of the place is reflected in what is, for blacks at least, a fairly dead social life. It is in all respects amazing that such a large West Indian community can really only avail itself of one reggae club, the unsatisfactory Rialto. Needless to say, in a high unemployment area such as Handsworth (regsitered at 12% last year) good leisure facilities are an absolute essential, and if the needs of the older people are met by Fellowship Clubs or by those pubs that are West Indian run, then those of the young (whose need for entertainment is more intense, and who are the most afflicted by unemployment on leaving school) are manifestly not being fulfilled.
Can anything but a relatively high incidence of crime be legitimately expected when kids are forced to hang around bored all evening as well as all day? The lack of public amenities beyond the odd gambling joint, youth club and billiard hall inevitably increases the importance of private functions - weddings and Christenings become almost community occasions, and 'blues' proliferate ('blues,' which used to be called 'shebeens' are parties which employ reggae discos, or 'sounds,' such as Quaker, Studio City or Mafia Hi-Fi, Birmingham's equivalents of Brixton's Coxsone sound). But the lack of reggae clubs is still ridiculous. What used to be the best one, the Bunny Johnson Club, burned down under mysterious circumstances after complaints from neighbours and the police, and any other clubs that have been opened have been forced to close at the withdrawal of their late-night licence by the authorities.
Michael Riley of Steel Pulse told me about the one that remains: "it still exists because it's got friends. And it's partly still going because they said it was the Dreads that caused trouble - that same old story about the Dreads. So they started saying, to get in the club you had to wear a shirt with no hat and your hair combed out, which eliminated all the Dreads and got all these artificial, snobbish black people to take over for a while. But there weren't enough, so they had to start allowing hats in agaoin as long as they were allowed to look under them for locks first." He laughs - the absurdity of black clubs outlawing locks is self-evident, yet the same situation prevails at a club just outside Handsworth. It's the Jodori, where Steel Pulse used to have to smuggle in the two of their members who had locks so that by the time the enraged owner saw them they were on stage and it was too late (the prejudice against locks derives largely from older Jamaicans who inherited a belief in Rastafarians as dirty loafers).
Given the absence of anywhere to play (the Rialto doesn't encourage locals bands any more than it does Rastas), new groups are forced to spend most of their time practising, unless they can be found a gig somewhere else in the country by Cecil Morris, a record shop owner who has done much to help young black artists in the area. He started by holding a talent contest a couple of years ago (which Steel Pulse won) and hopes to run one on a regular basis now in its own venue. But, as he says, "wanting to open a club means a lot of hassle with the authorities, who don't really support anything the blacks are doing around here." He mentioned the names of a few promising Handsworth reggae bands - Eclipse, Messiah, Black Iwah, J Halen Band, Power Exchange, Heartbeat, Iganda and Velvet Shadow. Eclipse are undoubtedly the most prominent of these - around for four years, they're releasing a single this week, have recorded an album, and are negotiating a deal with a major company.
....Which brings us into the main area of concern - the current position of black people in Britain. people have been telling me recently that they think the National Front has been defeated, that everyone has recognised them now for the pathetic monsters that they are, and as a result the turn-out for London's second Anti-Nazi Carnival on September 24 (11am in Hyde Park) will probably be smaller. But it is, of course, important not to become complacent, nor to underestimate the predominance of racist attitudes at large. And if you want a cautionary tale...Mike Riley and I passed some football supporters in the City Centre on the Saturday night, and they were chanting "National Front," not the first time I've heard that chant or seen a Nazi salute this season. Mike Riley was my guide in Handsworth for much of the time. One of Steel Pulse's singers, he's an intelligent, friendly and very likeable 22 year old who left school at 16 to train in electrical installation, though since devoting himself to music he (not surprisingly) can't imagine going back to being "dead, programmed by the system into a nine-to-five routine." He told me: " Compared to say, a year ago, Handsworth has really quietened down - nothing's happening at all. A lot of the guys have moved out and are hustling elsewhere - it was so heavy that they had to disappear. But Handsworth isn't heavy anymore. I mean, this guy was telling me the other day about the goings-on in Brixton and Harlesden and that was really heavy. Compared to that, Handsworth is completely static. Razors are back in fashion down there, apparently. There's a lot of incidents down there involving the National Front that have been kept out of the press....You read so little about these incidents that you begin to wonder if they're true or not - that's the power of the papers. They feed people with the information they want them to have."
....Handsworth may have cooled down now, but no one would deny that it was a heavy place a year or 18 months ago. At that time there existed almost a state of war between young blacks and the police of the local station in Thornhill Road, a daunting Victorian edifice. As Mike Riley and I walked along Soho Road, he pointed out the now-deserted "front line" of this battle (the junction with Villa Road). This conflict is documented and illuminated by a report specially prepared for the police by someone called John Brown, called Shades of Grey: A Report on Police-West Indian Relations in Handsworth.....His attack is based on his belief that street crimes in the area are committed "mainly by a particular group - some 200 youths of West Indian origin or descent who have taken on the apppearance of followers of the Rastafarian faith by plaiting their hair in locks and wearing green, gold and red wollen hats. In the report these young people become "the Dreadlocks," and they take on the aspect of monstrous bogeymen capable of any kind of savagery, so that the word "Dreadlock" becomes synonymous with brutish criminality.
....Reggae music is very important in these terms, as Steel Pulse recognise, as is Rastafarianism, less as a religion per se than for its promotion of black pride and dignity, for its insistence that black people learn about their heritage, learn that they have a cultural identity every bit as dignified and significant as the white West. As ColinPrescott says: "many Jamaicans are doing what Steel Pulse are doing, using traditional Rasta images for the purpose of raising consciousness. Rasta was bound to do this - Rasta is not a dead form, it's very alive. It's not other-worldly, just about Jah and Selassie, and for Rasta to be relevant here it has to be transformed, because Rasta has to be different in Trenchtown from in the rural areas of Jamaica, let alone over here. The youth here will use it to help get their thing together....
Reggae could surely be seen as the binding force in this development of black awareness, and the emergence of young British reggae bands who will address themselves to the black situation in this country rather than importing stock Rastafarian ideas from Jamaica. Steel Pulse's debut album has been accused of being too traditional in this respect, to which David Hinds, the band's lead vocalist and guitarist, responds by saying that he uses Rasta ideas as metaphors even though he's not committed to the faith himself (none of the band are). "Where I'm different from Rasta is that they feel their roots are in Africa but I feel my roots are everywhere." What do you mean then by 'Give I back I witch doctor'? "Metaphorically speaking, give I back I original way of life. Put it this way - white man don't know much about black man. I used to go to college and they didn't know anything there about black people. 'Tribes' they think. 'Loinclothes'."
His tune is scornful - he is far more militantly, aggressively aware of the necessity of fighting for their rights than anyone else in the band. His college experience was at art school, for which he took a year's foundation course but then left after the first year of the BA course, following which he tried to get a number of jobs such as sign-painting or in the Post Office. He is convinced that they all turned him down because of his colour, since he had all the necessary qualifications. He is passionately conscious of his 'mission': "I want blacks to be aware of the situation of other black people in other parts of the world. If we come together they'll see that we mean business. A white man doesn't really take a black man seriously. The only kind of black man respected among white people is a musician or an entertainer - that's the only form of communication they'll have with them. I mean, the only reason you're talking to me is because I'm a musician." Which is true enough.
Inevitably, awareness of injustice makes for a certain degree of distrust of white people. David went on, "I'm not really against white people. But I see black girls with white men and I can't really relate to it. When it comes to a racial clash, what them gonna do?" But why should you work on the assumption that there's going to be a racial clash? A lot of whites really sympathise with black people. "Yeah, but to me white man's sympathy stops at Rock Against Racism - I don't really see any strong action. I'm not really against mixed marriage but the trouble is that half the people who do it aren't aware of their own culture - they don't know what's happening with their own kind, they're ashamed." I can see that fighting the shame indoctrination is crucially important, but surely what's needed is a process of education rather than segregation and clash? "Yes, and that's what Harambee is doing now, I think - they're trying to make black kids aware, give them an identity. Don't get me wrong when I say about blacks and whites mixing. It's just that I believe for a man to build his future he has to learn from the past: you have to know where you stand."
Building a future...It's the determination to do that which should ring hopefully through this piece, even if David is pessimistic about the likelihood of true integration and victory over racialism: "We don't want no racial disharmony but there's never gonna be peace between black and white, I know that."....Reggae is vital to the cause of black people's resistance against racism, and in spearheading the advance of native reggae, Steel Pulse have made a vastly important breakthrough (the presence of their sophisticated debut album in the charts is a real landmark).....If black people in Britain are to stand up for their rights effectively, to fight racism with any success, the existence of a British reggae culture (and its Rastafarian backdrop) with its insistence on consciousness-raising is vital as a rallying-point.....
Note; I have not included the whole article due to its length and discussion of topics not directly associated with Steel Pulse.
Text copyright Melody Maker 1978, used without permission.
Home : Steel Pulse : Articles Index : E-mail
The contents of this website cannot be reproduced or copied without permission of the site author. (c) Andy Brouwer 2004