It is by turns playful, celebratory and rebellious. But how did Reggae arrive in the UK? A new film tells the storyby Colin Grant / November 6, 2018 / Leave a comment
A decade ago, I sat opposite the BBC World Service commissioning editor pitching another documentary on Jamaican music. I’d made a previous programme two years earlier. The commissioner was aghast. “Surely not,” he said, ushering me to a wall covered in a world map. He pointed to Jamaica, saying “look how tiny that island is. Another documentary? What about the rest of the world?” I pointed to the British Isles and said something similar. “Yes,” said the commissioner, “But Britain had an empire and an extraordinary history.” I argued that he was only reinforcing my point; considering its size, Jamaica’s impact and achievements were astonishing. “Jamaicans,” I reminded him, “were cultural conquistadors; reggae music had been their tool of conquest.”
The history of reggae has been documented many times before; but the makers of the latest iteration, a dramatised documentary film Rudeboy, have fastened on a relatively under-reported aspect: the rise and fall of an independent British record label, Trojan Records, (sometimes called the motown of reggae) which was founded by Lee Gopthal, a Jamaican émigré in London 50 years ago.
The title of the film, which is directed by Nick Davies, refers to the small-time ghetto gangsters of 1960s Jamaica, whose devotion to style offset the poverty of their circumstances and whose rise coincided with that of ska, the precursor to reggae. Rude boys, as spelt out in the lyrics of Derrick Morgan, were “rougher than rough; tougher than tough.”
In Jamaica, Ska quickly became associated with these dangerous youths. In the new film, Morgan recalls how his hit track was commissioned by Buzzbee, a notorious rude boy whose quality of menace was unmatched in west Kingston’s ghettoes, at least until he was killed the day after the song’s release.
The music—by turns playful, celebratory and rebellious—once transplanted to the UK, and sold by Trojan’s fledgling producers from the backs of vans, had an almost overnight appeal for Britain’s record-buying adolescents.
Early on Ska served as a bridge between the indigenous population, especially skinheads (arguably not the fascist but the fashion-kind) and West Indian immigrants. The reggae-inflected film, The Harder They Come, in which Jimmy Cliff played the two-gun gangster and ripped-off musical star, is widely credited with popularising Jamaican music in Britain and elsewhere.
Many of the musicians from that film—Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff and others—had already found a British audience through Trojan. Trevor Rhone, who wrote the screen play for The Harder They Come, called Jamaican music an instrument of repair. It complicated the relationship between hostile Britons who loved this new black sound while expressing support for anti-immigrant politicians such as Enoch Powell, whose infamous Rivers of Blood speech, 50 years old this year, predicted violence between blacks and whites. Ultimately, the music could not and would not be separated from its black creators; and at a time when black kids felt marooned from both Britain and the Caribbean, it helped to anchor their identities as they bathed in the reflected glory of their closeness to the music.
And what of the wannabe white rude boys? They would wait their turn and emerge through the punk movement, just around the corner. For now it was the black man, on the margins of society, who was exoticised as authentic. The young white men were only tourists with return tickets back to the safety and surety of the mainstream culture. They were the equivalent of Normal Mailer’s hipster, the White Negro from the decade before: “So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts,” wrote Mailer. “The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.”
A fanciful notion perhaps. But about the same time Norman Mailer was reflecting on the allure of the black man, a British writer, Colin McInnes, was also chronicling black and white masculinity, Ska, reefers and rebels in London, in search of a bit of excitement to enliven their dull British lives. McInnes wrote a trilogy on this theme most ably captured in his novel City of Spades in which the white protagonist, Montgomery Pew loves “spades” (black men), because “They bring an element of joy and fantasy and violence into our cautious, ordered lives.”
The speedy expansion of Trojan Records shortened its life expectancy, so that it was all but finished by 1975. But its success was an index of how white fans devoured blackness, imbibing the vibe of rude boy culture without subjecting themselves to the kind of real danger encountered by the likes of Buzzbee.
Though Trojan increasingly churned out plenty of sugar-coated offerings, much of the music did not shirk either from reflecting the racial tensions at large in the culture. It also foreshadowed the rawness of punk, inspiring The Clash, and later spearheaded a ska revival through two-tone music.
As second-generation young black Britons, my friends and I also took cues from Trojan. We’d never read the Iliad so we didn’t know how things turned out for the Trojans—but we understood they were warriors and cool.
The music spoke also of the acceptance of England as home. The great migration of Caribbean people to Britain in the 1950s had inspired the folklorist Louise Bennett’s poem, “Colonization in Reverse”: “Wat a devilment a Englan!/Dem face war an brave de worse/But me wondering how dem gwine stan/Colonizin in reverse.”
But it wasn’t colonisation. Actually through their innovations and energy, Jamaicans decolonised England. When that music came on you just had to move. Trojan Records, then, acted as a kind of Trojan horse to breach Britain’s starched cultural fortress. It blasted impenetrable radio playlists, and released cool vibes and beats of myriad Jamaican musicians, first into the blues parties held in West Indian front rooms, and then into wider society.