I, like many other decent people, have spent the last few days living with a feeling that I can only describe as powerlessness. I’ve watched what is happening in America and felt nearly every emotion. Disgust, for sure. Hurt. So much fucking anger. But also a real sense of joy and pride to see so many people fighting for such an important cause. But seeing those people fight has also left me, personally, battling some feelings around my own lack of involvement in the fight against racism.
I’m not black. I am half-Indian, though. Growing up in a very white part of the UK I experienced a lot of racism – from the outright and clear, to the more covert, and including some things that I have only realised were racist as I have grown older. Like when I was arrested as a teenager when my friend vandalised a car: I was not involved in the incident, but when we were both arrested and detained overnight, he was given time outside, a fried breakfast, and a newspaper to read. I was given nothing. Maybe this was racism and maybe it wasn’t, but I’ve thought about that a lot over the last few days and I struggle to find another reason.
Anyway, I only really tell you about these experiences, which I also acknowledge are nothing compared to the racism experienced by black people in American (and let’s not forget the UK, which is far from innocent here), for some context. Because, at the end of the day, this is a music website. And what I want to discuss today is music by black artists, and what it has meant to me over the years. Again, this is something that I have thought about a lot in recent days and I just wanted to get some of those thoughts down on the page. Apologies if this comes out as a rambling mess.
I should also mention another thing that sparked me to write this. #BlackoutTuesday. I had some complicated feelings around this campaign: as a music website, myself and the other editors felt that we should observe this opportunity to show our solidarity. But as the day went on I read posts from black artists and activists who felt that this wasn’t the way to go – that silence is already so prevalent, that instead it should have been a day to share resources and to big up black artists. I’ll admit that I’m still not sure how I feel about the two sides of this argument, but reading those posts definitely made me want to make sure I am more vocal and supportive of black musicians (and musicians of colour in general) going forward.
So here’s my first attempt at that. And I’m going to start by going pretty far back in time – to when I was a small child, growing up in a village in Derbyshire. Me, my mum, and my sisters were pretty much the only non-white faces in this village, and I don’t want to paint the place as a nightmare place to grow up for a mixed-race child. It wasn’t. But the racism I experienced there did start at a very young age, playschool even, and would continue throughout my school years. Primary and Secondary. I don’t think I understood at the time, but I now wonder if there was a reason that my two favourite artists in those very early years were Bob Marley and Tracy Chapman. Now, I’m not going to claim that I, at the age of seven or eight, was going out and looking for musicians who sang about their experiences of race and rallied against racism. Of course I wasn’t. But this was the music that my parents listened to, and I feel really fucking lucky for that now. Because, firstly – what an amazing couple of artists to be introduced to at such a young age. But to go further than that, I can’t help but feel that the messages within their music played a role, as I listened to them over the years, in helping to form my worldview and make me feel the way I do about such matters. I remember reading Catch a Fire, the Bob Marley biography, when I was around thirteen. And I remember feeling outrage at the racism he faced.
Fast forward a few years, and I want to discuss a band that I have already discussed on the Picky Bastards Podcast. Skunk Anansie. At this point in my musical trajectory, I had started to move away from the influence of my parents (although Bob and Tracy have remained lifelong constants) and started to listen, largely, to Britpop and Indie. Oasis and Blur. Lots of other white men who sang about houses in the country and magic pies. So when I first heard Skunk Anansie, when I first heard songs like ‘Yes It’s Fucking Political’, ‘We Love Your Apathy’, ‘Intellectualise My Blackness’, and ‘Little Baby Swastika’, I wasn’t sure exactly what it was I was connecting to. The music was out of my comfort zone. It was a level of aggression and anger, in both the instrumentation and the lyrics, that I hadn’t really heard before. But over the years I have realised what was drawing me in. I, at that time in my early teens, was still hearing racist comments and seeing displays of casual racism from people I considered friends every single day. I was brushing it aside. I shrugged it off when I was called a Paki, I pretended not to care when I was told to go back to where I came from, and I laughed nervously when people in the local shop said they were fed up of people coming over and taking their jobs. In the whitest village in the world. And here was Skin and her bandmates doing the complete opposite, confronting it with brutal aggression. And I fucking loved them for that.
As I grew a little older, suddenly a whole world of black music opened up to me. I found hip-hop. And yes, I originally found hip-hop through a white man and his Slim Shady LP, but that record opened me up to Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, which opened me up to 2pac, and soon I was listening to everything I could find – Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang Clan and NWA, Mobb Deep and The Fugees. And I have absolutely no doubt that it was this time in my life, from the ages of around seventeen to twenty-one and when I was obsessed with just one genre of music, that my interests in racism on a wider scale took hold. Through these songs, and particularly through a love of 2pac which I discussed in this episode of the podcast, I started to grasp an idea of where the racism I experienced had come from and how it was one of the many offshoots of an order of things that had been established over the centuries. A systemic problem that was going nowhere. I started to read and watch everything I could on the subject. I wanted knowledge and I got it – I even remember being asked to bring in the work of a poet I loved to an English class at college and taking lyrics from 2pac’s Changes. I did a presentation on Martin Luther King and felt like I was teaching all my fellow students about something important.
And this is where things become a little bit complicated for me. Something I’ve realised in recent days is that I have done a lot of this kind of thing over the intervening years. I’ve read books, I’ve watched documentaries, I’ve ranted at friends and my girlfriend, I’ve shared stories about the racism I’ve experienced personally, but that’s kind of where things have ended. I have been outraged and angry but I haven’t done much about that outrage and anger.
What I have also found uncomfortable in recent days is a realisation that, over the years, the music I listen to and shout about has become more and more white. There is no malice in that. I just started listening to less hip-hop and more folk and art-rock music over the years, moving from a genre that is dominated by black artists to ones in which they are by far the minority. I still try to cover a fair mix and include non-white artists in my picks for reviews and for the podcast, but when I went through my record collection recently as part of a #LockdownChallenge I set myself I realised that it was at least 85% white. And that is simply not good enough.
I may have constantly sang the praises of artists like Little Simz, Loyle Carner, and Big Joanie in the last year or so, but I have not done enough to go out and educate myself on what black musicians and other musicians of colour are out there and what they are doing. That is going to change now. Thinking about this over recent days, I see what a huge percentage of the artists that have influenced me over my lifetime have been black artists, many of whom have railed against racism in their music and life. But so few of the things I listen to right now are either of those things. I really want that to change – and if anyone can help me with suggestions of artists and where to find them, then please leave them in the comments or come and make suggestions on our Twitter.
And finally, I know this is about much, much more than music. But we’re a music website, after all. Changing my attitude to music is just one of the things that this current situation has made me think about, and I will be thinking long and hard about ways that I can be more involved in the fight against racism in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. I need to stop just talking about it and actually do something. For now, in the midst of the current situation, I am still grasping for ideas of how I can help. I will be donating, I will be reading, and I will be challenging racism and privilege when I see it. But I also hope I’ll be doing even more than that. And while it may seem small scale in some ways, I will be bringing some equality to the music I listen to, talk about, and spend my money on – because these voices need amplifying more than they have at any other time in my life.
Words by Fran Slater