The Jamaican 1970s and Its Influence on the Making of Black Britain

…Moving from music to the visual arts, no single image encapsulated the widespread appeal of Rastafari to Black British youth better than a particular photograph taken by Jamaica-born, Birmingham-based photographer, Vanley Burke. One of Burke’s most celebrated photographs was of a multitude of people, taken in Handsworth Park, Birmingham, at an Africa Liberation Day rally in the late 1970s. Perhaps counterintuitively, Burke has made the focus of the photograph not the speechmakers addressing the multitude but the multitude itself. In this sense, though the focus of the gathered throng’s attention is located somewhere beyond, or outside, the right side of the image, Burke chose to make the attentive multitude the subject of his picture. Within this image, Burke produced a compelling and remarkably cogent document of a particularly culturally and politically charged moment in the history of black Britain. The majestic, panoramic photograph effortlessly evokes Bob Marley’s sentiment, expressed in his challenge and admonition to the black people of the world, to “wake up and live.” Within the song of that title, Marley declares – as Burke’s photograph does – “we’re more than the sand of the sea shore, / we’re more than numbers.” The mass of “blessed youth” in the photograph are indeed “more than numbers,” and they nearly all – to a man, to a woman – betray about themselves or their person some evidence of the influence of Rastafari. Dreadlocks abound, as do tams, wraps and numerous other signs of Rasta. As with all great photographs of large numbers of people assembled together, we see not so much a crowd as a multitude, a group of individuals finding common cause with one another. This was testament to the influence of Rastafari on young black Britain.

In the far reaches of Burke’s photograph, at the edge of the multitude, can be seen the massive speaker boxes of the sound system there to entertain the gathering. The speakers have fallen silent while speechmakers address the gathering; but within time, shortly after the photograph was taken, one imagines, the speaker boxes would again be pumping out the potent, infectious, righteous, judgmental brand of roots and culture message-laden reggae music that was popular at the time. Intriguingly, given that everyone depicted in the photograph is British by birth, upbringing or location, Burke’s photograph presents us with an Inglan story, an Inglan history, and was very much an encapsulation of Paul Gilroy’s observation that Rastafari’s “influence increased steadily in Britain between 1970 and 1981 and its Pan-African, Ethiopianist ideology [could] be considered to have formed the core of a mass movement in this country during the mid 1970s.”

For the influence of the Jamaican 1970s on black Britain, we need to also look at the fascinating manifestation of language in the cultural evolution of black Britain. Mid 1970s Britain and Jamaica saw the emergence of a new group of poets who unashamedly embraced patwa as a foundational aspect of their poetry. In so doing, these poets, spearheaded in Britain by Linton Kwesi Johnson, elevated the supposedly rough speech of Jamaican peasants to the status of preeminent counter-cultural articulation. Within the United States, poetry had emerged as one of the foundational art forms of the Black Arts movement of the mid 1960s to mid 1970s, and many poets declared their art form to be as relevant to black people as any other, boldly challenged the association of poetry with rarefied, ivory tower environments – an association that effectively alienated poorer and working-class people from the art form. And it was during this mid 1960s to mid 1970s period that a fearless, devastatingly articulate poet of the people, Gil Scott-Heron, emerged. Here was a poet who not only spoke the people’s language, but saw, and condemned, the wider society for its chronic dysfunctionality, a state of being the society itself seemed blind to. Heralding the emergence of another fearless, devastatingly articulate poet of the people, the cover of British music magazine sounds of 2 September 1978, carried a full-page photograph of Linton Kwesi Johnson (hereafter referred to by his moniker, LKJ), a British poet of Jamaican origin. Brixton-based LKJ was known locally as “Poet,” and the band with which he sometimes performed, known as “the Roots.” Making a subtle play on these names, the feature on LKJ was titled “Poet of the Roots.”

… The key characteristic of LKJ’s poetry was a fearless and unswerving reflection on the challenges faced by black youth in London. In one of his signature poems of the mid-1970s, “Come, wi go dung deh,” LKJ speaks out against unemployment, made all the worse by there being a seeming abundance of jobs for certain people; speaks out against the pains of hunger, made all the worse by supermarkets with food to waste; and speaks out against homelessness, in a city in which, just a few miles away, were a number of royal palaces. Perhaps the most well-known of these palaces was Buckingham Palace, with its 775 rooms, which included 19 State rooms, 52 Royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms. In alluding to homelessness and the conspicuous opulence of nearby palaces, LKJ declared his sympathies to lie with republicanism. He may have been a poet of the people, but he was not, and never would be, a British Poet Laureate, the honor bestowed by the state on an eminent poet appointed as a member of the British royal household.

The above extracts are from “The Jamaican 1970s and Its Influence on the Making of Black Britain”, text for Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Journal of Criticism peer review journal, No. 58, March 2019: 134 - 149

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