Simon Jones: "Black Culture, White Youth"

We recently spoke with author Simon Jones, whose groundbreaking 1988 book Black Culture, White Youth: The Reggae Tradition from JA to UK has recently been re-released as an updated e-book. The book details the influence of Jamaican popular music and culture on the lives of young white people in the UK. We asked Simon "Five Questions" about his book; here's what he had to say!

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Black Culture, White Youth has recently been re-released, complete with “a new conclusion.” What has changed since the book was originally published in 1988?

A lot of water has obviously gone under the bridge since 1988…way too much to summarise here. Musically, I would say that the late 80s was the prelude to an unprecedented period of cross-cultural fertilization in British popular music. Reggae culture was eclipsed, to some extent, by new musical styles and movements around soul, hip-hop/rap, and various genres of dance music. That said, I think reggae has been a massive, but often unacknowledged, legacy in all of these genres, and many more. Its influence permeates all of the post-1988 genres, from acid house and rave, to jungle and dub-step, speed garage and grime. Dub aesthetics, the oral poetry of toasting, sound system technologies and methodologies…they’re all there, echoing throughout these musical styles.

In terms of politics, the embryonic multiculture that I described in the book, that was already emerging in the early 1980s, has since come to fruition in many parts of urban Britain. Cross-cultural affiliations and hybrid identities that were relatively marginal in the early 80s, have now become commonplace, ordinary and unexceptional. While many parts of Britain are more ethnically diverse than ever before, “race” continues to play a volatile role in British political culture, as seen in the ongoing controversies about immigration and “British values” the fallout from Brexit, and the continued salience of racialised codes of national belonging. 

Reggae music clearly had a much larger impact on British youth culture than it did on America. Why do you think that was/is, and has rap music replaced that abroad today, much like it has in the US?

This is mainly down to historical factors I think. The postcolonial ties between Britain and Jamaica, the presence of an African-Caribbean community, the patterns of settlement in post-war Britain, and the social geography of these urban areas. You also have to take into account the sustained interactions between black and white working-class communities, and between young people from different ethnic groups. Also significant are the economic and cultural networks which tied the Jamaican music industry to Britain. All of these are specific to Britain and relatively absent from the US context. Outside of US college students, there was very little interest in Jamaican music initially, despite the best efforts of Island to break Marley to the rock community in the early 70s. Until the early 90s, there was also very little interest in reggae amongst African-American audiences.

Certainly, if we’re looking at equivalent cross-cultural identifications today, then, yes, many of the interactions described in the book around reggae have been played out around rap and hip-hop culture. White youth’s mass identification with hip-hop exhibits many of the same processes, dynamics and contradictions. There are some notable differences, however, that are also historical and social-geographic, such as patterns of racialised urban segregation that just don’t exist in Britain in that way. American white youth’s relation to hip-hop has also been more heavily mediated by visual iconography, as a consequence of marketing, than British white youth’s relation to reggae ever was. A major factor in the global dissemination of hip-hop is down to the clout of US entertainment corporations that have been behind it.

One section of your book deals exclusively with the city of Birmingham (U.K.), which, of course, gave us Steel Pulse and UB40 amongst others. What is the musical, social and political legacy of that city and where might we look towards that today?

Birmingham has continued to be a crucible of syncretic cultural and musical movements. You only have to look at the music that has come out of Birmingham since the 80s to see that. Look in particular at the bhangra-dancehall fusions from 2nd and 3rd generation south Asian youth such as Apache Indian and Bally Sagoo, jungle prime-movers like Goldie, and UK rap artists like The Streets. 

I have always thought the Two-tone movement was incredibly important, musically, socially, and politically. What are your thoughts on that particular period in the UK?

I totally agree. Two-tone was one of the first movements to come up with a convincing, organic fusion of Jamaican popular music and punk.  In many ways, Two-tone was a product of the social and geographical proximity that existed between black and white communities in those areas of the West Midlands that I wrote about in the book. The multiethnic composition of bands like the Selecter, the Specials and the Beat reflected the rapport between black and white youth in those areas. What was significant about Two-tone was that the groups openly acknowledged their debt to Jamaican popular culture, not only in the rude-boy style, but by covering many original ska and rocksteady songs. The use of dub, toasting and reggae rhythms, the fusion of entertainment with politics-- all of those elements reflected the profound influence of Jamaican musical traditions. Politically, I think the power of Two-tone was in the popular character of its anti-racism. Its message was in its music, its multi-racial audiences, and the very presence of black and white musicians on stage together.

I recently wrote a long-form piece on Cuepoint and available on our blog here, stating rather bluntly that reggae music is dead, and has been for some time. Agree? Disagree? What are your thoughts on the state of reggae music today?

There is an element of truth in many of the points you make, but I’m going to take a contrary view, and suggest that reggae culture is still very much alive and kicking. I’ve heard different elements of your critique many times before; mourning the death of classic roots reggae, bemoaning the dependence on digital recording technologies, the absence of a Marley-like figure to spearhead the industry, the dearth of conscious lyricism, etc, etc.  I think there are problems with looking back to this era as an ideal-type of what Jamaican popular music should look and sound like today. I think there are problems too with fetishising Marley, and the Marley dynasty, as the global face of reggae. My sense is that there is plenty of conscious, modernist reggae music being made, right now, but not necessarily in the spaces we might expect it. It’s certainly not being heard on mainstream commercial radio. It may not be getting the exposure that it deserves. If it’s not, I would suggest that’s not the fault of the music, but rather the configuration of the entertainment industry. Changing business models in the music industry presents threats, but they also present opportunities for new kinds of internet-based marketing and distribution. 

The examples that you cite are mostly Jamaican-based, but I would suggest that some of the most creative music-making in the reggae tradition is not even occurring in Jamaica, and may not even go by the name of “reggae”. Globally, there is still a massive amount of interest in the music. It has a resonance in contexts as diverse as Brazil, Eastern Europe, New Zealand, Japan, and throughout Africa. On this basis alone, I would argue that reggae conquered the world some time ago. Sound system culture, and the oral poetry of DJs, toasters and MCs continue to be important crucibles of creativity and critical insight into the workings of Babylon (a core concept of dread philosophy which remains as relevant as ever). Finally, I don’t accept that digital recording technologies have debased sound engineering and music-making. Technology is a tool that can be use to make music of varying quality, depending on who’s at the controls. Some of reggae’s greatest sound engineers were not “musicians” in the conventional sense, but they were certainly composers and sound architects in their own right who used the technologies available to them at the time to realise their musical imaginations.


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