The Windrush Gen’s The Reason Why Everybody’s Here.

Words: Jesse Bernard
Photography: Eskiboy

Richard “Wiley” Cowie is considered godfather of the grime scene and the reason why everybody’s here—something that’s been proclaimed for the last fifteen years or more. Grime’s inception and creation has been a well-documented tale of late, particularly its roots in jungle, garage, and dub culture. But as we are currently witnessing the violent displacement of black British citizens of the Windrush Generation, it’s very important to acknowledge the cultural implications their arrival had on British music culture up until present times.

If many of the artists in grime are of second and third generation, by extension, grime is the grandchild of the Windrush Generation. It wouldn’t be possible for grime to exist without the foundations of Caribbean culture being laid in 1948, when the Windrush Gen were first invited by the British government, and without this wave of immigration, the cultural fabric of this country would look completely different today. With the Windrush Scandal bringing to light the transgressions of the British government—despite having invited Caribbeans of the commonwealth to the country following World War II—black British Caribbean culture is once again at threat.

But censorship isn’t alien to black Britons: since its inception, Notting Hill Carnival has been routinely demonised through heavy policing and was once infamously described as being a ‘no man’s land’. This idea that black people couldn’t congregate in public spaces isn’t a modern one (see: Form 696) and with now yearly calls to remove the carnival from West London, we are witnessing the ways in which the state has frequently sought to censor us.

The calypso artist Lord Kitchener, who brought with him the sound upon his arrival to Britain in 1948 when he disembarked Empire Windrush, had become a regular performer on the BBC in the ‘60s and had toured much of the UK with a sound that had been banned by British colonial powers in the Caribbean in 1881. The history of censorship of music in this country had begun long before there was an established black British community, but many historians believe that it was Lord Kitchener who was among the first wave of black British musicians to create a culture of music that would still exist today.

Of course, beyond Lord Kitchener, the reality for many black Britons was dire and many couldn’t enjoy the culture. Pubs made it clear that black folk weren’t welcome with their ‘No Blacks. No dogs. No Irish.’ signs, and landlords often refused to rent to young black men in particular, making it much more difficult to even congregate in private. In his book The Lonely Londoners, Sam Selvon depicts the environments in which ‘Moses’ finds himself in the big city, struggling to find a steady income and a place to live following the enactment of British Nationality Act, 1948. Although fictional, it’s these oppressive experiences that led to the forming of underground cultures that would inspire and influence us even now.

In Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Bass Culture, the Jamaican-born poet examines the way in which dub culture has managed to survive in a country that has forced it into the margins and fringes of society. “It is the beat of the heart, this pulsing of blood that is a bubblin bass, a bad bad beat / pushin gainst the wall / whey bar black blood,” he writes in the book, taken from his collection of works Dread, Beat & Blood. And as Kano spits on “Reload It”—“K-A, I’m a bad boy though / I’m a real bad boy, bad boys know that / You can’t fuck with the bad / Bad bda bda bad bad bda bda, bad boy flow”—we see the ways in which bass culture has been able to survive through generations, with a youthful, anti-establishment spirit. The badness of the beat never died; instead, it migrated online as well as in the physical spaces that we still occupy. However, in order for bass culture to have survived for so long in this country, it’s had to retreat underground and disguise itself to fend off censorship.

Released in 1980 and depicting the sound system culture of South London at that time, the film Babylon showed us the barriers black musicians faced, such as unemployment, the police and the National Front, when all they wanted to do was progress. It’s important to acknowledge the struggles previous generations suffered in regards to promoting and enjoying live music. In grime’s early years, and even up to the present day, we lament how often and frequently shows and live events have been locked off by the now-defunct Form 696 and other methods of censorship. But this same institutional racism has always existed on these shores, and as the film ends with police attempting to shut down a dance, it highlights how cyclical the violent nature and relationship black music has had with the police for decades in this country.

When we look at the ways in which artists such as Giggs has had to suffer from censorship (and with YouTube now planning to remove drill music that ‘incites violence’ at police request), we’re finding that as the technology advances, black British musicians are still having to find spaces within the margins of culture and society. Where the issue lies however, is while it’s the people being pushed to the fringes, it is the art and culture that’s being consumed and enjoyed by the mainstream. And while it’s a less obvious and explicit connection, pirate radio existed for the same reasons as to why police were kicking down the doors of venues hosting sound clashes in the ‘80s and points to the generational ritual of disguising the art so the feds back up (word to The Clipse).

Many of the cultures that black British artists have created over the years have only been able to survive censorship, and it’s something that began with the Windrush Generation who realised upon their arrival that the congregation of black people in public spaces, where music was involved, often led to violence being inflicted by the state. Today, our young drill stars will have to navigate new forms of censorship as the artists before them have previously done. And they will be successful, just like the Windrush Gen before them and their children.

Posted on June 04, 2018