STRUCTURAL RACISM IN UK DANCE MUSIC: TIME FOR ACTION

During the last ten days, I have been doing a lot of soul searching and deep thinking. Like the vast majority of people, I was filled with a mixture of rage and despair at the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and the way that institutional and structural racism is so embedded within all levels of authority – and wider society – in the United States of America. It’s not just institutionalised racism at the root of these problems, either, but also growing inequality that impacts black Americans to a much greater degree than their white counterparts.

These issues are categorically not just American ones: it is an enduring problem in the United Kingdom too. It is an issue that has long been ignored, with many believing that British society is somehow immune from these problems. It isn’t. Those who simply shrug and say, “it’s not as bad as America,” are either simply misguided, have not experienced racism themselves (and, let’s face it, most white people, myself included, haven’t) or, more worryingly, are part of a populist movement centred around Brexit and the Conservative Party that has thinly-disguised xenophobia and racism at its core.

But this transcends any left/right divides, and I’m not here to discuss party politics. What I’d like to focus on is how this structural and institutional racism plays out within my area of expertise, British dance music culture, and what we can all do on an individual and a collective level to address it.

First, like all white people within the UK dance music community, I need to address my own role, the work I have produced and whether I am part of the problem. It is something I have been thinking about a lot, particularly since the publication of Join The Future last autumn. I’ve touched on some of the wider issues in my writing this year, particularly within my essay on the issues surrounding the documentation of dance music culture for DJ magazine, but I’ve been guilty of not examining my own role enough.

As events on the other side of the Atlantic have unfolded, I have found myself thinking a lot about a question I was asked in one of the Q&A sessions during the book launch tour. I can’t remember who it was who asked me, or the exact phrasing of the question, but the gist of it was that I was guilty of playing down the role of black British creators by framing Bleep & Bass as a mixed race, working class movement.

At the time, I was taken aback by the question. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer, and my mumbled response indicated that it was not something I had thought much about. I said something about tracking down black British pioneers and telling their stories in order to write them back into the story. I also mentioned that by addressing the inequality in the prevailing British dance music narrative, which by and large focuses not on black British stories but those of the second-wave white dancers and creators, I was doing my bit.

I have to put my hands up and admit that I was wrong.

While Bleep & Bass was a working-class musical movement pushed forwards by both back and white people, I should have stated far more explicitly in my analysis that it was created and shaped primarily within the West Indian/Afro-Caribbean communities of Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield. Its musical roots lie in the fusion of Black American and West Indian styles, repurposed to reflect the experiences of living in post-industrial British cities at the tail end of the 1980s. Although some of the sound’s black creators, most notably Rob Gordon, frame it as a working-class movement – which ultimately it was to a degree – the sound itself and the scene that surrounded it should be considered a black British movement.

These are the fundamental facts: Bleep & Bass gestated in the community centres, unlicensed Jamaican “blues” and popular “black music” clubs of Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield and Huddersfield; many of the earliest records were created to service the specific needs of serious black dancers; and the vast majority of the most ground-breaking records were made by young black Britons.

The original versions of Unique 3’s “The Theme” and “Only The Beginning”, which set out the Bleep and Bass blueprint, were created by two black guys and a young British Asian. The second Bleep record to be released, Nightmares on Wax’s “Dextrous”, was made by two young black men. The original line-up of LFO, which was responsible for their peerless track “LFO”, included a young black DJ/producer, Martin Williams. He went on to set up the BASSIC Records studio in Leeds, which was run by him and another black friend, Homer Harriott. The acts whose records they helped to produce – Ability II, Juno and Ital Rockers – were all black.

Down in Sheffield, it was a slightly different story, but many of the most important figures were black, including DJ/producer Winston Hazel, and Warp Records co-founder and producer extraordinaire Rob Gordon. It could be argued that within the Steel City Bleep & Bass was more of a mixed-race musical movement, as a number of the acts that emerged from the city featured both black and white members (Forgemasters, The Step, Xon etc.); the City Council did more than most to support both black and white community arts programmes; and its leading club night, Jive Turkey, featured both black and white resident DJs (Winston Hazel and DJ Parrot) and a mixed clientele. Yet it would be misleading to say that the roots of the South Yorkshire branch of the movement didn’t lie within the region’s West Indian community.

The stories of these pioneering black creators are told in great detail within Join The Future, and I did point out that in most cases they earned very little for their work, if anything at all. As the book progresses, the story changes focus and discusses how Bleep became part of a wider cultural movement that included both black and white creators. By and large, it was the latter who benefitted financially, establishing a commercially successful dance music industry within the UK, packed to the rafters with white, middle class suburbanites.

As Emma Warren rightfully pointed out when I spoke to her for my essay on the issues surrounding the documentation of British dance music culture, there’s a phrase that neatly sums up this inequality: “Black roots, white fruits”. Fundamentally this has been a problem since the earliest days of the music industry at large, and continues to be a serious issue in dance music culture.

Over the last week, a couple of articles that touch on this issue caught my eye. The first was Ed Gillett’s superb piece for the Quietus looking at extreme wealth within British dance music, which goes far further than a similarly-themed article I wrote for DJ magazine a couple of years back. He pointed out not only the levels of cosplaying going on by extremely wealthy individuals within our scene – pretty much all of whom are white, and from very privileged backgrounds – but also the corporate ownership of many of dance music’s biggest brands.

The other piece was by Tony Naylor and featured in the Guardian. It focused on the plight of small, independent and DIY music venues, the significant role they’ve played in fostering important social and cultural movements within Britain, and the extremely poor response of the UK government. The piece highlights not only the importance of these grassroots venues, but also how many of the movements they’ve fostered have working class and black British roots.

The fact that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s “Cultural Renewal Taskforce” has no representation from either grassroots music venues or the black British community isn’t getting much coverage, but it should: it’s a double-whammy of “arts for the elite” (naturally there’s a representative of the National Opera on the taskforce) and ignoring the cultural impact of black Britons in the UK. (A good friend of mine works within the communications team at DCMS, so I have put some questions to him and will update this article if I receive an official response)

We are at a critical point. None of these issues are new, but current events have finally pushed them into the spotlight and given us an opportunity to finally and emphatically address them. We can make noise and put pressure on the governments on both sides of the Atlantic to do their part, but we might be waiting some time for a response. Feel free to keep shouting about structural racism and inequality – I will be – but don’t use that as an excuse not to do something yourself that supports and empowers black British creators, whether they’re DJs, musicians, writers or visual artists.

This brings me back to another point Emma Warren has made in recent conversations we’ve had. She has gone on the record a number of times to say that we have a duty as white writers/commentators on black music culture to seriously examine whether we are the right person to tell a story. When the story is about black British communities and cultural movements, would it not be better to have someone with lived experience, from within those scenes and communities, tell the story?

While the answer is undoubtedly yes, it does depend on the story. She points out that the story is also yours to tell if you devote significant time and effort to learning everything you can about it, which is what I did before writing Join The Future. If I’d decided that it would be better for someone from the West Indian community in Bradford, Leeds or Sheffield to tell that story, realistically it would never have happened – not because I think that there’s nobody in those cities that could have done a great job, but because very few people previously thought Bleep & Bass was worth documenting. If I’d not done it, I’m not sure anyone else would have done it either.

What this clearly highlights is the depressing fact that there are not enough professional music writers and documentarians from within the BAME community. This is something that seriously needs looking at (as does the dominance within journalism and media of those who were privately educated – we need far more working-class voices as well as BAME ones) as we move forwards.

It is up to each of us as individuals to decide what we can do to address the imbalance and support black British writers, DJs, producers and musicians. It’s not just about money – though given the inequality in society that is hugely important – but also about using what skills and experiences you have to help and empower others.

There’s plenty of things you can do to directly assist black artists right now. This Friday (June 5th), Bandcamp is having another “fee free” day, where every single penny of sales revenues goes directly to artists and record labels. Helpfully, somebody has put together a Google Doscs spreadsheet (which you can find here) listing over 500 black bands, producers and record labels to support. Many other labels (BAME-run or not) will be donating money from sales to various anti-racism and pro Black Lives Matter organisations, so keep an eye on social media for more details. If you’d rather support pro-Afro-Caribbean organisations in the UK, Bristol-based producer Facta has also put together a document containing information on, and links to, some of the most prominent. You can access that here.

At this point, you’re probably thinking: “Well what are you going to do?” I’ve already donated to the Bail Project in the U.S, which funds legal representation for those who can’t afford it (and at this current time lots of people arrested at Black Lives Matter protests). Earlier today I also chipped in some money to the Crisis Funding For Inclusive Publishers appeal, which is raising funds to support BAME authors, publishers and bookshops. The appeal ends next week, so head here if you want to join in too.

I’ve also reached an agreement with my publisher,Velocity Press, to use this month’s royalties from direct book sales to support a number of key causes. In practice, this means that every time a copy of Join The Future is sold via the Velocity Press website throughout the month of June, both my author royalty and their publisher royalty will go towards organisations in the US and the UK.

40% will go to projects in the United States supporting the current protest movement, while 60% will be donated to grassroots organisations in the UK that work with young BAME people from disadvantaged backgrounds, ideally those trying to break into the music industry. I’ve yet to pick a specific project or projects in the UK to donate to, so if you have any ideas or suggestions please do get in touch.

To summarise: if you buy a book, you will be supporting the fight against racism and efforts to tackle structural injustice within the music industry in the UK. This applies to all sales of Join The Future via the Velocity Press website in June. I will also top up the final figure myself, so that more money goes to these causes.

I’m also going to commit to using what skills and experience I do have in order to help grassroots organisations that explicitly work with young DJs and musicians from lower income and working-class communities, and in particular the black British community. I’ve not yet worked out quite how I’m going to do this, but I’ll provide an update once I have. If there are individuals reading this who would like advice, mentoring, or contacts within the industry that I can help with, please get in touch via email.

These are small gestures in the grand scheme of things, but we all must do something. We also need to keep the key points to mind in the months and years ahead, rather than allowing the furore to die down as the ferocity of the protests wanes. These issues have dogged society, and British music culture, for too long. It’s time for action.

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mattanniss

Freelance writer, editor, copywriter and communications professional. Music obsessive. DJ. Sports anorak.

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