Black and white, the twin musical threads of our culture, with roots in slavery and church music, oppression and salvation have been my constant companions. Growing up in the melting pot of west Croydon, south London suburb stuck at the end of the line, a place rich with new arrivals gave me the best of both 1960s and 1970s worlds as the melodies and beats sowed seeds in my fertile consciousness.
Since I started to sing in tune as soon as I could speak, much to my parents’ pride, I was aware of these beautiful twin flames of our cultural heritage. Aged five, my favourite music was acoustic folk and big band jazz, mainly because my two first (donated) records were The Spinners and Glenn Miller.
While my older brothers rocked out to white music – Deep Purple, Springsteen, The Who, Bowie, I and my schoolfriends, half of whom were the sons and daughters of immigrants from the West Indies, Africa, India, Pakistan, Cyprus both Greek and Turk, mostly preferred black music – Motown pop, sweet soul, and the blissfully tuneful reggae of Bob Marley.
Mixed race fraternisation was normal in 1970s and 80s sunny Croydon, though we suffered the same institutional racism which led to the Brixton riots as well as high local membership of the BNP. I hadn’t studied the history of music at that point, but I knew my social history, including the story of Wilberforce’s fight for abolition, and it was no stretch for me to enjoy emerging militant black consciousness. But before race became truly politicised via rap, music created its regular miracle in our hearts, instilling love for blackness in our essentially white British culture. Many bands of the time were not just paying homage to black music, but were truly infused with it. Even between polarised tribal extremes, skinheads and rastas, there was an occasional coming together via the guitar – the Isley Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, very few remained unmoved by these masterly tours-des-forces.
As we grew out of our school uniforms and into civilian clothings, we got disco and ska. Heatwave, KC and the Sunshine Band, Stevie Wonder would all be turned up on our always-on kitchen radio, along with the Specials, Madness, Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Parliament and Funkadelic weren’t on the radio – I traded album loans with the dapper Ken French to experience psychedelic funk in all its otherwordly wonder.
I know now that these outward ripples of black music, from Jazz to Soul to Pop to Rock, were echoed all throughout the developed world, Europe and America and elsewhere. A friend of mine, Ashley Slater, Canadian by birth but brought up in California joined the British Army at 16 years old, partly to afford his musical training. In the barracks, he told me, at first he was the only one playing and digging Earth Wind and Fire, to the disquiet and derision of his fellow squaddies.
It didn’t take long in this musical hothouse for the exquisite brass arrangements, beats and harmonies to win over these hardnut whites. They ignored the afro hair, the ludicrous costumes and the disco glitter – the music was too good. They even started diggin’ on James Brown, saying it loud, black and proud. By the time he bought his way out of the army, to sign a deal with Island Records, they were converted.
As colour and race has become less of an entertainment business novelty and more of an everyday marketing ploy, the cross-over tradition became less apparent, but it is still significant. My enduring love of funk, as well as much music in other traditions stems from a hybrid blending of cultures, the opening up of new avenues for exploration.
Many of my favourite artists retain some pronounced elements of blues and jazz and dance music, where it collides most beautifully with western folk or classical academic traditions – Prince, for example, and latterly Little Dragon, who are actually a Swedish band with a Japanese singer, Yukimi Nagano. She has a superb voice which seems at once both east and west, and the music lays her artfully modern, soulful, poignant melodies over stripped-back cool electronic funk. It’s as good as anything I have ever heard, and it defies pigeon-holing – just the way it should be.
I don’t believe that music will ever be contained by boundaries for very long, because it is so connected to what makes us tick on a soul level. That doesn’t mean disempowered kids in grinding poverty won’t look for music which speaks to them in a language which can be understood, disregarding all other forms in their passion; but it does mean that the rawness of oppression will still have the power to invigorate and transform the subtlety of the orchestra, and that the Devil, having the better tunes, will still find his way into church.