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Music as Resistance: Race and Class in Reggae and Punk

How did music genres, such as reggae and punk, provide resistance within race and class struggles in 1970s and 80s Britain?

Illustration of a teenage bedroom in 1980.

Artwork –  1980, Elish Kathleen, 2021.

In the 1970s Bob Marley and The Clash produced rebel music documenting the political struggles in the diverse settings of Kingston, Jamaica and London, England. Whilst these settings might seem worlds apart, their music was particularly attentive to disaffected youth. Both artists were key to the rise of the popular music genres: Reggae and Punk, respectively. But what happens when these genres cross class and racial lines? 

The emergence of Rock Against Racism, a political and cultural movement, was a reaction to the rising number of racially-motivated attacks happening on the streets of the UK and saw reggae, soul, punk and rock acts coming together to stand up against racism. See Bob Marley’s ‘Punky Reggae Party’ for a cultural artefact which represents the kind of alliances that were being formed between these musicians, particularly those noted in the title. But the question remains: who profits and who is erased? Whilst these differing communities united in a bid to fight systematic oppression, the context of these struggles remain key. The relationship between the punk and reggae movements in Britain in the 1970s and 80s, and their affiliation with class and race struggles, offers an insight into what was a turbulent period of British politics. 

Music has always had an interesting relationship with political resistance and in the 1970s and 80s, affiliation with certain music genres was crossing class and racial lines. Cultural theorist Dr Kim-Marie Spence argues that reggae is seen as a systematic critique of the postcolonial world as it critiques the eurocentrism of accepted social normativity. Originating in Jamaica, its relationship to postcolonialism is clear and its embrace as a key musical expression of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa intensifies reggae’s relationship to issues of race. 

Rock Against Racism 1978 Poster

An example of the racial dynamics of reggae in the UK can be seen in the work of British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ). LKJ moved from Jamaica to the UK in 1963, aged 11. Often referred to as “the voice of the Windrush generation”, he combines spoken word, mostly in Jamaican patois, with reggae music. His poetry reveals the reality of racial history occurring in the UK during the 1970s and 80s, specifically for young people of colour. Poems such as ‘Sonny’s Lettah’, ‘New Craas Massakah’ and ‘Di Great Insoreckshan’ address, respectively, the inherently racist Sus-laws of the 1970s and 80s which led to disproportionate arrests of black youths; the event of the New Cross Massacre, a suspected racist arson attack which was one of the largest single losses of life in post-war Britain; and the Brixton riots of 1981. To represent the political struggles of racism, LKJ uses politically inflected music to demonstrates the horrors of everyday life, particularly the struggles of black youths. 

Jeremy Prestholdt’s Icons of Dissent suggests, “in the 1970s and 1980s, [Bob] Marley’s popularity among the UK’s white working-class youth grew out of abiding interests in ska and punk rock. Within the late 1970s anti-establishment punk movement, reggae was both influential and inspirational”. Here, two different music genres and subcultures, with seemingly different audiences, were being bought together, using music as a means of expressing resistance to systematic oppression. Prestholdt terms it an “artistic cross-fertilization” as “young white Britons read Marley’s critiques as not only rooted in anti-racism. They interpreted Marley as also speaking to British systems of class”.

This idea of “cross-fertilization” should be approached with caution because of the mutuality it claims to make between two opposites, neglecting specific power relations between two contexts. Applying this thinking to the punk and reggae movements, a common connection is often drawn between the anti-establishment stance and the association to the political that these movements embodied. This often ignored the specificities of the context of race and class. 

LKJ’s work suggests that there is a particular constituency of the population who suffer extreme oppression under the police and, by extension, the government. The circumstances noted here speak specifically to the black experience in Britain, with no reference to class. Rather than finding a mutuality between the white working-class experience and the black experience that might be suggested by the affiliation between the reggae and punk movements, the black experience might be considered significantly more oppressive than the working-class experience. This is because of the associations with the racist legacy that a postcolonial context intensifies for people of colour, especially living in Britain at that time.

Linton Kwesi Johnson. Credit: David Austin.

Bob Marley first came to the UK in 1972. Having failed to get the play time he and The Wailers originally wanted, he returned in 1973 where he was picked up by Island Records, which was relocated from Jamaica to England in 1962. He released his seminal album Catch a Fire on Island records with Chris Blackwell, one of the owners and producers at Island Records, who introduced rock and pop elements to their sound. Britain provided the platform for Marley to start an international career.

British film director, DJ and musician Don Letts discusses the release of Catch a Fire as being unpopular with reggae purists who disliked the rock and pop elements. But for the young Black British kids, it had a weird duality. These were people who had grown up listening to The Beatles, The Stones, Bowie and Roxy Music, being inspired by these artists as well as traditional reggae. Their ears pricked up at this new sound. 

By 1977, punk rock was exploding all over the UK and ideas of anarchy and rebellion were being explored through this music. Punks were seen as like-minded rebels to young people of colour, who were also expressing their dissidence through reggae music. Marley’s presence in London is part of what becomes seen as the reggae-punk fusion. White British youth began to respond to reggae and Marley’s influence. Whilst Bob Marley and The Wailers were popular with their albums Catch a Fire and Burnin’, Prestholdt argues that Marley didn’t reach global stardom until there was a shift in interpretation. As Bob Marley came to be marketed, posthumously, by Island records, his records that were chosen were those of spirituality or connectedness, rather than his overtly political – “more precisely, as themes such as love, unity, and world peace superseded Marley’s social justice message, his popularity grew exponentially”.

This active avoidance of Marley’s politically infused material suggests that in order for Marley’s reggae to be the most profitable (Legend became his bestseller) it should not foreground songs about race and, as it did for some, class struggles, but be primarily about “love, unity, and world peace”.

Returning to a British context, a similar diluting and commercialisation of reggae was happening. The concerts of Rock Against Racism emerging in 1976 were in protest to the rise in racist attacks as well as an increase in support for far-right groups, particularly the political support that the National Front was gaining. Despite the political alliances being formed between punk and reggae artists, The Guardian’s Dave Simpson argues that “black acts were still told to water down their sound to get hit singles, but reggae crossed over into pop with the Police and Culture Club”. Aswad, a band of second-generation Caribbean migrants, may be an example of those acts that were told to ‘water down their sound’ as they gained a wider audience after producing an album considered to be commercial style reggae.

Popular music theorist Dr Mike Alleyne describes The Clash as possessing greater authenticity than that of the Police because of their work with the Jamaican producer Lee Perry and their relationship with legendary Rastafarian DJ and filmmaker Don Letts. However, reggae was not necessarily entirely integral to their identity as a band, unlike The Police. Allyne argues that The Police are particularly “noteworthy since they are the most successful white group to continually employ reggae influences throughout the span of their albums”. However, Paul Gilroy observes that The Police’s approach “served, within pop culture at least, to detach reggae from its historic association with the Africans of the Caribbean and their British descendants”. 

This displacing of the origins of reggae suggests there is a similar cultural appropriation occurring, like the appropriation of Marley’s music, for commercial purposes. Issues of both race and class are eliminated almost entirely in favour of commercial value, which supplants any political message, and allowed reggae to move into British pop culture.

On the surface reggae and punk appear to have crossed class and racial lines. They bring together two communities in a bid to fight systematic oppression through their overtly political messages of social justice. However, it is important to remember to explore the specificities of the context of race and class. 

LKJ’s dub poetry explicitly addresses the everyday black struggle in the UK during this period due to incessant racism within British society. This highlights the struggles, particular to the black community, because of the racist climate this community has had to endure. This focus on these experiences means LKJ’s work remains highly politicised. 

The same might not be said for the work of Bob Marley. As the politically resistant aspects of his music were becoming diluted, he became more marketable to a global audience; commercialisation made his music sell. This can also be seen in the British music scene as genres, particularly reggae, became diluted, and appropriated, to sell.

These issues of appropriation are not new, they have been going on for centuries. Whilst there is a dynamism displayed by the associations the punk and reggae movements had, it is important to contextualise and specify the contexts in which these movements are taking place. The working-class and black experiences are not mutual experiences, and so, should not be identified as so. 

I would suggest a viewing of Steve McQueen’s incredible Small Axe series (Lovers Rock was probably my favourite!) for anyone who wants to learn about the rich influence of Black Britons on British history and politics, and particularly on popular culture, which is, after all, why we are all here! Oh, and anything by LKJ is well worth a listen.

Daisy is an MA Postcolonial Studies student whose research revolves around race and class within British popular culture.

You can follow her on Instagram @daisyking10

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