Touching bass

Second generation West Indians in Leeds talk about the music and fashion that helped them eventually define an identity that honoured their parents but was specifically their own

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1981 was a watershed year in the story of second-generation West Indians in the UK. It was the year of the New Cross fire and of uprisings against racial injustice across the country, including in Leeds.

It was also the year that Phoenix Dance Company was formed by a group of young Black men in Leeds, David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James – gifted dancers who went onto revolutionise dance in this country and abroad.

Joined by Merville Jones and Edward Lynch in 1982, and now known as OPD (Original Phoenix Dance), their inspiring story is one of many touched on in Rebellion to Romance, which explores the lives of Leeds’ second-generation West Indians and the influence of Jamaican culture, music and fashion on young Black people.

“Despite being born here, we experienced racism across education, health services or going to a pub.”

This exhibition, at Leeds Central Library, is part of the Lottery-funded Out of Many Festival – a series of cultural events organised by the Jamaica Society Leeds – and includes old photos, fashions, sound system flyers and other keepsakes, alongside new portraits by the man dubbed the Godfather of Black British photography, Vanley Burke.

It culminates in Rebellion To Romance – The Show, featuring live performances from Aswad’s Brinsley Forde and dub producer Dennis Bovell, as well as OPD, who will be performing their first joint original dance creation in over 30 years.

For Susan Pitter, curator and Out of Many Festival director, and a second-generation Jamaican herself, it is a chance to build on the success of the 2019 exhibition, Eulogy, which celebrated the lives of the first-generation Jamaican community. How did the experiences of the first generation of Black Britons born in the UK compare to those of their parents?

“For those who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly young Black men, it was more problematic,” says Pitter. “Our parents and grandparents experienced racism– of course they did. But despite being born here, we experienced racism too across education, health services or simply by trying to go to a pub or club with our friends.

“But for many young people their response was different and one which said enough is enough – whether that was through activism or uprising or just trying to deal with it. It should be remembered there was joy too and that is reflected in the exhibition.”

Claude ‘Hopper’ Hendrickson was born in Leeds in 1960, two years after his mother had arrived from St Kitts and Nevis to start a new life, having answered the call from the British government to help rebuild a country still recovering from the war. He says racism was rife during his formative years.

“One of my strongest memories from primary school was my form teacher telling me I should be grateful that the British took Black people out of slavery.”

Paulette Morris, whose parents came to Leeds from St Kitts in the early 1960s, also admits those early years were challenging.

“I wasn’t sure where I belonged and I know a lot of my generation felt that way. We didn’t necessarily feel like we belonged in the Caribbean because we’d never been there and we didn’t feel like we belonged in Britain either, so we were caught in between these two ideas of who we were.”

This meant creating their own sense of identity drawn from British culture and their Caribbean heritage, with music at the heart of it. As well as the pop music of the day they took inspiration from prominent artists of colour such as Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Aswad.

“Our parents also had a selection of records that they brought over from the Caribbean so we started listening to these as well, people like Millie Small and John Holt and other stuff on the Trojan label, and on the calypso side people like Mighty Sparrow,” recalls Hopper.

Then came the sound system culture and its bass-heavy, rebellious music, which became synonymous with young Black Britons. Hopper got into this when he was 14.

“We could build our own little speaker boxes and play music at our local church, Roscoe Church. That was one of the first venues we had,” he says.

Other local venues including schools held youth club nights that allowed young Black people a chance to listen to music and socialise.

“There were events at Primrose Hill Youth Club and Valentine’s Day dances. It gave us a safe space and a sense of identity.”

Pitter remembers the emergence of lovers’ rock, a British brand of reggae, with great fondness.

“That was very much a Black British sound created by young, Black West Indians. It was mainly in London but we had our bands and singers in Leeds who were exploring lovers’ rock and roots reggae, and it felt like something that was really ours,” she says.

There were legendary house parties. As well as the popular late night basement parties, or blues, as they were known, there were also joyful gatherings to celebrate birthdays and christenings, held in people’s homes.

“There weren’t many venues so we had house parties and instead of a radiogram, which my parents’ generation had, we used sound systems,” says Pitter. “My daughter’s generation and her children’s generation will never know the joy of one of those house parties and what they meant to us.”

By the 1970s, Black Caribbean communities had sprung up across the city in Hyde Park, Harehills and, in particular, Chapeltown, where Potternewton Park became the place to hang out.

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“It’s gloriously important to the West Indian community and to other communities,” says Pitter warmly. “My parents’ generation would get dressed up, the men would be in their suits and take their families for picnics in Potternewton Park on Sundays.

“For my generation we didn’t go for picnics but it was where we went to hang out and listen to music from the sound systems. You had boys watching girls and girls watching boys and you were in a really happy space. I remember my friend, Diane, who lived closer to the park, calling me and saying: ‘They’re setting up at Pottern Park’ – as we called it. ‘Are you coming?’ And that would be it. You’d finish Sunday lunch and head down to the park.”

It was here in 1981 where huge crowds flocked to see the Specials headline the Rock Against Racism festival. The Leeds branch of Rock Against Racism was set up in the late 1970s and found solidarity with local white bands such as the Mekons and Gang of Four, who played alongside young reggae bands in front of anti-racist crowds.

Morris, whose father St Clair Morris was part of steel pan royalty, found a creative outlet through music. She and her sister Annette performed as a singing duo called Royal Blood – they enjoyed success with a song called Slipping Away that reached number two in the reggae charts, and toured or worked with the likes of Boyzone and Finley Quaye.

Morris says having music, dance and theatre as a creative outlet was hugely important.

“It was a way of having pride in ourselves.” she says. “The music we were creating, as much as it had influences from Jamaica, was British, and all these things helped forge our identities, opinions and ideas.”

Fashion was just as important, says Hopper. “A lot of the girls would make their own clothes. It started out in people’s living rooms where they made clothes for friends and went on to them doing local fashion shows.”

It led to a distinctive style.

“There was a definite sense of Black British style in the early 1980s, with girls wearing crisply pleated skirts and frilly blouses, and the guys wearing Farah slacks and Gabicci knitwear,” says Pitter.

For more than 50 years Caribbean culture has been celebrated in the Leeds West Indian Carnival, which showed a positive image of the Black community to the rest of the world.

“The carnival was an integral part of laying down a foundation for our cultural identity in Leeds. And if you look around the country, every big city where Black people settle has a carnival now,” says Hopper. “It became a beacon, a way of sharing our culture with others and a chance for us to say to people: ‘Come in and enjoy yourself and see what we’re really like.’”

Hopper has worked in community development for many years and believes Caribbean culture has created a positive legacy. “I’d like to think the Chapeltown community has become the spice of Leeds. The Black community and people of colour across the UK have given the country more than it had.”

Morris is now a grandmother and works for a women’s organisation and as a mentor to young people, teaching music and creative writing, and she agrees that attitudes have changed for the better.

“There are still challenges and inequalities that we need to address, but there are more opportunities today. When I was young you never saw a Black person on the TV and if you did you were blown over, but the media has changed the way it shows people of colour.”

Pitter believes the exhibition reflects these changes and also captures the spirit of her generation and celebrates their lives and many achievements.

“It’s important to say yes, we’re immensely proud to be Black, to be Leeds and to be British, but we have roots that are equally important that shaped us. So I think it’s wonderful that I can take my grandchildren to an exhibition where they can see their nana, or their aunts and uncles, and where they come from.”

Rebellion to Romance is at Leeds Central Library until 29 Oct (free).

Photos: JMA Photography/David Lindsay

Punky reggae party

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Sandra Whyles was born in Birmingham in 1963 and moved to Leeds with her mother and sister when she was eight, with the family settling in the Hyde Park area of the city.

Her photo is featured in the exhibition showing her with her young family (above), as well as a contemporary photograph taken by Vanley Burke (inset).

Like so many of her peers, she found a sense of purpose and identity in music and activism, getting involved in the resistance against apartheid and joining Rock Against Racism (RAR).

“It was the first time I experienced a sound system. You heard lots of punk bands, which I pretended I liked, but I didn’t really.

“I wore drainpipes and had safety pins as earrings. You had punk and reggae and these two went together with the anti-racism movement. It felt like you were part of something.”

After working as a nurse and then a health promotion officer, she went on to study fine art and is now a visual artist and maker, and also a founding member of Chapeltown Arts, a thriving community arts organisation.

Whyles has Jamaican roots and even though she didn’t visit the country until she was 28, she always felt a close bond with the island.

“My mother and grandmother talked a lot about Jamaica when I was growing up so it’s in my bones and part of who I am,” she says. “Jamaica is a small island but it has had a big impact around the world. Obviously everyone has heard of Bob Marley and reggae but there is so much more including art, food, culture, athletics, and its impact has to be acknowledged and narrated, lest it be forgotten,” she says.

Which is why she feels the Rebellion to Romance exhibition is so important. “It’s about the continuation of our story because if we didn’t tell it, it would be lost. All you’d have is a bit about the riots. There wouldn’t be stories about people’s triumphs – and these stories need to be told.”

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