Music and Race in the UK between 1976-1981

I started this mini-anthology with a quote from this piece, a quote that contextualized the popularity of reggae amongst West Indian youth in Britain. This essay provides a post-riot look at England’s most violent year—1981, the year England blew and felt the rage of those it had oppressed for far too long.

And yet, thought certainly felt the oppression did not end, we can definitely see that with more riots in 1985 and last year’s riots again in Brixton. Feelings can be felt, but how long until they are changed?

Linton Kwesi Johnson - “Di Great Insohreckshan”

It was in April, nineteen…..eighty one
Down ‘n on dee ghetto of Brix-ton
Dat deh Babylon dem cause such a fric-tion
Dat it bring about a GREAT insohreck-shun
And it spread all over deh nay-shun
It was TRULY an historical occas-sion
It was event of deh year and I wish I had been deer
When we run riot ‘tall over Brixton
When we MASH up 20 police van
When we MASH up the wicked one plan
When we MASH up the swam(?) ‘81, fi what?
Fi make deh rule of dem understand
Dat we NAH take no more of dem oppression
And meh check out deh ghetto grapevine
To find out all dat I can find
Every rebel jus a revel in dem stahry
Dem ah talk bout deh power and deh glory
Dem ah talk bout deh burning and the looting
Dem ah talk bout deh smashing and the grabbing
Dem ah tell me bout deh vanquish and deh victree
Dem said deh babylon dem went too far
And one or two innocent get marred, buh wha?
Thas how it go sometimes in a war, in star(?)
Thas how it go sometimes in a war
Dem say we burn down deh Judge we coulda burn da landlord
We burn down deh Judge we never burn da landlord
When we run riot ‘tall over Brixton
When we MASH up 20 police van
When we MASH up the wicked one plan
When we MASH up the swam(?) ‘81
Dem say we commendear car and we gather ammunition
We build wif barricade and deh wicked catch afraid
We send out we scout figure find dem whereabout
Den we form up wif posse and we make ??? raid
Well now dem run down deh plan “call to action”
But dem plastic bullet an’ dem water can-non
Will bring a BLAM BLAM, will bring a BLAM BLAM
Nevermind scare mahn…WE bring a BLAM BLAM

Eddy Grant - “Electric Avenue”

Eddy Grant’s popular song “Electric Avenue” is a direct response to the 1981 Brixton riots as well as deep seated racial tensions between West Indians and British whites. For this reason, this mini-anthology has focused on West Indian response rather than just Jamaican because Grant is Guyanese:

Boy -
Now in the streets there is violence
an-na-na lots of work to be done.
No place to hang all our washing and then I can't blame it all on the sun.
Oh no
we're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher.
we're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher.

Working so hard like a soldier
can't afford the things on T.V.
Deep in my heart I abhore you
can't get food for the kid.
Good God
we're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue . ..
Oh no
oh no
oh no
oh no

Oh Lord
we're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue . . .
Who is to blame in what country? Never can get to the one.
Dealing in multiplication and they still can't feed everyone.
Oh no
we're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
Out in the streets
out in the streets

Out in the playground in the dark side of town.
we're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue . . .
we're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue . . .
Soul Searching in Scorched Ruins.

The Brixton riots stir a wave of anguish and recrimination

As policemen and housewives sifted through the scorched rubble in the South London neighborhood of Brixton last week, some oldtimers were reminded of the damage caused by the blitz in World War II. This time the damage was self-inflicted. For three nights, the crowded, hardscrabble neighborhood of 62,000 had been torn by the worst interracial rioting the country had ever experienced. Gangs of predominantly black West Indian youths hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at hundreds of riot police. Waves of other youngsters took part in an orgy of burning and looting By the time a tense calm finally returned to Brixton, the toll of violence was stark:149 police injured, one of whom remained unconscious days later; 58 civilians hurt; 120 buildings damaged, including nine that were completely destroyed; 47 stores looted; 224 people arrested. The total property damage was estimated to be as high as $4.4 million.

Britain as a whole was swept up in a wave of shock and recrimination. In the House of Commons, Home Secretary William Whitelaw reported on a personal visit to Brixton, conducted during a lull in the rioting, and announced that a respected and nonpartisan peer, former Jurist Lord Scarman, would investigate the causes of the violence. Firebrand M.P. Enoch Powell, a Tory turned Ulster Unionist and a longtime opponent of nonwhite immigration to Britain, warned that “you have seen nothing yet." Five M.P.s demanded "a vigorous policy" of subsidized repatriation of nonwhite immigrants. The ruckus spread as far away as New Delhi, where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, on an official visit to India, was confronted by demonstrators protesting Britain’s new immigration restrictions. A group of 23 pickets was arrested after throwing placards at her limousine.

What caused the riots? What could be done to prevent a recurrence? What did it all say about the kind of multiracial society that Britain has become after absorbing 1.9 million nonwhite immigrants since the 1950s? A similar social explosion occurred a year ago in the seaport city of Bristol, where a police drug raid on a cafe provoked both blacks and whites to take to the streets. Twenty-one policemen and nine civilians were injured in clashes, but property damage was far less extensive than in Brixton. To many analysts, unemployment and poor housing were the common denominators in both cases. A key difference, however, is that Brixton is now known as London’s Harlem. Since the ’50s it has been a traditional settlement area for West Indian immigrants, because it is close to the center of London and also offers cheap and plentiful housing. About one-third of Brixton’s residents are black, and in some areas the concentration reaches 70%. Among young blacks in Brixton, the unemployment rate is 67%, compared with a 27% rate among Brixton youths in general.

A more immediate cause of the riots, according to many Brixtonians, was the provocative behavior of the overwhelmingly white British police force (only 286 blacks and Asians belong to the 117,000-member police force in England and Wales). In the past two years Brixton had been targeted by the London police as a high-crime area deserving of special attention. An average of 90 burglaries, muggings and assaults occurred there each week.

Two weeks ago, in an operation known as Swamp ‘81, 150 plainclothes police, along with 50 uniformed bobbies were staked out in the worst areas of the neighborhood to combat the crime wave. In the first four days of their operation, the police made 150 arrests In doing so, they stopped and questioned more than 1,000 people, invoking Britain’s 150-year-old Sus (for suspect) law. The statute allows the police to question and even detain random suspects if there is reason to believe they may be planning to commit a crime. Overuse of the Sus law is a frequent complaint, not only in Brixton but elsewhere in the country. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to be arrested under the law, and black community leaders in Brixton claim that harassment rates run far higher than that. In Brixton, moreover, the law appears to have been used more widely than anywhere else. Said one white Brixton youth, who claimed to have been searched eleven times: ”I’ve lived in lots of areas of London, and I’ve never known repression like you get here.

Thus there were indications that police action had helped to fan the other resentments smoldering in the neighborhood. Indeed, just three months ago, the borough of Lambeth, where Brixton is located, had investigated police-community relations in the area and found them “extremely grave." A Lambeth committee had recommended that the Sus law be abolished. Then Parliament indicated that it would prepare the necessary legislation for effective repeal, but it was still pondering the legislation when Brixton exploded. What added a final poignancy to the violence was the fact that the extra police details in Brixton were to have been withdrawn within a very few days.

Whatever the government finally decides, Home Secretary Whitelaw indicated that it would not abandon its monetarist austerity for the sake of financial subsidies to depressed areas like Brixton. Said Whitelaw: ”The idea that you can buy your way out of problems in different areas I don’t believe to be sound and the Americans have found it that way." Britons may now be finding out something else that the U.S. has already discovered: the road to racial harmony is long and arduous.

—By George Russell. Reported by James Shepherd/London

Time; 04/27/1981, Vol. 117 Issue 17, p38, 2p

Bloody Saturday.

The country’s worst race riot

It was the kind of warm spring Saturday afternoon that draws all of London into the streets. As two bobbies pounded their beat in Brixton, a grimy, racially mixed neighborhood south of the Thames, they stopped to question a black youth. A hostile crowd gathered, and suddenly all hell seemed to break loose. Rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails began to fly. As police reinforcements rushed in, an orgy of burning and looting swept down Railton Road, a principal neighborhood shopping avenue, leaving automobiles gutted and shops in flames. Streets were littered with looted appliances, clothing and costume jewelry. At the peak of the violence, more than 1,000 police in riot gear, huddled like Roman legionnaires behind shields, battled some 600 black West Indian youths, interspersed with a few masked white rioters.

When the hurricane of violence ended after five brutal hours, the toll was heavy: 165 policemen injured—26 requiring hospitalization—along with scores of civilians.Nearly 100 rioters were arrested. Estimates of property damage ran to more than $2.2 million. Beyond the burnt buildings and ravaged streets twinkling with shards of glass from shattered storefront windows, however, London now bears a more lasting scar: the psychic damage from the worst race riot in British history, an ugly explosion reminiscent of the violence that tore apart dozens of American cities in the ’60s and, only eleven months ago, left whole sections of Miami in flames.

Many local residents were quick to say that racial tensions were not involved, blaming soured police-neighborhood relations and Britain’s current grim unemployment problem. Said one Brixton dweller: ”This is not a race riot. We are not here to hurt white people. It is about jobs, money, all the rest. You can only take so much." But the fact is that tension has been building for months in Brixton, home of many of the 620,000 black West Indians who have immigrated to Britain, or been born there, since the 1950s. As in the U.S., racial friction and unemployment often seem to go together: the jobless rate in areas like Brixton is twice Britain’s 10.3% national average.

Residents have long chafed at local police use of a 150-year-old loitering statute that allows them to detain anyone they believe intends to commit a crime; studies show that the law is ten times as likely to be used against blacks as whites. In February about 10,000 demonstrators, including many from Brixton, marched peacefully in nearby Deptford to protest what they considered deliberately lethargic police investigation of the deaths of two young blacks in a fire. The latest spark appears to have been struck the evening before the rioting, when blacks accused police of failing to respond quickly enough after a black Brixton man was stabbed to death.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir David McNee held out the possibility that the riot had been politically inspired. Said he: ”You don’t find petrol bombs and the kind of missiles that have been thrown at my officers just by chance." Indeed one sign of Britain’s growing racial tension has been clashes between blacks and neofascist white organizations like the thuggish National Front. Brixton’s riot did not seem to follow that disturbing model, but instead traced another pattern, one that could be copied elsewhere. As a Brixton resident gloomily put it, “Next time it might be Cardiff or Liverpool. They’ve got the same problems: rundown cities and high unemployment.

Time; 04/20/1981, Vol. 117 Issue 16, p44, 1p

The Specials - “Ghost Town”

In response to the smaller riot in Coventry as well as the general decline of that town, notable because this song charted and became quite popular during the 1981 Toxteth riots:

This town (town),
Is going like a ghost town.

All the clubs are being closed down.

This Place (ahh),
Is coming like a ghost town.

Bands won’t play no more,
To much fighting on the dance floor.


Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?
We danced and sang as the music played in any boomtown.

This town (town) is going like a ghost town.
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf.

This place (town) is coming like a ghost town.
No job to be found in this country.
Can’t go on no more.
People getting angry.


This town is coming like a ghost town.
This town is coming like a ghost town.
This town is coming like a ghost town.
This town is coming like a ghost town.

This town is coming like a ghost town.
This town is coming like a ghost town.
This town is coming like a ghost town.
This town is coming like a ghost town. 

Johnny Osbourne’s reggae response to the New Cross Fire “13 Dead and Nothing Said”

*Attn: Dr. Banks, I wanted to use this because it’s a great response to this event, however I was unable to find a text for it, I hope the video will suffice.

Why I still think the New Cross Fire was a massacre by Darcus Howe

I have tried hard not to re-enter the New Cross fire issue, in which 13 black children were burnt to death at a birthday party in Deptford, south London, 18 years ago.

At the regular weekly assembly that followed the fire, activists voted to have a national demonstration and I was elected organiser. Twenty thousand demonstrators marched across London from New Cross to Hyde Park, accusing the police investigation into the fire of being fraudulent and charging that a petrol bomb was thrown into the house by some demented racist.

To this day, the cause of the fire has not been officially established. Some of the parents, mainly the Francis and Gooding families, continue to campaign for a newinquest. Mr Francis has said publicly that, of the five adults at the party, one of them is concealing information that would lead to a new inquest and a solution to the mystery.

A couple of journalists and maybe a parent or two tried to suggest that I undermined the police inquiry by deliberately raising the matter of a petrol bomb. I was, they seemed to be saying, a political opportunist or a troublemaker. Now that the issue has returned on the back of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, my detractors have returned, aided by slack journalistic reportage. My caution about a re-entry into the fray turns on my respect for the grief still in the hearts of those parents who lost their children.

But I can no longer hold my peace. One day last week, a letter was hand-delivered to my home. It began: ”Dear Darcus, this is Gee Ruddock, will you please, please contact me re the New Cross fire.

It was Ruddock who held the party in the house at 498 New Cross Road to celebrate her daughter’s 16th birthday party. She lost two children, Yvonne and Paul.She has kept quiet all these years, been hounded by the police, accused of all sorts of things. Like myself, she can no longer remain silent. In her case, it is being suggested — and cruelly so —that she is withholding information that could help solve the mystery.

The first time I ever set eyes on Gee Ruddock she was staying at a hostel in Lewisham. It was about 24 hours after the fire. Ruddock was lucid, obviously drowned in grief, but in full control of her faculties.

On two occasions, within an hour or two of the fire, two different police officers told her that it had been caused by a petrol bomb. The first officer was on the scene outside the house, the second at King’s College Hospital. The evidence was live and direct. A group of young men at the bus-stop had seen a white man alight from an Austin Princess, hurl a fire-bomb into the party and speed away. Later an incendiary device was found outside the window. Add to that a bottle with a wick tucked into it.

Imagine, then, the anger that shot through the black community. ”Massacre” was as apt a description as you could find. As the anger rose, the incendiary devices disappeared. The petrol-bomb theory was quickly replaced by the theory of the fight. Under the aegis of a chief superintendent who had prosecuted me in a trial 11 years earlier, the theory developed that a fight between young blacks had been the central cause of the fire.

It was the deceased Wesley Thompson, we were told, who fell out with another guest, who set fire to the settee and proceeded to the top floor where he was burnt to death. A sort of kamikaze type, I suppose.

Gee Ruddock recalls all of this in an amazingly detailed way. She is determined to set the record straight. After all, she was the only parent present at the party. She has given several statements to the police who trawled through her private life and gathered every titbit of gossip and malicious rumour. Gee Ruddock is a fighter. She says a bomb caused the fire.

I believed her then and I continue to do so.

Howe, Darcus, New Statesman, 13647431, 02/12/99, Vol. 128, Issue 4423

Linton Kwesi Johnson - “Fite Dem Back”

A poem written in response to police brutality in relation to the unjust sus laws, 1978:

We gonna smash their brains in
'Cause they ain't got nofink in 'em
We gonna smash their brains in
'Cause they ain't got nofink in 'em

Some a dem say dem a niggah haytah
An’ some a dem say dem a black beatah
Some a dem say dem a black stabbah
An’ some a dem say dem a paki bashah

Fashist an di attack
Noh baddah worry ‘bout dat
Fashist an di attack
Wi wi’ fite dem back

Fashist an di attack
Den wi countah-attack
Fashist an di attack
Den wi drive dem back

We gonna smash their brains in
'Cause they ain't got nofink in 'em
We gonna smash their brains in
'Cause they ain't got nofink in 'em

The Clash - “White Riot” response to 1976 Notting Hill Carnival Riot

White riot - I wanna riot
White riot - a riot of my own
White riot - I wanna riot
White riot - a riot of my own

Black people gotta lot a problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick

An’ everybody’s doing
Just what they’re told to
An’ nobody wants
To go to jail!

White riot - I wanna riot
White riot - a riot of my own
White riot - I wanna riot
White riot - a riot of my own

All the power’s in the hands
Of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street
Too chicken to even try it

Everybody’s doing
Just what they’re told to
Nobody wants
To go to jail!

White riot - I wanna riot
White riot - a riot of my own
White riot - I wanna riot
White riot - a riot of my own

Are you taking over
or are you taking orders?
Are you going backwards
Or are you going forwards?