Saturday afternoons in the late 1970s found me serving behind the Sweet ‘N’ Nut counter in Woolworth’s in East Ham, East London, earning a bit of money to indulge myself in my favourite pastime, listening to music. Like most sixteen-year olds, I identified with the genre that appealed to me the most: Reggae.
It never ceased to amaze me how transforming music can be and the emotive effect it had on my mind, spirit and the perception of my environment. To listen to pop music on the radio wasn’t enough for me, although DJ David Rodigan on Radio London played nothing but reggae on Sunday mornings; two hours a week just didn’t suffice! I knew that if I wanted to immerse myself in music that I really loved, then I had to own it. And I did. Above all, I desired to occupy my sonic capacity and understanding with the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers.
The first LP that I purchased was Rastaman Vibrations (1976). The LP contained some of the songs that left a lasting impact on me: ‘Roots, Rock, Reggae’; ‘Crazy Baldhead’ and ‘Who the Cap Fit’. These songs were not about love, relationships or fluffy ideas that some reggae songs and a lot of pop songs belted out. The lyrics, for me, reflected real time and the people that might featured in the landscape of one’s life.
I replayed these songs continuously on the very basic stereo I purchased from Ben Salmons, a hardware store in Manor Park, East London, for £25. It was constructed from five pieces of wood; four sides and a base where a turntable was secured. The turntable had a plastic lid and came with two small speakers. The stereo served temporarily, enabling me to lose myself in Marley’s hypnotic musical prowess; I played music on it nearly every-day, albeit on a low volume, which unfortunately didn’t do the music any justice.
Robert – ‘Bob’ – Nesta Marley was a proud Jamaican. So too were my parents, part of the Jamaican diaspora that settled in England during the late 1940s and 1950s. I was born and raised in Bow, East London, but I never let that stop me identifying with anything or anyone from the West Indian island. Marley’s take on music was very different from that of Ska and Rocksteady, with its staccato chords and syncopated rhythms, which was what my parents listened to. The musical composition of reggae music however, with its pulsating bass guitar, and the heavy downbeat, instantaneously got your head nodding and your body swaying to the rhythm. The lyrics of many of Marley’s songs, political and personally empowering, were akin to musical poetry to me and I wondered if I could handle words written in such a way to express my thoughts and ideas.
Bob Marley had experienced social and political injustice, poverty, police brutality and oppression, which had caused him to become an influencer who encouraged others to stand and fight for what is right. I, on the other hand had not been up, close and personal to such experiences. What could I create that would resonate and be of interest to people?
The Jamaican born singer-songwriter was strong in his Rastafarian beliefs, which incorporated biblical Scriptures, and the past and current struggles of black people. Marley’s songs reflected how he represented himself as a black man and a musician. Many of his lyrics also illustrated his experiences at the hands of authority and he was vocal in his depiction of these injustices.
The Shebeen or All-Night Blues party was where my mates and I would sneak out to, some Saturday nights, and where we could listen to reggae at liberty. The fashion was skinny- ribbed jumpers, Sta-Prest trousers and two-toned mohair skirt suits. ‘Chicken Sound System’ was a popular shebeen, held in derelict houses, around the Hackney area. Commencing around one am., it continued strong on into Sunday afternoon. The entrance to the house was blocked by a table and admittance was only granted when you coughed up your money.
Once inside, it was always the same set-up: a makeshift bar in the kitchen selling bottles of Red Stripe beer, Snowball and Cherry B along with curry goat and rice and Jamaican Patty. One room or sometimes two were used for dancing. Entering the dark, hot rooms with towering speakers that amplified the music through the house itself, was like stepping into another world. The rooms were always ram-packed with people; some smoking foot-long spliffs, which glowed like Belisha beacons; their seeds popped as the smoke engulfed you, burning your eyes and making your head light. No one was propping up a wall, everyone danced all night long and Bob Marley’s tunes would be blasted out with most people singing along. ‘Play it again DJ’, or ‘version’ were the only words that were hollered out through the course of a musical evening. This signalled to the DJ to repeat the record.
Within this smoky, sweaty atmosphere with the music roaring out of the speakers, I wondered if I ever would translate emotions through words so meaningfully as Bob Marley. The idea that I, a black girl from East London, could harbour such lofty thoughts was exhilarating, electrifying and frightening. Did I need to smoke copious amounts of ganja to help my mind expand its artistic boundaries, delving into mystic spheres of the unknown? Would being transported to another setting where poverty, inequality and injustices were commonplace stimulate my creative juices? Try as I might, at that time I could not conjure any concepts that I considered interesting enough to write about. Writing itself wasn’t easy. Sitting in front of a blank page of my notebook, or a piece of paper wrapped around the platen of my Silver Reed electric typewriter did not magically produce words that expanded into stories. This was the dilemma that I faced – how to produce writing that people could relate too? I found the answer to that question had been openly flaunting itself right in my house.
I thought my family were the opposite of a normal family, (that myth soon dissolved as I found out more about life!). My mum never really spoke to my dad (unless it was an argument), and my dad never spoke to anybody unless he was giving orders. It was a regular thing to get ‘beating’ or ‘licks’ as a child for all manner of misdemeanours. This was a consistent occurrence within West Indian families. It was my parents’ relationship that was lopsided, and its agitation overflowed onto us kids. The seven of us in the house, mum and six siblings, were relatively strong and connected. When my dad came home, the atmosphere shifted, and tensions arose swiftly. Listening to music or reading books boosted my imagination and helped me block out the altercations that arose when things boiled over.
My mum loved John Holt’s music — he was another reggae artist, whose songs were full of love and hope. Yet, over time my Mum began to take a liking to Bob Marley songs. I had purchased some more of his albums and my Mum would even ask me to play them on the radiogram in the living room when my dad was out the house. From the Burnin LP (1973) she would sing along to ‘Get up, Stand Up’, which became a sort of war cry. Mum loved ‘Duppy Conqueror’; a Duppy being a ‘ghost or ‘evil spirit’, but Marley’s lyrics, according to her interpretation were that my dad was the duppy ‘bull-bucka’ or bully that she had to overcome. There were many incidents that flared up in my home: arguments, false accusations, frustrations, mindless stupidity. It all amounted to my family life. This was the basis for my first short story, ‘The Escape’, (published in the anthology Watchers and Seekers 1987), a violent confrontation between my parents that resulted in a visit from the police.
Whether such a situation was normal within families or not, I am not sure, but it certainly seemed to resonate with people who had read ‘The Escape’ going by their feedback. Reader’s responses came as a surprise to me. I reflected on the power of Bob Marley’s lyrics resting in the hearts and minds of people who might or might have not had his experiences of hardship and discrimination, yet, they understood what he was saying. For me, listening to his music opened up possibilities for thinking and talking about my life, which eventually made me a writer.