A Beginner's Guide To: Jamaican Music in the UK | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

A Beginner’s Guide To: Jamaican Music in the UK

Redbrick Music Writer Ollie Davis talks us through the history of Jamaican music's profound cultural impact upon the UK, a uniting force in times of political darkness

What can Brexit Britain learn from the history of Jamaican music in the UK and how it eased race-relations during the late sixties and early seventies?

After the recent fallout from the Windrush scandal and the ever present fears of a no-deal Brexit looming, racism and race-relations have been brought back into public discourse. These events, intensified by political rhetoric, have incited prejudice and the backlash to prejudice which has polarised the country. In light of this, it seems fitting to look at Britain’s love of Jamaican music and how, in the past, it has reduced racial fault-lines within communities, and played an integral part in forming the vibrant multiculturalism we enjoy today.

On March 14th 1964, Millie Small’s cover of ‘My Boy Lollipop’ reached number 2, becoming the first ska song to reach the top 10 in the UK. While Jamaican music would not consistently break into the top ten until the end of the sixties, it had, for the first time, made its way into the white British consciousness. The record label to do this was the legendary Trojan Records, which became the main record company producing Jamaican music during the late sixties and early seventies. Taking over from smaller companies such as Blues Beat, who had been serving the first influx of British Caribbean people who arrived on the HMT Empire Windrush to help rebuild a struggling post-war Britain in 1948. Since then, companies such as Blues Beat and Island Records had been providing British Caribbean communities with music played by sound systems and in dance halls back in the Caribbean. This included mainly American R&B but, after Jamaica won its independence in 1961, the music produced was predominantly ska.

Rejecting the long hair and flamboyance of the rock n’ roll era by shaving their hair and wearing lace up boots, the new Skinhead subculture turned to Ska as their music of choice
However, by the late sixties the children of the Windrush Generation had to share their music with a growing number of working class Britons who had become disillusioned by rock n’ roll, which by that time had been the staple of white British society for a decade. As Jamaican music was seen as inferior by radio stations and big record companies it was cheaper than its more 'acceptable' white competitor genres, which had become increasingly expensive. However, this made Jamaican music more accessible for a white working class youth. Rejecting the long hair and flamboyance of the rock n’ roll era by shaving their hair and wearing lace up boots, the new skinhead subculture turned to ska (later reggae) as their music of choice. In recognition of this fact, the music industry began to cater for their new audience with bands like the Symarip, writing songs referencing skinhead culture such as ‘Skinhead Girl’ and ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’. At this time, Trojan Records produced budget compilation albums, fittingly named Tighten Up, which provided an overview of the new sounds being created by the fast changing genre at a cheap price.

Now, for the first time in British history, working class people both black and white had a common ground and a shared appreciation of the same music
Now, for the first time in British history, working class people both black and white had a common ground and a shared appreciation of the same music. Ska and reggae clubs began to see more of a mixing of people from different backgrounds as black people along with skinheads, and even middle class white people began to congregate in the same spaces. This was made more striking by the apparent hypocrisy of the skinhead movement which was heavily influenced by racist ideals and rhetoric but nevertheless began to engage with the music. Identifying with the 'Rude Boy' image and empathising with the feelings of disenfranchisement with government and society expressed in many of the songs. This disillusionment and social awareness would only grow in the mid-1970s as the punk movement established its ideology in line with the Rastafarian idea of the 'Sufferer', which Roots Reggae had brought to into mainstream consciousness. This blending of cultures can be seen in both Bob Marley’s ‘Punky Reggae Party’ and The Clash’s cover of Reggae classic ‘Police and Thieves’. As Laurence Cane-Honeysett, who worked for Trojan Records, now as a consultant, told The Independent in a recent article celebrating the label's 50th birthday '… (Jamaican Music) was the first music here that crossed (racial) boundaries'.

Now, more than fifty years since Jamaican music was introduced to the UK, reggae in its many forms has continued to traverse cultural boundaries, from punk to jungle to dubstep. British music and society has been shaped by cultural exchange and a sharing of recreational spaces. With the polarised cultural and political landscape of 2018 Britain, it is refreshing to look at the history of reggae in the UK and realise its significance. British culture is and has always been shaped by immigration, and the perception of a monolithic 'white' British culture is false due to this realisation. It is a realisation that reveals how much ordinary people, from whatever background, have in common compared to the politicians who seek to divide our society.


17th November 2018 at 7:00 am

Last Updated

17th November 2018 at 1:50 pm

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