Today is Windrush Day. June 22, 2023, marks 75 years since the first members of the Windrush generation arrived in the UK. The impact of this migration has been incalculable, from providing foundational labour to help launch the NHS to the communities changing the course of music history by developing seismic sounds and movements, and so much more.
To celebrate this legacy, Mixmag is launching an editorial series dedicated to exploring stories, issues and sounds that honour the Windrush generation and their cultural impact. Yewande Adeniran is our guest editor, and Texas Maragh is our guest designer. Stay tuned articles, mixes and a Lab special rolling out over the coming weeks.
For Mixmag’s Windrush 75 series, a continuation of Blackout Mixmag, I’ve joined with the Mixmag team to curate a variety of editorial, mixes and an event that aim to pay homage to the legacy of the Windrush Generation and the diasporas formed by the migration of various ethnic groups from the Caribbean, West Africa and South Asia. Without them, the UK would look and sound vastly different.
The impact of those of Windrush migration can’t be understated. It’s everywhere you look. We can trace it to the early days of helping to rebuild this country after World War II; forming an integral lifeline for the NHS; to the importance it has on the food we eat, the music we listen to, the slang we jist and joke about with, even our TV – shout out Desmond’s – our cultural landscape wouldn’t exist otherwise. This is not an exhaustive list and putting the diaspora wars aside, because whether it’s “plantain” or “plantin” (it’s the former by the way *inserts smile*), Black Britishness and the joy we’re currently experiencing with the rise of Black headed initiatives and cultural platforms is the legacy of this pivotal role Windrush played.
The famous HMT Empire Windrush vessel was originally built in 1930 by German shipbuilding firm Blohm & Voss, given the name MV Monte Rosa and serving as a cruise ship for Nazi-approved holidays to Europe and South America, disembarking right near Cutty Sark, Greenwich. Later it was used for the deportation of Norwegian Jews during the Second World War.
By the time it was repurposed by the British as a prize of War in 1945, it was swifty renamed after the River Windrush in the Cotswolds. Just three years later, Empire Windrush set sail for England, first stopping at Tilbury Docks in Essex before continuing its journey to London – with the most famous remaining footage of one of the most culturally significant moments of the 20th Century captured by Pathé news. Those who arrived in the UK from British colonies between 1948 and 1971 became known as the Windrush Generation.
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Although encouraged by the British government, many of those arriving from across the British Empire amid labour shortages to rebuild the economy were manual workers, bus drivers, cleaners and a large number of nurses into the newly established NHS. It doesn’t go unnoticed that many of these individuals had served in the British Army and were immediately faced with anti-Blackness and racism. They were then subjected to the same colonial governance of segregation, and Caribbean communities were localised into certain areas. These inner cities were then overpoliced and have faced an endemic of problems over the subsequent years. 75 years later, the Casey Review found that Black Londoners in particular are over-policed despite being statistically more likely to be victims of violent crime. Black people were nearly twice as likely to report being raped; 66% more likely to report domestic abuse; 167% more likely to be reported missing; and – most recently – nearly six times more likely to be murdered.
But many of those subjected to this violence broke new grounds for Black Britons. When we think about Notting Hill Carnival, our favourite end of summer celebration of Carribean Joy, we think about Jamaican-British man Sam Beaver King, who served in the RAF and began his new life as postman after arriving in Tilbury in his 20s. He soon became a campaigner for Black-British rights and the first Black mayor of Southwark, creating a programme for migrants to buy homes in the UK and later co-founding the country’s first Caribbean style carnival, the precursor to Notting Hill Carnival.
Every August Bank Holiday, over a million Britons flock to West London for Notting Hill Carnival, an annual event featuring soundsystems, parade loafs, marching bands, and the most delicious food you will ever come across. But the origins are far from joyous. Once an impoverished area of West London, riots were sparked over an ongoing debate about racial discrimination and the levels of increased immigration to the area due to the Windrush arrivals.
On May 17, 1959, 32-year-old Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan-born carpenter and aspiring lawyer living in Notting Hill was brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack on Southam Street following the 1958 Notting Hill race riots. Only 10 years post-Windrush arrival, his untimely death had a massive impact on race relations. In response to this, over 1200 people attended his funeral. With many of those demonstrating their solidarity against the ongoing racial violence, rumours of police cover up immediately began to circulate. This sparked then-Home Secretary, Rab Butler to make an appeal for witnesses in Parliament, the start of what would become the 1968 Race Relations Act.
Community leader and activist Rhaune Laslett set up a small community children’s street fayre in Notting Hill to ease tensions between the West Indians, Africans and Irish in the densely populated area. With Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian human rights activist based in London, they put on the first BBC broadcasted indoor “Caribbean Carnival” at St. Pancras Town Hall in 1959. From there, it rapidly increased, citing a community need for this celebration. So then Jones met with Trinidadian booking agents Edric and Pearl Connor to bring more acts to West London, who joined forces with Rhaune to invite famous pan player Russell Henderson and his now famous band members, Vernon Williams, Fitzroy Coleman, Ralph Cherry and Sterling Betancourt. After a few years of promoting indoor events in halls dotted around London. 1966 was the first outdoor festival in Notting Hill, with live music first curated by Wilf Walker at the 1979 edition, featuring mainly reggae and punk bands. To this day, Notting Hill Carnival is the only full scale carnival in the world that has multiple static soundsystems, as introduced by Leslie Palmer MBE.
Within the same time frame, Leeds West Indian Carnival was created by Arthur France MBE, along with Jamaican Tony Lewis, Frankie Davis from Trinidad, and students at the University of Leeds who organised the carnival parade along the streets of Leeds, as well as indoor festival of music and costume.
A year later in Bristol, a city whose wealth is a direct result of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, held its first celebration in 1968, jus two years later. It was founded by seven Windrush Generation community activists who were an integral part of the Bristol Bus Boycott, a significant moment in the UK’s Civil Rights Movement.
Outside of major cities, Preston has its own Caribbean festival founded in 1974 by local members of the community from St. Vincent, Grenadines, Dominica and other Caribbean islands, with Leicester creating its own in 1985, held on the first Saturday of August, chaired by Elvy Morton, and a special shout out to the lesser known Basingstoke Carnival.
During this period, systematic disenfranchisement and the beginnings of the school and prison pipeline began emerging with Black British children being deemed “subnormal”, a form of oppression within the education system that still exists today. Community events became where activists, teachers, nurses, labourers came together to lament the political and social position they had been thrust into, while creating a space where joy was unfiltered through the same sounds that form part of their culture back home.
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Now at present day Notting Hill, we hear a vast plethora of genres from dancehall to grime to jungle, all are part of the rich sonic Windrush legacy. First gaining traction in the 1950s Trinidiadian calypso became a popular sound with groups Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra and Roaring Lon performing at the Festival of Britain in 1951. It was the first time such sounds had been heard widely in the UK. Originating from the West African genre called Kaiso, its main characteristics are its call and response format, calypso rhythm and deep lyrics. Calypso as a genre existed as a way to spread information, oral history and poke fun at the colonial masters. It was the only way to voice their discontent.
This genre is central to many Caribbeans retaining their ancestral roots with West Africa. This call and response format would later become the basis of MC culture. The steel pan’s history within music of the region dates back to enslaved people forcibly brought to the Caribbean in the 1700s, with a large Yoruba (Nigerian) music and cultural influence still remaining to today. It is here we see the first mergings of a Black British sonic identity between Caribbeans and West Africans.
Reggae emerged in the UK out of a landscape of fraught racial tension, rapidly changing politics, violence and unaddressed poverty. With Bob Marley’s presence in London pushing the sound into the mainstream. But its history dates back to the 1920s when Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican born activist and champion of Pan-Africanism, mobilised millions of Black people from Harlem, New York, and across the diaspora to reclaim their Blackness and heritage by returning to Africa.
In Jamaica he is remembered for promoting the teachings of Ras Tafari Makonnen, and for encouraging his followers to develop a form of Black consciousness that would psychologically liberate Black people from the mental slavery enforced through enslavement and Eurocentric (mis)education that placed the West as the one source of true knowledge over Africa and those residing across the continent. The music that followed, roots reggae, would serve as the vital medium to continue this message by recounting the historic, and still ongoing, struggles of those in Jamaica and the Caribbean. With lovers’ rock, rocksteady, dub, punk and dancehall following.
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Between 1975 to 1985, Lovers’ Rock grabbed the hearts of the Caribbean, West African and African-American romantics. It was the antidote to the very political and serious reggae. And a continuation of the last days of the Rocksteady era. Using the R&B template and building upon the sound of predominantly Black cities Philadelphia and Chicago in the U.S., with a South London twist, it soon became the sound of the second and third generations of Windrush descendents. 15-year-old Louisa Mark’s 1975 hit ‘Caught You In A Lie’ became the first charting single of the genre. The Queen of Lovers Rock, Deborahe Glasgow of Guyanese heritage, who started working with producer Mad Professor at just aged 12 in the late ‘70s, reached chart success in the 1980s; it was at this point Black women were beginning to receive notability within the genre.
At the same time, punk had become a staple sound with legend Don Letts credited as a key pioneer credited as a key pioneer. He fused reggae into the London punk scene through his now iconic DJ sets at punk nights at the Roxy, famously managed The Slits, and even had his own band The Electric Dread. At the same time Bad Brains, Pure Hell and Death, were making waves across the Atlantic from New York to London.
The Clash were inspired by Letts’ DJing, with reggae being heard most notably on their 1977 debut album. Bassist Paul Simonon credits his upbringing in a Jamaican neighbourhood with the style of playing, and lead guitarist Mick Jones’ upstroke guitars and dub dynamics in his arrangements are said to originate from his love of reggae. Sealing the merging of the two, Johnny Rotten, Sex Pistols’ lead singer, played an entire set on London’s Capital Radio. It was Bob Marley himself that stated “Punks are outcasts from society. So are the Rastas” in 1977. This cross-racial link up would extend into the ever political Ska and Ska-Punk of the ‘90s with Operation Ivy serving as a direct inspiration and The Specials as mainstream success.
Fast forward to trip-hop less than a decade later. Emerging out of Bristol, the experimental music genre blends elements of hip hop, acid jazz, electronic music and of course, reggae to create its signature sound. One of the biggest bands to come of the city, Massive Attack, never shied away from politics. Band member Tricky spoke of his encounters of racism in the music industry, in Bristol and wider Britain. As a band they have been staunchly anti-racist, anti-war and currently publicly oppose rapid climate change, with their gigs as a backdrop to their politics.
But when we think of another experimental genre with roots in Jamaican soundsystem sounds, immediately dubstep comes to mind. The style emerged in the early 21st century in London and Bristol as an offshoot of UK garage, with elements of broken beat, grime and drum ‘n’ bass, all stripped back. Two pioneers of the genre, Skream and Benga, both grew up listening to reggae, with the bass-heavy soundsystem sound forming the core of their sound. Dub itself is slow, minimal, with a focus on spatial atmospherics and of course, step, is from 2-step garage.
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In a discussion of electronic music directly influenced by reggae in the UK, jungle – which is currently enjoying its resurgence – must be mentioned. In the late 1980s, as dance music began to grip Britain’s youth, a new sound was emerging. Utilising the speedy breaks of hardcore rave, and the deep heaviness of dub, jungle emerged, creating a new hybrid localised genre which is said to have been named by Rebel MC. The genre’s Black innovators initially sped up hip hop breaks and layered on dancehall vocals, with the soundsystem ritual of rewinds, dubplates and MCs, it’s a truly forward-thinking sound. Among the genre’s originators in 1988, Fabio & Grooverider became instrumental in jungle’s development after looking for quicker tempo to his acid house records. It was a harder sound, using ragga – a subgenre of reggae and dancehall music. Contemporary jungle, or what is named drum ‘n’ bass, often looks very different from its origins after entering the dance music mainstream, with its political and racial roots pushed to the back in favour of hedonism.
Another favourite Black British hybrid sound is grime, a Black Atlantic music experimentation drawing influences from the Caribbean, West Africa and the US. Immediately noticeable is the garage 2-step sound, but made much darker, reflecting the inner city life of its birthplace of East London. Merging Master of Ceremonies’ (MCs) call and response nature from soundsystem culture with hip hop, UK garage and jungle, the 140 beats per minute genre, is the merging of Caribbean and West African migrants and their frustrations with different facets of the Black experience in the UK.
Efforts to suppress Black music events have following in the years since the inception of Notting Hill Carnival, with very few Black-owned clubs surviving to the present day due to legislation, property discrimination and the Metropolitan police’s racist Form 696. But even though assimilation was propagated to be the key into integrating into Britain, much of West Indian culture survived and passed on to later generations, with music remaining an integral part of surviving the hardships of modern Britain. We may now have the MOBOs, the Music Of Black Origin awards ceremony dating back to 1996, but even that is in danger of being whitewashed. But thanks to Club BEMA, Black Electronic Music Association, formed of dance music titans Heléna Star, Jaguar, Niks and Hannah Shogbola, we’re seeing a resurgence of the reclamation of dance music’s Black history and present.
Around the same time as the emergence of the disparate carnivals, there were waves of citizens of the commonwealth country arriving in the UK, with Nigerians as the second largest demographic. This was the burgeoning of a Black British sonic identity. Vastly culturally rich in nature, from there, we have been reduced to a monolithic and our cultural, artistic and musical outputs commodified and sidelined. Blackness is extracted and turned into profit with the originators, often written out of history and made destitute. The efforts made over the last three years since the music industry wide #BlackoutTuesday on June 2, 2020, must continue.
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While we celebrate the legacy of the Windrush Generation, we cannot forget that the UK Home Office destroyed landing cards belonging to Windrush migrants. In April 2018, it emerged that the UK Home Office intentionally kept no records of those granted permission to stay, and did not issue the needed paperwork to confirm their status. As a result, many were threatened with deportation, with at least 83 people who arrived before 1973 being wrongly deported and many more still fighting to this day.
As someone who grew up in Tottenham, frequently going to the Marcus Garvey and Bernie Grants Art Centre, the spirit of those who have tread this ground before us is what carries us through the darkest days. It’s why despite it all, Notting Hill Carnival remains a celebration of the beauty of Caribbean culture, why we still hold small scale community soundsystem events, why Black created club nights need to exist, why our generation marched in 2020, why our parents did in the ‘70s and why our grandparents resisted colonial rule.
Yewande Adeniran is writer, DJ, academic, multidisciplinary artist who love dance music and club culture. Follow them on Twitter
Written by: Tim Hopkins