Sunday, 11 June 2017
Handsworth Revolution - Steel Pulse
Review: I can't pretend to know what life could be like in late 1970s Handsworth, having grown up in 1990s Bournemouth. I originally come from a place in Greater London called Hayes, which many in my family still call home. My parents grew up in Hayes and, before I was born, lived for a while in nearby Southall. It shares something in common with Handsworth: during the 1981, both experienced riots sparked off by racial tensions. Those in Handsworth were set off by rumours of a march by the National Front, whilst Southall's disturbances were in response to a planned Oi! concert in the Hambrough Tavern pub.
Hit fast-forward to 2011 and parts of London are ablaze with rioting. I stand looking from the top floor of the hospital I work in as plumes of smoke ascend into the summer sky. I return home to see bars and supermarkets in genteel areas like Clapham boarded up in anticipation of violence. Rumour swirls that looters have left a treasure trove on Clapham Common as they seek to evade the police. A seldom-seen neighbour asks 'what shall we do?' and I shrug and produce a golf club. I take an evening walk down to Tooting and pass through the thoroughly middle-class preserve of Balham. I note that nothing is shuttered, although reports later emerge of smashed windows. It is 2011 and race is once again the tinder box, and the fatal shooting of a black man by armed police sparks unrest that will sweep across the country.
So it is now 2017 and things don't feel much better. The referendum on British membership of the EU saw one campaign group literally borrow from Third Reich propaganda to create a poster. Meanwhile, Donald Trump's ascent sees neo-Nazis rebranded as the 'alt-right' and their fashion choices are discussed by mainstream publications. So now I'm listening to the angry, defiant, questing Handsworth Revolution by the British reggae band Steel Pulse, and it's sounding fresher than ever. That's not to downplay the actual music itself, which is superb, but it would be silly to ignore the politics of Steel Pulse's debut, which are front and centre throughout. Putting it another way, the impact of the message has not diminished down the years.
So we have calls for social justice on the title track; 'Bad Man' begins sounding like a boast but mutates into a meditation on slavery; 'Soldiers' demands self-determination for Africans and the removal of the imperialist yoke; 'Prodigal Son' counsels a people to stay in touch with their culture and renew their knowledge; and it seems trite to hint at the gist of 'Ku Klux Klan'. Who could blame the guys in the band for rounding out the collection with the spacey 'Macka Splaff', which is unabashedly about the joys of smoking weed? Even Shakespeare leavened his tragedies with a few jokes.
The grooves are monstrous, the musicianship is top notch (I was especially taken by the delicate, Latin-tinged guitar on 'Prediction') and thus you could quite happily dig this album for all its surface qualities. It's a smashing reggae record. For my money though, Handsworth Revolution reveals its real charms when one tunes into the messages about unity, identity, history, race and spirituality. It's not altogether comfortable listening either, especially if you're a white guy from Bournemouth. Handsworth Revolution delivers a few home truths about my history that I may not want to hear, but certainly need to hear.
There's always hope - and so with 'Prediction', which envisages deliverance for the followers of Ras Tafari, so I'm going to allow myself to perceive a few green shoots. A man has led a General Election campaign on a solidly social-democratic manifesto and created the electoral upset of this century (domestically, at least). Those who sought to smear him as a terrorist sympathiser now find themselves propping up their rickety administration by cosying up to paleolithic bigots with much stronger links to terrorism. The hypocrisy stinks and it won't be tolerated as long as good people stay vigilant and press for a fairer, more tolerant society. To quote Steel Pulse, "Have some, have some faith! / The impossible have a habit of happening..."