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REGGAE BRITANNIA: THE HANDSWORTH REVOLUTION OF STEEL PULSE!

By Howard Campbell—-

In August, it will be 50 years since Jamaica gained Independence from Britain. Today, the Jamaica Observer’s Entertainment section reflects on the influence Jamaican pop culture has had on that country in REGGAE BRITANNIA, a weekly feature leading up to the Golden Jubilee.

FOR first-generation black Britons, growing up in Britain during the 1960s presented an identity crisis. Most were children of West Indians who moved to that country a decade earlier, determined to find a better living in the Mother Country.

David Hinds (right) with the members of the band Steel Pulse. Hinds, whose parents migrated to the Handsworth area of Birmingham from St Ann in the 1950s, formed the Steel Pulse in the mid-1970s.

The racial and social prejudice these youngsters faced was still prevalent in the 1970s when they became adults. Many turned to reggae to express their anger at the system.

Bands like Aswad, Steel Pulse, Capital Letters and Misty In Roots emerged in the turbulent 1970s, a defining period for minorities in prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Race riots broke out in Caribbean communities throughout the country, most notably Birmingham and Brixton.

Aswad set the pace for British reggae bands in terms of chart action.

Their song, Back to Africa, entered the British national chart in 1976, at a time when Bob Marley was crushing racial barriers and Burning Spear appealed to militant blacks with his Marcus Garvey album.

David Hinds, whose parents migrated to the Handsworth area of Birmingham from St Ann in the 1950s, formed the Steel Pulse band in the mid-1970s. By 1978, they were signed to Island Records, the label which had Aswad, Marley and Spear on its books.

That year, Island released Steel Pulse’s album, Handsworth Revolution, which addressed the plight of British minorities. At the time, it was the biggest statement by a black band out of England.

Hinds spoke about the significance of Handsworth Revolution in a 2003 interview with the Jamaica Observer.

“Handsworth Revolution was one of the band’s most powerful anthems simply because it was like a prediction of what was to come in England,” he said.

“It prophesied riots that were gonna happen across England in black communities, whether it was St Paul’s in Bristol, Handsworth in Birmingham, Liverpool or Manchester.”

Aswad and Steel Pulse packed enough punch to impress Marley. Aswad drummer, Angus ‘Drummie Zeb’ Gaye played on the singer’s hit song Punky Reggae Party while Steel Pulse opened for him on his 1978 European tour.

While they were establishing themselves in their homeland, British reggae bands yearned to make an impact in Jamaica and there was no better outlet than Reggae Sunsplash. Steel Pulse appeared on the festival in 1981 with Aswad performing the following year.

British roots-reggae reached its zenith in the early 1980s when Steel Pulse released its magnificent True Democracy album which yielded the Hinds-penned anthems Rally Round the Flag and Chant a Psalm.

The mellow grooves of lovers rock took over by the mid-1980s with Maxi Priest, a London-born singer of Jamaican parentage, leading the way. The most successful British band was the multi-racial UB40 which recorded a series of hit songs and albums in the 1980s and 1990s.

Though reggae artists with Jamaican ties (like singer Bitty McLean) remain popular, British reggae has declined considerably in the last 15 years. Old hands like Steel Pulse are still recording and touring, standard bearers for a persecuted generation who have embraced an integrated Britain.

 

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