The Selecter’s Pauline Black at forefront of sexism and racism fight
PUBLISHED: 14:01 06 March 2014 | UPDATED: 14:14 06 March 2014
A photo of Pauline Black taken in 1980 shows her with fellow punk/ska sisters Debbie Harry, The Slits’ Viv Albertine, Siouxsie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde and Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex – their confident gazes as uncompromising as their outfits.
It may be 35 years old, but the image says more about female empowerment than any contemporary gathering of over-sexualised pop moppets say Rihanna, Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry.
“Looking at it, no-one’s showing any flesh – it’s a cross section of the female alternative music scene at that time – we were unaffected, unmanufactured, young women doing what we did well, selling records.
“I wouldn’t put any woman down for showing off their body but there’s a fine line between exploitation and self-expression.
“In some ways, there was more freedom then.”
Artists as diverse as Corinne Bailey Rae and Gwen Stefani have cited Black as a trailblazing influence for her hard-edged vocals on The Selecter’s Three Minute Hero or On My Radio and androgynous look of fedora and suit.
“What’s forgotten is it wasn’t just racism we were fighting, but sexism. We had to accept the young male wasn’t as fully evolved as the rude girls,” she muses.
“There was no rude girl persona until I made it up. It was based on the movie The Harder They Come. Neville Staple in The Specials created his attire out of that and I thought, ‘What’s good for the goose.’ I’ve always enjoyed people with a slight androgyny and it stopped that ridiculous sexist thing of boys in the audience shouting out if you were rocking around stage in a skirt.”
Black was working as an NHS radiographer in Coventry when the fusing of white punk music with Jamaican reggae captured the restless sprit of multi-cultural Britain.
The Selecter and The Specials, whose haunting anthem Ghost Town echoed Coventry’s urban decline from industrial boom times, signed to the 2 Tone label, alongside The Beat and Madness. Its black and white logo echoed the then radical collaboration between musicians of different races.
“I came here in the early 70s to study biochemistry and stayed,” says Black.
“This guy in the radiography department really fancied himself as being in a band. I had kept it secret – ringing in sick when I was really playing Blackpool, and he was quite miffed when I started appearing in the NME and was making it bigger than his band.”
With a population of just 350,000, Coventry’s music scene was small and Black, who started playing folk clubs with a guitar, soon hooked up with other musicians. Six months later, The Selecter had a top 10 hit.
“Because of all the bombing, Coventry was demolished and out of that came grey industrial concrete jungles. Like Detroit, it was a motor city, now in decline. Anyone who was black was relatively discontented. It’s a multicultural city now but then it was institutionally racist and difficult for young people who were the kids of the first generation of immigrants. There was a healthy dissatisfaction channelled into the punk bands and Bob Marley. Music captured the kids’ imagination and we were in the right place at the right time. Success did come quickly but I’ve never been shy and took to it like a duck to water.”
Ska fused slow Reggae beats with jazzy horn sections and the manic energy of punk to create “something more upbeat and joyful”, says Black.
“It flagged up racism – said, ‘Why should we put up with that nonsense our parents had to live with?’ Just having black and white people on stage together obviously getting along was a statement of intent and resonated with people.”
Born in Romford in 1953 to a Jewish mum and Nigerian dad, she was adopted by a white family who didn’t mention her origins until she was four years old.
In her autobiography Black By Design, she describes growing up mixed race in Essex as “an exotic species” and how she changed her surname because it forced her family to say the word they’d avoided for decades.
With few black faces on TV, she gravitated towards Motown, Stevie Wonder and The Supremes as musical influences.
“With the chutzpah of youth, it never occurred to me I couldn’t sing! I’d pick up a guitar and pick out a tune – a complete auto-didact.”
Singing and touring – The Selecter play Great Portland Street’s The Venue on March 14 for their 35th anniversary tour – have always driven her.
“It’s always been playing live that’s motivated me and Arthur Hendrickson. We’ve never had a cross word, we’re the Astaire and Ginger Rogers of ska, he gives me class and I give him energy.” Now at the age of 60, she’s aware she’s a survivor.
“When you’re young, you don’t think about longevity – you never think you’ll reach 40! Looking back, I think we made a difference. It’s good to hear from other women that I influenced them.
“I met Debbie Harry backstage at (Chicago festival) Riot Fest recently. We just stood there looking at each other, wondering how we had both survived and were still there doing it.”
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