Birmingham might not be the first city that comes to mind when you think of reggae music, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a history that runs deeper than the 30-foot seam of coal under West Bromwich. In the 80s, music was the force that brought second-gen Black Caribbean kids and white youth together, with reggae coming over with the Windrush generation some years prior and soundtracking the rhythms of city’s multicultural communities.
‘Shebeens’ or ‘blues parties’ first emerged in Black Caribbean districts like Handsworth and Aston as hot spots to listen to the latest reggae tracks. Their children carried on this tradition as young white people began to flock to the nights, creating a melting pot of cultures, clothes and sounds. Parties were often held in people’s houses and flats with weed, white rum and chants of “Rastafari” and “bun fire pon Babylon” perfuming the air. Photographer Jon Girling – trained by Vanley Burke, known as as the godfather of Black British photography – documented the unique style and look of the crowd: men in immaculately tailored drainpipe trousers, Rasta woolly headgear and Italian beaver hats; the ladies ready to impress in colourful head wraps, rooms so packed that there was almost no room to dance. Dr. Simon Jones’s book Black Culture, White Youth: The Reggae Tradition from JA to UK archives the sound system culture in Birmingham and the adoption of Black culture among white youth. “I met Jon from a fellow student at Birmingham University and he became one of the people I interviewed, for my PhD thesis,” the sociologist recalls. “He was a white working-class lad who had a close relationship with the local Black Caribbean community; he was a subject, interviewee and very close friend.”Girling photographed a sound system called Scientists of Sound – a crew he had an intimate relationship with and followed around the country. His photos capture the creativity of reggae DJs and the practice of sound system culture – something treasured in Black Caribbean tradition. At a time of widespread discrimination and prejudice, Girling grasped the ingenuity and blazing DIY spirit of young Black Caribbean people.
He sadly passed away in 2012, but his photos are a time capsule of a precious moment in Black British history – and a powerful testament of how reggae united white working class kids and Black Caribbean youth under the banner of a good party. See below: