Here's How It Felt to Grow Up as a Black Indie Fan in 90s Britain
I spent my youth hiding my love for The Smiths from my black mates, and sneaking into venues full of white guys.
It wasn't easy growing up as a black indie fan in 90s Britain, but it was a shitload of fun. I mean, I was quite literally the black sheep. Mates would invite me to Jungle Fever raves, or ask me round to their houses to practice MC'ing, but I was quite content staying at home wailing the falsetto bit at the end of “You've Got Everything Now” by The Smiths.
Back then in London, whether you were black, white, Asian, Greek or Turkish it didn't matter: cool music meant black music. Most black people, like my dad, didn't understand the indie scene, and aggresively non-indie fans defined anyone who listened to it in pretty derogatory sweeping stereotypes. If you listened to Suede, Gene or Pulp you were “gay”. If you listened to Happy Mondays or Primal Scream you were a “druggy”. If you listened to Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins you were a “metaller”, and if you listened to Blur or REM you were just a “geek”. I listened to all of those bands. Walking around the north London suburbs wearing ripped jeans, eye-liner, brightly-coloured hair, my mum's shoulder-padded work jacket and Dunlop Green Flash instead of the Reebok Classics and baggy sportswear was an open invitation to get your head kicked in.
Looking back, I think maybe indie was part of my youthful rebellion, in the same way white kids listened to blues records in the 1950s. I loved distortion pedals, the words singers sang and the physical release of moshing at live shows. From childhood, the indie segment of The ITV Chart Show gripped me more than the dance chart or the r&b stuff that occupied the top ten. “There's No Other Way” by Blur, “This Is How It Feels” by Inspiral Carpets, and “Stutter” by Elastica were so brazenly honest by comparison. How did these performers have the balls to be so weird and yet so cool? And were their haircuts for real?
This was Britain under John Major. Punk ideals had been submerged by yuppiedom and political manifestos that sought to re-establish “family values”. Young men were characterised as either straight-laced bankers or football hooligans. Amid all that, I found indie bands to be a completely seductive alternative to these norms. The fact that they were all white didn't occur to me as something I should be conscious of, even coming from a family where our white mother listened to Bob Marley, Nina Simone and Hugh Masakela. Whatever it was that got me, I was hooked. And one artist above all leapt out at me: Morrissey.
In 1992, the Smiths single “How Soon Is Now” was re-released, five years after the band had broken up. The video – grainy images of industrial chimney stacks billowing out smoke, interspersed with hypnotic live footage of Morrissey twirling round onstage – was shown on Top Of The Pops. I was 12. It was the first time I had heard the band that would become the most enduring influence on my life.
Marr's chugging guitar sounded almost computer-generated. When the slide guitar descended like a train blowing its horn in the night and the song kicked in, with Joyce's perfect drumming skittering out the steady beat, I knew I was hearing greatness. I wasn't a shy kid. Yes, I liked to read books alone in my room, but I was also centre forward in my school football team and popular with girls. Hearing Morrissey openly reveal his shyness in such poetic terms in a glorious, self-assured voice changed something inside of me. I'd heard a singer use the words “Shut your mouth” on a record before (Julian Cope on World Shut Your Mouth), but this was something different and personal: proud defiance, a demand that Morrissey's human fragility be accorded the love he deserved but never received.
This level of emotion was there in black music of the mid-twentieth century, in blues, soul and Motown records. But, for me, the rap, swing and r&b of 90s black music was devoid of the honesty and tenderness I was looking for. Instead it was full of bragging, posturing and deceit. I wanted to be like Morrissey – sensitive, bookish, lonely, cynical, outspoken, quite probably gay and with immaculate taste in absolutely everything.
The problem was, the indie scene didn't reflect me, a middle class, half-Jamaican boy. I was comfortable being the outsider in a scene of outsiders, but part of me yearned for indie fans to be more diverse. Yeah, I never noticed that me and my brother were the only black kids at gigs, but when it came to festivals, it was a little harder to ignore that you are the anomaly among tens of thousands of white people. It began to feel more noticeable and kinda odd. Where were all the black indie fans? Surely we weren't the only ones?
That thought was reflected onstage, where there were only a handful of non-white indie stars. Cornershop were thrilling, punk and lo-fi at the same time, and never sidestepped the fact they were British Asians. They named themselves after the lazy stereotype of British Asian employment, used sitars, pressed their first record on “curry-coloured vinyl” and threw in Punjabi song titles and lyrics. Echobelly's lead singer Sonya Aurora Madan was born in India and brought up in England, while their guitarist, Debbie Smith, formerly of Curve, was virtually the only black British woman in indie music, until Skin came along with her hard rock band Skunk Anansie and achieved international success. Ocean Colour Scene's drummer, Oscar Harrison, and the Boo Radleys' Rob Cieka, seemed to be some of the only prominent black British men in indie until Gary Powell of the Libertines and Kele from Bloc Party emerged a decade later into a slightly more diverse scene.
It’s easy to look back on the nineties and assume racism must have been worse because surely we’re only getting better, but while representation was flawed, I saw very little active racism. Quite the opposite. My first ever gig in 1993 at Brixton Academy was an Anti-Nazi League benefit concert headlined by Rage Against The Machine with support from Billy Bragg, Headswim, Lush (whose singer Miki Berenyi was half Japanese) and a rap-rock outfit called Senser, whose singer Heithem Al-Sayed was half Saudi Arabian.
Senser were part of a short-lived, far-left, rap-rock scene along with anti-fascist group Blaggers ITA, hip hop trio Credit To The Nation and protest-rockers Chumbawumba. Sonic Youth released a single called "Youth Against Fascism" in 1992. Carter USM were openly left wing, and Nirvana told racists, sexists and homophobes not to buy their records.
When Britpop began to dominate the decade, I didn’t see anything terribly nationalistic about it. It was just exciting to have a genuine youth movement to cling to as opposed to the steady stream of American pop culture we'd been force-fed. It felt good that Britishness was something to be celebrated again, instead of being ashamed of or embarrassed by, even if it was a Britishness that mostly spoke to the experiences of being young, white and male, rather than black. Still though, that inescapable fact remained – 99% of indie fans were white.
I wouldn’t say I became ashamed of my musical allegiance, but I certainly didn't own up to it around the rudeboys and rastas in my life. I was well versed in black music and there were things I found exciting, like Snoop Dogg's debut album and the emergent house and garage scenes. But I was appalled by the homophobia in dancehall acts like Buju Banton and rather ashamed that my Jamaica was producing most of it. I was well aware that The Smiths would be considered “batty man ting” so I saved Morrissey-related conversations for my white mates. As for the black American music that dominated the charts – TLC's "Waterfalls", Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise", The Fugees' "Fu-Gee-La" – I was simply bored by it. I was completely in touch with my Englishness, and it felt like that man Morrissey was voicing things I didn't even know I was thinking.
I won a school prize for creative writing and spent the book voucher on Johnny Rogan's controversial biography Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance. On school trips, while my peers tried to put on Cypress Hill and Pearl Jam, I controlled the stereo in the minibus, repeatedly forcing my classmates to endure “Hand In Glove”. The teachers looked at me, amazed and slightly concerned.
I was too late for The Smiths as a present form obviously (they split in 1987), but I was determined to make the most of Morrissey's solo career. His singles throughout the 90s, from “You're The One For Me Fatty”, through to “The More You Ignore Me The Closer I Get” and “Dagenham Dave”, lured me further into his peculiar, funny world. These were songs about real people. Sniping, outrageous and all sung in such sweet tones. There was nobody else doing anything like it – Morrissey knew it and so did I. But just as I was falling in love with him, the music press was falling out of love with him.
I remember hearing the news on the radio that he had been pelted offstage with coins at Madness' Madstock reunion gig in Finsbury Park, just a couple of miles from where I lived. He had cancelled the second night. It emerged that he had waved the Union Jack and was, according to the NME at the time, "a racist". My heart sank like a brick in a cess pool.
Within a few years, the Union Jack would become ubiquitous in everything from the Spice Girls' knickers to Noel's guitar, but back in 1992 the flag was still an everyday symbol of the National Front and the British National Party. When I saw the pictures I felt nervous. The flag was being worn as a skirt rather than waved but something about his gold lamé shirt and Teddy Boy haircut made me feel weird. Until then, I hadn't realised my idol had been exploring skinhead imagery or, as the music press put it, flirting with the right.
Nobody came forward to support Morrissey. Paul Weller and others openly criticised him. Cornershop burned photos of him outside EMI. People distanced themselves from him including, eventually, the record labels. He retreated from the public eye, rarely playing live and rarely giving interviews. He didn't explain himself for a couple of years. He didn't think he had to. For me, a young black fan, it would have been helpful to hear him say at the time: “I'm not racist”. When he defended himself a couple of years after, it was almost too late. His quotes were buried under other controversial things he said.
In a 1994 article in Select magazine he told the interviewer, Andrew Harrison, “I was stopped by many journalists who obviously raised the topic in an accusatory way, and I would say to them, please, now, list the lines in the song ['The National Front Disco'] which you feel are racist and dangerous and hateful. And they couldn't. Nobody ever ever could, and that irked me. Even though, simply in the voice on all of those songs, on 'Asian Rut' or 'Bengali In Platforms' or 'The National Front Disco', one can plainly hear that here is no hate at all… If the National Front were to hate anyone, it would be me.”
Despite that, the headlines came from another part of the interview where Morrissey said the BNP ought to be given a platform in the media, as a democratic right. Interviewed by Q magazine he said, “I long for a reactionary, political, almost racist group made up entirely of Asian musicians... I hear groups such as Echobelly and The Blaggers and I'm fuelled by excitement.”
But no amount of expressing his actual views, or being photographed with ethnic minority fans or black boxers in a Bethnal Green boxing hall, could shift the stigma attached to him. The 'racist' label meant that unsavoury right wing characters began to attend his infrequent concerts. And this was enough to stop me going to see Morrissey play live. It’s a weird feeling, where you’re no longer welcome to a place to watch something as liberal as a art, performed by someone you'd followed for years, because of the colour of your skin. All my mates started to warn me off him; being a Morrissey fan became uncool and problematic. But, I decided fuck it, I had to find out for myself. I was going to a gig and would try to confront him somehow.
When the time finally came around it was 1999. I was 19, and Morrissey had been absent from the music scene for a while. As part of his world tour he played four nights in a row at Kentish Town Forum. I went to all four shows. On the second night, I wore a “Meat Is Murder” t-shirt and during the encore while he played “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”, I climbed onto my mate's shoulders and crowdsurfed towards the stage. I reached the barriers, and looked up to see Morrissey, arm outstretched, glacial blue eyes staring into mine, his large, surprisingly strong hand reaching down to pull me onstage. A bouncer approached, attempting to waylay me but he had no chance. Suddenly I was up there, embracing my idol. Burying my face in his neck – cold sweat and cologne – I had so many words prepared, but I just whispered the only thing I could at the time: “I love you.” He giggled. I was dragged offstage. Excuse the shitty photo, but I didn’t even take it. I found it on a fan forum years later.
Being the odd one out back then was an exciting feeling. It wasn't quite like entering a Klan rally in a Boy George costume, to quote Bill Hicks, but it did mean I stood out and got more looks than the average floppy-haired white kid. As the 90s gave way to the 2000s, things changed marginally.
Looking at the indie scene now though, it looks just as white as ever: particularly at festivals. Maybe something to do with camping? Today, black music means more to teenage kids than ever, and the indie scene offers little in the way of rebellion to rival grime and US rap. It's quite likely that indie, as we know it, might die out as my generation gets older. And, while I'm still more likely to be seen at a Deerhunter gig than a Drake show, I'm not immersed in it much anymore. My musical tastes have become broader and, well, more black.
I was reading Songs That Saved Your Life recently, a book by Simon Goddard about the genesis of every song by The Smiths. When Johnny Marr describes his influences for much of the material he includes funk, Bo Diddley and West African high-life as well as the expected folk and 50s rock'n'roll. The black influence on his music wasn't something immediately apparent to me at the time, so consumed was I with Morrissey's achingly English words. It led me to thinking about how the Pistols evolved into PiL and their dub-heavy, sound-clash inspired sound. Without getting too deep about it, perhaps music, just like human beings, all goes back to one original source. If that's the case, then perhaps being a black indie fan in the 90s Britain wasn't as unusual as it sounds.
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