The Ska Scene Has An Obligation to Fight Racism

Our legacy and professed values demand action.

Following the election, I was among the many who found themselves paralyzed. I was fluctuating through my own journey of anger, fear, and sadness, but also reevaluating the role of this blog. It seemed tone-deaf to simply post a record review or a YouTube clip as I might on any other day of the week. I began where I always do when I’ve got a free moment to write. What are bands doing? What are they up to? What do they have to say on the matter?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be “not much.”

I can’t claim that my search was exhaustive by any stretch, but there was remarkable silence from the ska and ska/punk community leading up to and following the election. While I saw many scene friends and individuals take important stances, there was almost nothing from the bands themselves — my own included.

On one hand, who could blame us? For a lot of us, music is our escape from life’s challenges. That, and the fact that most people don’t want to risk pissing off their (predominantly white) fan base. But the truth is, those are the fans who need to hear the message most.

For the bands that did take a stance, the backlash (or, more appropriately, whitelash) was incredible, yet somehow unsurprising. Just check out the comments on a Fishbone Facebook post calling out privilege. After reading them myself, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Are we even listening to the same band?” Of course it was the group of black musicians who was directly talking about privilege and racism. They’ve got a greater stake in this than anyone; that’s why they spoke up. But people were quick to attack and threaten the band — and many of those commenters were also white. If anything, that message, and the response to it, was a clear acknowledgement that racists have always been in our ranks.

Ska music and the accompanying scenes have always been  romanticized as being politically engaged and anti-racist.

How did we get so disconnected from the message of the music?

Pioneering ska band The Skatalites were known for instrumentals, but they still gave their songs subversive titles like “Malcolm X.” If a DJ wanted to spin the song, they’d have to say the song’s name; in this case, a highly influential black leader.

British bands of the late 70s and 80s were more direct. In fact, we often credit bands like The Specials, The Selecter, and The English Beat for their political engagement. The Two-Tone era has enjoyed recent popularity with Noisey’s documentary and contemporary bands like The Interrupters branding themselves with the term (appropriately or otherwise). By and large, we should give credit where credit is due. Furthermore, this was an important stage in the history of this music that we know and love.

The Beat’s “Stand Down Margaret” was a direct indictment of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, The Beat’s Dave Wakeling discusses the times that gave way to the song.

“A recession closing on depression, a sense of nihilism — but it reached epic proportions in England where the scapegoats were anybody who seemed to be different …  “Your skin color is different? It must be your fault.” To divide people against each other, make them forget in their pain and common suffering, and conquer. Simple. Historic. It’s been done so many times, I don’t even know how it works anymore.”

Sound familiar?

In The Specials’ “Why?,” singer and guitarist Lynval Golding recounts being attacked by racists. The most striking moment in the song for me is when Golding notes how the free speech of the racist is protected by armed forces, but they’re nowhere to be found when Golding is attacked.

You’re too scared to make a speech during the light
Without a thousand police protecting your rights
To threaten and abuse, incite or fight
But who will protect me from you in the night?

If that wasn’t enough, they straight-up told us to ditch our Racist Friends outright.

Pauline Black of The Selecter credits the positions of the bands for why she joined the movement.

“I feel the two planks of 2 Tone at the time – and now – were an anti-racist stance and an anti-sexist stance.  We now live in a time when certainly racism hasn’t gone away.  Also, I feel violence towards women seems to be at an all-time high all over the world.  So I would say 2 Tone is as relevant today as it was back then.”

She remains dedicated to the movement and outspoken on topics of racism and sexism to this day. But none of this should come as no surprise; American popular music could not exist without race and class struggles (see: “The Blues” and “Rock ’n’ Roll”). So, how come we’re still not talking about it? Did we need to sing songs because we couldn’t talk about this out loud?

Ska’s anti-Racist message is central to the musical movement because the race struggles are so deeply embedded in the music’s origins.

Earlier this year, throughout the neverending reporting of deaths of black men and women at the hands of the police, there was a common message from black communities to white: it’s unacceptable to love black culture and not love black people. That refrain should hit every ska fan square in the gut.

Most ska fans worth their salt will happily tell you that ska originated in Jamaica, going on to note that it predates reggae, not the other way around. It’s almost a sense of bragging that we know the space was once black and it’s now almost completely gentrified, especially here in New England. Kathy Iandoli, a white contributor to BET says it best: “We overspeak about our allegiance to Black culture, but why are we silent when Black lives are taken?” And while she doesn’t name white musicians specifically, “to every reality TV star, white rapper, pop star using rap hands and business owner who pushes products influenced by Black culture, you need to come forward now.”

That’s us, white ska fans and musicians. She’s talking to us. Shame on us for our silence.

We like to think our work is done. But this is so far from the truth.

There are those who will argue that racism is “over”—”we elected a black president, so therefore we fixed racism”—and that it’s time to move on. We, too, like to act as if our predecessors completed the work of fighting racism in our scene and in our community.

The election of Trump has brought about an uptick in racist and bigoted acts in a way many of us never thought possible. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy reported hundreds of calls to her hate crime hot line in the first week following the election. In our predominantly (though not exclusively) white, straight, and male New England ska scene, many of us will not experience a change in our day-to-day lives. For marginalized community members, however, some things have never changed. Many Muslims, immigrants, People of Color, and LGBTQ+ people have always lived in fear. We’re all so quick to denounce a Muslim registry, but as Twitter user Ayesha A. Siddiqi points out, where has the outrage been towards existing watch lists that disproportionately target Muslims and those of Arab descent?

There are those who will be quick to point out that nothing has changed because of one election. To those people I would say, yes, and we are at fault for not taking action sooner. However, those bigots and racists who once held back for fear of repercussions are now acting without restraint. While we should have taken action sooner, it’s even more important for us to take action now.

We spend lots of time singing about our values. How often do we act on those values? How often do we practice what we preach?

How often do we talk about how white our scene has become? How often do we talk about representation, and how much it matters who is in our bands and who is on our bills? It’s one thing to claim that our scene is against racism. It’s another thing to back that up with action — and on that front, we’re barely even talking about it, letting alone doing anything about it.

So how do we move from ideas to action? I know that it can all feel so overwhelming, but that’s why I ask that we start with our own communities and backyards.

  1. Call out (or call in) hate when you see it. It won’t always come in the form of a white hood, so we have to be alert at all times. Don’t wait until you’re at a show for this: Practice makes perfect, so exercise this act at your workplace or elsewhere in your daily life.
  2. Help make shows welcoming for ALL fans. Why wouldn’t we want to make our shows more inclusive or open to more people? The next time someone complains about show attendance, consider the things that make shows unwelcoming for women, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color.
  3. Ask your favorite bands to speak up. Whether or not they want to be, they’re leaders and people look up to them; their visibility can be meaningful.
  4. Be open to criticism. If someone calls you out, take it as a learning experience. You’ll be stronger for it. Being called a racist is not the same as being a victim of racism, so please don’t equate the two.
  5. Listen, and listen deeply. This should go without saying for anyone who’s just trying to be a great friend, but when someone in your life shares a personal story of discrimination, trust them. Don’t dismiss it.
  6. Show up. Just like we need to physically present at shows, we need to physically be there for marginalized members of our community whether it’s in person, standing in solidarity at rallies and protests, or standing up to their oppressors when it would be easiest to mind our own business.

Our words and actions matter. We don’t get to decide if we’re allies or not, our marginalized brothers and sisters get to decide. Our intentions alone won’t cut it. We cannot sing along with “Let’s Face It,” cheer black santa on stage, and think our work is done. It’s not. If anything, that song is the call to action.

“If we don’t, then who will, shame on us?”