Interview: Dr. William ‘Lez’ Henry on Racism in the UK, Rastafari and the Transcendent Nature of Sound Systems
Dr. William “Lez” Henry is currently a social anthropologist and the author of What the Deejay Said, a book exploring the central role Jamaican music and culture played in shaping black cultural politics in the 1970s and 80s in the UK. But before that he was a British dancehall DJ by the named of Lezlee Lyrix.
His background as a British DJ channeled through his academic career makes Henry a fascinating and informative voice when talking about the intersection of race and culture in the United Kingdom. For our program Dread Inna Inglan: How the UK Took to Reggae, Saxon Baird talked extensively with Henry about his own experience growing up in a racially-divided community of South London and the importance of sound system culture for many in the Black British communities in the late 70s and 80s.
How did you first get involved with the sound systems?
I first got involved with sound systems probably around 1971 with Shaka Sound, which was started and ran by Jah Shaka. Number one dub-sound probably on the planet. I used to carry speaker boxes for Shaka. I was young then, about 14. I used to get into the dances for free because I would help fill the back of the van and string up the sound. Used to call us “sound boys.”
You grew up in South London, in Lewisham, which is a really interesting place because it had a very vibrant sound system culture. Jah Shaka’s record store was located there and so was the Moon Shot Youth Club. However, there was also a lot of tension. There was a National Front march in the late ‘70s and then the tragic New Cross Fire. How did all these elements come to play a role in your perception of the world and your identity?
Well, to be honest it’s a lot of the stuff I use in my writing and my work. And it was reflected in a lot of my lyricism as well. One flash point during the time I was growing up happened in the early ‘70s, when members of a National Front pub which was adjacent to the Moon Shot club–which is where Shaka Sound played a lot of their early shows – attacked us one evening when we were going home. Apparently, there was a skirmish going on between some people in Moon Shot and some people from the pub. And they ended up attacking us in street. And that is a good example of what it was like to be black then. In fact, when I was younger, we used to learn Martial Arts. We are talking 14, 15, and 16 year olds learning this because we used to get by attacked by white men regularly. And I am talking big white men, like in their 20s and 30s, attacking kids. It was a dreadful and terrible time to grow up in. Racism was rife, and it was brutal in many ways as well. For us, in the ‘70s, we were going to school and kind of running that gauntlet of hatred. Its not the only thing that was against us but it was very significant in the way we view the world or viewed the world at that time.
I mean that’s what Shaka and other sound systems used to do; they represented a safe haven for us. Where we could go out and hear music that more reflected our social, political and culture sensibilities and be amongst our own as African-Caribbean people or African people because that’s who it specifically was occupying those spaces at the time.
In writing about sound systems, Les Back wrote about something similar, specifically that those spaces were both “alternative news and an arena for black unity and autonomy and a space where pleasure and politics co-existed.”
Absolutely. I also write about reggae/dancehall sound system culture as providing alternative public arenas and alternative public spaces. That’s exactly what it was. DJs in the UK were articulating about absolutely everything; from love to hate to life and death.
You know they say that hindsight is a fine thing because when I was immersed in the culture and DJing as Lezlee Lyrix, although I appreciated certain things, you don’t really understand just how profound the nature of what you’re doing is until you reflect on it. And when I was doing my doctorate work, I concluded –and I’m not asking people to conclude with me, it bothers me not if they do or don’t – that what was being articulated in reggae sound systems in the UK from probably 1981 to 1987 is probably the most pro-black, African-centered voice to ever come out of the UK. We governed that space. We were judge, jury and executioner of what happened. It was almost like an autonomous space in that sense, and a self-regulating one. Personally, I don’t think people really appreciated that. Especially, in the contest of the Black-British sound system and DJ culture.
This idea of how sound systems created this autonomous space within such a racist and socially oppressive environment is really interesting. In relation of the turmoil that you were experiencing on the street, do you feel that these spaces were “safe” area where you could and feel removed or “safe” from the outside world as well?
Absolutely. In the early stages, before I was DJing on the sound systems, I would just go to reggae sound systems or dancehall sound systems, and I would go there for that release, for that “escape,” which I suppose is the word I can use here. However, I want people to appreciate (and which I hammer home in my own work), is that these were not subcultures in the sense that they are this thing people do to escape form reality for a little while. These were not resistant spaces either. It was just not about that. These were transcendental spaces in the sense that you would hear things that were almost like a coping mechanism but they were also transcendental. So people would be articulating what you could do to get yourself out of your situation. What you can do about a particular situation. That’s why on the sound systems, the DJs would talk about everything from being stopped and searched by the police to how to deal with love problems. The focus wasn’t just on race or racism. That was just one aspect of our live or our “livity” as Rastafari would say. People need to understand that these were transcendental spaces and not just spaces of resistance. I think it’s quite different.
In that sense then, attending these dances to hear the DJs on the sound systems was also kind of an education?
It was. As I said, when I used to chat/DJ on sound systems, I would write and tell stories. There were quite a few DJs that would do that. You mentioned Papa Levi earlier. There was also Papa Benji on Diamonds Sound. Smiley Culture, Peter King, there was loads of DJs actually telling stories. They took the time to craft what they wished to present to the wider public or the wider public who was a constituency of themselves. That’s who our audience was. We were judged by our peers. Respected or disrespected by our peers. That’s what the culture was about, it was an alternative public arena.
In The Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy wrote a lot about the venues of these dances and sound clashes as being marked by the aesthetic of the black diaspora. And as a result, he concludes that the dances were sort of affirming these historical connections to that diaspora but also shaping and transforming the conditions of that time to create something very much its own. So my question is- what role did these dances and this music do in shaping one’s identity at the time? I imagine it created a certain senses of affirmation in regards to connecting yourself to your historical roots as well.
Well it did, but there is always a tension there because one of the things I make clear in my own writing as well as when I was chatting as a DJ, is that we got a lot of resistance from those who would say things like, “You don’t sound Jamaican” or “You’re ja-fakin’.” Or if you called yourself an African then you had many of our parents generation saying that you weren’t African but that you were Jamaican or English. There’s a quote in Gilroy’s Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack where he says that African art forms bridged a distinction between art and life. So they do give you that empowerment, and in some ways, that courage and that strength to move on into the future. That is what is articulated in these spaces but whether everyone can appreciate the message is a different matter. In many ways, as a DJ or a British DJ, we had to carve the ground for ourselves. People like Macka B or Papa Levi, they made people and especially Jamaican DJs know what was going on this side of the water.
Let’s talk some more about identity. We touched on the connection to one’s historical roots being affirmed in these spaces. But having been born in England and grown up there, I imagine there is some conflict in one’s identity as they grew into maturity about these conflicting aspects. Was there ever a struggle when growing up in regards to whether you were English or African or Jamaican?
There was always a struggle. I was fortunate in some ways though, because about the same time I was moving with Shaka Sound in 1972 and 1973, I used to go to Black history lessons in the same Moon Shot Youth Club I mentioned which is in New Cross, Southeast London. And there I was taught I was an African person. So I was one of the fortunate ones from 15 who was able to recognize that yes, I am an African-Caribbean person but I directly know that I am person directly from an African heritage. Whereas a lot of people got embroiled in confusion about whether they are black, British, Caribbean or colored or West Indian. None of that ever impacted me because I had a strong sense of myself from when I was 16.
To this day, you’ve got groups who are still trying to work out where they fit in. Now you got people calling themselves “African-British” which I think is just one bag of foolishness. And obviously you’ve got “Black British,” which I use sometimes myself, but only in the context of what is so-called politically as a “black person born in Britain.” What you have to understand is that we were never ever meant to feel that Britain or England was our home. And as an African or a person of African ancestry or whatever, you cannot be English. You can be British but you cannot be English. When we were younger, white people whether they were racists or not, used to remind us of that. Whether it was just a comment like “F-off back home” or whatever, we always had constant reminders that we were actually born in the womb of a scornful mother because we saw Britain as the mother country. So there have always been those sort of tensions and conversations and arguments about where our place is. Where do we locate ourselves in an inherently racist society that really only wanted our parents to come over here, build the country up, and get lost.
So even though you may not have had this fierce internal struggle about your own identity, you clearly knew that there were others of your community that struggled with this.
Absolutely, from then until now.
Well how did that play out in what you were chatting about on the sound systems?
I would try to address those things in my lyricism. At the end of the day, there are still people of my generation who still will not accept that they are African. There are people in Jamaica who will still not accept that they are African as well or want anything to do with Africa. And that’s common! It’s the old “divide and conquer” thing that separates people from embracing an aspect of themselves. The kind of conversations I would try and have in my lyrics were like, “OK, you need to understand what it means to be an African.” It’s a continent and not a country, that’s the first thing. And Africa does have a history of civilization that has been “white-washed” or not talked about. This was one of the main drivers of my lyricisms and even in the courses that I teach within the community. These are the kind of things I had to explain to people- that someone has taught you to hate your own people. You know, Malcolm X wrote eloquently about how African people were taught to hate being African. It didn’t just happen in the States, it happened everywhere. Wherever colonialism or imperialism reared its head, that “divide and rule” business came in. So you’d have many in the UK and even up to this day who will not accept that they are of African heritage. Some of them want to be Caribbean, some of them want to be West Indian. But anything that directly links them to Africa is problematic. My lyricism is replete with verses and songs where I deal with that. It was important to me.
It’s been suggested in my interviews with artists of this time period that a lot of the heavy, more militant, Rastafarian-themed reggae coming out of Jamaica at the time often time didn’t really resonate with the black British communities in London. That the experience of blacks in London in the ‘70s and ‘80s was very different than those living in Jamaica or even Africa where there was actual famine and starvation.
Well, you will have that. Suffering is relative and that is obvious. One, it’s impossible to even talk about a singular black British community. It has to be plural. And then you have distinguish between what types of music they are into, if they are into dub then they are into dub, or if lover’s rock is their thing then that’s what they are into. Or maybe they favor more of an eclectic mix. It’s a fact though, that if you listen to any British DJ cassette from ‘82 to ‘86 or ‘87, I would be surprised if you don’t hear references to Rastafari. It’s punctuates those cassettes.
So, speaking just from your own experience, these Rastafarian themes such as “sufferation” really resonated with you?
We had “sufferation” over here. Our sound was called Ghetto-Tone but if I made a sound now it would be called something different because there are not “ghettos” in London. We’ve got deprived areas but we don’t have anything like a ghetto you would find in Jamaica or Cuba or other places. I’ve seen ghettos. I’ve never seen one in England. I’ve driving through one similarly in the States but there’s nothing here where you don’t have lights or running water or that kind of stuff. Not to my knowledge. Not in these urban areas where we would talk about “ghetto life” and “sufferation.”
Fact is, people did speak about “sufferation” but it was “sufferation” in a different sense. Remember, not everyone in Jamaica who DJ-ed on sound systems were victims of extreme poverty. That doesn’t mean you cannot speak to the condition. For instance, in the UK, people in the mid to late ‘70s, they were just mimicking Jamaican performers. So they were comfortably talking about walking through the ghetto and M-16s and all of this. Saxon DJs used to do it all the time as well. Then there is an evolution, though. People start to look at their own situation or their own kind of suffering. Then the enemy can be the government or Thatcher or the police or your school teacher. So you can use that (sufferation) as a template but I agree that you can’t just transplant aspects of things that go on in parts of Jamaica here and expect them to fit comfortably. That’s some of things that we used to critique. Many including myself used to critique that with people pretending they were living in Trenchtown or some place like that and firing M-16s in the morning. That was not our reality at the time.
Well, let’s elaborate more on your own personal relationship with Rastafari because you said earlier that you are influenced by Rastafari but don’t consider yourself one in an orthodox sense.
Well, my first and primary community-based teacher was Rasta. Now I remember that me, my twin brother and other people reasoning with him when were 10 and 11 in 1968-1969. He was the one who told us about the glories of Africa and the Africa’s contribution to the world. First we thought he was just this mad Rasta guy. But when we started to sit down and reason with him, he really was the first to teach us African history and Black history. So at the end of the day, that was my relationship with Rastafari.
For me, what Rastafari meant me, was brothers and sisters who were upright and whose duty, first and foremost, was to educate and uplift us with knowledge. And it didn’t have to be just biblical knowledge. It had to be learned. And that’s what Rastafari represents to me. Now I am not saying it’s not an idealized or romanticized view. What you have to understand, though, is that going to school in the UK like I did, and even now, children are taught very little, hardly anything of note, about the African contribution to civilization. Or even a viable and historical African presence pre-slavery. When we were taught this by a Rastafarian or other people like Professor Gus John, it blew our minds. We would be like, “hold on a second,” because all we were taught is that we were smiling slaves. That we were savages taken from Africa, civilized in the Caribbean by the whip or whatever, and now here we are, where we should be grateful to Europe. And then you get another history where you realize there was a viable African presence thousands of years before Europe or before Europeans knew what it was to be civilized. That’s truth! For a lot of people, it doesn’t sit right for them but those are the kind of knowledge(s) (and I do mean knowledge(s) plural!), that we got from Rastafari and other people. So that’s what I talk about when I speak on what it meant to me…or still means to me. And I used to chat loads of lyrics on that as well.
It must have been quite a powerful learning experience.
Well I can give you an example, the first time I went to Jamaica in 1985. I spoke with Barry G who was the big DJ at the time and I sent him one of my records that I had just done for Greensleeves/UK Bubblers. One side was called “Pull Back Your Truncheon” and the other one was a risqué tune called “Blind Date.” When I met up with Barry G, he said he was shocked because he expected a Rasta-man to walk into the building because of the way we reasoned over the phone and my tunes. I am couched in Rastafari sensibilities. So for me, it’s just a natural aspect of what I am.
Speaking of Jamaica, what was it like clashing with Jamaican sounds when they would come over to the UK?
I think that Saxon was the first British sound to clash with a Jamaican sound system. And that was actually in America, in New York I think. There was Saxon, a sound called Third World and another sound. And Levi buried this DJ called Ranking Toyan. He was one of the top DJs at the time and Levi made mincemeat out of him. And I think that, more than anything, put the British styles on the map. Obviously, Levi went on to do “Mi God Mi King” and that was number 1 in Jamaica.
What I noticed was whereas a lot of Jamaicans used to say things about how we don’t sound Jamaican, I used to respond with, “well how am I going sound Jamaican, I was born in London” and, at the time, I had never even been to Jamaica. It is what it is. My parents are Jamaican, my older siblings are from Jamaica. So culturally, we were immersed in Jamaican culture as well as southeast London culture. But as I was saying, one of the things that stood out for me was that I used to DJ on a sound system called Frontline Sound and Mikey General used to be Singerman General and I think in 1984 it was Mikey General and I and we clashed with Gemini Sound at People’s Club on Parade Street. Afterwards Josey Wales came up and gave me respect after the dance. Because it wasn’t no nasty, out of order clash like some of the British sounds would do. It was more like juggling than an out and out clash where we are insulting each other. There was a respect accorded both ways at that time. You have to appreciate that by 1983-1984, the British style had gone to Jamaica and heavily influencing how Jamaican DJs were performing as well.
Are you referencing things like the “fast chat” style?
There was the fast talk and there were other styles as well. For example, there is a tune that Buju Banton does that is called “Bunga Claat” And myself, as well as other people in London used to chat that style. I am not saying that I’m the first person to chat it because I don’t know if I am really the first person to chat that style, but people have said that I am. It went like this…(chats style)…now listen to Buju’s tune “Bunga Claat.” It’s the same rhythm. Same melody. Now I am not even saying that he took it because that’s not how the universe works. What I am saying though is that there were exchanges because in Jamaica you had DJs like Brigidier General/Jerry chatting the “ten-tongue” style which is “Jamaica gypsy.” If you read my book,What the Deejay Said, I break all that down. Actually, my sisters who were born in Jamaica, taught us how to chat in “gypsy.” We were told that slaves used to do it so that they could plot schemes in front of the slave masters. So anyway, when Brigadier Jerry did “Ten-Tongue” and then when Welton Irie did it as well on a tune called “Army Life” which over the Johnny Dollar riddim, people said that influenced Saxon founder/ DJ/ and fast chat innovator Peter King. Yet, there’s a record, which I believe is called “This Will Be,” where the woman sings “hugging and kissing and squeezing forever and ever and ever…” and some people say that influenced Peter King. Because the singer speeds it up. Now I know Peter King and we’ve spoken about this loads of times and he’s never said to me what influenced him. I know, though, that style of rapid rapping came from Peter King and he did it months before any British DJ. Papa Levi took that from him and Smiley Culture took it as well.
Do you feel like this vibrant time in sound system culture in the UK created a foundation for future black British artists?
Without what British DJs did, you wouldn’t have grime or any stuff like that. And I am not one of those who tries to say that it was all great in the “old days,” But for instance, if you look at most of the British rappers or MCs, they came alive probably around ’86-’87. And take a guy like a guy Einstein, whose song was used in the first Wrestlemania for the WWF. Einstein used to be called Cocksman when he used to chat mostly slackness on sound systems. London Posse all of them came out of sound systems. And then are they are one of the primary influences of what’s going on now with the grime and all that. British DJs kicked open the door for black expression that needed to be kicked open at the time. And you know, things progressed and moved on.
Well, think about Jungle music. It was basically just dub and reggae sped up. What they would do is sample Jamaican DJs and artists on those tracks. And that more than anything else probably opened the door for music like grime to evolve and come out of it. If you listen to how a lot of the contemporary grime artists speak in this new kind of speech, you can hear those patterns. I listen to them and I can hear what I heard in the ‘80s running.
Do you think the thematic lyrical aspects of what was being chatted on the sound systems in the late 70s and 80s still resonates as well?
You’ve got some rappers who will do that, for example that track “Black Boys” is a good tune that exemplifies that. Like anything else though, you have the so-called “slackness” and the “culture.” Which is why I always argue that if people try and separate “slackness” from “culture,” that it’s a forced/false dichotomy. Because as human beings, for those that are honest, we all have all those elements within us. Slackness can be talking about what you do with your woman or murdering people while culture is supposedly about anything that uplifts. And you’ve got performers like Bounty Killer who when he’s Bounty Killer he’s talking about “shot man head off” but when he’s “Babatunde” he’s the poor people’s governor and talking about the raising food prices and voting people in who have done nothing for ya. We have those two elements. I always just look at it as a human failing or “big up!” and those are the two sides to us all.
People want to pit these two elements against each other but humans are complex and that often comes out in the music even from a single artist.
Right. We are multi-faceted. People talk about DuBois’ doubling of consciousness, but we are beyond that. It’s multiple consciousness. You never are just one thing. I am a father, a grandfather, a brother, a cousin, a nephew. I am all these things. And I haven’t even got into what I am vocationally. There is always more than one self. And one thing that I personally don’t like is people want to reduce me to one thing like my PhD or Lezlee Lyrix or whatever. I am far more than that.