The physical slavery endured by black people may have ended, but another kind has taken its place – economic and social

 

There exists a school of thought within the reggae tradition that the past and the present are hopelessly intertwined because black people are not completely free, and therefore in slavery just as their ancestors were. Though free from literal shackles, they are now manacled by poverty and racial injustice.

This idea within the reggae tradition is consistently proving to be relevant in the face of repeated oppression of black people. The roots reggae band Black Roots are in a particular position to emphasise this subjugation. From St. Paul’s, six of their eight members being Jamaican-born, they burst upon the Bristol reggae scene in 1979 when the UK, as Mykaell Riley of Steel Pulse reminisces, was ‘still struggling with the remnants of a colonial mindset’.

The band confirms the function of reggae as the musical medium through which protests can be voiced. Black Roots’ rise coincided with the reign of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, whose negative stance on immigration and reintroduction of racist discourse to political parlance gave further cause to their discontent. Theirs was a voice that challenged the injustice and racial alienation that came as a result of the rapid political reform initiated in Thatcherite Britain. Reggae dancehalls were a space where views, many of which may not have been state-sanctioned, could be vented without negative repercussions.

Reggae was an alternative sphere in which to articulate grievances. The 1970s saw the birth of ‘conscious lyrics’, which Riley describes as ‘a catch-all term for political and social commentary’. Black Roots followed in this trope, adapting their conscious lyrics to their Bristol experience.

After bowing out of the public eye in the 1990s, they re-emerged in 2012 with a new album highlighting the endurance of injustice in Bristol. In one track off the album, ‘Slavery’, the band explicitly state that, as Afro-Caribbeans living in Bristol, they are still living in slavery.

 

Here is a flavour of those pertinent lyrics:

Remember those days of slavery?

How could I forget your name, how could I forget your name

Remember when we were hungry,

How could I forget, how could I forget the things they say

This room is so cold, so cold,

Nowhere to go and weep, and weep

No food to eat

I can’t afford to turn on the heat

How can I forget the things they say

When nothing has changed?

City’s all the same

 

To their mind, the same problems that beset their ancestors during slavery continue to plague them now. There is no option of forgetting the experience of slavery, because from their perspective, it still exists in cities like Bristol and elsewhere.

 

Image: http://www.stampthewax.com/2013/10/01/bristol-spotlight-bristol-archive-records/