The Black Peril & 100 Years Of Race Riot, By Soweto Kinch

100 years ago in 1919 race riots broke out across the world. Writing for The Quietus, Soweto Kinch explores how this forgotten history inspired his new album Black Peril

Precisely 100 years ago, streets and homes were set ablaze from Glasgow, Cardiff and Hull to South Shields, East London and Liverpool in the most destructive spate of race riots ever seen across the British Isles. Beyond these shores in Chicago, St Louis, Taranto (Italy) and Kingston (Jamaica) instead of a cozy post-war peace, fractured communities erupted in racial violence. What strikes me most is how little these riots are commemorated. I was never taught them at school, or university and aside from a few web resources and academic lectures it’s seldom remembered. My new album The Black Peril is inspired by this forgotten chapter in history and by the birth of what would eventually be called ‘black music.’ 

The 1919 riots present an awkward countervailing narrative to the myth that multiculturalism is new, or that a triumphant Britain permanently defeated racism on behalf of fairness and equality. There’s a reason why we favour triumphal accounts of war and trot out poppies, yet tend to ignore these riots and the sacrifices of black servicemen and women. It’s forces us to question our race-based notions of Britishness and to recognize powerful elites have always thrived on dividing working class communities. 

However, this must also have been a moment of great excitement, as people came together and new dance and music ‘crazes’ were heard for the first time. Contrary to popular misconception, Britain has been a diverse, multi-cultural space for over a century: straddling a contradictory love for black culture with racial anxiety for a lot longer than we appreciate. As someone who has railed against having my music boxed into one category this period is doubly inspiring. Jazz or ‘jass’ had not yet been distilled into the neatly exportable genre it is today. It was a time during which the African Diaspora was drawing culturally closer together, yet the engines of capitalism had not fully caught up to the commercial possibilities. 

Whereas today we’re keen to package our music in distinct silos, 1919 was a time during which ‘black’ music was coming together across borders. James Reese Europe invited Samuel Coleridge Taylor to lead a performance with the Clef Club Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1912 – black composers from the period recognized the collective strength in unity and unashamedly playing ‘Our Music.’ This must have sounded incendiary at the time. Despite their protestations and contrary to racist propaganda of the time, millions of white Britons, Americans and Europeans found their feet and souls colonized by new sounds that would go on to dominate the 20th century.  

The Black Peril is also inspired by the rich and varied history of black dance. Working with choreographer Jade Hackett encouraged me to explore connecting strands across 100 years of black movement: comparing filmed examples of buckdancing from 1894 to uprock in breakdancing today; and contrasting the cakewalk with the unbridled swagger of modern dancehall. Rather than feeling boxed in by creating a purely historical reconstruction, we’ve been untrammeled by having a huge repository of music and dance to draw upon. Kumina, tuk, revivalism and mento from the West Indies; ragtime, foxtrot and cakewalk crazes sweeping across contemporary Europe and America all form the foundation for new creative points of departure. 

The musicians all have the perfect balance of skills and experiences to bring this vision to life – rootedness and a reverence for tradition history as well as grounding in contemporary music. Drummer Greg Hutchinson for instance, played and recorded with Betty Carter, Joe Henderson and Joshua Redman as well with Common and D’Angelo – additionally his Trinidadian background meant he had an easy grasp of the album’s West Indian elements. Similarly master pianist Eric Lewis, Giacomo Smith, Jay Phelps and all the musicians are steeped in older idioms as well as new – meaning they could all switch between eras with authenticity. I was privileged to work with so many new Tomorrow’s Warriors too, and the albums infused with a youthful verve as well as history.

1919 was a year of uncomfortable contradictions yet creatively furtive ground to explore. The ‘Black Peril’ title is drawn from a widespread anxiety at the time that black men and their enchanting rag music would corrupt the virtue and morals of white women. Black music was a totemic sign of wider moral decay. The comparisons to today seemed anachronistic when I first started composing – until Liam Neeson’s comments went viral! Fears of rapacious, marauding foreigners deflowering native women and the fragility of white male egos are still hugely resonant issues. Historical attitudes to black people fluctuate between appalled revulsion and wild fetishisation. Alarmingly, many of these dynamics are still at play in the modern music industry – which is often determined to profit from black cultural energy, yet seldom admits black people to positions of influence. Black art and bodies are often used to project white paranoia and taboos onto, rather than being seen in their own terms. 

It is important to remember though, the triggers for this extreme violence on both sides of the Atlantic were only ostensibly racial. I was an age during which people began to question the wisdom of ruling elites that had sent millions of citizens to die needlessly in war. Early in 1919, rioting in Glasgow’s dockland was purely concerned with employment conditions. Bolshevism was a new danger to the establishment, who feared that the ‘Red Terror’ in Russia would spread. Society was in a wild state of flux – complex questions of identity or the futility of war seemed to be bypassed by ‘The Black Peril’

Then as now, racism was the ultimate trump card – keeping the lower orders in check, pitting one working class ally against another. Those in power maintain their position by convincing those lower down that it’s their natural place on the ladder. Reading accounts from 1919, there was tacit understanding between magistrates, police, and murderous white mobs to penalize black victims yet provide leniency for white rioters. The ‘negro problem’, they opined, was best solved by repatriation – rather than fair wages for all. Returnee white war veterans could only be convinced to accept their lowly status if there was an underclass of ‘degenerate’ Arabs, Chinese, Lascars, Scandavians or Blacks beneath them. It all seems eerily familiar. 

1919 might seem remote history, yet we’ve inherited a series of imperial delusions and assumptions from the period that are still unquestioned. In the UK and US the phenomenon of a white-working class as somehow distinct from the working-class has been particularly prominent since 2016 – driving a wedge between former allies and producing some pretty infamous election results. 

In 1919 ‘Negro’ music was considered a major source of social disorder (rather than inequality and the ravages of war). Earlier in 2019, drill artists AM and Skengdo had their music banned for supposedly inciting gang violence – completely deflecting attention away from austerity, deprivation and a decade of policies which have encouraged crime. 

Looking at the pattern of violence during 1919 and afterwards, I believe that racism always filters from the top of society. Prejudice will always exist between different groups of people – however, systemic and codified racism requires structural apparatus.  Without the successful pitting of communities against each other in 1919, it is arguably doubtful that the last century of racial dysphoria, assassinations, police brutality etc would have looked quite the same.   

Yet, despite this overlooked, complex and violent history, I still find myself drawn toward the joy and sense of triumph in the music. It’s the sound of celebration and a defiant refusal to be defined by racism. Uncovering and harnessing this past is one of the best means we have of navigating the choppy waters of establishment racism and an uncertain future. 

Soweto Kinch plays Earth in Hackney on Friday 23rd November, The Black Peril is out on 29th November

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