By Jake Millicheap
Chapter One: ‘Britain Forever’ 2
Chapter Two: ‘If You’re White, Everything’s Alright 3
Chapter Three: ‘Sweet Jamaica’ 4
London is the place for me,
London this lovely city
You can go to France or America,
India, Asia or Australia,
But you must come back to London city.
Well believe me I am speaking broadmindedly,
I am glad to know my Mother Country,
I have been travelling to countries years ago,
But this is the place I wanted to know,
Darling, London, that is the place for me.
Captured by Pathé News just moments after the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury on 22 June 1948, Lord Kitchener’s impromptu performance of ‘London Is The Place For Me’ has been ascribed immense cultural significance by those charting the rise of a multiracial Britain. The footage, in which the ‘king of calypso’ is asked, ‘Can you sing for us?’, by a news reporter, is emblematic of the enactment of the 1948 British Nationality Act, a piece of legislation passed by Clement Atlee’s Labour government which extended British citizenship to those born in Britain’s colonies. On account of this act, more than half a million non-white migrants entered Britain from 1948-1962, arriving from countries including India, Pakistan, and various parts of the Caribbean. This mass movement can be attributed to a range of ‘push’ factors, including high levels of unemployment in the Caribbean and the 1947 partition of India, and ‘pull’ factors, which generally took the form of heightened economic opportunities in Britain, as well as a secondary desire to experience life in the ‘mother country’. For Britain’s Caribbean settlers, of which there were approximately 172,000 by 1961, this latter element figured prominently. As recipients of a colonial education system which celebrated monarchy and empire and attempted to instil a British way of life into its ‘subjects’, many West Indians felt a deeply embedded loyalty towards Britain, regarding themselves as British in their own right. The works of historians such as Anne Spry Rush, Brian Moore and Michele Anderson have emphasised the ways in which this cultural imperialism permeated the schooling, sport, language and religion of the Caribbean colonies, indicating the romantic attachment that West Indians felt towards Britain which would later influence decisions to migrate.
Unabashedly patriotic in its celebration of the ‘Mother Country’, Lord Kitchener’s ‘London Is The Place For Me’ therefore exemplifies the affinity that many West Indians felt towards England. Its jaunty tone provides a valuable insight into the initial optimism felt by many West Indians travelling to Britain, an optimism that would soon be shattered by the realities of life in the ‘mother country’. Whilst the Caribbean arrivals expected acceptance in England on account of their newly granted citizenships and colonially oriented upbringings, upon settling, the prevalence of racial discrimination meant that their previous conceptions of what Amanda Bidnall has described as an ‘inclusive, historically aware, Commonwealth-oriented, and anti-racist Britain’ were destroyed. This prejudice took a multitude of forms, ranging from employers and landlords rejecting the applications of migrants based solely on the colour of their skin, to more violent hostility, manifest in the racially incentivised attacks of the Nottingham and Notting Hill riots of 1958. In this way, migrating to Britain, to use the title of Jamaican settler Donald Hinds’ work, was a ‘journey to an illusion’.
Through the compositions of calypso artists migrating to London in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it is possible to trace this process of disillusionment. ‘Calypso’, largely acknowledged to have originated from the West African word ‘kaiso’, is a traditional genre of music in Trinidad which emerged during French occupation of the island. The earliest known calypsos were sung by African slaves and were used satirically to mock slave masters on plantations, foreshadowing the contemporary calypsonian’s tendency to provide ‘biting’ social commentaries on topical issues. Heavily connected to the annual tradition of Trinidad carnival, with calypso contests being held at the festivities since the 1910s, this connection was made apparent in a British context when Claudia Jones organised the firstNotting Hill Carnival in 1958. During the decade that preceded this, however, calypso music gained significant listenership in Britain.
As indicated by scholars such as John Cowley and Marc Matera, Caribbean music had a rich presence in Britain before the enactment of the 1948 British Nationality Act, evident in Soho’s jazz clubs and popular performers such as Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and Sam Manning. What differed about the proliferation of calypso into British society post-1948, however, was the existence of a significant West Indian listenership. Emil Shallit’s label, Melodisc, began trading in 1949 and provided a platform for Trinidadian artists in London to release music that could be consumed by Britain’s growing Caribbean population. Lord Kitchener was the most prolific of these artists in terms of popularity and output, but other calypsonians, such as Lord Beginner, Young Tiger and Roaring Lion, similarly rose to prominence in this period, performing at venues such as the Paramount on Tottenham Court Road as well as smaller ‘West Indian clubs’ in Earls Court and Brixton. Purchasing records marked the principal way through which migrants consumed calypso music, however, as a network of black-owned grocers, cafes and barbers began stocking Melodisc’s new releases. Although it is impossible to pinpoint the exact number of calypso records sold in Britain during this period, these recordings were undoubtedly popular amongst their target audience, with Stuart Hall describing calypso as the ‘first signature music of the whole West Indian community’ in Britain. For the Caribbean migrants settling in Britain during theinitial years following the 1948 British Nationality Act, however, calypso was more than just music, it provided a medium through which migrants could articulate their everchanging relationship with their ‘new home’. As Hall has posited, therefore, these calypsos should be viewed in conjunction with the novels of Caribbean authors such as Sam Selvon, George Lamming and V.S Naipaul, as historically valuable documentations of early migrant experiences.
In spite of migration’s transformative effects on British society since 1948, historical work on the subject has remained sparse. Texts produced towards the end of the last century focused largely on the institutional origins of the British Nationality Act and the politics of citizenship in Britain, as evidenced by the works of Randall Hansen and Kathleen Paul. Another common focus of studies within the field has been the racial discrimination experienced by settlers in Britain, with Wendy Webster’s Imagining Home, a book exploring gendered conceptions of belonging and nationality identity in post-WWII Britain, and the works of Marcus Collins and Elizabeth Buettner embodying this trend. An emerging scholarly approach in recent years has favoured a London-centric history that places migrants in the wider context of an imperial metropolis, positioning them as significant actors in the development of a ‘postcolonial London’. The works of Kennetta Hammond Perry, Marc Matera and John Mcleod all exemplify this growing field of study,demonstrating how, in Perry’s words, ‘Black subjects contested and reordered imperial relations by crossing the geographical border that delineated colony and metropole’.
In the context of migration from the Caribbean, several overviews have been produced, notably Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips’ Windrush and, more recently, Amanda Bidnall’s The West Indian Generation. Some of the most extensive work on West Indian migration was published within the two decades that followed the 1948 act, as part of a rapidly emerging field of race relations texts examining migrant communities in Britain. This field was dominated by anthropologists and sociologists such as Michael Banton, Ruth Glass, Sheila Patterson and Ceri Peach, and focused heavily on the extent to which new settlers had assimilated into British society. Although these texts are valuable for historians examining the discrimination that black settlers faced, as Chris Waters has shown, they also present a number of problems. Through their discussions of assimilation, these studies ‘positioned the black migrant as a member of a cohesive ‘out-group’, defined against the national ‘in-group’’, therefore depicting the new arrivals as ‘strangers’ who were constantly being assessed in accordance to British ideals. Race relations discourse was also a ‘discourse about a largely silent other’, meaning that historians relying solely on these texts for accounts of post-1948 migration privilege a white, British perspective over that of the migrants. In order to gain a broader understanding of Caribbean settlement, therefore, it is vital to consider a range of sources produced from within the West Indian community, suchas novels, non-fiction texts of intellectuals such as C. L. R James, Learie Constantine and Donald Hinds, and calypso music.
This study will examine the lyrics of calypso songs produced in Britain between 1948 and 1960, highlighting the ways in which this music projected the changing attitudes and loyalties of Caribbean migrants experiencing life in England for the first time. Divided into three chapters, Chapter One will examine calypsos released in the years 1948-1953, highlighting their overarching tone of patriotism and adherence to British culture and values. Chapter Two will look at the emergence of calypsos in the early 1950s that critiqued Britain and confronted its racism, highlighting how life in the ‘mother country’ birthed a politics of colour-consciousness amongst West Indian migrants. The final chapter will explore the ways in which calypsonians in Britain began to look back nostalgically towards the Caribbean, and how the experience of migration invoked a newfound sense of being ‘West Indian’ within Caribbean migrant communities. Overall, these chapters will demonstrate how the initial patriotism that West Indian migrants felt towards the ‘mother country’ declined due to the realities of life in the metropole, giving way to an emerging sense of black-consciousness and a renewed pride in being ‘West Indian’. This will therefore highlight the importance of calypso music in documenting the transformative effects that migration had on the Caribbean arrivals, as by travelling overseas, the migrants’ conceptions of Britain, as well as of themselves, drastically changed.
Although much has been written about changing notions of the self in post-war Britain, this historiographical trend has been largely neglected by historians studying migrant communities, with the works of Nancy Foner and Winston James providing exceptions tothis statement. As a historical source, calypso music has also been overlooked, rarely being mentioned outside the context of Lord Kitchener’s iconic performance at Tilbury. Historians such as Shirli Gilbert, in her exploration of music’s role in providing insight into the lives of those imprisoned under the Nazi regime, as well as Andrew August, through his discussion of The Rolling Stones’ lyrics and gender in 1960s Britain, have shown the advantages of using song lyrics to explore the past. As Gilbert indicated, musical texts ‘are able to offer distinctive insight into an area of experience that remains difficult to access’. As the commonly cited works of race relations authors largely neglect the shifting identities of Britain’s emerging West Indian population in the 1950s, calypso can provide an insight into an aspect of migration studies that has previously been ignored, and by viewing these lyrics in conjunction with the texts of West Indian novelists and intellectuals in Britain, it can be shown that they reflected the attitudes of large sections of the British Caribbean community.
2: ‘Britain Forever’
Following the national coverage that Lord Kitchener acquired through his dockside performance at Tilbury, an amended version of ‘London Is The Place For Me’ was recorded during the calypsonian’s first session with Melodisc in 1951, which was released as a seven inch single later that year. Additional verses that were excluded from Pathé’s newsreel can be heard in this recording, with the lyrics focusing largely on descriptions of London:
At night when you have nothing to do,
You can take a walk down Shaftesbury Avenue,
There you will laugh and talk and enjoy the breeze,
And admire the beautiful scenery.
As evidenced in these lyrics, Kitchener depicts a highly romanticised image of the capital, an image that is reinforced in the following verse through the calypsonian’s mention of taking residence at ‘Hampton Court’. Although it must be acknowledged that, at the time of recording, Kitchener would have undoubtedly been aware that his utopic portrayal of London was far removed from the reality of the migrant experience, these lyrics retain significance as they are indicative of the ways in which West Indians viewed London prior to arriving in the ‘mother country’. Mike Phillips, entering London in 1956, similarly held an internalised image of the city that was based primarily around its famous landmarks, writing in Windrush, ‘I had always possessed a mental map of the city which sketched out an outline of its institutions – Buckingham Palace. The British Museum. The LSE. The MCC. Parliament.’ As shown by Peter Fryer, many West Indians had ‘totally unrealistic expectations’ of England before migrating, as their conceptions of Britain were largely formed through the colonial education systems operating in the British Caribbean.
Following the abolition of slavery and apprenticeship in 1833 and 1838 respectively, the British Empire, as shown by Hammond Perry, ‘began to recognize and construct Black men and women of the Empire as British subjects and members of the imperial community’. Consequently, West Indian education systems expanded throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, with primary and secondary schools focussing heavily on British history and English literature. As one Jamaican settler in Britain summarised his secondary education, ‘I plodded through most of my adolescence studying the lives of the ‘builders of the Empire’… So we discussed Clive of India, Durham of Canada, Rhodes of Africa…’. Education for West Indian children was an ‘immersion in Britishness’, one that stressed the virtues of the colonisers and ignored the history of the Caribbean outside the context of British expansion. For one Trinidadian migrant, the only time Trinidad was mentioned in the classroom was as a ‘string of mud huts relieved by colourful landscape, exotic green, a romantic paradise for English adventurers’. Colonial teachings such as these, aided by the promotion of what Anderson and Moore have termed a ‘cult of monarchy’ in which monarchs were pictured as the heads of Britain’s imperial ‘family’, resulted in many adults that had grown up in the Caribbean identifying themselves as British as opposed to West Indian. In E. R Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel, To Sir With Love, a book following the life of a newly appointed Guyanese teacher in a British school, this sentiment is exemplified, with the author writing, ‘I had grown up British in every way. Myself, my parents and myparents’ parents, none of us knew or could know any other way of living, of thinking, of being; we knew no other cultural pattern’.
Although it should be noted that engaging with this cultural imperialism did not always result in an undying loyalty to Britain – the Caribbean islands also had a rich history of anticolonialism, manifest in the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, the labour riots of the late 1930s and the activism of individuals such as Marcus Garvey and George Padmore – it can be posited that many West Indians developed feelings of patriotism towards the ‘mother country’, which, as Webster has argued, were heightened once more due to Britain garnering support from its colonies during World War II. Devotion to Britain and conceptions of imperial belonging therefore figured prominently in the discourses of migrants moving to Britain in the post-war period. As one woman stated when reporting the factors influencing her decision to migrate, ‘I felt loyalty towards England. There was more emphasis there than loyalty to your own island… It was really the mother country and being away from home wouldn’t be that terrible because you would belong’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, a sense of loyalty to Britain is easily identifiable in the calypsos produced by West Indian migrants in Britain between 1950 and 1953. Like ‘London Is The Place For Me’, these recordings can be viewed as products of the cultural imperialism that permeated Britain’s West Indian colonies, as they celebrated the ‘mother country’, the monarchy, and the supposedly ‘British’ codes of fair play and ‘respectability’.
An important cultural export of the British Empire which received notable attention from British calypsonians in the 1950s was sport, with numerous recordings, including LordKitchener’s ‘Kitch’s Cricket Calypso’ (1951) and Edric Connor’s ‘Manchester United Calypso’ (1957), celebrating the virtues of football and cricket. Cricket in particular, became a focal point of the songs produced in Melodisc’s early years, as an iconic test match between England and the West Indies in 1950 gave impetus to the composition of several ‘cricket calypsos’. This test match, which saw the West Indies defeat England in England for the first time, has been viewed as highly symbolic by both historians and contemporary commentators, representing for C.L.R. James the formation of an ‘inter-island Caribbean consciousness, and thus, a milestone in the drive toward independence’. As cricket has long been cited as a means through which the British reinforced the racial hierarchy of their empire, with Mangan describing English victories over their colonies as a ‘favoured means of creating, maintaining and ensuring the survival of dominant male elites’, this 1950 test match was significant as it provided a direct challenge to the conceptions of racial superiority that the empire was predicated on.
Despite the symbolic significance of the West Indian win and its anticolonial implications, Melodisc’s most popular cricket calypso, ‘Victory Test Match’ (1950) by Lord Beginner, serves as an example of a calypso adhering to Victorian notions of respectability, honouring the ‘fair play’ ethos of the sport and therefore upholding the values of the British empire. Beginner, a fellow shipmate of Lord Kitchener’s on the Empire Windrush and a spectator at Lord’s that day, wrote the song sensing that a West Indian victory was imminent, joining a pitch invasion with his guitar once the match was over and performing what he hadwritten. As an article in The Daily Telegraph entitled ‘Calypsos Sung At Lord’s’ reported, ‘the invading spectators formed in a group and, led by a guitarist, broke out into a rhythmic calypso (a West Indian impromptu song) extolling the great achievement of their team’. The recording of the song, released on Melodisc later in 1950, is often remembered for its hook, ‘With those two little pals of mine/Ramadhin and Valentine’, with these two lines paying homage to the two West Indian bowlers that played an instrumental role in the victory.
In juxtaposition to the ‘colonial snobbery’ evident in English discourses of cricket, Beginner’s lyrics complied with the ‘gentlemanly’ character of the game, as the calypsonian acknowledged the efforts of English player Norman Yardley (‘Yardley tried his best’), as well as Eric Bedser for bowling out West Indian batsman, Robert Christiani (‘When Bedser bowled Christiani/The whole thing collapsed quite easily’). Beginner, unlike the English journalists who would often criticise West Indian cricketers for their supposed inability to grasp the ‘finer points in cricket’, graciously praises both sides, celebrating the beauty of the sport as well as the West Indian win. Marcus Collins has highlighted the ways in which West Indian migrants in Britain emulated the ideal of the British ‘gentleman’, and as West Indian cricketer and intellectual Learie Constantine observed in The Colour Bar, ‘As a… Negro cricketer, I know that cricket is a game in which gentlemanly behaviour is so much taken for granted that any departure from it is labelled ‘hardly cricket’’. ‘Victory Test Match’ therefore provides a useful example of West Indian adherence to the Victorian codesof respectability that, as Rush has shown, had become a ‘central’ component of many middle-class Caribbean peoples’ identities on account of colonial attempts to fashion Britishness in the West Indian colonies. Beginner’s second verse similarly exemplifies faithfulness to the colonial cause as the calypsonian comments upon the presence of King George VI: ‘He saw the King was waiting to see/So he gave him a century’. A patriotic tone can be detected in these lyrics as they imply a sense of pride in having the monarch witness the excellent play of the West Indian team. Actively celebrating the monarchy in this way similarly reflects Lord Beginner’s colonial origins, with royal rituals and imagery being central to the imperial propaganda of the British Caribbean.
Beginner’s recording was far from atypical in its honouring of the royal family, as support for the monarchy became an increasingly common theme within the music released during Melodisc’s formative years. These songs joined a long line of calypsos extolling the monarchy, with Attila the Hun’s ‘Duke and Duchess of Kent’ (1935) and Lord Executor’s ‘Reign of the Georges’ (1937) serving as early examples of this trend. Within the context of post-1948 migration to Britain, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 provided an opportunity for calypsonians to celebrate the monarchy through their music, as Young Tiger, a well-established calypso artist who arrived in Britain in 1951, combined calypso’s emphasis on topicality with the genre’s long-held tradition of support for the monarchy in ‘I was There (At The Coronation)’ (1953). Despite being composed in the weeks leading up to the coronation, the song’s lyrics are written from the perspective of a spectator at the event, as the calypsonian describes the procession at Marble Arch:
My stoic stance soon paid dividends,
For I saw them coming around the bend,
Then I perceived in all her glory,
The golden coach with her majesty.
Each verse ends with the refrain, ‘I was there (at the coronation)’, therefore placing Young Tiger at the centre of the scene, amongst the ‘guardsmen’ and ’all the lords of the admiralty’. By expressing his participation in the event, Young Tiger lays claim to what Bidnall describes as a ‘shared, imperial – not exclusively English – culture’. The ‘elation’ he feels upon witnessing the Queen is indicative of the British Empire’s efforts to strengthen ‘ties of loyalty’ to the monarchy within the Caribbean, reflecting the calypsonian’s upbringing in a society in which royal occasions were frequently commemorated. Rush has emphasised the variety of royal events that were celebrated in British West Indies, showing how occasions such as Empire Day, an event that celebrated Queen Victoria’s birthday in which children gathered in a ‘central location for patriotic songs and speeches by local dignitaries’, had a ‘profound impact’ on how West Indian children considered their relationship to Britain. The frequency of such events can also be observed in Journey To An Illusion, with one migrant recalling, ‘I was bombarded with all the Empire songs about God making Britain mighty, strong enough to rule the waves… My father kept a cupboard in the schoolroom full of flags. On the slightest provocation – a holiday, a Royal death… he tore them out’.
Songs such as these, alongside Lord Kitchener’s ‘London Is The Place For Me’ (1951) and ‘Festival of Britain’ (1951), a calypso celebrating the achievements of the British governmentwhich included the refrain, ‘Britain forever!’, capture the general feeling of patriotism towards the ‘mother country’ that many West Indian settlers felt at the moment of their migration. They exemplify the deeply embedded legacies of the calypsonians’ colonial upbringings, in which various elements of cultural imperialism, ranging from the ethics of sport to the cult of monarchy, operated as formative components of Caribbean peoples’ identities. In this way, the loyalty to the ‘mother country’ expressed in these early calypsos serves to exemplify the interconnected histories of Britain and the Caribbean, and can be viewed as an oral testament to the fact that many West Indians migrating to Britain after 1948 viewed themselves as unquestionably British. Feeling British was inextricably linked to the migrants’ perception that they would be accepted in the ‘mother country’, with one contributor to Nancy Foner’s Jamaica Farewell claiming. ‘we didn’t feel strangers to England. We had been taught all about British history, the Queen, and that we ‘belonged’’. The music released on Melodisc between 1950 and 1953 therefore captures the optimism of the early West Indian settlers, a feeling that dissipated as the migrants came to learn that despite their historic attachment to Britain, they were viewed as strangers by the ‘native’ Britons they encountered in their daily lives.
3: ‘If you’re white, well everything’s alright’
In conjunction with the releases of Lord Beginner and Young Tiger’s topical calypsos, the 1950s saw the emergence of a new style of calypso, spearheaded by Lord Kitchener, that focused more on the day to day experiences of Caribbean migrants in London. Calypsonians such as Kitchener, Mighty Terror and Azie Lawrence began to address ‘more readily identifiable local issues’, such as encounters with the police, rationing, and stories detailingsexual relations with English women. There exists a vast difference between the subject matter of Melodisc’s early releases in which loyalty to Britain proved a central theme, and the content of these ‘London calypsos’ in which calypsonians provided direct criticisms of Britain and life in the capital. Whereas the majority of calypsos released in the years 1950-1953 expressed a sense of pride in being British and, accordingly, a sense of belonging in the ‘mother country’, these recordings show the artists coming to terms with the fact that, despite their ‘Britishness’, the native English population viewed them as outsiders due to the colour of their skin. In these calypsos, therefore, exists a tone of black consciousness which formed as a direct consequence of the racial discrimination that West Indian migrants experienced in Britain.
Prior to arrival in Britain, conceptions of the ‘mother country’ as a place of ‘justice and liberty’ figured prominently in the minds of the migrants. As Foner observed through her interviews with various migrants of the Windrush generation in Jamaica Farewell, the arrivals had been ‘brought up with a respect and awe for English culture and people and a lingering faith in British fair-mindedness’, which they assumed would allow them to be treated ‘on the basis of merit rather than on the basis of their color’ when in Britain. In reality, however, nineteenth century ideologies regarding racial classifications had proved remarkably resilient amongst Britain’s general public, with ideas of the ‘backwardness’ of the ‘lesser races’ persisting, meaning that the new arrivals were often viewed as ‘heathens’ as opposed to fellow citizens of the empire. Common misconceptions included the idea that Britain’s new arrivals had travelled from the jungle, that they practised ‘black magic’, andthat they were hypersexual, exemplifying how colonially inherited attitudes of racial superiority were alive and well in post-war Britain.
As Chris Waters has argued, hostility towards the new arrivals can also be attributed to debates that occurred after World War II surrounding ‘what it now meant to be British’. After the war, Britain faced a ‘veritable crisis of national self-representation’, meaning that as discussions regarding commonwealth migration became increasingly commonplace, race was utilised in order rebuild a sense of ‘national cohesion’ in the country. This reconfiguration equated ‘whiteness’ with ‘Britishness’, therefore casting black migrants as outsiders in Britain and positioning them as the countertype. Webster has similarly indicated the emergence of an increasingly ‘domesticated’ version of national identity, which was developed after 1948 to distinguish between a ‘common Englishness of well-kept homes and families’ and the ‘blacks next door’. This domesticated identity was combined with colonial attitudes that viewed black men and women as hypersexual and incapable of maintaining a steady family life, resulting in migrants being defined as the ‘other’ against the national norm of domestication. In this way, the racial prejudices present in Britain were the result of longstanding colonially acquired stereotypes as well as of the adjustments made to British national identity in the post-war years. The resultant effect was, as Gilroy has stated, one of ‘ethnic absolutism’, where black and white cultures were seen as ‘fixed, mutually impermeable expressions of racial and national identity’. Consequently, the loyalty that West Indian migrants felt towards Britain declined and gave way to an increasedsense of black consciousness, as the arrivals found themselves in a society in which ‘blackness’ carried a different set of connotations to what it did in the Caribbean.
Drawing upon calypso’s long-held tradition of social commentary, Lord Kitchener released a series of recordings on Melodisc throughout the 1950s that addressed the various guises of racial discrimination experienced by West Indians in Britain. In his interview for Mike and Trevor Phillips’ Windrush, the calypsonian spoke of the debilitating effects that this racism had on his music career, telling of a time in which: ‘I went to Brixton and I started on this job. I started signing. While singing a customer came to the microphone, took away the mike from me, told he can’t understand a word that I’m saying. Oh well, they all white, no blacks in the pub on that night… So, I lost my job’. The first of his releases to explicitly deal with these issues of race was ‘If You’re Not White, You’re Black’ (1953), where Kitchener addresses a mixed-race girl operating under the belief that that her lighter skin tone makes her superior to him:
Your skin may be a little pink,
And that’s the reason why you think,
That the complexion of your face,
Can hide you from the Negro race,
No you can never get away from the fact,
If you’re not white, you’re considered black.
The calypsonian’s put-downs become increasingly comedic, as he ridicules the girl for wearing Vaseline ‘to make out’ that she is European, and for her attempts to speak like aCambridge University graduate. Through this imagery, the song takes on a decisively metropolitan setting, allowing Kitchener to exemplify the significance of skin colour as a marker of social status in post-1948 Britain. In the third verse, Kitchener indicates how pre-conceptions regarding skin colour make assimilation into British society a seemingly impossible task, singing of how the girl’s African heritage prevents her from forming a relationship with ‘Mr B’, an Englishman who does not want the ‘company’ of women that are not white. The song’s refrain – ‘No you can never get away from the fact/If you’re not white, you’re considered black’ – is repeated throughout the song, continually reiterating the inescapability of racial prejudice for black migrants in Britain. Underneath its playful tone, the recording projects a sinister reality, reminiscent of Galahad’s address to his own hand in Sam Selvon’s seminal novel, The Lonely Londoners: ‘Colour, is you that causing all this, you know. Why can’t you be blue, or red, or green, if you can’t be white’.
The overarching tone, therefore, is one of black consciousness. Stuart Hall has observed the emergence of a ‘black cultural politics’ which blossomed at ‘the moment when the term ‘black’ was coined as a way of referencing the common experience of racism and marginalization in Britain’. Kitchener’s lyrics embody this politics, directly commenting upon the rigid dichotomy of white/black that worked as a central form of classification in British society. Winston James has explained how this stark binary did not exist in the Caribbean, as colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade birthed a ‘multilayered pigmentocracy’ in which ‘those who approximated most closely to the European type were accorded high status, and those deemed to be without… were relegated to the bottom ofthe social hierarchy’. Mixed-race populations were therefore regarded as ‘congenitally superior’ to ‘pure Africans’, due to the Caribbean’s colonially inherited belief that whiteness represented superiority. Contrastingly, in Britain, the overarching narrative shows that West Indians arriving in the ‘mother country’ tended to be labelled simply as ‘coloureds’ or ‘blacks’, with the white British population paying little attention to the varying skin tones of non-white migrants. Thus, a black consciousness emerged, as observed by Sam Selvon: ‘as long as you were not white, you were black, and it did not matter if you came from Calcutta or Port-of Spain’. In this way, ‘If You’re Not White, You’re Black’, functions as an important work in charting the development of a discernible black identity in post-WWII Britain, and as an oral recognition of the fact that Britain’s image as a nation of ‘justice and liberty’ was farcical.
Whilst migrants were confronted with racism in all walks of life, this discrimination was perhaps most overtly expressed in the areas of housing and employment. Hostility towards migrants looking for shelter was widespread, with advertisements for housing tenancies often reading, ‘No coloured’, ‘Europeans only’ and ‘English only’. Those that did not include any obvious signs of discrimination in their advertisements were still unlikely to rent a room to a black person, as a study undertaken in 1960 showed that just one out of every six people with room vacancies in London were willing to consider applications from West Indians. Upon acquiring a room, black tenants faced further discrimination from exploitative landlords. A ‘colour tax’ was imposed on many of the migrants, meaning they were forced to pay higher rents than other tenants, and landlords were consistently
negligent of the largely inadequate living conditions of their flats. Lord Kitchener’s ‘My Landlady’ (1952), despite not explicitly addressing the racialised dimensions of this discrimination, documented these issues, as the song sees the calypsonian denounce his landlady for her negligent attitude towards his living conditions:
No chair no table,
The convenience is terrible,
And on the other part,
No hot water to take a bath.
Difficulties in finding employment and encounters with discrimination in the workplace similarly played a fundamental role in shaping migrants’ conceptions of Britain during the 1950s. Many West Indians had left the Caribbean as a result of the high unemployment levels in the islands, meaning that once they migrated and discovered that employment was similarly hard to find in Britain, their notions of the country as an ‘El Dorado’ were shattered. In searching for work, black migrants were commonly met with a ‘colour bar’ which prevented them from acquiring a job. A survey published in 1955 reported that four out of twenty-five employers in London would outright reject black applicants, and that the remaining twenty-one would ‘find justification for refusing them when it came to the point’. Whereas some employers would overtly express their issues with hiring black workers, which tended to echo colonially inherited assumptions that West Indians were ‘indolent’, others would justify colour bars by claiming that it was their staff who objected toworking alongside black men and women. This latter process was outlined by one West Indian woman who, upon applying for a job, was told by an employer, ‘’You are just the girl I want but… We don’t have coloured people working here. Some of my staff won’t like it. You must realise that it is not me!’’. Those that did manage to find employment often had to settle for work in industries that struggled to attract labour, with Collins claiming that West Indians typically took jobs that were viewed as ‘beneath the dignity of white males’.
Kitchener’s ‘If You’re Brown’ (1959) attended to these issues of housing and unemployment, once again adopting a tone of colour consciousness which formed as a direct result of English racism. The song’s first verse tackles the colour bar that black migrants faced when attempting to find shelter, as Kitchener sings, ‘You can tour the world you still will get no place/Every door is shut in your face’. The second verse projects a similar sentiment, as the calypsonian outlines the difficulties of finding employment in London:
I wrote for a job in a big city,
They reply I should come immediately,
But when they see my face, the foreman turn and say,
Someone took the job yesterday.
The chorus, centred around the lines, ‘If you’re white, well everything’s alright/If your skin dark, no use, you try/ You’ve got to suffer until you die’, demonstrates how the rejection West Indians faced whilst in Britain, evident in their struggles in finding housing and employment, served to heighten a sense of black consciousness within the community. Withmigrants’ skin tones dislocating them from equal access to housing and jobs, this played a formative role in the development of a colour conscious identity, as whilst a three-tiered racial hierarchy did exist in the Caribbean, it has been shown that money and education could partially ‘erase’ the ‘blackness’ of those considered to be at the bottom of this hierarchy. Stuart Hall, who grew up in a black, middle-class family in Kingston, Jamaica, claimed that he ‘became ‘black’ in London, not Kingston’, exemplifying that ‘differences of culture, background, occupation, income, and education’ held no bearing in Britain where colour was considered the principal marker of societal status.
Released in 1959, the year following the Notting Hill riots which saw a number of racially incentivised attacks take place against the black residents of Notting Hill, ‘If You’re Brown’ captures the sentiments of a West Indian migrant population processing the reality of the ‘mother country’ that they had been brought up to love and respect. Although migrants’ conceptions of Britain changed almost immediately after they settled in the country, for many, the riots concluded the process of disillusionment, with one Jamaican migrant commenting, ‘Before the riots I was British – I was born under the Union Jack… the race riots made me realise who I am and what I am’. Lord Kitchener’s colour-conscious recordings provided the soundtrack to these changing conceptions of Britain, projecting an entirely disparate message to the optimism present in ‘London Is The Place For Me’ and highlighting that the ‘golden image’ of Britain that migrants grew up on was an illusion.
4: ‘Sweet Jamaica’
Accompanying Lord Kitchener’s colour conscious calypsos and similarly projecting a tone of disillusionment was the emergence of recordings that spoke nostalgically of the Caribbean. In these songs, artists presented Britain as a place of exile as opposed to a place in which they belonged, echoing Webster’s claim that the racism that black migrants were confronted with produced ‘one dominant meaning of home – back home’. By examining contemporary accounts of West Indian migrants, it can be demonstrated that reminiscing about home served as a coping mechanism for those disillusioned by life in Britain. In The Lonely Londoners, Moses and Galahad nostalgically recall humorous stories from their lives in Trinidad in a passage that concludes, ‘Galahad laugh until tears come, and Mosessuddenly sober up, as if it not right that in these hard times he and Galahad could sit there… smoking cigarette, and talking bout them characters back home’. In a similar fashion, Hinds’ work includes numerous contributions from West Indians expressing their desire to the Caribbean, with one Jamaican man commenting, ‘To me, the importance of Jamaica is that it is there’, illustrating that migrants could find solace in memories of their old homes amidst the difficulties they faced in their daily lives. Such accounts are revealing of the ways in which Caribbean migrants’ identities shifted due to experiences of life in the ‘mother country’, as they show migrants directing feelings of patriotism towards their ‘native’ countries as opposed to Britain as a result of the disenchantment shaping their new realities. This sentiment was summarised by Selvon, who stated that through his experiences of London, ‘I was discovering a pride, a national pride, in being what I am, that I never felt at home. That was one of the things that immigration meant to me’.
Mighty Terror’s ‘No Carnival in Britain’ (1954) exemplifies this shift of patriotisms, with the song functioning as an ode to the Trinidadian tradition of ‘mas’ (Carnival), featuring lines explaining the customs of the celebration (‘put on your costume, just follow your leader’), as well as continuous reiterations of ‘missing the carnival’ on account of migrating to Britain. The line, ‘no mas here in Great Britain’, is repeated throughout the song, exemplifying how the calypsonian’s feelings of attachment towards his Trinidadian roots were amplified as a result of his migration away from the island. Lord Kitchener similarly released a wealth of songs during the 1950s that looked back nostalgically towards the Caribbean. The earliest of these recordings, ‘Sweet Jamaica’ (1952), serves to emblematise the beginnings of a senseof disillusionment that would strengthen as the decade progressed, as the calypsonian claims to ‘regret the day’ he travelled to ‘London city’, before professing his desire to return to his ‘heaven and saviour’, ‘sweet Jamaica’. In the same vein as his later, colour conscious recordings, Kitchener details the difficulties that West Indians face when searching for employment and housing, and claims to have ‘nearly die[d]… from starvation’ due to ‘small’ weekly ration allowances. These signifiers of poverty are juxtaposed by romanticised images of Jamaica, such as the ‘lovely beach at Montego Bay’, demonstrating how the harsh realities of life in Britain fostered the conditions through which migrants could strengthen self-identifications with the Caribbean.
One aspect of ‘Sweet Jamaica’ that is especially indicative of the shifting identities of West Indians in 1950s Britain is Kitchener’s line, ‘Many West Indians are sorry now’. By referring to those similarly disillusioned by the realities of the ‘mother country’ as ‘West Indians’, Kitchener’s lyrics reflect the development of a Caribbean consciousness that was made possible through the context of migration to Britain. Whereas, prior to migration, arrivals from the Caribbean may have possessed individual ‘island loyalties’ specific to their countries of birth, it can be shown that a broader sense of loyalty towards the Caribbean and a greater sense of being a ‘West Indian’ developed amongst the migrants as they settled in Britain, as the ‘mother country’ allowed West Indians to come into contact with peoples of neighbouring Caribbean islands for the first time. With transport being both limited and expensive throughout the Caribbean, it was rare for West Indians to venture outside of their home islands, meaning that conceptions of neighbouring islands were largely formed through knowledge of celebrities and cricket matches. As Voicu has shown, therefore, itwas in diasporic locations, such as Britain and the US, that ‘Caribbean cultural creolization’ occurred, as West Indians formed communities that included members from varying islands of the Caribbean. In this way, the migrants’ understandings of the Caribbean underwent a significant transformation, as exemplified by Hinds: ‘The prototype Barbadian is no longer Clyde Walcott, nor is the Trinidadian Dr Eric Williams. The Barbadian is the girl he goes to evening school with and the Trinidadian the Indian who cuts his hair at the barber-shop’. The consequent impact was an adoption of a shared, West Indian identity, which is easily identifiable when examining the London calypsos of the period, with recordings such as Kitchener’s ‘Food From The West Indies’ (1950) and Azie Lawrence’s ‘West Indians in England’ (1960) embodying this development.
Catherine Hall has attributed the formation of a discernible West Indian identity amongst these migrants to the recognition of ‘shared histories’, illustrating how the migrants’ colonial upbringings acted as a binding force in the formation of a Caribbean consciousness. An awareness of this shared past is evident in The Emigrants, with George Lamming writing, ‘It was only when the Barbadian childhood corresponded with the Grenadian or the Guianese childhood… that the wider identification was arrived at. In this sense, most West Indians of my generation were born in England’. It should also be acknowledged that the specific conditions of settlement in Britain provided the grounds for this ‘shared history’ to be recognised, as, in Claudia Jones’ words, the ‘polarization of West Indians into Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Barbadians, Grenadians etc., has certain unrealities in England where existingproblems among West Indians are shared in common’. Faced with the racial prejudices of native Britons which greatly limited their housing and employment prospects, it can be shown that West Indians naturally gravitated towards one another, with Winston James indicating that Caribbean identities were formed through encounters in workplaces that did not operate a colour bar, such as London Transport and the NHS. As Learie Constantine established in Colour Bar, black migrants’ unfreedom to decide where to live meant that they were ‘virtually obliged to reside in a recognized ‘black area’’, which similarly entailed further encounters with natives of different parts of the Caribbean. In this sense, Kitchener’s ‘Sweet Jamaica’, and its discussion of the challenges that West Indians faced when searching for secure housing and employment, serves to demonstrate how the marginalised circumstances of West Indian migrants played a central role in the formation of a Caribbean conscious identity.
‘Food From The West Indies’ (1950), one of Lord Kitchener’s earliest recordings with Melodisc, indicates the emergence of what has been termed a ‘pan-Caribbeanization’ of the previously polarised cultures of the West Indies. Kitchener addresses the song to an English lover, criticising the ‘fish and chips’ she has made for him and singing:
No, no, no, this wouldn’t do,
Give me rice, I’m begging you,
Doreen, darling if you please,
Give the Lord some rice from the West Indies.
By specifically requesting food from the West Indies, Kitchener’s lyrics reflect the calypsonian’s adoption of a unified Caribbean culture that would develop throughout the 1950s, permeating the ‘languages, idioms, cuisines and music’ of West Indian communities. Calypso records played an instrumental role in the construction of this pan-Caribbean culture, as it has been indicated by Bradley that for those experiencing homesickness and a ‘sense of disconnect’ from the West Indies, hearing a new calypso release was ‘like getting a letter from home’, allowing migrants from throughout the Caribbean to retain a ‘keen sense of sense in difficult times’. The establishment of Notting Hill Carnival in 1959, largely acknowledged to have been inspired by the Notting Hill riots and the racially motivated murder of Kelso Cochrane, marked a critical juncture in the formation of a collective Caribbean identity in Britain, with the programme from the first carnival reading, ‘A pride in being West Indian… a pride that encompasses not only the creativeness, uniqueness and originality of West Indian mime, song and dance – but is the genesis of the nation itself’. As Claudia Jones booked various calypso artists to perform at the carnival during its formative years, including Mighty Sparrow in 1962, it can be shown that calypsonians not only spoke of a distinctive West Indian identity but were active participants in cultivating it.
An emerging commitment to a West Indian identity in the calypso music of the 1950s is most easily discernible in the plethora of Melodisc releases that advocated the formation of a West Indian Federation. Lord Beginner, Lord Kitchener and The Roaring Lion all released
songs expressing the need ‘to federate’ within the West Indies, therefore providing support for the emancipation of the Caribbean from British colonial rule:
This is federation,
What a big occasion,
Now we are united,
And can’t be divided,
With this little combination,
Soon we will declare a nation.In showing support for this political cause, calypsonians joined the ranks of West Indian intellectuals such as George Lamming and C.L.R James as West Indians in Britain working on the frontline in the battle for independence in the Caribbean. According to James, federation for the West Indies was the only ‘means by which it will claim independence and… be able to take its place as one of the modern communities living a modern civilized existence’. Although support for the federation was widespread throughout the Caribbean by the latter half of the 1950s, accounts show that the conditions of ‘exile’ in Britain, or more specifically London, produced a political awakening amongst migrants in which the advocacy of a ‘progressive, United West Indies’ reverberated strongly. As the metropolis allowed West Indians from throughout the Caribbean to meet and recognise shared histories of colonisation, migrants began to envision a ‘new, larger space into which they could return’, free from the rule of the British. The sentiments of a West Indian Federation thereforefigure prominently in the British Caribbean literature of the 1950s and 1960s, with Lamming’s The Emigrants, a book following the lives of Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Grenadians and Bahamians whose paths intertwine through migration to Britain, serving as an exploration into the feasibility of a West Indian nation. The West Indian Gazette, established by Claudia Jones in 1958, similarly stood for a ‘united and independent West Indies’, with the newspaper coming into being just months before the federation was officially formed, at a time in which excitement for a unified Caribbean was at its height amongst Britain’s West Indian population.
A signifier of the Caribbean community’s commitment to a West Indian identity can be highlighted by Hinds’ statement, written four years after the federation collapsed, that: ‘the migrant in Britain speaks of himself as a West Indian… he clings to his ‘West Indian’ status. It is like one final defiant stand against the fragmentation of the Caribbean’. Calypso music released in the 1950s can be used to highlight the emergence of this collective, West Indian identity, both by examining its lyrics as well as its social function in bringing West Indians together. These recordings exemplify how for many migrants, the affinity that they felt towards the ‘mother country’ was replaced by a newfound attachment to the Caribbean as a direct consequence of migrating overseas, demonstrating how the settlers came to see themselves in new ways by travelling to Britain.
At the onset of Trinidadian independence in 1962, a desire to return home became a reality for many calypsonians in Britain, with Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner, Roaring Lion and The Mighty Terror travelling back to Trinidad and resuming their music careers overseas. For many migrants, 1962 also marked the end of the process of disillusionment, as the Commonwealth Immigrants Act came into effect, denying peoples of the British Commonwealth and colonies free movement into the United Kingdom and effectively equating ‘blackness’ with ‘second-class citizenship’. In the decade and a half leading up to this act, however, calypsonians provided the soundtrack to the lives of a growing Caribbean migrant population adjusting to the realities of the metropole. Their recordings represent the living expressions of West Indians responding to the challenges of their new home, offering well-needed first-hand insights into the experience of migration that the race relations texts currently shaping the historiography of post-war migration are lacking. Calypso recordings of this period can present valuable contributions to a variety of historical contexts, including the cultural imperialism of the British Empire, the struggle for worldwide independence from colonial rule, and, as this study has aimed to show, the ways in which migration altered West Indians’ colonially inherited conceptions of Britain.
Early Melodisc recordings should be viewed as oral documentations of the initial optimism of the Caribbean migrants, with their celebrations of British landmarks and the monarchy indicating the deeply embedded legacies of the cultural imperialism that permeated the British Caribbean. Their celebratory messages were intrinsically related to the fact that many migrants expected fair treatment in the ‘mother country’ as ‘children’ of Britain’s imperial ‘family’. Lord Kitchener was the first to acknowledge that these romanticised images of Britain were illusory, with his colour-conscious recordings indicating how many West Indians felt less ‘British’ whilst in Britain than they did prior to their migration. ‘If You’re Brown’ and ‘If You’re Not White, You’re Black’ captured the feelings of a West Indian migrant population coming to terms with the inherently racist nature of their colonisers, indicating that previous conceptions of the ‘mother country’ as a place enshrined in liberty and fairmindedness were false. The various calypsos expressing a desire to return to the Caribbean highlight the damaging effects that this racism had on large sections of the West Indian community, as many migrants decided that London was no longer the ‘place’ for them.
Examining the lyrics of calypsos composed in 1950s Britain also reveals how migrating to Britain had a transformative effect on migrants’ conceptions of themselves. Kitchener’s colour conscious recordings spoke of a stark binary of white/black which prevented West Indian migrants from accessing the same opportunities as Britain’s white population. Although a racial hierarchy similarly operated in the British Caribbean, colour was less of a signifier of social status than it was in Britain, resulting in a newfound black consciousness amongst the West Indian migrant population. At the same time, the works of calypsonians spoke of an emerging Caribbean consciousness, showing how, by moving away from the Caribbean, migrants found themselves in a society in which it was more natural for them to identify as ‘West Indians’ than ‘Trinidadians’ or ‘Jamaicans’. ‘Federation’ calypsos exemplify the extent of migrants’ commitment to their West Indian identities, and also open the field for further research into black politics in 1950s Britain which, aside from studies examining the postcolonial politics of West Indian intellectuals, is a topic that has been largely ignored by historians.
There exists a vast difference in the tone of calypsos overtly celebrating the ‘mother country’ and those directly criticising its realities, and it must be acknowledged that this shift in sentiment was by no means linear. Royal calypsos were occasionally released in the latter half of the 1950s, and a clear overlap exists between patriotic calypsos and recordings projecting pan-Caribbean sentiments. This serves as a testament to the complexity of the process of disillusionment, as, to draw from Rush’s work, the ‘bonds of empire’ connecting Britain to the Caribbean were so firmly entrenched that ‘it was difficult to immediately abandon the modes of thought’ shaped by British imperialism. The overarching narrative of London calypso music, however, demonstrates how for West Indian settlers, migration entailed an abandonment of previous feelings of Britishness in favour of a West Indian identity in which black consciousness formed a central component. As one Trinidadian migrant summarised his experience in London, ‘I am indeed grateful to the English. Grateful for rejecting me in order to discover myself’.
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