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If we stop talking about race, we die

CONTROVERSY: Kayne West's comments about race drew boos at his concert in San Jose, California

RAPPER AND FASHION designer Kanye West says that black people should stop talking about race.

When I was north London’s only black Teddy Boy back in the 1970s, I didn’t want to talk about race either because it was uncomfortable. I was in that certain dispensation that sometimes we find ourselves
in, where we don’t want to flag up the fact that there ain’t no black in the Union Jack. Where we don’t want to be noticed as different; as the ‘other’. Where we just want to blend in and be part of the wallpaper.

I just wanted to listen to the music, to bop to it and to wear the clothes of the white working class youth from the 1950s. I even put a hot iron to my head to straighten out my hair, so desperate was I to have a duck’s arse skiffle, as it was known back then.

The DA was the ultimate sign of rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis had one back when he was king and so did half of the black rock ‘n’ rollers – Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and all the rest of them. And as history
shows, none of them wanted to talk about race either.

And you can understand why. They made their living amongst white folk. Not entirely. But white folk certainly sustained their popularity. And the last thing the black artists needed to say was ‘I’m black and I’m proud’. They had to wait until James Brown emerged with his particular brand of rock ‘n roll that he called funk a few years later and was able to say it loud and proud because he didn’t depend upon white folks to make a living.

Kanye, of course, now depends largely on white folk to keep his wife in the millions of dollars of jewellery that she has become accustomed to wearing, as Parisian jewellery thieves will testify.

Likewise, when I was a lone black Teddy Boy in London, I was totally dependent upon white folk for my roots and culture. They taught me how to walk, talk and be white. If I didn’t rely on them, I would have had nowhere to let my mashed-up ironed hair down and I would have had to jive all by myself.

In the event, I was able to go on pilgrimage with my fellow Southgate Teds to the Mecca in Stevenage to see Bill Haley and the Comets perform when I was 12 years old. And I can remember how Haley, the granddaddy of rock ‘n’ roll, kiss-curl and all, stared at me with bemusement as I bopped under his nose to Rock Around the Clock. At least, I think he was staring at me with bemusement. He was famously
cross-eyed, so he could have been looking at someone next to me with the same bemusement.

But the point remains the same, that when The Clash in the punk days released their (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais single, which told the story of a lone white man in a sea of black faces at the club venue, who had gathered to see the cream of reggae – Ken Boothe (UK pop reggae), Leroy Smart and Delroy Wilson, cool operator – it was a sentiment that I could totally relate to. That was me, except in reverse. I was the black man in the Stevenage Mecca and many other venues in my Teddy Boy days. As long as I kept my black gob shut.

It was down to my elder brother, Yinka, to impress on me that if we stop talking about race, we die. Yinka was into his reggae, hardcore, back in the mid- 1970s before most of us knew who Bob Marley and the Wailers were.

So it was surprising that he came home around 1974 with a Chuck Berry rock ‘n’ roll tune (or more precisely rhythm and blues tune) on the R&B label recorded a decade earlier. I couldn’t wait to snatch it off him. And he watched, somewhat bemused as I rinsed it out on our gramophone player. Yinka
wasn’t boss-eyed, and when he finally decided to speak his mind, he was aiming straight to my heart and soul.

“Do you know what the song is about?” he asked.

No, I didn’t. I heard some lyrics about a Greyhound bus and that was about it. In those days we didn’t have the Internet to Google the lyrics and, anyway, as far as I was concerned, it was about the ‘beat’. It was then that Yinka showed me that: if we stop talking about race, we die. And to be honest, it was the breakdown of that civil rights lyric, so poetically done by Berry, that made me hang up my bootlace tie, my drainpipe trousers, my brothel creepers and drape coat, and made me start to grow my Afro.

I had to choose. And I chose to not stop talking about race. Which meant that there was no room for the only black Teddy Boy in London at the rock ‘n’ roll dances.

Sometimes I wonder where I would be today if I hadn’t started talking about race. I would have been ignorant. But maybe blissfully happy and no doubt much richer than I am, but poorer in so many ways. My Teddy Boy friends would have loved it. I would have been their one black friend, the exception to the rule, who made it okay for them not to talk about race and their role in it. A free pass on race is what I represented to them.

As does Kanye West to white folk when he urges black people to stop talking about race. What he should have done at his concert in San Jose, California, where he got booed for his comments, was not to address African-Americans, but to tell white Americans to start talking about race. Particularly in the light of the Trump presidential victory the week before. White folk need to talk about race more than ever. If people don’t talk about race, they die. And Kim Kardashian should let her man know that he needs to start talking about race – fast. Not shutting the conversation down.

She needs to be Yinka.

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