Surely no culture punches further above its weight than Jamaica. No country of its size—few countries of any size—could claim to have left such a profound mark on the modern world. Jamaican influence has been particularly marked in certain times and places—and one of those was Aylestone High School, Kensal Rise, West London in September 1976, when I walked into my class for the first time. For me, a recent migrant from Wembley Park (four miles to the north-west), some things were immediately different: most obviously the lack of white faces. I was one of four white children in a class of thirty-six. Most of the rest were black, but there was a sizeable group whose origins were on the Indian subcontinent as well.
Wembley may have only been a short drive away, but in the compartmentalised London of the mid-1970s, it could have been another country. I had only encountered a handful of non-white people before. I remember feeling more fascinated by the new accents and cultures than daunted. Perhaps, being Jewish, I was comfortable feeling culturally displaced anyway, and felt no more at home with my English or Irish classmates than I did with West Indians. For whatever reason, I was strongly attracted to the cultures of the Caribbean in which I suddenly found myself immersed.
The black children in my new school originated mostly from the West Indies. There were kids in my year from most, if not all, the islands. I heard about faraway tropical paradises: St Vincent, St Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago. But one island dominated the culture, not just in school but in the surrounding streets and neighbourhoods, from Notting Hill to Harlesden: Jamaica. Most of my classmates were of the first British-born black generation—the children of the Windrush generation, as they’re now known. Some had been born overseas, but had migrated as small children. Only a few had any strong memory of home. For the rest, their island heritage was strong, but remembered through the stories of their parents’ generation, through songs, and through West Indian-led cultural events like Notting Hill Carnival, a massive annual Trinidadian-flavoured street party, which ran (and still runs) half a mile down the road from my school.
The soundtrack to my teenage years was reggae. Bob Marley (obviously) but also Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru and many other Jamaican names. Not just Jamaicans though: British reggae acts like Steel Pulse, Linton Kwesi Johnson, UB40 and Aswad. My music was the political, conscious reggae of the Dreads—the Rastamen—and it told the story of oppression (downpression), of poverty and of rebellion against the establishment (Babylon, in the language of the Rastas).
Reggae began to flow freely from Kingston to London and back, and stories of the Kingston ghetto in Jamaica and of the British ghettos began to be intertwined. Poor Kingston neighbourhoods were experiencing vicious poverty, vicious policing and even more deadly gang warfare. This last was fuelled by the Cold War. The CIA and the KGB were supplying arms to opposing street gangs, who fought turf wars in the Kingston ghetto in the names of the People’s National Party or the Jamaican Labour Party, representing the pro-Soviet and pro-American wings of Jamaican politics (these gangs, ostensibly political enforcers, soon began to battle for control of a lucrative international cocaine trade). British reggae told a similar story, but this time Babylon was the racist and violent behaviour of British police forces in the inner cities, or the ignorant and uncaring elitism of the all-white political class.
This was an exciting place and time to be a teenager. Saturdays were often spent around the Portobello and Golbourne roads, listening to the bass-heavy sound systems and smelling the ganja smoke. More than weed, revolution was in the air, in the streets and in the Mangrove Café in All Saints Road, where the intellectuals of British black nationalism met, and which was regularly raided by the Metropolitan Police. Anger was rising against the police, who appeared to be unaccountable, and who often acted like a racist street gang. In 1976, Notting Hill Carnival exploded into a riot. In 1979, there were also riots in Southall, West London, an Indian-majority area. Then, in 1981, the streets blew up across Britain. Brixton, a majority-black area in south London, experienced a full-blown uprising, and the police lost control of the area for several days. There were riots in many other black areas of UK cities: close to home in West London; in Handsworth, Birmingham; in Toxteth, Liverpool; in Saint Paul’s, Bristol; in Moss Side, Manchester. These were not race riots. Black youth were joined on the streets by young white men, who shared many of the same experiences of violent policing, poor housing and unemployment.
1981 was also the year of my first Notting Hill Carnival, and, at sunset, as many people were walking out of the area, we saw black youth walking in the opposite direction, pulling bandanas over their faces and preparing to fight Babylon. This was the annual opportunity, on the part of local black communities, for revenge on the police for their beatings, unfair arrests and raids. And the police too were ready to fight. Eventually, these annual clashes led to a 7pm curfew at Carnival, which is still strictly enforced.
Leading these rebellions, in the front line, were the Yardies (slang for Jamaicans). They were renowned among West Indians for their defiance, bravery and warlike spirit. While many black people did their best to keep their heads down and stay away from trouble, Jamaicans—some Jamaicans anyway—were determined not to back down, either to far-right racism or police harassment. Yardies, many from the toughest ghettos of Kingston, controlled the culture, the sound systems, the cannabis trade and the streets.
Lacking a clear idea of what black British meant (by contrast with the clearly defined idea of blackness in the US), young black British people—even those with no roots in Jamaica—adopted Jamaicanness as their version of blackness, or, at least, they adopted a romanticised idea of what Jamaican culture was. So the Jafakean was born: an identity adopted by the children of black migrants from Barbados to Ghana, often (doubtless) to their parents’ consternation. This Jafakeanness was also adopted by we white and Asian children, who found ourselves minority participants in the culture, and we forged a melting pot accent that sounded somewhat Jamaican, but was really a London thing. A generation later, the character Ali G (played by Jewish comedian Sasha Baron-Cohen) perfectly captured the post-Jafakean world, in which London youth of all races spoke the new, hybrid Jamaican-Cockney-Indian slang (this lingo has continued to evolve, now often paying homage to Nigeria and other former colonies).
For me and many other young Londoners, the culture was vibrant and exciting, always carrying an edge of menace, but also poetic, rhythmic and liberated. Reggae music was blended with the music of white punks and skinheads, and a new mixed-race urban British culture was born, whose Jamaican roots were unmistakable. This distinctly British-Jamaican music began with ska and reggae, created dub, jungle and garage, and still resonates today in bassline, grime and other styles.
The cultural dominance of the Kingston ghetto in London brought with it more than just music and a revolutionary spirit. Jamaicans were renowned, often in their own telling, for their defiance, their impetuousness and their downright craziness. British immigrants from other West Indian islands had an admiration for the Jamaican spirit, coupled with a careful respect. Yardies were not to be messed with. Jamaicans themselves recognised this, with a mixture of pride and resignation. After the 2011 death of Smiley Culture, a British-Jamaican reggae artist, while in the company of police officers, I set out to make a documentary, believing that he might have been killed by the police. Fishing for good quotes, I interviewed one of Smiley’s acquaintances, who told me: “They say he took a breadknife and stabbed himself through the heart. You know what Jamaicans are like—it could be true.” My cameraman, half-Jamaican himself, nodded.
By the 1990s, the problem of Kingston-originated drug-related violence was beginning to become obvious in London. I was living in Kensal Rise, a stone’s throw from my old school. The street corner opposite Kensal Rise station was a Yardie hangout. There were a couple of Jamaican-run barber shops and a Jamaican restaurant, and in the summer that corner was abuzz with Yardies talking, smoking, drinking, waiting for haircuts or just passing time.
The cocaine trade, now dominated by Yardies, turned increasingly violent, and for a while our neighbourhood was the epicentre. A man armed with a shotgun walked into the local Jamaican restaurant and killed a diner, injuring two others. The restaurant changed its name, but this didn’t prevent a second, similar murder from taking place soon afterwards. Around the same time, I found my road taped off, with police searching inch-by-inch for bullet casings. We had experienced our first car-to-car machine gun attack. The violence took hold and escalated, becoming entrenched on local estates, especially Stonebridge Park, which had long been a virtual no-go area for police and social services. The extreme violence of these gangs was highlighted when a seven year old girl, Toni-Ann Byfield, was deliberately shot in the back, because she had witnessed a murder.
In response to this spike in violence, the Metropolitan Police set up Operation Trident, a unit dedicated to tackling “black on black” gun crime. A panic about Yardie violence began to spread in the media, and the Home Office tightened visa rules against Jamaicans. As the straight-speaking Trinidadian-British commentator Darcus Howe wrote in the New Statesman at the time, “requirements for the visa are so forbidding that only upper-middle-class Jamaicans qualify”. But while Howe dismissed the Yardie panic as overblown, he also noted that other black Britons were becoming involved in the cocaine trade and its associated violence: “[The Yardies] have on their heels a small but highly irritating group of British blacks who rob their pushers at gunpoint. In and around South London, that is the major deterrent to the spread of Yardieism, and the major source of violent conflict.”
So the violence wasn’t limited to shootings by Jamaicans criminals, but began to extend more broadly into youth culture. Knife carrying had always been fairly common among young London men of all races, mostly for self-defence. It wasn’t too uncommon, when I came of age in the early eighties, for a drunken pub fight to end in a stabbing. But, in the nineties, the knives found a new purpose. Mugging, a crime previously seen as a faraway American problem, now escalated in London. The police responded with stop-and-search in affected areas, which necessarily meant that young black men would be disproportionately stopped.
Before arriving in London, most West Indian and West African migrants had never encountered the levels of violence and criminality—which had come to the UK, in large part, from Kingston—and were appalled to be living (and raising their children) in the midst of it, and even more horrified when many British people, especially those on the racist right, attempted to link it to black people in general. But, with the rise of politically correct thinking in the nineties, the new left now made the same mistake, assuming that race was at the root of the problems, and (anxious to deflect blame from the black community, a broadly imaginary construct), instead tried to suggest that the problems had been created by British racism. Both the right-wing and left-wing versions of this narrative made the same fundamental error—confusing a correlation between race and crime with causation. The same mistake would never have been made about white people: for example, high crime rates linked with some Romanian migrants would never have been blamed on the white community, because that would obviously be ludicrous.
Because the architects of New Labour’s multiculturalism now broadly agreed with the racist right that gang violence had underlying racial causes, they needed to find scapegoats, and so drew upon the spectre of institutional (later to become systemic) racism. The Metropolitan Police force was the perfect target.
In 1995, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Condon had tried to defend the racial disparities in his force’s stop-and-search statistics by pointing out that around 80% of muggers in London were black. Rather than dwell on this startling fact, we progressives chose to turn on the police instead, accusing Condon of racism for even mentioning race. I remember arguing that his statistic was irrelevant, but secretly questioning why that might be. But, after years of conservative dominance of the culture, it felt good for us, a younger and more liberal generation, to be on the winning side at last. The tide was finally moving in our direction, and we jumped gleefully on every opportunity to kick out at the old establishment.
There were always doubts, though, and often my left-wing narrative didn’t match the realities I was witnessing in daily life. Some of my West Indian friends, many of whom had grown up amidst the worst of the violence, would gently tease me when I tried to blame the local violence on people stigmatised by police brutality. Most of these friends moved away from the inner-London troublespots as quickly as they could afford to, often following the Bakerloo tube line out into the London suburbs of Wembley, Harrow and beyond.
Attempts to explain the rising criminality using anti-racist narratives were slowly coming apart. One of many moments of awakening was the heart-breaking murder of Damilola Taylor, a ten-year-old Nigerian boy, in south London in 2000. His grieving father flew in from Nigeria, and his incomprehension was memorable: why was the British obsession with race being allowed to get in the way of protecting citizens?
My then-teenage son, who is half-Indian, also provided me with a raw perspective on these problems. He didn’t recognise my view of a violent, racist police force, and suggested that policing might have improved significantly since the eighties. He told me about a teenage street culture that mocked police officers, unafraid of any consequences. When, in the late-nineties, he was mugged at knifepoint five times in close succession, leaving him traumatised, he pointed out to me that all of his assailants had been black. This made me uncomfortable, but it forced me to consider that Condon’s point may have been valid.
The onslaught against the police emanating from the nouveau-woke media, the New Labour government, the politically correct establishment (in the form of bodies such as the Commission for Racial Equality, the CRE), and finally in the form of police cuts, led to a decline in street policing and in stop-and-search. The inevitable happened: knife crime inexorably rose, and so did deaths. The statistics tell a clear story: knife murders have risen steadily for two decades, and far more so in London than anywhere else. While black people make up 13% of the London population, 44% of murder victims and 48% of murder suspects are black. Meanwhile the use of stop-and-search has fallen dramatically in the past decade.
All the while, an increasingly white, middle-class, identity-obsessed left has been peddling its narrative of systemic racism to explain these problems, and averting its gaze as black youth die in increasing numbers. The authorities turned to race advisers—typically self-selected, middle-class, middle-aged black and Asian people—who were expected to explain the problem, but had little clue, as in reality the possession of brown skin gave them no deep insights. So they just told the authorities what the authorities wanted to hear: systemic racism, marginalisation, neglect and austerity were to blame. The violence, however, didn’t neatly correlate with any of those things. It had been driven by Jamaican drug gangs, who had found London a soft target, and then allowed to embed as a culture by authorities that were so terrified of being labelled racist that they ended up becoming racist, turning a blind eye to a problem that was disproportionately affecting black families.
Eventually, even the chief architect of New Labour political correctness, Trevor Phillips, a veteran anti-racist, who had headed the CRE, had to take a step back and admit that he had got it terribly wrong, and that multiculturalism (a euphemism for segregationist thinking) was a huge mistake. But, by now, left-wing commentators, driven mad by the racialised thinking of identity politics, simply turned on him as a traitor. Old-school identitarians, like the London Labour MP Diane Abbott, still reflexively attack stop-and-search, while providing no coherent analysis of how to resolve the crime problem. Abbott and other identitarians appear to be more offended by the policing targeting black offenders than they are by the deaths of black murder victims. But Abbott is playing to a mostly white, identitarian, Labour Party audience. Her views appear to chime far less with black communities, who are losing their sons to violence.
The Black Lives Matter era has only added to the euphemisms and confusion. The identity-left has only one narrative: that systemic oppressions are the real problem facing people of colour, and that the way to address problems like gang crime is to recognise that black people are (in mysterious ways) driven to violence by an oppressive, systemically racist establishment.
In April 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May announced an annual Stephen Lawrence Day, to commemorate the death of a young black man stabbed by racists in 1993. And yet racist murders are outliers, rare to the point of statistical insignificance. There will be no Damilola Taylor Day. There will be no annual commemorations for Harry Ozuka, Kader Saleh or Kwabena Nelson, all young black men murdered in 2018. Our strange new racist anti-racist culture is only apparently interested in taking notice of problems for which we can blame ourselves.
These days, gang-related murders are pretty commonplace around my new home in south-east London. Last year, a seven-year-old boy at my young son’s school died in an arson attack on his home, which had been targeted at his older brother, who had fallen in with gangs. With increasing frequency, black Londoners mourn their friends and relatives, and the authorities, hamstrung by the race-obsessed media and political class, are averting their gaze.