woensdag 5 juni 2013

Birmingham revolution

Recently – that is May 2013 - I went for a few days to Birmingham, United Kingdom. It was a city in England I had not visited before. I have been to London a few times, to Bristol, and I visited not long ago Bath and Cardiff as well. Yet Birmingham, in size the second city of all England with over a million inhabitants, was still new for me.


Birmingham is a city with an industrial past; it is even said that it is historically the first manufacturing (or: industrial) city in the world, developed as such in the 18th c. Birmingham’s history thus reflects the historical forerunner role of Britain in the Industrial Revolution, that would have international consequences.


In the 18th c. and afterward the British Empire was at its height. Eric Williams (1911-1981), the scholar and later prime minister, from Trinidad and Tobago, explained in his 1943 study ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ how this is not a coincidence. He came with the at the time controversial argument that Britain’s famed Industrial Revolution was in fact largely financed through Britain’s slave trade and slavery activities in the Caribbean region. Of course, such an opinion was not liked by self-congratulating Britons, who more or less manipulated the writing of history, subtly but insistently popularizing a supposed humanitarian character of the British Empire, emphasizing that Britain abolished the slave trade and slavery before other European states, and before the practice became outlawed in other parts of the world.

That the Industrial Revolution shaping England was financed through slavery was however not mentioned and obscured..

The latter manipulating of historiography is already hypocritical, but it became even worse when the British also explained their colonization of large territories of Africa, in the later 19th c. (when slavery in the British Caribbean was abolished), as part of this further quest, a “white man’s burden”, to civilize the world, in part by also stopping practices like slavery there. In reality the main - and probably only - reason for Britain to colonize African territories was to gain wealth and to exploit. Obvious as this may seem, I found that some historiographers (especially European ones, and even an occasional “lost” non-European one) read and write history in line with this pro-British humanitarian purpose attributed to British colonialism.

I think Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), the Jamaican thinker and activist, saw it more clearly, before Eric Williams. Garvey had a sharp eye for geopolitics and international relations. His expression “Free Africans at home and abroad”, and other statements by Garvey like “The world is my province until Africa is free”, can be seen as Garvey’s response to British colonialism: finishing legally slavery of Africans in the Caribbean, but then colonizing the place of origin of those same Africans.

Birmingham is not a port town, unlike Bristol (which I visited not long ago), London, or Liverpool. So a direct role in the slave trade and slavery is less obvious in Birmingham than in Bristol and Liverpool. From these latter cities ships destined to trade in slaves sailed out to Africa and then the Caribbean, and the gains thus made entered these port cities directly; many buildings in Bristol, Liverpool, and partly also London, were financed with slave trade money (“blood money” you might say).

In line with Eric Williams’ economic reasoning, Birmingham as “the world’s first industrial/manufacturing city” profited from the slave trade and slavery as well. Only more indirectly. According to Williams the slave trade and slavery gains financed the whole Industrial Revolution that would shape Birmingham, and the different industries there. More specifically, Birmingham was the British centre of the metallurgical industry since the 17th c. and through the 18th c., including gun manufacturing, while Birmingham factories also made the weaponry used in slave trading activities in Africa, sugar plantation equipment, and chains used in slavery. Birmingham industries even delivered machinery and chains to slave-laboured plantations in non-British colonies like Brazil and Cuba.

Williams in fact pays quite some attention to Birmingham in his work ‘Capitalism & Slavery’ (1943): to its above mentioned role in the colonial economy (guns, metal and otherwise), as well as, more positively, to the rise of an abolition (of slavery) movement in the city in a later stage.


When I recently visited Birmingham (in May 2013), we went to an exposition within the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (pictured below), which gave an overview of the city’s history: from past to present.

The city was more or less established from about 1100 (AD). The city name is of Anglo-Saxon/Germanic origin. From those Anglo-Saxon days the historical time line was followed. From industrialization to further developments and migrations. Interestingly, the Irish were the early migrating (and more or less discriminated) “outsider” labourer group. Later, especially since the 1950s, followed by Jamaican and Caribbean migrants that would become also discriminated. The exposition continued up to modern times with different cultures and ethnicities in the city, and to pop culture like UB40, Duran Duran (who were I found out here from Birmingham). Also Rastafari-adhering poet of Jamaican descent Benjamin Zephaniah was mentioned, as well as a carnival designer/artist of Caribbean descent who went under the name of Professor Black.

In between, Birmingham’s roles and interests in slavery, metals, and gun trade for the slave trade, were not ignored or denied, but explained adequately. Also the famous Birmingham abolitionist campaigner (against slavery) in the early 19th c., Joseph Sturge, got attention.

All in all I found it an interesting and well structured exposition.


Birmingham was modern and globally focussed then, and when I recently visited I still noticed that it strives to modernity and the global, albeit in a different way. Until not too long ago the city’s focus was still on manufacturing and industry, although in recent decades a shift toward a “service economy” has taken place, similar to elsewhere in the Western world.

High-rise, new buildings are a superficial sign of urban modernity, of course, and current Birmingham has more or less a sky-line – unlike e.g. Bristol -, although high or modern buildings are interchanged with older and lower ones.. Some of the higher building were hotels, aimed mainly at the business market.

The remnants of the industrial past are however here and there present. The many canals flowing through the city and surrounding Midlands date mostly from the 18th c. onward, and had primarily economic, industrial functions. The same as the canals in Amsterdam (the Netherlands), they were laid out primarily for transporting goods for factories, not for ordinary citizens’ recreation or travel.

I noticed that in the present the canals in Birmingham no longer seem to have that industrial function. Now they are used by boats for tourism (thus recreational) purposes. Touristic boats are also to be found on the canals of Amsterdam, but there is a difference: I did not see private citizens having boats on the canals as on the Amsterdam canals. Maybe that is outlawed in Birmingham, I don’t know..

Photo underneath: me in central Birmingham (close to the Mailbox building) with the historical canals in the back

Like before, as I already said, current Birmingham continues to strive to the modern and global – or as one can say: cosmopolitan – in for instance the modern architecture, including high-rise, modern “mall”-like shopping centres (US influence?), while the city is also definitely multicultural. Multicultural regarding its population, as well as in restaurants and bars, and stores, representative of the different cultures in the city, brought by migrants since especially the 1950s: Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican, Chinese, African, even Latin American and other ethnicities. Birmingham is even one of the cities in Britain with the highest percentage of non-British migrant inhabitants: about 42% of Birrmingham is at present non-British of origin, many of these non-European.


Birmingham is also the place (with the surrounding West Midlands area) in Britain with - after London - the highest percentage of inhabitants with a Caribbean, especially Jamaican, background. A 2007 survey estimated the total number of Jamaican British in Birmingham at about 35.000 persons (compared to about 250.000 in much larger London), which would be about 3,5 % of the about a million people that inhabit Birmingham. This is the highest number outside of London.

The total “Black” population (including other Caribbeans and Africans) in Birmingham is estimated at about 6,4% of the city’s total. Also one of the higher percentages in Britain. Like elsewhere the Jamaican and Black population is relatively concentrated more in certain districts of the city, for instance the districts Handsworth and Aston. You can guess that these are not the most affluent districts, but rather working class areas. “A so it go”..

An interesting comparison would be with Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, where in about the same period (2006) about 69.000 people were of Surinamese background, that is over 9% of Amsterdam’s then about 750.000 inhabitants. The figure of “Black” inhabitants would differ somewhat because Suriname is more equally multiracial than Jamaica (including 45% Indians/Hindustani, or Javanese Indonesians). Furthermore, Antilleans and sub-Saharan Africans (quite present as well in Amsterdam), should then be included. Yet, since most Surinamers in Amsterdam tend to be of African origin, the figure of Black inhabitants of Amsterdam would most probably turn out to be about 9%: higher than the around 6,3% of Birmingham.

Bristol (about 450.000 inhabitants), to compare further within Britain, has an estimated 20.000 persons of Jamaican background, while Manchester (somewhat larger than Bristol) about 10.000 (about 2%). Maybe these demographic differences explain why I’ve heard about internationally known reggae bands with members of Jamaican backgrounds from London (Misty In Roots, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Aswad and others), Birmingham (e.g. Steel Pulse, partly UB40, also dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah), Bristol (e.g. Black Roots, Joshua Moses), even Wolverhampton (Macka B), but not from Manchester. But maybe that’s coincidence, and there are some reggae artists from there as well. Researching I found out that Trevor Roots (which I have heard of) comes from Manchester, as well as the Nucleus Roots I heard of.

Back to Birmingham, and my recent visit to it.. I liked the overall “vibe” in the city, and saw indeed how Birmingham was multicultural: regarding its habitants and in other aspects, such as cultural venues and restaurants. There even seemed some mixture of races. I write “even”, because this is throughout Europe and North America still not so common: multiculturalism tends to mean: different cultures separate from each other, not mixing.

We ate a good, delicious meal at a Jamaican restaurant (Caribana) in the south of Birmingham’s city centre. I’ve been to Jamaica for some weeks, and ate Jamaican food almost daily then, so it was not totally new for me, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. What’s pleasant to the senses will remain as such.

Photo underneath: view of central Birmingham, from Bristol Street. Close to a Jamaican restaurant (Caribana) where we ate. On the left you see (the black building) a part of the music venue 0 2 Academy (formerly Birmingham Academy and Hummingbird)


That brings me to another aspect of Jamaican culture and its relation to Birmingham: music, specifically reggae. I knew vaguely the connection of bands UB40 and Steel Pulse to Birmingham. I was never the biggest fan in the world of UB40, save for some nice songs – especially their earlier work and some nice, later original songs. I did not like most of their covers of Jamaican originals: not as good as the Jamaican originals, in my opinion. I liked Steel Pulse more, although also differing per album.


Some of my favourite Steel Pulse songs are ‘Stepping Out’, ‘Rally Round’, and (from an earlier album) ‘Babylon Makes The Rules’. Their song ‘Klu Klux Klan’ is also among their better work, I think. I heard especially the more recent songs ‘Stepping Out’ and ‘Rally Round’ being played recently in reggae clubs in my hometown Amsterdam. Some people like the Steel Pulse tune ‘Roller Skates’ as one of their best songs. It has - as I write this - over two million hits on YouTube! I however find that song ‘Roller Skates’ a bit overrated. ‘Babylon Makes The Rules’ is in my opinion a better song and has “only” 288.000 hits, as I write this. The song ‘Klu Klux Klan’ - also relatively better in my opinion - does “not even” reach the 200.000 hits at present. This does not necessarily mean much, but it shows how tastes can differ among listeners.

Two million Youtube hits seems much in reggae, considering that great, classic Jamaican reggae songs like the Mighty Diamonds’ ‘I Need A Roof’, and Don Carlos’ ‘Just A Passing Glance’ – both big hits in Jamaica itself and internationally popular among reggae fans – do not reach even the 500.000 hits on YouTube at this moment.

Mark H. Harris, who for a time had a Reggae Reviews website, pointed out that Steel Pulse “cursed itself” as they began strong with their debut album Handsworth Revolution (1978), which he finds a classic. He opines that consequent albums of Steel Pulse were comparably less in quality than their strong debut, with weaker songs, and even amateurish here and there, or too commercial in some cases, though he says they would regain their form on later stronger albums. Here you can read his opinions on Steel Pulse albums. I partly, but not entirely, agree with him, though to be honest I haven’t heard all Steel Pulse albums or songs he mentions.


My favourite British-based reggae act, however, would overall be Misty In Roots, and they were/are London-based. But, more than this: my love for reggae was – from the beginning – mainly focussed on Jamaican reggae. I heard about other reggae fans getting into reggae through British reggae or ska (UB40, Steel Pulse, Aswad, Selecter, Specials a.o.). This was not the case with me: it started and stayed with reggae from Jamaica itself. In time, however, I listened to British-based reggae as well, which at times I liked.

This later and secondary interest for British-based reggae might show in the fact that beyond “mainstream” UB40, and more “rootical” - though still with some “mainstream” feel sometimes - Steel Pulse, I knew relatively little about Birmingham reggae acts. I have heard about Dub Poet Benjamin Zephaniah, but did not really realize he was originally from Handsworth, Birmingham. Zephaniah said the atmosphere in Handsworth was dominantly Jamaican when he grew up in that district of Birmingham. He even called Handsworth “the capital of Jamaica in Europe”.

To be honest, I did at first not even know that Handsworth – as in the good Steel Pulse song ‘Handsworth Revolution’ – referred to a specific Birmingham quarter, not far north of the city centre, and with relatively many Jamaican inhabitants. I did know more about the geography of Kingston, Jamaica (which I have also actually visited much earlier than Birmingham), ironically much farther away from my hometown Amsterdam than Birmingham...

After some research, I found that Ruby Turner (that I know a bit from) was also from Birmingham, as well as toasters Pato Banton, and Apache Indian (of ‘Boom Shack-A-Lack’ fame), but I never really got into these latter artists. Also Beshara was a reggae band with some popularity from Birmingham (lovers rock, but also some roots and Rastafari-inspired lyrics). I have, I admit, until recently never heard of Beshara. What I recently heard from Beshara on YouTube sounded good to me.

I have heard, however, from the Musical Youth, having an international hit as young children with a remake of the Mighty Diamonds’ ’Pass the Kutchie’, under the name ‘Pass the Dutchie' (that is: replacing the ganja reference with a reference to a type of cooking pot). Musical Youth were also from Birmingham. I did not really know that. I live and I learn..

But besides my personal, partly limited knowledge, - which says most about me and my own preferences -, many do point out that Birmingham has since long a quite vibrant reggae scene, since the 1970s, and up to the present. There are presently, in 2013, in Birmingham reggae-minded studios and production houses active, that are connected with the Jamaican reggae scene, and that are successful with their reggae productions. This post on the Birmingham reggae scene of another blogger is interesting in this regard:


Steel Pulse is also still active by the way, though band members have changed over time.

After doing more research and seeing a few documentaries I found out more about the Birmingham reggae scene since the 1970s. I found out that Birmingham’s popular culture and subcultures reflect the multicultural character of Birmingham’s population. This is perhaps predictable. Somewhat more special is that from this multiculturalism also developed mixtures of the different cultures. Even some globally relatively rare mixtures. Not only that many white British youths got into ska and reggae and were influenced by Jamaican or Black culture (including skinheads and Punks)….that is quite well-known by now. But also some black youth from Birmingham were influenced by the Punk subculture, apparently. Also, the Bhangra music genre – based on Punjabi/Indian/Pakistani traditional music, and then modernized - was influenced by Black music genres like reggae and funk in Birmingham. Birmingham is known by the way as the hotbed of this hybrid Bhangra music genre.

Examples of cultures “mixing” beyond just coexisting as a further dimension of multiculturalism, and which can have good, or at least innovative, effects..

The interesting recently appeared documentary ‘Made in Birmingham: Reggae Punk Bhangra’ (2010) – entirely on YouTube - pays quite some attention to the important Birmingham reggae scene since the 1970s, as well as to other genres and subcultures with which it intermixed. It shows how reggae was influential within the whole popular music scene of Birmingham, influencing also Punk, and discusses the said cultural mixtures.

A (historical) compilation album of “Birmingham reggae” songs by various artists, along the lines of the compilation album on the ‘Bristol Reggae Explosion’ - which I mentioned on my blog post on Bristol of June 2011 - seems therefore an excellent idea.