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Racism inspired me to start the Selecter
HER distinctive voice inspired thousands to stand up against racism and sexism.
Now Queen of Ska Pauline Black has looked back at her amazing life in her autobiography Black By Design.
From finding out she was adopted and the racism she experienced growing up in Essex, to going on to front legendary band the Selector, the 59-year-old tells her story with honesty and humour.
She says it was her experience as a young mixed race woman growing up in a predominantly white area, that influenced her music career.
She says: “In my book, I say one of my earliest memories was finding out I was adopted and all that entailed. I was a mixed race child in Romford. There were very few black people around at that time, hardly any.
“This was the fifties and it was a very different time to it is now. There was a lot of casual, ignorant racism around.”
The Selecter were at the forefront of a youth movement that stood up against racism and sexism – provoking huge change in the early eighties.
Pauline adds: “What I’ve always wanted to do is talk about the position of what it means to be mixed race.
“I very much embrace that black side of me but still wanted to explore all the other side of me and 2-Tone was the best way to do that.
“It was certainly a subject people didn’t want to talk about at that time. It was the right time for bands like ours and the Specials and Madness.
“You had the National Front out on the streets, you had Rock Against Racism and all that was being played out through the youth.
“You could arguably say it was the last time there was any politics within any youth movement.
“We were trying to tell people about something – basically racism wasn’t a very good idea and it wasn’t going to further the human race very far.”
It was the mid-Seventies when Pauline picked up a guitar and in her own words “had a go”.
She played gigs in Coventry in the back rooms of pubs and it was there the Selecter was born. From humble beginnings, they were catapulted to success. Hits like Three Minute Hero and On My Radio became the soundtrack for a generation.
Within six months they toured with Madness and the Specials, playing sold-out venues to thousands of fans.
Pauline said: “We were aware things were moving fairly quick. It was like you are running along behind trying to catch up.
“You don’t really have time to enjoy what is going on at the time it is happening.
“In retrospect you look at it and think ‘wow that was really good’.
“Probably the best moment ever was on the 2-Tone tour when all three bands came together at the end of the night and we would sing Madness, which is a Prince Buster tune.
“It was just a really joyous moment and everybody in the audience would be bouncing around.
“It just used to sum up the 2-Tone thing. It was a mad two years.”
Pauline has contributed to the way attitudes towards women in the music industry have changed. She remembers the first time she appeared on the cover of music magazine NME alongside five other frontwomen. She said: “No one could say we were into music so they called us ‘Princesses of Pop’ whatever that means. Incredibly stupid headline. “It was like you couldn’t put one woman on the cover of a magazine so they put six of us together.
“Six women made one male rock star. “Things have significantly changed since then, but that is what we had to put up with and that was in 1980.
“I think women had to fight for that position and its very easy to be exploited in the music business for all sorts of reasons, but certainly there are 100 times more women around than there were then and women that are taken more seriously.
So I consider that a plus.”
The Selecter are still touring regularly and say they now have a new generation of followers – people who listened to their parent’s music growing up.
Pauline said although times have changed since the Thatcher years, the message and issues they talk about are as relevant as ever.
She added: “It informs them about the way things were then. Although we can say things have changed, how much have they changed?
“Racism is still out there. It hasn’t gone away.”
Pauline reminisces about touring with musical giants Madness and The Specials when she comes to the Grays library on March 6 as part of Essex Book Festival.
She will be returning to her Essex roots next month when she talks about her autobiography.
Pauline Black will be at Grays Library, in the Thameside complex, from 7.30pm on Wednesday, March 6.
The Selecter will also be playing Colchester Arts Centre on Thursday, March 23. Black by Design: A 2-Tone Memoir is available now priced £8.99.
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