The Forgotten Women of Punk: The Selecter’s Pauline Black on Anti-Racism, Ska, and the Power of Subculture

For the third edition of the Forgotten Women of Punk series, we’re expanding the umbrella of punk stylistically a little bit to include ska, the Jamaican precursor to rocksteady and reggae revived in late 1970s Britain and combined with punk to create 2 Tone. We spoke with pioneering singer, author and actress Pauline Black of The Selecter, a woman who Gwen Stefani, among others, has consistently cited as a hero and influence.

Black, who also manages The Selecter herself these days, was candid and thoughtful about her musical history and present, the ethos of 2 Tone as staunchly anti-racist and anti-sexist and how relevant that is today, and the power of both subculture and multiculturalism.

Flavorwire: You’re an absolute hero to me, so it’s amazing to be talking to you. You were one of the people who really inspired me to start playing music myself. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got started playing music?

Pauline Black: I got started in music purely and simply because I was – I taught myself to play guitar, and the only places that I could really play were in the back rooms of pubs, in folk clubs, that kind of thing. It never really occurred to me that I wanted to join a band. I rather enjoyed singer-songwriters when I first began — people like Joan Armatrading [and] Joni Mitchell, that kind of thing. People who sang about the social situations around them. So, I started off doing that, and covering music by artists that I liked — I did some Bob Marley songs, some Bob Dylan songs, who I greatly admired for his particular stance on certain things — and also some Joan Armatrading. It just kind of developed, really, out of that.

Eventually I got writing with somebody else who happened to be doing a politics degree at Warwick University, which is three miles away from where I live in Coventry, which is in the middle of England, basically. They were from the Caribbean, and they introduced me to Bob Marley, to the Last Poets, all those kinds of things. It really was the completion of my education, I guess. I had always been very interested in black American politics, things that were going on either with Dr. Martin Luther King or with Malcolm X or at the time. I was very young then — like, 13, 14, 15 — when all those things went down. But I could see that that was something that interested me far more than anything that I saw over here that involved black people. I could see that the front line really was in America at that time.

How did you get together with the other folks to start The Selecter?

Well, The Selecter started life as an instrumental song which was written by Neol Davies, who was the lead guitarist and main songwriter in the band. He recorded an instrumental [version of the song], and two years [later] it came out on the flipside of The Specials’ “Gangsters” record. And when “Gangsters” started climbing the charts here in Britain, it was suggested to Neol that he form a band. So he knew some people who were in a local reggae band called Hard Top 22, via jam sessions that they’d had together at a local youth club here, Holyhead Youth Center. I guess I was kind of the cherry on top of the cake, really. I was sought by Lynval Golding from The Specials. He said “Hey, there’s this girl over here who can sing. She can write songs, too. Why don’t you have a look?” And I turned up to a session that they were having, putting a band together in the back room of a pub in Coventry. I had a song called “They Make Me Mad,” and I said, “Hey, let’s do this. Let’s try this out. I’ll sing, you play, and I’ll teach you the chords,” and they didn’t ask me to leave, so that’s pretty much how it worked.

That’s pretty fantastic. Can you tell me a little bit about the connection between ska and punk at that time in Britain? I certainly know what I’ve read, but you were there, and you were a key part of it.

I think you’ve actually got to remember that ska music originated in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s in Jamaica. What we were doing, really, was looking back in time, reviving that sound. It was more uptempo than reggae music, and also you could mix it up with a lot of different things. And what us as young people had been listening to in this country, primarily, until then — particularly if you were slightly left field of mainstream — was punk music and reggae music. So we took punk and reggae and mixed it up with the more danceable ska rhythm. That’s pretty much what Selecter music was then – and still is today.

I know that you narrated a BBC documentary on soul music as well. The connection between soul and ska has also always been really interesting to me.

Yeah. I’m a female vocalist, and there are plenty of elements of soul music that can be brought into this kind of music. I’m not one of those purists, like “This has got to be ska and you can’t do anything else.” I think the best people are hybrids and the best music is hybrid. And the best dogs are hybrids as well!

Yes! They’re the hardiest and healthiest.

The more that you get into the mix, the healthier it is, and also the more interesting it is, because music is about rhythm and what chords you use, what harmonies you use. And if you mix up a lot of different genres, if you’re lucky, you come out with something which is really good.

Definitely. Carbon copies of things aren’t as interesting as music that draws from lots of different influences and ideas and mixes it up.

That’s what it comes down to as well — ideas. You have to start out with ideas. And I guess, as well, because my father was Nigerian, my mother was Jewish English, I was brought up by and adopted into a white family in this country who were blue collar. I tend to feel that all of those influences that made joining a band which was into something that had an ethic behind it which was anti-racist and anti-sexist, 2 Tone, was a perfect fit for me. It may not have been for a lot of people, but for my particular narrative that I brought to the table, it was a perfect fit for me. I always felt comfortable.

Absolutely. Did you ever have any bad run-ins with racist skinheads? Over here in the States there was sort of a garbled interpretation of skinhead culture when it came to the crossover of Oi! and ska, and that led to some weird politics sometimes.

Well, I mean, skinheads are unreconstructed males, really.

That’s perfect.

They’re slightly bothersome, and stupid, and you kind of think to yourself “What on earth can you do with them?” But having said that, I think you have to remember that the whole styling that skinheads picked up on was actually taken from young Jamaican black workers who worked on the docks in Britain. The Doc Martens, the very short Levis, the braces… that was their style of dress. Ironically, they listened to black music, ska music, on the Trojan label and stuff like that.

But that’s often the work of racists — they get it all muddled up, and I don’t know if they really are stupid or they just get it muddled up. But that’s the one thing you can always tell [about] a racist — they will always get it wrong when it comes to any talk about ethnicity. They will always get it wrong. That’s not to say that all skinheads are racist. There have been plenty of movements, the most notable being Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, who are worldwide and actively fight against those kinds of things. I’d say that there are far more fascists that are probably looking around looking like Donald Trump that have billions of dollars than guys that are walking around in cutoff Levi’s and short haircuts.

So I know that you’re still making music, and I know that you were doing 3 Men + Black for a while — are you still doing that project?

No, no. 3 Men + Black began in the early 2000s, and we haven’t done anything since 2005. There is an album out, and it has Jean-Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers, Jake Burns from Stiff Little Fingers, and also Bruce Foxton from The Jam. We got along tremendously well. It was really, really great to do.

It’s a great record, really fun.

Occasionally Dave Wakeling from The Beat, if he was over here, came in to do a 2 Tone version of it, and Rhoda Dakar from The Bodysnatchers. It was something that we wanted to bring to America, but Jake didn’t think that was a really great idea, he thought that they might misinterpret “3 Men + Black” as “Three Men and a Black.” There might be some weirdness about it? I thought he was being a bit daft, actually. I said, “The American people are far more intelligent than that.”

I’d hope that we would have gotten it.

I’d think that you would have gotten it in the end.

So what are you working on now?

What we’re working now is The Selecter – myself, and Gaps Hendrickson, and six other wonderful musicians who we’ve been working with for the last five years. We’ve been working up a storm in Europe, in Australia — we have been over to America, to Coachella, and have done the west coast and the east coast. We just put out a new album called Subculture, because what we do really has a life through these subcultures. The subcultures that were into 2 Tone, which was a movement, obviously, were the mods, the skinheads, the Northern Soul-ers, the rude boys, the rude girls — and they all still have a presence in today’s world. There are young people who still dress that way and are still into that, and then there are the older generation, of course, who grew up that way and remember it the first time round. Those are the people who come to see us, and we just thought to celebrate that whole thing — let’s make an album. And Subculture is the album we made.

For me, getting involved in DIY and punk rock — it saved my life, to be honest. Being able to have access to music and make music on that level really changed things for me. And I remember hearing your music on our local college radio station — I was born in the late ‘70s, so I was a little kid, but I definitely remember hearing it and loving it, and that inspired me. I thought, “If these people can do it, I can do it too.” That’s so important and huge, and I think it’s really cool that you made a whole record about the power of all of that.

Yeah. It’s about the power of subculture, and also the power of multiculturalism. That’s what we’ve emphasized over the last five years, that 2 Tone came together to show that black people and white people could get along perfectly fine in a band and make really great music. In a way that says more against racist ideas than any full-scale thesis could really do —just seeing it, the visual aspect of seeing that, and of seeing a woman fronting a band, a fairly male milieu, and having ideas and having a very upfront image and way of putting those ideas across. And that still resonates today.

Let’s face it, these [prejudices] haven’t grown old. They’ve got worse. Racism has moved in all kinds of directions, and so has sexism. Worldwide, violence against women is probably at an all-time high. And in America, you have things like Ferguson — that legacy left over from slavery, from the civil rights movement. You’re having to deal with that. Likewise, in this country, we’re having to deal with what it means to live in a multicultural society. There’s also all of the people who are being displaced from the Middle East and are coming to seek refuge in Europe, and Europeans being their usual jingoistic selves — and I include the Brits in that as well — having to come to terms with that and what that all means.

That is all grist for the Selecter mill. We believe that it doesn’t matter that we may have started 35 years ago or whatever, we as a band shouldn’t be worried about whatever heritage we have and what our first album was, we should be worried about what’s going on today.

Yeah, absolutely. So, the songs that you’re writing are powered by what’s going on today?

Right. In 1979, in 1980, when we did our first album, it was powered by what was going on then. I had no wish to be just going out and just pounding that stuff and saying “Hey, we were right.” We may well have been right. We may well have been even ahead of the curve. But the thing is to be communicating today, and not just to those people who are the same age as us, or even slightly before us, but to young people who are coming along, because they’re the ones who are going to be carrying that flag into the future, not us.

It’s great to see you guys as a band who have a continuity and are growing, still, not focused on looking backwards and resting on your laurels.

It takes a girl to do that.

It does!

Guys, when they get to a certain age, all they’re worried about is their legacy. You don’t really worry about that quite so much; you’re in charge of producing future generations.

Right. You worry about nurturing, even if you’re not someone who can or does have children. You worry about the children and the world they’re going to inherit.

Right. It’s your job to make sure that the children get the right ideas, that they’re not complete assholes like Trump or the right-wingers over here. There has to be a balance.

What kind of songs have you written lately? What are the themes that you’re writing about?

Well, on this present album, there’s quite a lot. There’s a song called “Babylon,” which basically deals with what was going on in the Gaza Strip last year, and what is happening between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “Babylon” is a play on words, as in babble on, because all we do is talk about this. It needs to be resolved.

1967 onward, yes.

And also there’s a song called “Breakdown,” which is talking about police brutality. We give a very long list of people, both in this country and in America, who’ve died at the hands of police. “Breakdown” revolves around communities where communication has actually broken down. And it’s like, “How are you going to repair that?” It’s very similar to “Babylon,” I guess. When communication breaks down and people are no longer talking to each other, that is when the only thing that fills that void is violence. And while we still pursue that road, all the time, nothing really moves on.

It really, at this moment, feels like the world is at an impasse. There’s another song called “Box Fresh,” that pretty much speaks for itself. It was the first song that I wrote for the album. It was like a clarion call, I guess, saying: this song springs box fresh. This album is box fresh, as far as we are concerned. This is going to deal with new things. This is going to get to what we think about what’s going on in the world today.

There’s another song called “Walk the Walk,” which is our newest single that’s out here at the moment, and again – it’s about standing up for your principles, standing up for the things that you believe in. Walk the walk and talk the talk, don’t just pretend that everything’s really rosy in the rose garden. Also there’s another song called “Still I Rise,” which I wrote pretty much the same day as Maya Angelou passed away last year. I was very much taken with Maya Angelou’s life story, everything she stood for, and also her wonderful poem “Still I Rise.” And I feel very much that the music that The Selecter does, certainly the ideas that I would like The Selecter to present to the world at the moment, very much fit around that — multiculturalism is the way forward as far as I can see. And still that rises. It may be incremental, but still it goes further, because there is no other way to progress.

Yeah. Something that always struck me about 2 Tone was that it was multicultural, but never colorblind. Everybody brought their own heritage and their own perspectives, and it was never presented as “Oh, we’re all just people, we don’t see color.” We are all just people, but our differences matter as much as our similarities.

Exactly. I have a real thing about that, when people go “Oh, I’m colorblind.” That’s not the way that I see the world when I walk down the street. I agree entirely. I have always loved meeting people from different cultures, and everybody in the band at the moment — we’re split completely down the middle, four black, four white, and among the blacks there’s all kinds of different strands of people coming in. Some are Trinidadian, some are from other islands, some of their heritage is African. And also the whole idea, the wonderful idea that you have in America right now that’s being picked up over here is Afropunk, that’s a real revelation to me that people think that’s a viable way to go. I think it’s a wonderful way to go. It’s very much something that got squished out of people, maybe, 20 or 30 years ago. If you liked punk music, people would say “Oh, you shouldn’t really be in there with those white folk.” But it’s in that cross-fertilization and that cross-cultural thing that great things spring up.