Shine A Light

Why Stuart Hall was music to my ears

One Black boy's journey through music and ideas.

Ornette Clennon
20 February 2014

Ornette and kids_0.jpg

At premiere of Ornette's gamelan/dubstep piece Only You 2.0; Halle St Peter's, 2013

I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones! My parents came to England from Kingston, Jamaica in the 60s, following my grandparents a decade earlier. Why lucky? I wasn’t quite the statistic of a black boy growing up in 70’s Manchester from a typical West Indian background. An only child, I grew up in an extended family in the leafy Manchester suburb of Whalley Range. My family were middle-class Jamaicans who emigrated for a better life, a family that valued education above all. That was the lucky bit.

They arrived with all of their appreciation of education and British culture (and remember, they were educated under the English educational system). They were met with everyday racial abuse on the streets — especially experienced by my grandparents, who found jobs as a nurse and British rail worker. This wilful forgetting of their status as children of the Mother country inevitably makes me remember the countless times my mother had to visit my primary school to interrogate the teachers about my seeming lack of academic progress (which led to me changing primary schools). I remember all through my years at secondary school, teachers telling me that I wouldn’t amount to anything, let alone go to university.


Ornette, aged 2

By the time I was two years old, in 1971, we were a single-parent family. The ‘black single mother’ stereotypes tried to tie me down. My mother, through sometimes working multiple jobs and with the help of my grandparents, fought heroically to insulate me against the extremes of an education system that had already consigned me to the scrap heap of Black underachievement.

I was brought up with books (my mum managed to go to university part-time), I was fortunate enough to receive private music lessons, I owned my own clarinets (my mum’s multiple jobs!) and I played in the school and regional youth orchestras. All of this was made possible by a generous music department in Manchester City Council, at the time, that provided all these free musical activities (for which you had to audition).

I had decided from a very early age that I was going to be a classical musician and my mother had always intended for me to go to university. Thankfully all of my family’s efforts counterbalanced the extreme battles that I had to endure through my school (and university) days; the battling bit, at least is the usual story of those of us who hail from the Caribbean Diaspora.

So imagine my awe when I discovered Stuart Hall’s work. It represented an intellectual awakening for me. He introduced me to a whole new world of black writers, such as Paul Gilroy, Homi K. Bhabha, Cornel West, bell hooks, Frantz Fanon, Marcus Garvey and more. This was a whole new critical discourse that gave me permission to ask questions about myself and my cultural identity. Questions asked from the perspective of someone from the Caribbean. Although the literature was new to me, the perspective was familiar — and practiced by my family.

Hall’s work mentored me in my critical thinking about my own identity as a Black Briton. He gave me the courage to think about and challenge mainstream views about my national and cultural British identities and make sense of the sacrifices my family had made for me.

I remember, back in the 80s, attending a cousin’s wedding in London. We had to take a diversion to get to the reception hall on Brixton High Street. The adults were calmly telling us not to look out of the window for fear of a brick coming through. My cousins down in London were being stopped and searched constantly under the sus laws at the time, forcing them to eventually relocate their car repairs shop to the US!


Ornette, aged 18, inter-railing, Switzerland

Hall encouraged me to ask questions about who had the power to make things the way they were (and still are, despite appearances); questions about why this power had the ability to touch my life in such negative ways. Structural racism the ever present cloud under which many from the Caribbean diaspora (and beyond) live.

In his chapter ‘New Ethnicities’ from the excellent book (published in 1996), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, Hall talks about a Caribbean culture that is an articulated “diaspora experience” (p. 448) where it is constantly shifting and changing in relation to a dream or yearning for a re-imagined past or origin. Hall makes the point that because the Caribbean has been the site of cultural exploration, re-discovery and dispute (cultural processes for the enslaved and colonised), it always has at its heart a dislocated and idealised but unspoken relationship with its reconstructed recollection of Africa. The resultant formation of identity was never pure but was always carrying a “process of unsettling, recombination, hybridization and ‘cut-and-mix’ in short a process of cultural diaspora-ization” (p. 448)

Through Hall, I discovered that this perspective of the “diaspora experience” continues up to this present day to shape the modern Britain, in which I live and I am a small part of that. He taught me to really appreciate and defend the “new ethnicities” and new cultures in the UK that my creolised cultural heritage has helped to shape. Hall’s thinking helped me, as a composer, to understand the cultural significance of what we call urban music, its “cut-and-mix” genius, which naturally lends itself to inclusivity and “multiculturalism”.

In my work as a community musician and composer, I have worked across a vast spectrum of community areas ranging from adults with learning disabilities and special needs to working in mental health projects and psychiatric units, grass roots community education groups, residential care settings, head injury units, physical disability centres, youth clubs, schools, nurseries and universities.

Hall's work guided me especially in my early work with young male offenders in the Sonic Db Music Technology in Prisons project. Hall inspired me to help young people to write and record their own music, to use music to chart our cultural histories and journeys towards this wonderful hybridity that we call urban culture. Music helped the young men to examine their cultural identities and attitudes towards homophobia, misogyny and racism and the impact of all of that on their criminal behaviour.  

Instead of bemoaning the appropriation of my musical heritage by the popular mainstream, Hall taught me to take pride in my culture’s huge influence in shaping the culture of modern Britain and allowed me to share that with my youth groups.

Perhaps, as importantly, Hall showed me how to articulate the stories of my cultural heritage as heard through the musical transitions between “mento” pioneered by early music entrepreneurs such as Ken Khouri. Then there was ska, then rocksteady with the incomparable Alton Ellis followed by reggae and dub from the likes of King Tubby. We mustn’t forget the early sound systems of the UK dancehalls, pioneered by seminal mixing engineers like Duke Reid and Clement Dodd who profoundly influenced the emergence of the Toasters, Masters of Ceremonies and Talk-over artists such as Ewart Beckford aka U-Roy. These Toasters and Masters of Ceremonies are “ancestors” of what today we now know as MCs in British urban music. Jamaican “roots” music even influenced the beginnings of rap and hip hop, again due to the “diaspora experience” this time in the US in 1970s.

Hall taught me to be mindful and to (be) articulate.  I was blown away by his take on “articulated” discourse.  Articulation, as Hall explains in his 1986 article ‘On postmodernism and articulation: an interview with Stuart Hall’ (edited by Grossberg) is a simultaneous discursive parsing and linking to uncover the fundamental power structures and relations between both disparate and unified aspects of dominance and subordination. In other words, a means of giving context to a subject but crucially also tracing the origin of the context in the first place!

However, Hall’s acknowledgment of “lines of tendential force” (p. 53) implies that certain articulations generate an irresistible attraction of other articulations to themselves; a figurative ‘all roads lead to Rome’. His use of this discursive tool reminds me of a master musician riffing on a theme until he uncovers another and yet another until he reaches the master theme, to which all the previous themes belong. For me, this summed up his playfulness and extreme inventiveness that belied an intense intellectual rigour and discipline (which I still try to emulate, with varying degrees of success, alas!).

As the so-called “God father of multiculturalism”, Hall managed to make the work of Raymond Williams and Edward Thompson relevant to me through my first reading of the 1967 New Left’s May Day Manifesto. He brought to life the common struggles of the white working classes and the then newly-arrived Caribbean sons and later daughters of the Mother country but with a subtle nuance which acknowledged their (and our) differences. To think that this Jamaican-born intellectual has left such an indelible mark on the international intellectual and academic scenes fills me with huge cultural pride. We often only think of Bob Marley as Jamaica’s biggest cultural export (Usain Bolt not withstanding) but I would like to think that Stuart Hall will be remembered in a similar way, as he devoted his entire adult life to getting us to follow Bob Marley’s Redemption Song’s paraphrased advice (via Marcus Garvey’s Nova Scotia 1937 speech) to “emancipate ourselves from mental slavery”.

Ornette Clennon's Soundcloud player is here.

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