Born from anger at social injustice and a love of Jamaican ska music, Coventry’s The Selecter were one of the figureheads of the original 2-Tone movement. Four decades later and the band are celebrating a remarkable career with a huge tour. Calling in at De La Warr Pavilion on Thurs 21 Nov, the UK shows see them play several venues, which welcomed them during last year’s outings with fellow 2-Tone act The Beat. After the recent death of The Beat’s totemic frontman Ranking Roger, occasionally it’s been a sobering experience. “It’s quite poignant sometimes, to think it’s such a short time ago since Roger passed. That’s a great loss to 2-Tone.” A collection of like-minded bands, all grouped together on the same record label. This was a multi-racial, multi-cultural phenomenon, which forced change in 80s pop. It was a scene asking what could be done about the still-familiar problems of racism, sexism and class division.
An accomplished author, established actress and celebrated style icon, The Selecter’s iconic singer appreciates 40 years is a long time for a band to still be playing, producing new material and remaining relevant. “The 2-Tone movement is a bigger idea than the band. The world has not gone through such massive changes over the past 40 years, so what we were talking about back then hasn’t significantly changed. I think that still resonates with new generations who are coming through.” Black and the band have always taken an honest look at the world and reflected it back through their music. And certain themes have been constant throughout this impressive career.
Even when attitudes have largely changed, or certain behaviours become socially unacceptable, dog-whistle politics are still able to trigger negativity. “It could be stopped in one foul swoop. Remove half of the Tory party and you’d probably get a bit of reduction in those kinds of things. Social media certainly has enabled these kind of people – but it has enabled people of a more left-wing persuasion, like myself, to find others and group them around issues.”
While band only have two original members from 1979, their music is as urgent and exhilarating as it ever. On 2017’s Daylight album, their familiar brand of ska, reggae and pop found some weighty relevance. – tackling identity, homelessness and privilege. “It’s only difficult if you let your brain go to mush,” Black says with a laugh. “Which a lot of musicians 40 years later have done, either through various substances, apathy or their bank balances are so huge that they don’t give a damn.” In some ways the album was ahead of its time. Recorded in the immediate aftermath of the EU Referendum, Daylight skilfully dissected a society which teeters on the verge of crisis. “We were playing a fairly angry gig on the Leftfield Stage at Glastonbury that weekend. I remember having a conversation with Billy Bragg about it, asking: ‘Can people really think it’s a good idea?’ And here we all are. All that time later, and it wasn’t a good idea. It’s divided Britain ever since.” It does concern her that people readily subscribed to propaganda they’d seen on Facebook or on the side of a bus, along with the lack of accountability for those spreading misinformation. “You think: ‘My God, these people walk among us’. Sometimes, I do find that fairly horrifying. I’ve spent most of my life thinking that racists walk among us. They’re not the skinhead sort of racist, they’re people who look perfectly normal. It’s one of those things you have to get used to.”
Despite being a British music icon, and undoubted role model, she doesn’t regard herself as any type of leader. “I lead a band, yes. I make the decisions for that band, with the help of management. Whether I’m natural or not… We’re going 40 years later, so I must be doing something right.” Throughout her time with the band, and away doing her own thing, she’s been described as a ‘trailblazer’. Black counters that you didn’t need to do very much, other than be a female, in those days. “If you can through a bit of diversity at the same time… Not to sound cynical, but there weren’t that many black females doing alternative music. So obviously people are going to be interested in what you have to say… They can use that and run with it in the media.”
She used, and continues to use, the attention as a platform for what 2-Tone had to say about life, and the state of the country. When the band started it was Thatcherite era, a time of union bashing and poll tax. There were plenty of inequalities for them to highlight. “The general message of 2-Tone in those days was a simple alien to most people. Things like multiculturalism, nobody had invented that word at that time. Really, people didn’t understand the nuances of racism, or had never taken on the word ‘diversity’ as for what that might mean to them.”
For the most part, she’s held onto the ideas of her youth. Obviously, this has gently evolved with the help of her world experiences. And one spectre remains after four decades. “The march of the far right I’ve certainly seen in the last three months, because we’ve been on the road since late September, is quite visible and quite worrying, especially to me.”
Originally Black’s career ambitions were more science-orientated, before the career in rock music swept her away. “For the tools I was actually given, it went rather well. Out of the opportunity we had, and that only lasted for 18 months or maybe two years, to still be doing what I’m doing now, I don’t feel like I’ve been cheated in any way…” She credits her longevity to simple honesty in her music. “It’s a difficult one to get through. If you’re on stage, you can spot artifice. I don’t feel that any other the ways that myself or The Selecter has done anything other than portray reality and what we see around us.”
The Selecter play Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion on Thurs 21 Nov 2019
All images by Dean Chalkley