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How 'The Queen Of British Ska' Wrestled With Race
Originally published on Sun June 10, 2012 7:44 am
The British ska-revival band The Selecter formed in the late 1970s, playing what can be described as rock fused with calypso and American jazz.
Much of what set the band apart was its charismatic lead singer, Pauline Black. As one of few women in a musical movement dominated by men, she was called "The Queen of British Ska."
That experience is one of many recounted in her new memoir, Black by Design, which has just been released in the U.S.
Black opens her memoir with a scene from 1958: She is 4 years old and living in the working-class county of Essex, England, where her journey of self-discovery is about to begin.
"I think it was one of those occasions where I had to be told I was adopted, because the family I had been adopted into were a white, working-class family," she tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon. "I was about to start school — and, of course, I would be the only black child in the school."
After Black learned she was adopted, she started to pick up on certain tensions in British society.
"For a lot of black people that grow up in a predominantly white society, obviously you do notice the difference," she says. "It's not just a question of skin color. It is a question of attitudes. It is a question of expectations."
Black says that this social consciousness led her to a career in music.
"Somebody was looking for a lead singer for a band," she says, "and I looked at this particular band, and looked at what they were saying — which was an anti-racist stand and also anti-sexist stand — and for me, I felt at that time that it was a perfect fit."
The Selecter disbanded in the early '80s. (The group would re-form a decade later.) Black got more heavily involved in acting. She says it was around this time that she decided she wanted to learn more about her birth parents.
"I had gotten to the age, I suppose, of 42 years old, and I'd always known that my mother was 17 years older than I was. And I thought, 'Well, if I want to be in a position when I'm meeting someone who probably still has their health still together, and we can sit and we can talk, I'd better do it now,'" she says. "That really led me off on that journey — and it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride — but it took me, I would say, the best part of two weeks to go from not knowing who my mother was to actually talking to her in Australia."
By the time Black decided to meet her father, Gordon Adenle, he had passed away.
"I got in touch with his second wife — who is a lovely lady; she's nearly 90 now — and she told me to get on a train and present myself at her door the following day," Black says. "As soon as she saw me, she just burst into tears and said, 'You're so much like your father.'"
Black says that getting in touch with her biological family has let her put down roots — something she values highly.
"I know [this] probably sounds a little bit like a cliche, but I feel that it's very, very important for every individual on this planet to know where they came from and who they came from," she says. "It just gives you a sense of belonging, and I think that sense of belonging is more profound than probably any of us give it credit for."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON MY RADIO")
THE SELECTOR: (Singing) Someone who loves me switch the radio on. Someone who loves me...
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
That's "On My Radio," the 1979 hit song by the British ska revival band, The Selector. The group formed in the late 1970s playing what can be described as rock fused with calypso and American jazz. But much of what set the band apart was its charismatic lead singer, Pauline Black. She was called the queen of British ska, and one of the very few women in a musical movement that was dominated by men.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON MY RADIO")
SELECTOR: (Singing) I brought my baby a red radio. He played it all day. A go-go, a go-go...
SIMON: That experience is one of many recounted in her new memoir just released in the United States. It's called "Black by Design." And Pauline Black joins us from the BBC studios in Coventry. Thanks very much for being with us.
PAULINE BLACK: My pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: Let's start where the book does, 1958, and you are 4 years old. You're living in Essex. And your mother shares what I'll describe as a secret with you that's plain as the nose on your face.
BLACK: Well, yes, very much. I think it was one of those occasions when I had to be told that I was being adopted because the family I had been adopted into were a white working-class family and I was about to start school. And, of course, I would be the only black child in the school, certainly, in that particular age. And it was time to fess up, I guess, and tell me maybe what my origins were. And this came as a little bit of a shock, as it would to most children because I think that you don't really notice what color you are until somebody points it out. And as they point it out in a way that is seemingly not the most perfect thing to be perhaps - which was the way it was pointed out to me - it does make you then begin to think, well, is there something wrong with being black in this particular society in my town and how am I going to deal with this? And so thus begun my story really.
SIMON: What affect did it have on you, do you think?
BLACK: I think initially it was just that I began to notice difference. For a lot of black people that grow up in predominantly white society, obviously, you do notice the difference. It's not just a question of skin color. It is question of attitudes, it is a question of expectations, all of those kind of things. And, yeah, it was a little tricky while I was growing up. I grew up in a family that really I suppose was racist, but purely through ignorance. I don't mean that in any sort of demeaning way. It was just one of those things. They didn't have the information.
SIMON: Now, you left your hometown to study science at university, right?
BLACK: Yes, I did.
SIMON: How did you wind up in a singing career?
BLACK: I had always had a yearning, I suppose, to study biochemistry, and I came here to Coventry to do that. And while I was doing that, I began playing around, back rooms and pubs and folk clubs my own music and that of other people. Like, you know, Bob Dylan and Joan Armatrading, at the time covering some of their songs. I suppose I happened to be at the right place at the right time. Somebody was looking for a lead singer for a band and I looked at this particular band and looked at what they were saying, which is an anti-racist stance and it was anti-sexist stance. And for me, I felt at that time it was a perfect fit.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SELECTOR: (Singing) Say (unintelligible) you're all right, and you say it. But all the time you know it's unmet.
SIMON: Was it lonely to be a woman among great ska performers?
BLACK: I think that for any female musician it can be fairly lonely on the road. But you just have to knuckle down, you know, and get on with it. You're there, you're there to do a job and I've always very much felt that it should be seen as a job and one of the better jobs that you can ever have in the world because you're being asked to be creative at the same time.
SIMON: Rather than try to come up with my own bad definition of ska, could we go to the source, which would be you?
BLACK: The definition of ska music - ska music originated in Jamaica. It originated with a band called the Skatalites.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLACK: And if everything is to be believed, it was really that people in Jamaica used to listen to the R&B stations that used to come out of Miami. But they only had little tinny radios that they heard it on and they were really trying to play R&B. But because they couldn't hear the bass, they could only hear the rhythm guitar, they read that as an off-beat. So, it's, you know, ska music is (makes chink, chink sound), like on the off-beat instead of the downbeat. And so originated ska. But I believe they thought they were playing R&B.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: The Selector eventually broke up. In the book, you describe this as happening alongside a time when you determined that you wanted to search out your birth parents, but timing was important to you.
BLACK: Yes, timing was very important at that time. I had gone to the age, I suppose, of 42 years old and I'd always known that my mother was 17 years older than I was. And I thought, well, if I want to be in a position where I'm meeting somebody who probably still has their health together and all those kinds of things and we can sit and we can talk, I better do it now. And so that really led me off on that journey. And it was a bit of a roller coaster ride, but it took me, I would say, the better part of two weeks to go from not knowing who my mother was to actually talking to her in Australia.
SIMON: Your mom - if I may - was 17 years old...
SIMON: And met a guy from Nigeria.
BLACK: Yes. My father was studying at Chelsea School of Science and Technology and he met her. And, you know, like all young people, I suppose they decided they rather liked each other. And I'm here to tell that tale basically. Unfortunately, her parents were not particularly broadminded and were not very happy, I don't think, that she had become pregnant and particularly by somebody from Nigeria. And I was put up for adoption. But my mother did manage to visit me until I was 18 months old when I was finally adopted. So, she had some sense of me growing up. And when I met her, she said that until I was 13 years old that she used to stand sometimes at the end of the road and watch me going to school, which I felt was just absolutely heartbreaking really.
SIMON: And your father's family - you were able to find them kind of nearby too.
BLACK: Yes, I was. I took a while before I asked my mother whether she could remember my father's name. And of course she could. So, I got in touch with his second wife, who is a lovely lady. She's nearly 90 now. And she told me to get on a train and present myself at her door the following day if I was Gordon Adenle's daughter. And as soon as she saw me, she just burst into tears and said you're so much like your father. And she furnished me with everything that I needed to know really. Unfortunately, my father had passed away the year before. That's the only thing I regret.
SIMON: What has he knowing put into your life?
BLACK: The knowing has put a sense of self and a sense of identity into my life. I know that probably sounds a little bit like a cliche, but I feel that it's very, very important for every individual on this planet to know where they came from and who they came from. It just gives you a sense of belonging, and I think that sense of belonging is more profound than probably any of us give it credit for.
SIMON: Singer and actress Pauline Black - and author Pauline Black - speaking with us about her new memoir, "Black by Design" of Coventry, London. Ms. Black, thanks so much.
BLACK: Thank you very much, Scott. It's very kind of you. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON MY RADIO")
SELECTOR: (Singing) It's just the same old song on my radio. Just the same old song on the my radio. Just the same old song on my radio. Just the same old song on my radio.
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.