“My mother cooked for the Wailers! ”: Leeds exposes its Caribbean history | Culture

Ohen considering Windrush’s British heritage, most people can think of London. The majority of Jamaican immigrants who came to the UK in the 1950s settled there – my own grandparents chose Stevenage, just north of the city. And yet, at the 2011 census, it was estimated that up to 5,000 of the 160,000 Jamaican-born British residents – and many more West Indians besides – lived in Leeds, the northern city I moved to in adulthood. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence, the community of Leeds has chosen to mark its own contribution to the culture of the city with the Out of Many Festivala series of lottery-funded arts and culture events named after Jamaica’s motto and organized by the Jamaica Society Leeds.

Five days before the launch of its inaugural exhibition, Rebellion to romance, curator and festival director Susan Pitter shows me around the floor space of Leeds Central Library. A second-generation Jamaican, Pitter has been active in the community since her teens, presenting Caribbean news on local radio before being introduced to Arthur France, founder of the Leeds West Indian Carnival.

Building on its 2019 Eulogy exhibit, Rebellion to Romance is less about marking the accomplishments of first-generation Windrush communities and more about celebrating the culture of its time; the 1970s and 80s. “With Eulogy, we had so many ephemera to work with; my parents’ generation kept it all,” says Pitter. “But in the 80s, everything was disposable. Doing this project shows that every time we keep something – a ticket to a show, a poster, whatever – it helps us tell a story, and no one else can tell our story like we can.

The hub of all important activity… Misty In Roots performing at the Rock Against Racism Carnival at Potternewton Park in June 1981. Photography: David Corio/Redferns

And what a rich and illustrious history. Without TripAdvisor close at hand, 20th-century West Indian immigrants relied on word of mouth to plot their destinations, following intrepid friends and family. As such, each community in West Yorkshire has a slightly different makeup; a Dominican dominance in Bradford, a large Grenadian community in Huddersfield, and then a mixture of Jamaicans, Kittitians and Nevisians in Leeds, all bringing different cultural influences. With a limit to the number of places where young black people in Leeds could feel truly welcome, the Chapeltown area became “their world”, and Potternewton set up the unofficial headquarters, a space to relax and listen to the systems local sound systems. “Having physical spaces to congregate was so important,” says Pitter. “I feel like there are third and fourth generation West Indians who will never know the joy of a house party like we had them.”

These house parties were essential. While West Indian children were allowed to attend baptisms and events with older family chaperones, the explosion of shebeen or “blues” parties gave them a taste of a more powerful musical culture. Unlicensed (and therefore illegal), the blues played out in the basements of Chapeltown’s townhouses, going on all night long with a mix of reggae and amorous rock. For Khadijah Ibrahim, a local poet and educator whose grandparents came in the 1950s, these parties weren’t just gatherings; they provided an opportunity to welcome some of Jamaica’s most exciting musicians, drawn to the Ibrahim family home because of their activism.

“My mom always says, ‘You know, Jimmy Cliff was dating your godmother,'” she laughs. the cimerons, Alton Ellis. My grandparents were part of an activist group called the Fraternity, which was firmly linked to [Marcus] Garveyism in their philosophy. As I got older, things started to click; we had the Chapeltown News, connected to a more national press, Race Today, and that’s how I read about the Mangrove Nine and attended meetings. For me as a poet, that’s what I react to; inequalities, but also the richness of culture.

This sense of activism, an inevitable consequence of the racism they experienced, resonates in many second-generation experiences. “The year I turned 18 there was the New Cross fire, uprisings across the country,” says Pitter. “I was just getting used to going out, but that changed things; it was like, ‘Is this room too crowded? What could happen?’ It was always in the back of our minds. Did that stop us? Not really, but it shook us. It should have shaken all of Britain, really.

Even before the New Cross Day fire claimed 13 lives among young black people in London, communities were beginning to retreat. Formed in 1978 by Paul Furness, the Leeds branch of Rock Against Racism made vocal allies with local bands such as the Mekons and Gang Of Four, who performed with black reggae bands such as Bodecian to mixed audiences and anti-racism. When the Specials headlined the Rock Against Racism Carnival in June 1981, it was held in Potternewton Park, the center of all major activity.

In 1987, Rock Against Racism also marked the start of an exciting new act from Leeds. Long before millennial white rockers could lay claim to the name, Chapeltown sisters Paulette and Annette Morris performed as jazz-reggae duo Royal Blood. Daughters of local St Clair Morris royalty, they found success with the love rock single Slipping Away, touring with everyone from the Roots to Boyzone. Paulette remembers the Rock Against Racism show as a day of “electric” community vibes. “We had black theater, black dance, Saturday schools teaching black history. All the individual islands where our parents came from didn’t matter, because my generation bonded through the racism we experienced.

Claude “Hopper” Hendrickson also found ways to make lemonade from the sour lemons of the exclusion. Meeting me at the West Indian Centre, where he is director, he tells me that by being the first to fully unite the three fundamental principles of costume, music and a masquerade parade, Leeds technically predates the offer now familiar from Notting Hill a year ago. “Given that we are the furthest northern bastion of Britain from the large Afro-Caribbean concentration, we have really contributed.”

the Rebellion to Romance exhibition at Leeds Central Library.
Lemonade from the sour lemons of exclusion… Gillian Gordon and Jeffrey ‘Skully’ Walwyn pictured in the Rebellion to Romance exhibition at Leeds Central Library. Photography: JMA Photography

Now in his 60s, Hopper has been playing sound systems since he was 14 years old. “We met at giant discs on a Saturday, all my friends, and each one buys the same thing. A friend went to Jamaica and came back with two suitcases full of records; we all dove in and realized we had all this new music to play that no one else had, and that’s where Dragon Hi-Fi began. While the white boys objected to their presence in their nightclubs—”although the white girls didn’t seem too bothered, which is interesting”—the sound systems were a safe haven. “Getting into sound systems was really about creating a space where we didn’t have to be afraid; racism actually caused us to create something of our own.

David Hamilton also created safe spaces for black boys, though his legacy lives on among dancers of all genders and walks of life. Under the tutelage of physical education teacher Nadine Senior (later founder of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance), her love of movement began at Harehills College, where dance lessons were treated with the same mixed seriousness as maths. or English. In 1981, at the age of 18, he founded the Phoenix Dance Company with his friends Donald Edwards and Vilmore James, joined a year later by Merville Jones and Edward Lynch. Soon the five musicians were touring 46 weeks a year, revolutionizing contemporary dance with elements of dub skanking and toasting.

Hamilton resigned as artistic director in 1987, but reunites the original lineup for a one-off performance as part of the Out of Many event program. Since then, a large number of dancers have passed through the doors of Phoenix Dance. “What can we say? ” he’s laughing. “We guys have created a chance for ourselves and, through that, a chance for others.”

(left to right) Miriam Wilkes, Derek Lawrence, Susan Pitter, Amaha Lawrence and Carol Patterson at the Rebellion to Romance exhibition.
“It’s quite heartbreaking”… (left to right) Miriam Wilkes, Derek Lawrence, Susan Pitter, Amaha Lawrence and Carol Patterson at the Rebellion to Romance exhibit. Photography: JMA Photography

The chances created by Leeds’ second-generation creatives have filtered down to the present day. With a large student population, Leeds is no stranger to adoption; NikNak, a Jamaican-born electronic record player, moved to the city six years ago to study, but has stayed since. Recently she has worked with Opera North and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, collaborating with Ibrahim on a multimedia performance, Dead ‘n’ Wake. “Forging friendships within the community, whether it’s someone born and raised in Leeds or a tourist like me, it’s really empowering.”

When Rebellion to Romance launches, many of these faces fill the room. After a rum punch and group song from Janet Kay’s classic Silly Games, the exhibit opens, donated images and artifacts tell a story only this community can tell. Maureen Wilkes, a member of the Jamaica Society Leeds and owner of the city’s best Caribbean takeaway, exclaims over a large photo of her as a child, torn between joy and tears: “It’s quite overwhelming, isn’t it not?” With many historic images displayed alongside updated photos of their subjects by Vanley Burke, it shows how many families have remained so close to home.

For these stories to remain visible, they must be nurtured. With Rebellion to Romance, Pitter hopes to pass the baton to another generation, paving the way for the next phase of storytelling.

“People ask me what I plan to exhibit next, but the truth is, I’m not,” she says. “I will certainly help and guide, but from the 90s? This is not my story to tell. He needs someone who was born at the time, someone who is from here or comes here with the right research skills. She looks at me insistently, stopping before a wink. “Do you know what I’m trying to say?

This article was last modified on August 19, 2022. An earlier version referred to Claude Hendrickson as having “recently taken charge” of Leeds West Indian Centre; he is also one of the three directors of the center on a voluntary basis, a position he has held for several years.

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