Play that reggae music, white kids (uk)
August 31, 2007 09:52AM
The Times August 31, 2007

Play that reggae music, white kids

You don’t have to be obviously non-Jamaican to be at the cutting edge of reggae, our writer finds - but it helpsSophie Heawood
You could say it began when Boy George brought his take on reggae to the 1980s pop scene, or when Joss Stone, blonde, barefoot and from Devon, won Best Urban Act at the 2005 Brit Awards. Or indeed, when the Rolling Stones covered Bo Diddley, and John Lennon fatuously declared “before Elvis there was nothing” – but white musicians have always generated controversy (and record sales) by taking black genres to the top of the charts.

Last year Lily Allen continued the trend, using reggae samples and calypso backdrops in her pop hits. In doing so, she may well have opened the floodgates for a new wave of white reggae stars.

Bobby Kray, a 27-year-old former schoolbus driver, says that he sees nothing exotic about reggae, as it represents his own roots. “I grew up in Ladbroke Grove, and if you live in Ladbroke Grove you don’t have to go to the Notting Hill Carnival – it comes to you,” he explains. He adds that it was his father who first got him listening to the music of Dennis Bovell, who is now his producer.

Kray was in his twenties when he started hanging around the Brixton record store Blacker Dread, where he became known as the skinny white boy who could sing – hence the title of his debut album, Tales from a Skinny White Boy.

He says that his colour is not a problem: “It rarely comes up, to be honest. It’s never been an issue for me or my audiences. I think some people who see it from an outside point of view might think, hang on, he’s white and he’s singing reggae, but I love the music and all I’m doing is trying to represent it. If people have an issue with it then they obviously have other issues to deal with.”

Kray also points out that lovers’ rock – the sweet and easy pop reggae that influenced him – was a London phenomenon, gaining popularity in the British scene while a more politically conscious reggae was taking hold over in Jamaica. “I didn’t tune into pirate radio stations or go online and listen to Jamaica FM or whatever stuff is out there nowadays. The resources now are phenomenal, but you didn’t have that 20 years ago. All I’ve known is what came out of London.”

Janet Kay, who got to No 2 in the UK in 1979 with her lovers’ rock hit Silly Games, is a particular hero of his, and he was overwhelmed when she came onstage with him at last year’s carnival to accompany him on his version of her song. (He was less than thrilled, however, when his friend and fan Lily Allen jumped onstage with him this year – uninvited – and he ended up pouring beer over her head while she tried to hog the mike in a comedy Jamaican accent. Seems the old multiculturalism may have a little way to go yet.)

Kray has toured as a support act for UB40, and says that they have paved the way for somebody such as him. “They probably did take a lot of the pressure off that I may have faced now had I been the first person to do this – but they were also so organic in what they did. Maybe if they had been a gimmick then there would have been stuff to deal with.”

UB40’s frontman, Ali Campbell, says he feels his band have helped this new generation. “Yes, I feel we have done our bit.” He is not convinced, however, that perceptions today have vastly improved. “It was more annoying for the black half of UB40 being called white reggae artists than for me. We took that racist crap for 25 years from both black and white journalists alike, which does not seem to be abating, despite reggae being played now by all nationalities around the world.”

More recently, Kray toured with his mate Amy Winehouse (and says she was unlike any other headline act he knows – not because she failed to appear, but because she went into the audience to dance along to his set every night.)

The Chester upbringing of new reggae singer Ava Leigh, real name Hayley Carline, makes her relationship to the genre harder to fathom. She is now signed to Virgin, a label that Richard Branson originally set up by going to Jamaica to sign reggae artists. Recording with Sly and Robbie in Jamaica recently, she was taken to the studio of reggae star Sizzla, in a village where the police don’t dare to tread, but where chickens and children run amok among music. “At first I was a bit, Oh my Lord what’s happening, but the love of music over there is so strong – it was unlike anything I’d experienced in England.”

As a white English girl she didn’t feel too out of place, though. “A lot of reggae singers old and new are so supportive of anybody who does it, if you believe in it. Reggae is so much about the vibe, they welcome everyone who wants to give it a go.”

John Eden is the editor of Woo-fah, a new magazine that covers reggae, dancehall and dubstep, and says that reggae is opening up. Indeed, when Jamaica’s crowned Queen of Dancehall for two years running is Japanese; when a Hasidic Jew known as Matisyahu is wowing Brooklyn with his dub, and when some of the world’s biggest reggae festivals are being held in Germany, it’s clear that things have changed.

“In the past you had white artists doing this sort of thing but it was very pop and not very credible, and there was also this sense within reggae of fairly militant black consciousness,” Eden says. “Anybody white was treated with a certain amount of suspicion. Now it’s easier for people to prove that they are just into the music. And in London you have black and white people who’ve grown up cheek by jowl, gone to the same dances and heard the same music.

“It’s easier to have credibility when you have a shared experience – you don’t get seen as a tourist.”

Bobby Kray’s album Tales from a Skinny White Boy is out now (V2). Ava Leigh supports UB40 on Sunday, Peterborough Embankment (01733 552 439). Ali Campbell’s Running Free (Crumbs The Label) is on Oct 8
one love one peace
roots-ee --- the ark band
***no one but ourselves can free our minds***

one love one peace
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