The Distinctive Ethnic Youth Cultures In Britain Cultural Studies Essay

Youth cultures in Britain became prominent within discourse during the 1960’s-80’s, with an amalgam of different subcultures emerging. Upon answering this question, I shall endeavour to construct an analysis of ethnic subcultures within Britain during the mid 20th century, and analyse the extent in which these cultures could be identified as distinctive, or whether they could be seen to be embracive to all ethnicities within society. Post war immigration was seen as a watershed moment within British history. The result of mass immigration bestowed Britain with a economic advantage on a global scale. From a Marxist perspective, the British were now able to maintain profit accumulation through now having a ‘reserve army of labour’.

Black youth cultures became prominent during the 1960’s and 1970’s, being the first generation of black youths to be born in Britain. Research often comments on the way in which black people felt like being victims outside of British society, being “an ambiguous presence inside the popular culture of the ‘host society’” (1987, 160). Youth deeply felt that they never had the African or Caribbean connection, which was instilled within their parents, and further, though being born in Britain, they were failed by the indigenous society to be seen as British. Mullard (1973) further expressed this view by quoting, “A black born in Britain, is a shadow of a man. You are not West Indian, Pakistani or African, because you were born in Britain and you know little or nothing about your parents country” (cited in 1978,181). Therefore, youth felt somewhat disillusioned to their belonging, subsequently resulting in diaspora and animosity towards white inhabitants.

Moreover racialised rhetoric was evidential within society and the media. ‘Love thy Neighbour’ was a popular British sitcom in the 60’s which sought to demonstrate prejudicial attitudes towards black people within Britain, which were expressed on a daily basis. It further sought to portray the way in the prejudicial, bigoted attitudes expressions of the character Eddie Booth appeared stupid. On the other hand, the black male character Bill Reynolds, was a smart educated person, who often ended up having the last laugh when Eddie tried to outdo him. ‘Rising Damp’ which also aired in the 1970’s had elements of racial discourse from the main character Rigsby, who was the landlord, towards one of the tenants, Philip Smith. As Philip was a black man, he often brought out knee-jerk suspicions from Rigsby. From analysing these television episodes, its seems incontrovertible that these programmes presented a clear image of the prejudicial discourse/ neo colonial sphere of thought that was poignant within society, however at the same time, it endeavoured to humanise the element of racialism in order to portray how futile and inane these attitudes were.

One cannot negate the element of mugging, which had heightened black youth subcultures. Hall et al. in ‘Policing the Crisis’: Mugging the State and Law and Order’ (1978), explained the considerable impact that the media had in perpetuating a negativistic image of black young males, being constructed as your archetypal muggers. This had a pronounced effect within society, causing a moral panic and influencing the police force to carry out more stop and searches on black people than their white counterparts. The extent of the excessive stop and searches brought about the West Indian Standing Council to claim that the police were engaging in ‘nigger hunting’ and that the British black population had now been ‘demonised’.

Rastafarianism brought collective identity amongst a number of black youth. Bound together by their struggles and looking to their return to Zion from Babylon. The Rastafarian movement arose in during the 1930’s in Jamaica. Rastafarians worship Haile Selassie I, believing he is the resurrected manifestation of Jah and will ultimately lead Rastafarians to Zion (Ethiopia). In order to achieve this, western society (Babylon) is strongly rejected, and seen as corrupt. Rasta’s also believe in Zion being the original birthplace of mankind, and embrace various socio-political and Afrocentric teachings of Marcus Garvey who is regarded as a prophet. The use of cannabis is embraced, both within spiritual realms and as a symbol of rebellion to ‘Babylon’. Rastafarians usually grow their hair into dreadlocks, backed from a Biblical perspective. The Rastafarian colours are red, gold and green, originating from the Marcus Garvey movement, the Jamaican flag, and the Ethiopian flag. In the case of black subculture in Britain, ‘Babylon’ was identified as London, furthermore Brixton, as there was a high volume of Rastafarians. Dreadlocks were seen by the police in effect as sticking two fingers up at them. There was a deep sense of animosity amongst police and their dislike for black in particular having dreadlocks. It is important to note that although not all black youth adopted the Rastafarian religion, the overwhelming majority of black youth embraced the clothing which they used as symbolic significance to try and end the problem of racism. Rastafarians were often criticised for their beliefs, and in extreme situations, were even rejected by other blacks within Britain. It is imperative to mention that the style of fashion Rastafarians adopted, was also embraced by some white males. The clothing style was adopted, and in some cases, selective patois words were used.

Reggae played an integral role within Rastafarianism. This genre was very distinctive as it drew on vivid experiences of black people in Jamaica. It was further distinctive as it used its own language, being Jamaican patois, which was stolen by their ‘master’ during slavery and colonialism. Usually, the music demonstrates the journey from Africa to the West Indies during slavery. Furthermore, reggae sought to express a ‘back to Africa’ belief, and a vision of a ” new Africa based on an Arcadian vision” (1990,19). Reggae is also known for its critique of ‘Babylon’ within its lyrics. On the whole, it is clear that Rastafarianism was a religion adopted by black youth, it were a religion symbolising the struggles against the white dominant culture in ‘Babylon’.

Moreover, the event Rock Against Racism (RAR), is another example of how ethnic cultures had element that related to some white youth. The campaign was set up in 1976, and used to be a one off occasion. However this changed when Eric Clapton made a remark which supported Enoch Powell’s ‘River of Blood’ speech. This was met with heightened animosity amongst youth of ethnic minority, and fans in the rock/punk scene. There was further irony as Eric Clapton had been very much influenced by black music, further, teaming up with Bob Marley to create the hit ‘I shot the Sherriff’. Carol Grimes, who became a leading spokeswoman for RAR, commented that the campaign was more than tackling the element of race but for anyone who were victims of discrimination because of going against the status quo. She quoted, ” [t]he whole Rock Against Racism thing did more than just challenge racism”… “[i]t made the idea of black, brown and white united something real, and together we could tell the fascists to f**k off” (2009,223). The concert included Rock and Punk fans, of ethnicities. Without hesitation this extract shows that this campaign that punk/rock fans of black ethnic minority adopted within their subculture. Nevertheless, the concert embraced all people against racism and discrimination.

The concept of black youth gang culture is still present within modern day. However, the reasons for their grouping up is somewhat different to that of the 1960’s. As previously written earlier, black youth who followed the Rastafarian religion, or just adopted the style of clothing, were regarded as ‘rude gang boys’/ black gang rastas. Malcolm W. Klein expressed the view that in recent times, the UK has been typified by a number of gangs mainly situated in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. Klein further quoted that a resonating feature of these gangs, is that they were predominantly black ethnic minority street members, “involved in the sale of drugs with high intergang rivalry and high levels of violence” (2001,154). He specifically, looked at two gangs in Manchester, located within impoverished areas, called ‘Moss Side’. The name of the two gangs were, ‘Gooch’ and ‘Doddington’, both involved in the drugs trade. Furthermore, they were also characterised by their sheer violence, which peaked in 1992, with no less than 100 shootings taking place. This gives a flavour of the way in which black youth subcultures have changed in present day, with race struggles no longer pervasive, but characterised by the concern of selling drugs and ‘being hard’. This concept describes an individual expressing masculinity and strength within the physical realms. Through this, they are subsequently able to acquire status within the gang, and gain a better reputation.

‘Grime’ genre brings the question of whether black subculture is a distinctive black subculture. Originating in the early 2000s as primarily a development of UK garage, it started to become more apparent from 2003, when Wiley and Dizzee Rascal released their albums ‘Treddin’ on Thin Ice’ and ‘Boy in da Corner’ respectively. It should be noted that research on this genre of music has been somewhat scarce, and my own approach is that it would bring interesting findings. Grime is now listened to by youth of all ethnicities, of all social classes. For example, Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempa have now helped to open the market to those who would not have usually listened. The sound of grime music has evolved, now having a fruity fusion with elements of pop and disco music. However predominantly black working class youth subcultures very much hold ‘grime’ as their music in which they can relate to, especially during its infancy. During this time, and to an extent now, grime was based upon ‘being hard’ and getting money. An example ‘being hard’ is a tune by Scorcher called ‘Gangsta’, which was banned from television. Further interest, is the demographic location of grime videos. When watching Giggs ‘Talking the hardest’, the videos is set in Peckham, with a group of working class boys, predominantly black, with some having black bandanas as a sign of allegiance to the ‘SN1 crew’. The video at times also depicts the struggles that youth are going through, such as their run down accommodation. It seems incontrovertible that black subculture in grime is now based upon three elements, which is depicted within grime music, ‘being hard’ getting money, and gang affiliation through certain dress codes. However, the development of grime has seen a wider market becoming interested, and with it has brought youth of different ethnicities.

Asian subculture was another example of resistance that was present during this time. Less research on Asian youth culture was published during the 1950’s to 80’s. Asian youth subculture will be specifically about Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi youth. Asian youth culture took aspects of the parent culture, in particular, the acceptance of the struggles their parents went through, and wanting to fight these problems. From a historical perspective, Asian political struggles were observed in the 1950’s and 60’s, prior to when Indians and Pakistanis entered the country. Asian political members were located within the realms of left wing politics. Examples being MP Saklatava (MP for Battersea). Rajani Palme Dutt, was another influential communist writer, who lived in London. The first association set up was the Indian Workers Association (IWA) in 1938. It was conceived in order for members to help fund for independence in India. However following Indian independence in 1947, the IWA was disbanded. The IWA were setup again in order to provide support for Asians coming to the UK, during mass emigration. Though individuals within the IWA comprised of different left wing parties within India, they sought to work together, not only provide social welfare to migrants emigrating, but to also deal with the problems of racism. Further, the ethos stated their unwavering stance in tackling racism within society, quoting to, “fight against all forms of discrimination”…. “promote the cause of friendship, peace and freedom” (p.40).

Mike Brake wrote that Asian parents were in control of many aspects of their children’s lives. Females were closely watched by parents and part of the rules were that they were unable to go out at night, and due to this, it wasn’t unusual for girls to attend ‘daytime raves’. Asian parents were unlikely to approve of their sons attending multi racial youth organisations, as it was feared that they would fall into bad company and furthermore, “different religious and cultural traditions” (1980, 129). Brake commented that for Asian youth, home and school were two distinctive different worlds. Brake further believes that the different worlds gives reason to explain why youths wanted to seek new ways, different from their parent cultures, in order to deal with the racism in society, as the parent culture had failed to do so.

By the mid to late 1970’s the first generation of Asian youth were confronted by racism within a number of aspects. Furthermore, the youth continued to watch their parents being victims to racism within the employment system, through getting less pay than their white counterparts. Moreover, the 1970’s was characterised by the recession that took place. During this time African- Carribeans and Asians were seen as the scapegoat. Nevertheless, looking specifically at the Asian community, media reports were published which quoted headlines such as, “Asian flood” and “Asian invasion” (2006, 42). Heightened tensions were seen in 1976, when Gurdip Singh Chaggar was killed by racists. To make matters worse, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Robert Mark commented that the motives for Gurdip’s death may have not been due to racism. This was met by widespread outrage within the Asian community, blaming the National Front for the murder. Division was found when the IWA wanted to work through diplomatic channels, to address the problem, however, Asian youths wanted to carry out direct action. Due to this, youth in Southall decided to organise a march, shouting, ” we shall fight like lions” (2006, 42). During the demonstration, they staged a sit in and refused to leave until two detainees who were part of the demonstrations had been released. This was seen as a watershed moment, as this brought about the emergence of the Southall Youth Movement (SYM).

What was more intriguing about Asian youth culture, is the way in which they perceived themselves to be politically black within a white society. Although knowing they were not black, as in terms of skin colour, thoroughly felt ‘black’ as a political position. There was an innate sense of unity between them and youth of African/ Caribbean origin, as they were experiencing the same struggles and hardships. However, in the eyes of racist white N.F.’s, African and Caribbean youth were seen as ‘hard’ individuals, who could stand up for themselves. However, Asian youth were seen in an obverse light and in consideration of this, Asian youth culture drew on black political movement transatlantic, especially, the Black Panther group. On the AYM flag, they adopted the black fist to portray an image of collective strength, solidarity and defiance. Therefore ‘black’ was moulded into a concept of political identity uniting against all forms of racism, further symbolising that racist attitudes should no longer be tolerated or accepted. From this research, it is clear to see that Asian subculture was non secular and non sectarian. It was a culture that embraced all Asian citizens regardless of the country of origin. Resonating with the work of Cohen, Asian youth cultures identified there were contradictions within society, thus feeling these had to be resolved.

Bhangra was a major characteristic of South Asian culture, in that the music displayed a cultural meaning. Bhangra emerged in Britain during the 1950’s. The south Asian population brought a distinctive heritage which was seen in their music. The 1970’s was a particularly important time within the transition of Bhangra music. During this time a BBC TV Asian program called ‘Naya Zindagi, Neya Jeevan’ shifted the emphasis of their series to South Asian British groups and artists. ‘Alaap’ was a group from Southall who were often played on the show. Their music brought a distinctive fashion to bhangra, fusing bhangra with elements of disco music, known as the ‘Southall twist’. On examination of the research, I would take the view that the transition demonstrated Cohen’s work on the relationship between the parent and youth subculture. The first generation of Asian youth within Britain never had the same contact with South Asia as their parents had, so they altered the style of bhangra music in order to create their own meaning for themselves. This new form of bhangra had distinct values and meanings for Asian youth in Britain. As result of its commercialisation, some have drawn parallels with grime and reggae music, in the way in which it’s lost its distinctiveness as a purely distinctive Asian youth culture. In recent times, there have been a increase in the amount of songs which have elements of bhangra and hip pop flavours which have been released. Examples of these are Punjabi MC- ‘Knight Rider Bhangra’, and Jay Sean ‘Ride it’. My own approach is that similarly to comments on reggae, although bhangra has now been commercialised, one would still identify as a distinctive, as when one listens to the music, one identifies to a specific ethnic group of people.

Upon reflection, ethnic youth subcultures have had profound effect within British society. Since post emigration of ethnic minorities from the Commonwealth, Britain have witnessed distinctive ethnic cultures emerging. Rooting from the growing racism and discrimination, happening through a number of avenues. Parent culture somewhat influenced youth subcultures. However, in line with Cohen’s theory, both Africa/ Caribbean and Asian youth, felt that parent subcultures had not dealt with the problems they were facing, thus having to create new subcultures to solve the contradictions. Although there are some who question the distinctiveness of the subcultures, my own approach is that, in essence ethnic subcultures were created as a way to create identity and meaning through confidence, unity and self realisation, but at the same time defy against racism. Nevertheless, certain elements have been adopted by youth of different ethnicities, such as Rastafarian dress and the listening of bhangra. Although saying this, there have been plausible evidence to demonstrate that black subculture has lost its distinctiveness, now adopting social class reasoning. Looking at certain grime songs and gangs in urban areas, there has now been the notion of ‘being hard’ and getting money. The youth have been overwhelmingly working class and have embraced those of different ethnicities, who are in the same social position, struggling against the class system, rather than being in Babylon.

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