How British Skinheads Ended Up Embracing The Music Of Black Jamaicans

Ska was the glue that held skinheads and working-class Jamaicans together in post-war England.

There's a cliché as old as time that says that music, much like food, can bring people together. And at times of great tension or conflict, music's power to let people forget about these problems for a while and simply enjoy the moment is truly something to behold. This time, we're going to talk about a music genre that, for a brief moment in time, managed to bring together two groups of people who couldn't be more different.

I’m talking about 2-tone ska, which sought to heal a society with terrible racial problems in 1970s England. The genre was a mix of Jamaican rhythms, like traditional ska and reggae, and punk rock, rocksteady, and new wave. The newly-created genre spread throughout England thanks to bands like The Specials, The Beat, and The Selecter, among others which were made up of men and women, black and white. The perfect match to reconcile the troubling social dilemma.


Typical skinhead attire: jeans, boots, suspenders, and shaved heads

The reason why skinheads, who were erroneously labelled as racists, came to prefer a music style popularized by black musicians has to do with England's historic ties to Jamaica and the fact that skinheads are associated with white supremacists or Neo-nazis. Actually, there was a sub-culture of skinheads known as SHARPs, which stands for Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. But in other to understand the full picture of how skinheads came to love this genre, we need to understand the following:


How Jamaican music made it to England

Jamaica is the reason we have many musical genres, like for example: ska, reggae, and mento, which later led to other styles like rap – born in the United States. But the music from this Caribbean country didn’t make it to Europe through radio waves or internet-streaming services. It all started after World War II, when England was in desperate need to rebuild the nation. Back then, Jamaica was still a British colony, so Jamaicans were the Queen's subjects. Thus, large numbers of Jamaican workers were invited to reconstruct England. There was some tension initially (the usual "they're stealing our jobs" story), but eventually, Jamaicans became a part of English society, and reggae and ska became popular working-class music. But things changed radically in the 1970s.

British-Jamaicans dancing ska

How skinheads came to be seen as racists

Skinheads were known for their shaved heads, tattoos, straight jeans, and boots. They were a working-class subculture of “mods,” who tended to be more upper-class. They enjoyed grabbing a pint and listening to music like ska, rocksteady, and reggae at dancing halls. In the 1950s and 1960s, skinheads and rude boys (British-Jamaicans) got along pretty well and even went to the same parties together. But then, it all changed in the 1970s when skinhead subculture started mixing with other subcultures. This was caused by political party movements, made up of white males only, who started scapegoating black migrant workers for the economic crisis. Far-right followers and even Neo-Nazis appropriated the skinheads’ style and the association between racists and skinheads became a thing.

Skinheads at a two-tone ska concert

How skinheads and rude boys created two-tone ska

Real skinheads, then, weren’t racist at all, and to this day they get offended by those who call them violent white supremacists. This incorrect image drove them to create the "SHARP skins," which, as was mentioned before, stands for Skinheads against Racial Prejudice. At this moment in time, when white and black musicians wanted to unite, men and women came up with the idea of mixing up their favorite music styles to send a message of peaceful union that resulted in the creation of two-tone ska (they named it two-tone ska because of the Two Tone Records company that sold their albums).

The Selected, founded in 1979

In music history, ska is divided in three waves. The first wave originated in Jamaica in the 1960s, the second wave is the 2-tone ska created in England and popular among skinheads, and the third wave was ska's popularity in the US in the 1990s. Punk rock was barely emerging in London when the fusion of these genres happened. Two-step ska oddly blended very well with the other genres that created it, causing a sensation and a diverse variety of bands that anyone could relate to. These bands usually sang about political and social conflicts with a mix of intense rock, and the relaxed beat of ska and reggae. Skinheads are still a popular subculture today, mainly in countries like England, Mexico, and the US.



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