Janine interviews Rhoda Dakar

This is the full text of the interview. A shortened version was published in Solidarity 555.

Watch the video of this interview here.


I am Rhoda Dakar. I’ve been a professional musician for 40 years.

Initially, I was in a band called The Bodysnatchers – an all-female 2-Tone band – for 13 months and in that time we produced two singles.

Then after, I was in a band called The Special AKA, which was a few of The Specials and they all gradually dropped out after the Fun Boy Three left and it ended up being just Brad and Jerry and a whole lot of new people – some of whom I’d known for a long time, some who were very new to me – and I think the best work we produced out of that was Free Nelson Mandela.

Since then, I’ve done all sorts things. I’ve worked in fashion, I’ve done a bit of graphic design and now as an elder statesman – stateswoman – I’m kind of a bit of a serial committee member.

I’m a patron of the Music Venue Trust, which is desperately trying to save all the music venues which are obviously at the point of going under because they operate with a very narrow margin anyway at the best of times and right now things aren’t the best of times and so the Music Venue Trust is desperately trying to negotiate with government to explain to them what culture is and why we need it.

I’m an ambassador for Tonic Music for Mental Health, which is a mental health charity down on the south coast.

I’m an all-around troublemaker and a musician.

I currently I have a single with Dub Pistols called Stand Together, which is about how we were taking two steps back in the fight against racism and we’ve got to stand together to move forward again.

So let’s kick off with … What are your views on a recent events in the USA? The killings of George Floyd and Tony McDade, the police clampdown etc …

What’s anyone’s opinion, right? It’s wrong, but it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. I think the best quote I’ve seen so far was Will Smith saying racism hasn’t got worse, it’s just got filmed. Without the advent of the camera phone, we wouldn’t have known anything about George Floyd and nobody would have cared.

It does feel like a bit of a tipping point. Ask me in a year’s time, see what’s actually changed, but it feels like a bit of a tipping point because everybody’s annoyed and we’re all angry, we’ve been sat at home for weeks, everybody’s angry.

I guess in every country everybody’s got their own axe to grind, because it’s not about George Floyd – that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s statues of slave owners being removed and chucked into the river, it’s that sort of thing.

There’s a lot of clearing up to do in the UK and around the world. I’ve seen people in Brussels shouting at and draping the statue of Leopold II in the flags of the DRC because his reign in the Congo was so brutal, so dreadfully brutal – cutting off people’s hands and legs and things like that. Somebody who’s the local news person said they’re calling him a murderer. Actually what they were saying is “Reparations!” – that’s what they’re actually asking for, but hey – pardon me for speaking French and understanding what they say. I think he was English – English in Belgium – and just saying “oh here’s the whole load of black people saying something – it doesn’t really matter what it is but this is what I’ll say they’re saying.” I mean, come on – caught you!

They’re saying hey that’s wrong – reparations, that’s what they want, and quite deservedly so from what I’ve seen. Today, I think it’s five years ago that the British government finally paid off the debt where they paid reparations to the slave owners for giving up their slaves. So I’m expecting a call any minute with my little payout, thank you very much.

How do you respond to people who say they support peaceful protests but condemn what they’re calling “rioting”?

Bollocks. Simple as that – bollocks. I can’t be bothered to say anything to those people. Bollocks.

Fine. And the next question then … How similar or different you think policing of BAME communities is between the USA and the UK, and why?

[UK] police don’t routinely carry guns, that’s the difference. It’s better.

And what difference do you think that makes to how people experience racism?

My son is 23. He may not have got to that age in the US, it’s that simple. He has been handcuffed outside the front door for cycling on the pavement for about 50 metres. He was maybe 15, cycling on the pavement. It wasn’t a busy pavement, there was nobody on the pavement but the last bit of the pavement from the main road to our house, he cycled on a pavement and he was put in handcuffs for that. And the white woman who walked past him, who knew him, did nothing, just looked. That’s par for the course. I don’t walk past and because I went to church, because I was indoctrinated with Christianity – I never believed in it, but I absorbed it – and that’s just that’s being the bad Samaritan. Until a black child can be … Until somebody can say “boy, you shouldn’t be cycling on the pavement” … He was on a BMX bike with small wheels, very small, and he had a helmet on so he couldn’t hear the guy.

And yes, I write letters of complaint and yes, we got three written apologies about that very incident. But the damage is done at that point. That’s the difference: they don’t care, they don’t routinely carry guns.

OK, cool. So there have been lots of demands flying around over the last few days – and before that, but getting more attention recently – about what can be done about police brutality. So, what specific demands do you think will be effective against police brutality? People have been variously calling for defunding the police, disarming the police, scrapping the police, making the police accountable to elected scrutiny committees, sacking all coppers and making them reapply for their own jobs, reorienting the police towards helping vulnerable people and away from social control. What do you think of those?

I think most that is nonsense, really. We require a police force, and when there is a problem I will go to the police. If they don’t respond accordingly then I hold them accountable, but it’s exhausting. I’ve complained on many occasions. I complain about someone being an idiot and some young lad’s threatening to arrest me because my back wheels and my car were on the drive of the station so he said “yeah, take my number” so I took his number and I wrote a letter of complaint and they probably caught it as it dropped through the their door and rushed around so I had an inspector on my doorstep.

I have to say I used to live opposite the police station I did make it easy for them to do stuff. He came around literally the next day and said “Are you going to make a formal complaint?” I said “yep” and he said “yeah, his dad’s a copper, his grandad’s a copper – I don’t think he’s got what it takes.” So this is an opportunity for them to get rid of him. But it did take me to write the letter for that to be the case.

Not everybody can write those letters, not everybody’s in that position, not everybody has that determination. Basically, just don’t give up.

Maybe part of that is because of the family I came from, so I admit there’s a level of privilege. I went to a good school, my parents were both clever people and I suppose it was because I was never brought up to expect to be anything other than privileged, so I’m horrified if anybody says anything inappropriate to me and an elected official of any sort, or anybody who works for me – because the police work for me, they don’t work for them, they work for us. All the public servants work for us.

I don’t think there’s any point in defunding anyone. People might need a little bit of racial awareness training. Frankly, it’s better than it was 20 years ago and in 20 years time it will be very different again. But you have to deal with the people you have in the police and we still need them. We still need a police force. It’s ridiculous to say otherwise. What we do is hold them to account more, that’s all. The advent of mobile phones has made that possible. They are held to account more than they used to be.

Thinking back to events around that time – the 1981 riots, the SUS laws and stuff like that – how does the situation today compare with the situation then?

I’m not a black man so my situation is pretty much the same as it was then. I didn’t get any more agg[ravation] then than I do now. I know I was a lot younger then but it’s very much about black men – black boys and black men. What my son would have gone through back then I don’t know.

But my brother … I don’t know if I ever really knew how my brother was treated on the street. I don’t know because he probably wouldn’t have said and he certainly wouldn’t have told me. So I don’t know how it was for him. It’s got to be a bit better than it was then but if I got aggravation, it was because I was on a demo or something like that. I didn’t get any agg going up and down the street. I’ve always been free of that.

I think I got stopped once and that was because they were looking for someone who had escaped from a secure unit at the local psychiatric hospital so it’s me they picked and I said no I think you’ve got the wrong person and they asked have you got ID. Yeah I have, funnily enough.

OK so again I’ve got 2-Tone in mind a bit for this question, but also more broadly politically I suppose … 2-Tone was themed to a great extent around black and white unity, but obviously is obviously there is also a need for black self-organisation and black community self-defence. How can we combine those two things? How can we have black and white unity that but also support black self-organisation and self-defence?

I haven’t got those answers. You need to go to the intellectuals for those answers and people who think about those things.

I think everyone should organise. Everybody should be active as much as they can. But not everybody has time to do that and quite often the people with the time aren’t the people who need the most activism around their situation. If you’ve got a couple of jobs, to run your household and feed your kids, you’ve no time to go and be an activist.

People with time to be an activist are people who are generally young, middle-class, white people. They have the time to be activists because they don’t work as long, they get paid better, they get their privileges such that they have the time to be activists

If they want to be allies that’s fine, but once again I’m not here to tell you how to be an ally.

I mean structurally those things … Yes, people need to stand together – my new single! – and they do that anyway. We don’t have to explain to young people how to move forward, they know already.

That’s the thing. We’ve done the work. We did the work back then and I don’t have to explain to them. They know already. That’s why they were all out and it was mostly young people on those demos.

I’m not gonna say everywhere around the world, but the ones I’ve seen around the UK is mostly young people and in London certainly – I know that from my own kids telling me not because I went, because I’m 60 and I’m mixed race and I gotta be more sensible! But my children went I think it’s important that they did but I didn’t have to tell them to do it none of them had to be told, they knew it was their right and they went out and said – you know, good on them.

So, to what extent you think the issue of racism and police brutality is an issue of class?

In this country obviously our biggest problem is class. You can break that down however you want but class keeps faces like mine out of top universities and top schools and things like that – not in an overt way but just because in order to get to those top schools and then those top universities it’s quite possible you will have to have had some money behind you and let’s face it, privilege.

Look at the disparity between the top 10% and the bottom 10%, it’s getting wider and it continues to do so and there’s very few faces of colour in the top 10%.

I remember my grandmother – my white granny from Bristol – used to say things like we never needed slaves in this country because we had the working classes. I don’t know how true that is but that’s how she saw things and I think that’s fairly reasonable. I’m trying to think when she would have been born … I think she was the same age as my dad virtually, so she would have been born in 18-something, late 1890s. And it has continued ever thus.

The fact is in education that white working-class boys are the lowest achievers. It speaks volumes, doesn’t it?

Immigrants quite often – especially first-generation immigrants – they come, they want to do well, they work hard for their kids and things like that. Those kind of Jamaican people who came to the UK and worked hard, bought their houses and then emigrated back to the Caribbean or wherever and left their kids with houses and things like that. But that first generation were educated amongst their own people in their own country, and it’s the second generation that suffered because they were the ones who came across the racism and it wasn’t hidden or anything, it was overt racism in in the classroom.

If you’re already a fully-formed adult, it can hit you hard but if you’re a child and that’s what you come across … It must have destroyed people.

There weren’t that many black kids when I was in primary school in the 60s, and when I went to secondary school there were five of us when I first went – 5 out of 500. I still know two of them – the girls in my year – but we spend hours arguing about our politics and where we stand and I think we’re all three of us completely certain of what we think where we stand and we got the answers because we had to, because together we made sense of it.

Class is the big problem. We went to a grammar school – they don’t exist any more in London – so we were already streamed away from majority populations, and we were deemed that we were going to achieve, although because it was a working-class grammar school in South London, we weren’t expected to go to university, we were expected to join the civil service and I think all of us at one point were civil servants but we weren’t expected to do too much. I think there were only two or three girls went to uni from my school and that was as it should be. They didn’t expect that… we weren’t educated for that, we were educated to be the middle people between the people who ran things and the people who were run.

So yeah, it’s more about class than anything in the UK. And we’re much less of a meritocracy than we used to be as well. So being a black academic doesn’t move you up in the way it used to. It does if you’re on the telly or if you’ve got a book, but it doesn’t move you up in the same way. As a society, we’re less of a meritocracy. It really is about is the dollar, the mighty dollar, and that’s what it all runs on now.

So yeah, class is our biggest enemy.

How well do you think the left and the labor movement involves BAME people? And how well do you think those movements fight against racism? What more do you think they could do?

When I was in Red Wedge in in the eighties after the miners’ strike, we used to have lots of meetings in the Shadow Cabinet Office at Labour Party headquarters when it was on Walworth Road and we used to refer to unions and the upper echelon of the party as the fat men in red ties – because that’s what they were. They weren’t interested in us, in women, they weren’t interested in black people, they were fat men in red ties.

The people they were out to save were not us.

I’m sure it has changed, I’m not sure how much. I’m a union member and I suppose I’m affiliated to Labour as I pay my subs, but I’m not a Labour Party member.

The left has its own agenda and it doesn’t really want to be bothered with the likes of me – I’m just trouble. I remember Labour Party Black Sections back in the day come and lecturing Red Wedge about how things should be done. I think I lost my shit with a guy – Marc Wadsworth was his name, he used to be on the telly. I lost it, he was stalking a pile of nonsense, because essentially it’s about people saying “I’ll take over, I’ll run it, and it just becomes a vehicle for their own agenda. How good is the left?

Well, how many female Prime Ministers have we had in this country? Two. What party are they from? The Tory party. The Tory party! How funny is that?! And why are there so many black people in the Tories? I don’t know, but then my dad was a black Tory so I understand that they exist.

Let’s face it, sometimes if you’re the only black face in the room, you’ll get elected to a position because everybody else feels that will absolve them from any further duty to do anything. I genuinely have used that sometimes myself. If I’m the only black face in the room or the only woman in the room I will say shit that they don’t want to hear because I can and nobody will shout me down frankly.

I remember genuinely in the late 80s when we were having Red Wedge meetings and somebody would say “you’re not a socialist if …” Well, as soon as you start saying that, I stop listening. “You’re not a socialist if you don’t believe in a united Ireland”?! Shut up, what do you know? Are you Irish? No. Do you live there? No. Ask the people who live there, see what they think, what they want. As it happens, the Irish Republic has come on so much further than the North politically and they’ve done it on their own. Look at them when their own black president. Leo Varadka, a gay man of color, a doctor who went back to work in the hospital during the virus. That’s never going to happen in the north, not for 100 years.

I reckon the left does its best but … there’s a lot of hand-wringing. What it needs is obviously leadership, and Corbyn, bless him, nice enough bloke but absolutely hopeless when it comes to like the parliamentary stuff which is what you need to be able to do. If you want to be an activist, that’s a different thing.

When white, middle-class activists tell me how I should behave I’m not really not going to do it.

A lot of the changes in society have been brought about by two distinct groups. One was unions, and the fact that unions have become so disenfranchised, they don’t have the power base that they used to have, so it doesn’t encompass people in the same way it did, it doesn’t bring people into the labour movement and when I say educate I don’t mean in the patronising way, but if you start going to meetings you learn a bit more and you hear a bit more, and you might go and read a bit over here, and that’s what happens and if you don’t have that sort of conduit into the de-facto labour movement then how are people going to get into it?

Well the other way then is university – it’s being politicised at university. So many people go to uni now but that’s people who already have a little bit more privilege than the people that they’re endeavouring to represent and so therefore they are speaking for people instead of empowering them to speak for themselves and we’ve seen that before. So the whole problem is the fact that there is disparity – such massive disparity – between the top 10% and bottom 10%. Until the bottom 10% can work a reasonable number of hours and have a reasonable standard of living, they do not have the time to take part in the activism that will hopefully bring about a massive change it has to be left to people who have the time and energy and so once again

I come back to the fact that in this country the biggest struggle is actually a class struggle – that’s the bottom line. And until we put that right, I don’t see how we’re going to move from that.

I had a massive row … I was in this accountability group with a load of female musicians – well not only female musicians mostly – and a lot of them were white American, middle American, the kind of people I’ve never met in my life. So I was kind of interested in a kind of like [open mouth] way. But anyway, they had on blackout Tuesday a discussion about how they felt about what was going on in America and I had to keep switching off my camera because I was laughing so much that I was actually crying. It was so funny, all these people wringing their hands and some were in tears, wringing their hands and in the end somebody said something so outrageous I just lost my shit and I told them how ridiculous they were and go and to do something useful with your time. Honestly, if you want to talk about race and there are two people of colour – it’s not that we’re here to tell you what to say, but you at least acknowledge their presence before you carry on! I said then, your biggest problem in the US is the fact that you’re standing on stolen land and until you start acknowledging the fact that your land was stolen from someone else, you can’t even begin to put the rest of it right. Even in Australia, where you don’t even see black people, they at least acknowledge the fact that the land was once owned by someone else. Radio stations even do it. And they said “well, sometimes, when you do choirs they sometimes do that”, and I thought yeah of course they do. Lots of lovely white, middle-class women all together saying “We must acknowledge the land” and I say good, know because it’s a start.

But wringing your hands and crying is really not going to make any difference. And if you feel bad, I don’t care. If I’ve made you feel worse, good.

One more question, which is: How important is it for us to debate and educate ourselves about these issues – so, issues of racism police brutality etc? Are there any subjects or resources that you would recommend?

Absolutely not, because I’m not an intellectual and really it’s your problem not mine, so you’ve got to sort that out yourself. If you want to know resources and things like that go to someone who knows about that. If you want to know chapter and verse, you don’t ask me you ask someone like Akala because Akala’s read all the books and can quote

you whatever. I can’t do that I genuinely read science fiction and books about music. I don’t read you know tomes and polished political polemics which he does. Or you are someone like Emma Dabiri. There’s enough stuff online where the letter starts “Dear white people” …

Yeah not my problem, mate. Do it yourself. My politics is there in my lyrics and that’s the thing to go out and support. If artists are making art that has an agenda of taking us forward then it’s all good. I’m a lyricist and that’s where I put my put my filtered ideas because me going off on one, throwing a wobbler, is one thing but actually considered ideas come out in my lyrics, because that’s my job. I’m not a politician.

This is the sort of thing we have. This is one of these things from one of those children’s games – I don’t even know what it’s called because I don’t do them – and bless it, look it’s in an England rugby shirt because that’s who we are. The identity is very much English. I take that and own it. You may be “yeah, but” but no, I’m English, mate. I’m as English as anybody else because the original inhabitants of this land have died out thousands of years ago. Remember there was that body that they did the DNA sequence on and the guy – ‘Cheddar man’ – was shown to have had black skin. straight hair and blue eyes.

Yeah, that’s English. That’s the oldest English man you come across so I’ve got as much right as anybody else to call myself English so yeah it’s important to own that as well. I’m English – deal with it. Simple.

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