Don Letts: ‘Punk was a refuge from racism’

The DJ and musician, 64, on being black and British, finding a scene, and why punk’s not dead

Jamaican people love country and western. My first musical memory is sitting at home with my dad, listening to incarnations of what would become reggae on his sound system. But as well as Prince Buster, and Toots and the Maytals, my dad loved things like Welcome to My World by Jim Reeves. It was the storytelling he could relate to.

I know the exact moment I wanted music to be my life. I was 14 or 15, it was 1971, and I was watching the Who at the Young Vic in London. I went after school, in my uniform, and I could see the whites of Keith Moon’s eyes and Pete Townshend windmilling and that was it. I didn’t know what it was. But it opened a door that I wanted to step through.

My parents got a rough deal. They are the Windrush Generation, and there was a feeling among them that the way they would get on once they’d arrived in Britain was by Anglicising themselves. Obviously, that was a terrible idea, and when my generation arrived we reacted against that. But I’ll say this about my parents. Any fun they had stopped in their 20s. It was all about bringing the kids up right. My generation is much more selfish.

The Windrush deportations are a disgrace. My parents were asked to come to this country to help rebuild it after the Second World War. They weren’t welcomed warmly, but they held it down. They drove the buses and worked the NHS. It wasn’t their generation that rioted. It was mine. It is the biggest of slaps across the face.

Being British and black was a confusing concept for a long time. The point of conflict with my parents was when I went out with my dreadlocks. To me, wearing my dreads was me connecting with my heritage, the same heritage my parents had repressed in order to fit in. I was trying to find my scene, and the messages coming out of that Rastafarian world were much more interesting than what I was being taught at school. To be honest, I don’t think it was until the late 80s and stuff like Soul 2 II Soul that black Britain really found its feet. That’s the first time, really, I think we found our thing.

My career was a let down to my parents. They’d busted their arses for their kid to go to a grammar school – and to see it from their perspective, the arts were not a way for black people to survive. They came around when they saw me on the bloody telly, mind!

Punk was a refuge from racism. On the streets, young men like me were constantly getting pulled up by the cops. The far right were getting stronger throughout the 70s. But punk shows were bringing people together. The Clash were doing Rock Against Racism concerts. The Slits were doing gigs with Aswad. We were all cheering each other on. No racism in our bubble.

Punk didn’t start and end in the 70s. It’s a constant spirit. An attitude. A living thing. It’s Woody Guthrie and Sun Ra. It’s just that the British did that colonial thing and put a Union Jack all over it, so it feels like a moment trapped in time.

Enoch Powell did such harm to this country. When he did his Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 everything changed. I went from being “Lettsy” in the playground to “that black bastard” and “golliwog” overnight. And, thanks to Brexit, it’s happening again. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. I still believe in the power of music and culture to change peoples lives, but I’m struggling.

The BBC 6 Music Festival is held in Camden, London N1, from 6-8 March


James McMahon

The GuardianTramp

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