Julie Burchill

Reggae was sexist and homophobic – Unesco ‘safeguarding’ it is ludicrous and conservative

Reggae was sexist and homophobic – Unesco 'safeguarding' it is ludicrous and conservative
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Until last week I believed that Unesco – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation – existed solely to protect and promote remarkable aspects of the material world, such as my beloved Bauhaus buildings in Tel Aviv. But of course I should have known that it would be beyond the wit of the UN to do anything as sensible as taking on a simple task and sticking to it. 

Since 2008 they’ve also set themselves the frankly ludicrous job of upholding something called the 'Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage', featuring hundreds of customs from French cooking (understandable if dull) through 'Mongolian coaxing ritual for camels' (getting freaky) to 'Cambodian tugging rituals' (nurse! The screens!) Have a look – it’s fascinating. And can, depending on my mood, make me reflect on what a magnificently rich and strange place the world is – or make me strongly desire to alternate between keening softly and kicking something.

And now they’ve added reggae: 'Reggae’s contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, sociopolitical, sensual and spiritual.’ This made me crosser than I’ve been since they started bungling Brexit. Why do so many of my friends not get Brexit? And why do so many of my friends love reggae? 

All my life I’ve found that admitting it does nothing for you is like saying you don’t like sunshine or Marilyn Monroe. (I love both, in my defence.) But before you write me off as a racist old gammon like my fellow contrarian Morrissey (‘All reggae is vile’) I would concede that the early bouncy stuff which sounds like it was recorded in a shed was lovely, as was the ska, bluebeat and rocksteady which were the roots of reggae – some of the perkiest music Pollyanna could hope to meet. Of course I love Johnny Nash, Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and ‘Young, Gifted And Black’, ‘Uptown Top Ranking’, ‘Born For A Purpose.’ But that I can name all the ones I like in a sentence is proof of how much I loathe the genre – if I started naming the soul songs and singers I love, I’d die doing it.

Ever since I bought my first record – ‘Band Of Gold’ by Freda Payne, at the age of 10 (45 years later it would be my first record on Desert Island Discs) – I couldn’t get enough of black music, be it the Motown and Philly in the charts or the Northern soul I sought out. When as a 17-year-old I got a job at the New Musical Express, I was shocked at how they never played it on the office sound system. Only one non-white genre was allowed: reggae. I was a sparky little madam and though no one talked about feminism then I knew that a lot of what was wrong with reggae could be put down to the lack of an electric female presence which vivifies every other form of black music from gospel to house. When I remarked to the reggae-mad editor of the NME (he progressed to doing horoscopes, so the mental rigour was strong in this one) that I was unmoved by it he advised me to listen to lovers rock – the musical equivalent of ‘A glass of white wine for the lady’ and a genre so limp and twee that it makes Patience Strong look like Sylvia Plath

Reggae was filthy with sexism and homophobia but no one seemed to care. It was my earliest brush with what I would come to think of as Paint-Chart Politics – the further from white, the more likely you were to be right, no matter how loathsome your views. I remember a member of a British reggae band who frequently played under the Rock Against Racism banner referring with some satisfaction to the fact that there were countries in the world where women were stoned to death for adultery. And this was the 1970s, when Isis was still just a song by Bob Dylan! No one ever called them on it, recalling the anti-Trump feminists of today who appear to have no problem with the murderous misogyny of Islam.

Then there was the deification of Bob Marley – the black John Lennon, veering wildly between the politics of the playpen and the cutesyness of the kindergarten.  For someone whose message was love and peace his songs have more ability to evoke feelings of loathing and violence in me than any other performer I can think of ; ‘No Woman No Cry’ makes me want to become a Scum separatist while ‘Three Little Birds’ makes me want to strangle wrens. But even worse are the type of white people who loved him, those dreadlocked public schoolboys who in a later incarnation would be *into* Public Enemy. Did no one ever point out how silly one looks being against the police when one’s father is a judge? Like rap, reggae is the MOR of the SWP.

Isn’t the whole idea of 'safeguarding' culture rather conservative anyway? Old things have to fade away so that new things can come into being. I’m with the wise man Don Letts when he responded to the Unesco announcement with ‘Reggae can take care of itself’. Personally, I’d prefer to be ‘picking iva grass on Ozren mountain’ (Bosnia and Herzegovina), assisting in a ‘septennial re-roofing ceremony’ (Mali) or ‘learning practices and know-how concerning the Argan tree’  (Morocco) rather than listen to ‘One Love’ one more time.