On the 22nd June 1948, the SS Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury, Essex. Amongst the 802 expats (not immigrants) was a Trinidadian by the name of Lord Kitchener who, donning his trademark trilby, sang a song he had written while undertaking the month long journey across the Atlantic. As an aside, the Empire Windrush was made in Hamburg, Germany and was used by the Nazis to transport soldiers during WWII – it was claimed as a war prize by the British in 1945.
“London is the place for me”
'London is the place for me', sang Lord Kitchener as he was interviewed by Pathé News on the steps of the Windrush. His song represented the hope that many expats had when arriving in their ‘Mother Country’. Seemingly, no other place on earth at that time would give them the opportunity to work, live for a few years and go back to the Caribbean with some money and stories to tell for generations. Unfortunately for many, they were often confronted with poor employment opportunities and deep-seated xenophobia, epitomised by the infamous ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ signs that appeared in subsequent years. Fast forward 72 years later, and the Windrush Scandal has shown us that London, and by extension Britain, perhaps never really was the place for them.
When we dig into Kitch's music, we hear him singing about how non-whites were treated in London in the song ‘If You’re Brown‘, which, unfortunately, many people can still identify with today. You can almost hear the resignation in his voice, mirrored in the melancholic guitar and horn lines – a far cry from the optimism he displayed on the steps of the Windrush.
[Verse 1] It's a shame, it's unfair, but what can you do, The colour of your skin makes it hard for you, You can tell the world you still will get no place, Every door is shut in your face. [Chorus] So boys, if you brown they say you can stick around, If you white, well everything’s alright, If your skin is dark, no use to try, You got to suffer until you die.'
The song goes on to talk about a situation where he was offered a job but then refused it when they saw his face. Sound familiar? Recent data shows that people with ethnic sounding names had 74% less success at getting a job (BBC, 2015). The Guardian reported that BAME needed to send out 60% more job applications to get 'a positive response'. That statistic hasn't changed in the last 50 years (https://theteacherist.com/2020/06/14/being-black-in-england/).
The insights that Kitch’s music provides for us are invaluable at a time where music on the subject of racial inequality in the UK is hard to come by. Other calypsonians such as Lord Cristo, Lord Beginner and Mighty Duke also discuss racial inequality in their music, but it's important to remember that Kitch was somewhat of a pioneer. He predates other musicians such as Nina Simone, Fela Kuti and Bob Marley, and speaks specifically about the black British experience in the UK.
Kitch also shows how connected he was to the African diaspora in ‘If You’re Brown’ . He sings about his shock after reading about Governor Faubus sending in the National Guard to prevent black children from attending Little Rock Central High School in 1957. He also sings celebrates Ghana being the first African nation to gain independence on the 6th March 1957 when he penned the song ‘Birth Of Ghana’:
[Verse 4] The national flag is a lovely scene, With beautiful colours red, gold and green, And a black star in the centre, Representing the freedom of Africa. [Chorus] Ghana, Ghana is the name Ghana we wish to proclaim, We will be jolly, merry and gay, The sixth day of March, Independence Day
Some of Kitchener’s music is also representative of the camaraderie that many Caribbean expats felt at the time. They had to put aside their differences and work together to generate revenue in their communities, educate their children about the cultures they had left behind and stand up against the Teddy Boys, whose violence against the West Indian community sparked the Notting Hill riots in 1958. That being said, Kitch’s music deals with some deeper issues that he observed within the wider community. In the song ‘If You’re Not White You’re Black’, he sings:
[Verse 3] Your negro hair is obvious, You make it more conspicuous, You use all kinds of vaseline, To make out you are European. You speak with exaggeration, To make the greatest impression, That you were taught apparently, At Cambridge University. [Chorus] No, you can never get away from the fact, if you’re not white you’re considered black.
This issue of colourism, defined by Alice Walker in her 1982 book In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens as the, 'prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color', continues to plague black and brown communities around the world today.
Lord Kitchener was a modern day griot. He preserved his thoughts, feelings and astute observations in songs which not only have a variety of musical influences, but contain culturally and historically significant content. His music and style should remind us that even though a lot has changed in the last 72 years, many things have unfortunately stayed the same.