In the 1960s and 1970s, racial tensions were running high in the UK, and music became the cultural mirror reflecting political and social upheaval.
A new BBC documentary – Black Power: A British Story of Resistance – examines the UK’s Black Power movement in the late 1960s, surveying both the individuals and the cultural forces that defined the era.
It features interviews with past activists, many of whom are speaking for the first time about what it was really like to be involved in the movement.
Some have told the BBC about the music that epitomises their journey and what the Black Power movement means to them.
Freedom Street by Ken Boothe
Reggae tunes became the vehicle for the Black Power movement to have a voice.
“Freedom Street by Ken Boothe is one of my favourite reggae compositions of all time. I love it because of the call for love and unity among people suffering from all forms of oppression,” says Linton Kwesi Johnson.
As a schoolchild in England, Linton did not even know that black people wrote books. “It wasn’t until I joined the Black Power movement that I discovered literature written by black people,” remembers the dub poet and musician.
The former Black Panther has chronicled the black British experience for more than 40 years through powerful verse.
“Black Power was a movement of rebellion against colonialism and racist oppression, and it’s at times of oppression when one finds solace in one’s culture,” he says.
“Jamaican music was rebel music. It spoke to the experiences of black people in a post-colonial period, where nothing seemed to have changed for them.”
Exodus by Bob Marley
Writer Farrukh Dhondy was born in India, and studied in Cambridge and Leicester before moving to London in 1967.
“Cambridge is quite a sheltered place when you are an undergraduate there. People would say strange things to you, but in London and Leicester I met with industrial-scale racism.”
Exodus by Bob Marley is his Black Power song, but what does it mean more than 40 years later?
“You will begin to understand that there was a movement, before your generation, that established some of the things you are now enjoying,” he says.
However, Farrukh thinks that music is no longer the unifying factor that it used to be.
“Beyonce may win prizes, but nobody rallies around her as a cause. We rallied around Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones; we thought that was an act of white rebellion. And then, of course, Bob Marley, Big Youth and Desmond Dekker.”
In Exodus, Marley sings about walking through “roads of creation”.
Farrukh says: “We always thought of ourselves as the generation that would walk through creation, that would change the world. As you get mature you realise that it’s a valid ambition – but it’s a dream.”
Blood and Fire by Niney and Big Youth
For Leila Hassan Howe, Black Power was not just a social movement for freedom and peace, but a “fight for rights and equal justice”.
“If there was an anthem which really expressed the militancy, that was Blood and Fire by Niney and Big Youth,” she says.
“Marley’s War reminded me of the international link of the movement, because he talks about people in Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique… and he performed this song in Africa.”
Music was big in the UK in the 70s, and Leila says: “You’re hearing James Brown, Marvin Gaye. You are hearing all this wonderful music, and then Curtis Mayfield would come on and there was just a different atmosphere. The music was new and different and Move On Up was a wonderful song.”
While Leila admits she was a Beatles fan, she says: “That was much more on a superficial pop level. The music that emotionally got me was black music, like Duke Ellington’s.”
Then, Aretha comes into play. “There is no singer but Aretha Franklin, although my friends recently reminded me that I was more of a Roberta Flack type, and that’s very true.”
Her last words are for Nina Simone: “Make sure you listen to her song, Four Women,” she suggests.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron
Zainab Abbas was only 18 when in 1968 she heard Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) by James Brown. “It’s so powerful,” she recalls, “even when my granddaughter hears it now, she bristles.”
At that time, many black Britons were inspired by American movements. “I describe the civil rights movement as the pain in my heart; I describe Malcolm X as my liberation, because they [American activists] had the ability to express what was in our hearts,” explains Zainab.
For her, Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a Black Power must, and Zainab recalls him giving her a pile of free tickets to distribute to black people to see his concert in London.
She adds: “Bob Marley and his Redemption Song didn’t come out until 1980, but that song has the best line ever. ‘How long shall they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look?’.”
Zainab thinks history has not given black women in the movement enough credit.
“Look at Altheia Jones-LeCointe, she was a Panther. She is one of the most fearless women I’ve ever met.”
To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Nina Simone
In 1972, Winston Trew was jailed alongside three other young black men on the evidence of a corrupt police officer.
The group, known as the Oval Four, spent eight months behind bars for assaulting a police officer and attempted theft. The Court of Appeal has now quashed these convictions, but it took nearly 50 years.
“When I came out of prison, I was angry. Bob Marley wrote a song called Duppy Conqueror, which helped me control my mind,” he explains.
But it is self-empowerment that was the key to Winston’s activism. “I first heard To Be Young, Gifted and Black when I joined the Black Power movement in 1970. I’d just turned 20.”
He had become a member of The Fasimbas, a Black Power group promoting education and self-defence. “I had found a place where I could belong. Then, I heard this song and it all gelled together: of course, I am gifted. We all were.”
For Winston, Nina Simone’s song evokes feelings of triumph and tragedy.
“One of the verses says: ‘When you are feeling really low, there’s a great truth that you should know, when you’re young, gifted and black, your soul’s intact’.
“One of the things that racism tries to do is to make you destroy yourself inside. But my sense of self was not destroyed at all; it made me even stronger.”
The retired lecturer adds: “I am old, but still gifted and black.”
Black Power: A British Story of Resistance, directed by George Amponsah and executive produced by Steve McQueen, is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.