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Don Letts and Dan Donovan

Rage, rebellion and reggae: Don Letts on protest music at Rough Trade Records

By Joseph Marshall
December 17 2019, 09.55

Turn on the radio or a music channel and conspicuous consumption, interspersed with mindless violence, is the order of the day.

It’s not like the 1960s, when bands sang about justice, freedom and giving peace a chance.

Don Letts, Brixton born artist, film director and DJ, was one of three panelists in a recent discussion at Brick Lane Rough Trade which sought to answer the question: ‘Is protest music dead?’

Letts is a veteran of the 70’s punk and reggae scenes, having acted as videographer for The Clash and the owner of a clothes shop popular with the likes of Bob Marley and Patti Smith.

He told SW Londoner that growing up in Brixton was harmonious, but ‘it all changed when Enoch Powell made his rivers of blood speech’.

On protest music, he said the soundtrack to the riots of 1981 was ‘bass heavy reggae’.

Joining Letts on the panel was Simone Odaranile from The Go! Team and Paul Frazer from electro-punk duo Black Futures.

The night was compered by pop culture academic Jennifer Otter Bickerdike who has written extensively on the cult of dead celebrity.

There was a consensus that the times we are living in, which Letts referred to as ‘dread’, require action, and that music can still draw attention to issues of protest.

Bickerdike threw the name Rage Against The Machine into the mix.

The image of a Buddhist monk burning alive in protest of the Vietnam war was powerful when it appeared on their album cover, but how did they reconcile their anti-capitalist stance with being signed to Sony?

I was reminded of the 2009 Facebook campaign for the band to reach Christmas number one, which Rage actively supported.

It feels as though they should have been campaigning for political justice rather than record sales.

Odaranile said music with a message is sometimes lost on young people.

When she was growing up, she would mistake certain lyrics as a sort of meaningless teenage rebellion, as opposed to a call for social change.

Letts recognised that youthful protest can be daft. He said that he and his friends went about being ‘alternative’ by dressing exactly the same.

This made me think of the satirical lyric by Los Angeles metal band Bad Acid Trip ‘punk rock’s just a fashion rebellion’.

Frazer was thoughtful and softly spoken. He said that protest music is out there, but you have to hunt it down.

Gone are the days when everyone would watch Top of The Pops, and then talk about it at school the next day.

Music is far more disparate, with the internet providing 1001 different channels through which to discover your favourite band and the causes they support.

Characteristically, the enigmatic Bob Dylan shied away from the label and responsibility of being a ‘protest singer’.

Odaranile believes that whereas you don’t have to adopt that title, as a song writer you are in a position of power and should use your platform to instigate positive change.

Photo credit: Andwhatsnext

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