Evidence of Things Unseen but Heard
“…sound and silence. What bridges the two elements is echo, the traces of creation. If sound is birth and silence death, the echo trailing into infinity can only be the experience of life, the source of narrative and a pattern for history.”1
Bristol, August 23, 2017
A grey and pink sky dashed across with the deep blues of post storm light. Dark rain clouds and a river the colour of lead. At Portishead the boat begins to bear right, from the Mouth of the Severn fed by the North Atlantic, into the River Avon and onwards towards the city of Bristol. Heading down past Clifton and into the Cumberland Basin, eventually the boat enters Bristol Harbour. On the left are the offices of Lloyds Bank, a company that grew to its powerful status from insuring enslaved people and slave ships during the Atlantic Slave Trade. The boat continues up St. Augustine’s Reach and glides under a footbridge traversing the waterfront; Pero’s Bridge, named after Pero Jones, a boy of 12 years old, bought as a slave for the Mountravers plantation in Nevis in 1765 by John Pinney. He was brought to Bristol as a servant to Pinney in 1783, and having never gained his freedom here he died in 1798. On leaving the boat and walking up Cascade steps into the city, one is confronted after a few hundred meters by a tall statue celebrating the life of Sir Edward Colston (1636–1721).2 A Bristol born merchant, philanthropist, and Member of Parliament, he is commemorated throughout the city via various landmarks, street names, three schools, and the famous Colston Hall music venue. A major part of Colston’s wealth came from slave plantations producing sugar in the Caribbean, as well as from his work for the Royal African Company, an English mercantile company that transported enslaved people from Africa to the Caribbean. Bristol was the pre-eminent slave port in Europe during the 1730s, accounting for 18 percent of the entire British Slave Trade and establishing strong trade links with West Africa. Much of Bristol’s wealth comes from this period and it can still be seen in the lavish Georgian architecture that designs the streets of affluent neighbourhoods. As one 18th century annalist had it: “There is not a brick in the city but what is cemented with the blood of a slave. Sumptuous mansions, luxurious living, liveried menials, were the produce of the wealth made from the sufferings and groans of the slaves bought and sold by the Bristol merchants.”3
Rain begins to pour across the pavements. People rush home from work, catching buses to the suburbs, school children flock to City Chicken, and a man leaning back on a bench, with a dog at his feet, drinks from a plastic two litre bottle of cider. Bristol, August 23, 2017. All seems so banal, so British, and then suddenly certain questions come to mind: in what ways does the afterlife of slavery still haunt the city and its recent history? What echoes or ripples from the past still resonate and drift through these city streets?
do you, do you remember those days of slavery?
it wasn’t black man alone, who died thru bravery
though some a dem threw dem self over board
because dis ya slaveship overload
it wasn't black man alone, that really really suffer as slaves
but we suffer the hardest way until today
do you, do you remember those days of slavery?
thru crooked rocks, dangerous ocean
in ya dis ya civilisation
—Eek A Mouse, “Do You Remember” (Kingston, 1982)
“Benign, tolerant Bristol felt betrayed; and the rest of the nation woke up in amazement. If such anger can erupt there, what may soon happen in more celebrated urban ghettoes, like Handsworth, Birmingham or Brixton, London?”4
The words above were printed in The Observer newspaper on August 6, 1980, four days after civil disturbances broke out in the St Pauls neighbourhood of Bristol. They seemed, when I read them in the Bristol Archives in 2017, to be haunted with a premonition of the divisive events that would grip the black working class communities through the 1980s in the United Kingdom. This newspaper cutting was a fossilised future perfect, projecting what will have been, what will come to pass. (1981 Brixton riot. 1981 Chapeltown riots. 1981 Toxteth riots. 1981 Moss Side riot. 1981 Handsworth riots.) The paragraph above sent me from Bristol to Handsworth, and I heard a voice that seemed to haunt the article, it said: “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.” The voice that appeared was an echo from the Black Audio Film Collective’s 1986 film Handsworth Songs. A film that studies the riots of the 1980s from a perspective that sets them in relation with histories of British colonialism, Atlantic slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and post-war labor migration to Britain from ex-British colonies. I think it is important to listen to the songs of Handsworth, amplified by the film, as industrial ballads that lament a traumatic past that refuses to leave the present. So if what happened in St Pauls in 1980 was a premonition of things to come, which ghosts of which stories were sung in St Pauls?
Some people named what happened on August 2, 1980, as the St Pauls Riots. Recently I heard people refer to this episode as the St Pauls Uprising. However we choose to describe it, the facts remain. The uprising happened because of a police raid on the Black and White Cafe, a local meeting point popular with young members of the Caribbean community of St Pauls, an area that housed a large part of Bristol’s Caribbean population. It was sometime late in the afternoon that the police raided the cafe, and a powerful backlash ensued. The first action lasted until midnight, but it never extended beyond St Pauls. Bricks and bottles were thrown, police cars were torched, the windows of Lloyds Bank were smashed, and the police used riot shields on civilians for the first time ever on mainland Britain. 33 people were injured and 130 were arrested.
Tension had been rising between the police and the people of St Pauls, as in many parts of the UK at that time, especially since the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and their controversial moves to invest new powers in the police. Under the Vagrancy Act of 1824, police were allowed to stop and search people in the street if they had “reasonable suspicion” they had committed an offence. Informally these laws were referred to as “sus” laws (from suspicion), and their social and psychological effects were tragically chronicled by the Jamaican Dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, in his famous record Sonny’s Lettah (1979). The lyrics are written from the perspective of an inmate in Brixton Prison awaiting trial for the murder of a policeman after trying to protect his brother from a police attack launched on the unjust (and racist and biased) grounds of suspicion of theft. The introduction of the sus laws led to outrage within certain communities in the UK as they assisted racist profiling that targeted Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic people by a largely white police force. The laws were also used as a way to check people’s immigration status, a violent form of surveillance that brought forth racist ideas about “Britishness” and the right to live in a country. Yet the people harassed on these grounds at that time were often second generation immigrants, children of people from ex-British colonies such as Jamaica or India who were invited to live and work in Britain. Children of people that had come to work in the UK in the 1940s and 1950s. They came to a country that was economically and emotionally ruined by the Second World War, and they participated in the industries that brought the country back to its feet. In factories, markets, buses, hospitals, and schools, for example. Yet people from ex-British colonies had already contributed enormously to the economic and emotional development of the UK, from the wealth accrued through forced labor on slave plantations harvesting sugar, for example. So it seems, from within the present looking back through the past, that the riots, the racism, the immigration policies of the Conservative government, and the tactics of police surveillance were all haunted by the afterlife of slavery, and that the songs of St Pauls were ballads being sung in protest.
It woz di miggle a di rush howah
wen evrybady jus a hosel an a bosel
fi goh home fi dem evenin showah;
mi an Jim stand up
waitin pan a bus,
nat cauzin no fus,
wen all af a sudden
a police van pull-up.
Out jump tree policeman,
di hole a dem carryin batan.
Dem waak straight up to mi an Jim.
One a dem hol awn to Jim
seh him tekin him in;
Jim tell him fi let goh a him
far him noh dhu notn
an him naw teef,
nat even a butn.
Jim start to wriggle
di police start to giggle.
more policeman come dung,
an beat mi to di grung;
dem charge Jim fi sus,
dem charge me fi murdah.
dont get depres
Be af good courage
till I hear fram you.
—Linton Kwesi Johnson, “Sonny’s Lettah” (London, 1979)
“The photograph, which was intended to classify, measure, identify, and differentiate, offers no clue about the riot or her role in it, but I am unable to look at her face without anticipating it, without straining to hear its music.”5
The city archives were the first place I went to in Bristol when I began the research for an essay film (that takes the same title as this text) reflecting on the history of the neighbourhood of St Pauls, the riots of 1980, and the music that followed in their wake. I sat there one afternoon, leafing through three scrapbooks from the 1980s that collected various newspaper cuttings about the St Pauls Uprising and its aftermath. Gradually I pieced together a picture of how the media tried to understand what happened at that time. How people blamed the problem on race, police, unemployment, drugs, and poverty. Yet none of the articles seemed concerned with looking at the history, at the many sedimented layers that built up the ground on which the riots happened. “‘It came like rain out of a clear sky,’ said a black community leader. And by next day, although there were police in groups of four on every corner, and the echo of hammers as wooden boarding went up on looted windows, the clouds had gone again.”6 This seemed to be the prevalent attitude, one of utter surprise, and yet from my position in 2017, it seemed that the uprising had been waiting to happen for so many years. This could be gathered from looking through the archive, and I started to use the photographs and newspaper cuttings as material evidence from which a series of speculations could unfold in the montage of my essay film. In a method akin to the critical fabulation of Saidiya Hartman, I was interested precisely in the question of whether it was “...possible to exceed or negotiate the constitutive limits of the archive?”7 I was thinking about how the archive continued to construct the discourse around these events and how it might be possible to narrate this story otherwise, as Hartman has it, by “…fashioning a narrative, which is based upon archival research, and by that I mean a critical reading of the archive that mimes the figurative dimensions of history, I intended both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling.”8 This method of amplification was how I tried to fabulate this particular narrative, an amplification of the sounds that were missing from the archival material; the music of the Bristol Sound, collaged in relation to images of the riots and the streets they took place in, filmed in 2017. This is what constitutes the essay film Evidence of things unseen but heard (2018), and it is indebted to the methods of the Black Audio Film Collective, of whom it could also be said follow the practice of critical fabulation in a work such as Handsworth Songs.
In the archive I found a series of contact sheets of black and white photographs with St Pauls, 1980, written at the top. Four photographs immediately stood out, the first in the row had three policemen, each with a large Alsatian dog, standing in front of the burnt out windows of Lloyds Bank on a Bristol high street. A small crowd has gathered in front and they are trying to look inside at the damage. Each policeman looks in a different direction. In the following three photographs the crowd has dispersed, one of the policemen has left and the other two look in opposite directions. The dogs are now lying down and enjoying some momentary sunshine. Further on in the contact sheets were images of overturned police cars in flames in the night, with many people crowding the streets, policemen looking in windows, looking in corners of burnt out shops, looking in notebooks. In one row of photographs is a series of close ups of a police inspector walking through the remains of a building. First he looks down, then up, then to his left, then again to his right. In the row below he is joined by two more inspectors in long macs. They are all looking at the charred mess.
What we have in these photographs seemed to raise an interesting question of how riots like these can or should be considered. They are images taken by someone who was looking at the police looking at the remains of the St Pauls Uprising. The inspector’s tool in this instance is his sight, and he is looking for evidence of why these people in this community decided to burn their own shops and harm the police that are apparently working to protect them. The police, through surveillance, suspicion, arrest, and incarceration, privilege sight over sound. They look but they refuse to listen. This could be understood as the ocularcentrism of the police state and the violence it purveys. Indeed the “sus” laws, and the arrests that came from them, always privileged the claims made by a member of the police according to information gathered through sight, over the words or testimony of the accused. This is what Handsworth Songs tries to think through in regard to the riots in 1985; the public, misinformed by the media, were confused as to why the riots happened, yet nobody in the government or the police force was really prepared to listen closely to the demands of the communities that were rioting. The Black Audio Film Collective spent time in Handsworth, Brixton, and Tottenham listening to people, what they had to say, and what songs they were playing in resistance and remembrance. In the film we have scenes of a Sikh funeral song being played to commemorate people who died in the riots, we have Rastafarian nyabinghi drumming with singing in Amharic as the hearse of Cynthia Jarrett drives past in Tottenham, we have a scene of Jah Shaka playing reggae on a sound system in the early hours of the morning whilst the police wait outside. The Black Audio Film Collective manages to create images that resonate with sound, sonic-images or image-sounds. It is a different way of image making that incorporates a generosity of listening to rather than taking from an experience of a community.
This is perhaps how “sound gives us back the visuality that ocularcentrism has repressed,”9 a deeper and more layered form of visuality that allows for echoes from the past to resound in the present, bringing to images certain cultural, geographical, and historical specificities that might not appear at first glance, from what our eyes can gather. In this sense the echo is, as Louis Chude-Sokei remarks, “a source of narrative, a pattern for history”10 in that the echo allows for the continual haunting of the present by previous events and generations. The body of the individual caught in the suspicious gaze of the police officer resounds with a narrative and a history that come from elsewhere. We look at the hearse of Cynthia Jarrett passing by and we hear the music of Rastafarians from Jamaica singing in a language from Ethiopia, and it is impossible not to be moved by the association that her death, at the hands of the police in London, carries with it all of this stratified history from Africa to the Caribbean, ending up on the Broadwater Farm council estate in Tottenham burning with rage and upset on October 6, 1985.
Looking at the photographs of St Pauls in the archive I was interested to ask similar questions of these images. What sounds constituted the sonic space of these photographs? What could I hear as the sound of Bristol, The Bristol Sound? As I listened closer to the pictures of burnt-out police cars in front of Lloyds Bank I started to hear sirens, police sirens screaming through the night. The police sirens, through the powers of echo and delay from a Dub Reggae mixing desk, can eventually turn into the sirens of sound systems that flourished in the aftermath of the St Pauls Uprising, playing rhythm and bass deep into the night, late night blues.
Ok Babylon, just a riot on ok,
I said a riot, a riot,
No you can’t deny it,
I said a riot, a riot,
When everyone quiet.
Who pay your earnin’ to set Bristol burnin’?
Riot right here in Bristol St Pauls England, as I would say.
Riot throughout the world today!
—3D Production, Riot (Bristol, 1980)
Rock Bristol Rock,
St Pauls Jamming
Can you hear the music playing?
Fire down there!
Wow no you can’t get in there
Fire down there!
Wow no you can’t come out there,
Dread, wow now, well well dread.
Over on White Ladies road, the spirit touch my soul.
On top of Blackboy Hill, silently I make a wish
I’ve got to get to Henbury cemetery, read it in your history
His bones are still on ya
His bones are still on ya
—Black Roots, Bristol Rock (Bristol, 1981)
As I continue scanning the contact sheets, the images start to change in quite a dramatic way. After three pages of burnt buildings, burning cars, broken windows, and policemen I start to see pictures of groups of young people smiling at the camera, people seated together on walls, on cars, and on top of large speakers from a sound-system in a park somewhere in St Pauls. Listening to these pictures I could feel the rumble of a heavy, rolling bass line, and the words of a deejay echoing messages across the park, fragments of chatter ricocheting through space in delay. This particular succession of images, in such an order, made me think about the relation between the riots and the music of Bristol. I thought that what I was listening to within these photographs was in part the result of the uprising: from rioting against a broken system to coming together around a sound system.
After the 1980/1981 riots in the UK, the Conservative government commissioned a report by Lord Scarman to enquire into the causes and effects of the disturbances. This was an official attempt at listening, the evidence of which was largely ignored by the government and the police, however. Yet some attempts were made to create “positive” outcomes from the report as a way to stop further civil disturbances at later dates (of course these attempts failed precisely because of the lack of genuine care or interest on behalf of the Conservative Government towards the people in question. Brixton and Handsworth rioted again in 1985, and it continued and continues all over the country). One outcome was the introduction of “policing by consent,” as Richard King, the Bristol record shop owner and author, notes in his book Original Rockers: “This initiative attempted to prioritise community relations above arrest targets and for the first time sound systems were tolerated rather than targeted by the police. In St Pauls, where sound system battles were regularly held in the newly built Malcolm X Community Centre, the community became partly defined by sound-system culture.”11 Essentially then, as a result of the uprising, St Pauls was somewhat left alone by the police and the community became responsible for self-policing. The already existing sound-system culture flourished in the empty buildings of the economically restricted neighbourhood, and as they were left to go on through the week and throughout the night the parties created the space for radical experimentation and development in music. Hence Bristol became one of the most important cities in the UK for bass heavy, sound-system oriented music. Bristol was a purveyor of Reggae, Hip Hop, Jungle, Drum&Bass, and of course the genre unique to the city itself: Trip Hop, a music so laden with paranoia and darkness that listening to it one can feel Bristol’s bad weather, bad policing, heavy bass, and strong cannabis. A quintessential British music.
I don’t want to merely list the many names of people that emerged out of Bristol’s music scene, for this is often how Bristol is spoken of. Yet I would like to focus on the culture of the sound-system, how it was imported from Jamaica, what it brought to cities like Bristol, and how, through listening closely to sound-system culture in the wake of something such as the St Pauls Uprising (of which it was such an intimate part), we can begin to hear different historical narratives around migration, colonisation, and slavery in Britain.
Here we come back again to the echo, as if there is an echo echoing within this text. The echo is an aesthetic form particular to Dub Reggae, and it is frequently used as an effect in the remixed versions of songs, generally on the B-side of 7inch records (or as the extended mix on a 12inch record). These remixed versions are often made by the producers of the original, who will take the different tracks from a recording and reorder them in various ways, cutting off the vocal track for example, leaving only the drums and bass and backing vocals. Then intermittently through the song the voice of the singer may come in, yet fragmented through echo and delay. This style of remixing is called Dubbing and is a technological process created in recording studios in Jamaica from the 1960s to the present. The echo is also an effect used on sound-systems as a way to create a seamless transition from one record to another, creating a spectral, sonic web that extends from one Dub version to the next, so the echo becomes echoed and so on. One of the pioneers of Reggae production, and Dub Reggae in particular, Lee Scratch Perry, once claimed that duppies (a Jamaican term for a ghost) haunted his mixing desk in his studio The Black Ark. I like to think then that Dub is a duppie music, a music created from within a ritualistic space where the dead are animated to life through echo and delay.12 The echo is the ectoplasmic matter that allows for the voices of the dead to seep through the machines of the mixing desk and into the sound-system, from Kingston to Bristol, from the 1970s to the present day. Could we then understand the sound-system as a space of ritual, using dub plates as material imprints of past events that, when spiralled into motion, make a sound loud enough to awaken the dead?
Attempting to answer this question led me back to the archival material, the videos I was shooting in the present, and the conversations I was having with people that lived in St Pauls. This was all part of a method of storytelling that attempted to offer a different understanding of why the St Pauls uprising took place and a way to rethink how stories could be narrated about Bristol and its history as a slave port. Through the methods of critical fabulation I wanted to treat the photographs in the archive as evidence upon which I could create an audiovisual essay about the long lasting effects of British slavery upon certain communities in England. For me this involved a process of close listening to what was being told and how it was being told, both in image and sound, in rhythm of speech and in beat, then through the amplification of those sounds in and around images I was able to piece together a proposition.
Indeed the photographs of sound-systems built after the St Pauls Uprising for example, were haunted by the afterlife of slavery and the violence of plantation capitalism, but they were also haunted by the echoes of uprisings against such systems of oppression. Slave revolts that had ricocheted throughout the Caribbean for centuries, from Jamaica to Guadeloupe and Cuba to Haiti. If the sounds of these images should remind us of something, it is precisely that the uprisings came from a powerful lineage of resistance. They should remind us, for example, that Jamaican independence was not granted to Jamaica by the Queen of England, it was fought for through years of struggle, from maroons fighting British plantation owners in the 18th century to strikes and riots protesting inequalities of wealth in British Caribbean colonies in the 20th century. There is a very important need to challenge certain British nationalist mythologies around the abolition of slavery, as they unjustly amplify the role of British parliamentarians within the process. As the voice of Paul Foot reminds us in an NTS radio show by John T. Gast from 2012,13 it was not people like William Wilberforce—a white, bourgeois, Conservative politician—that abolished slavery, but the enslaved people themselves.14
It is important to remember all of this today as these ghosts still haunt our present, they have never been laid to rest and they continue to deal with the trauma that people are still suffering on a daily basis—from the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police in Tottenham in 2011 to the deportations within the “Windrush Scandal” organised by Theresa May and the Conservative government she led in 2018.15 I will insist on one last comment: if the present is not listened to as containing echoes from other places and other times then there is no possibility of understanding which stories haunt the riots, and as such they will never be heard as uprisings against the violence of racial capitalism.
1 Louis Chude-Sokei, “Doctor Satan’s Echo Chamber,” Chimurenga Magazine, 2008, 6.
2 Since this essay was written, the statue of Edward Colston was pulled off its pedestal by a group of Black Lives Matter protestors in the afternoon of Sunday 7th June, 2020. They rolled the statue to Bristol Harbour and pushed it into the water. With a strong sense of poetic justice the statue of a slave owner sunk to the bottom of the water in which slave ships were once docked.
3 Anonymous comment on Bristol cited in J. F. Nicholls and John Taylor, Bristol Past and Present (3 vols) (Bristol and London: Arrowsmith, 1881–1882), vol. 3, 165.
4 Robert Chesshyre and George Brock, “The Revolt of Britain’s Lost Tribe,” The Observer, April 6, 1980, 11.
5 Saidiya Hartman, Wayward lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2019), 265.
6 Chesshyre and Brock, “The Revolt of Britain’s Lost Tribe.”
7 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts”, Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 26, vol. 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 11.
9 Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 235.
10 Louis Chude-Sokei, “Doctor Satan’s Echo Chamber,” Chimurenga Magazine, 2008, 6.
11 Richard King, Original Rockers (London: Faber and Faber, 2015), 54.
12 For further reference, look to the work of Louis Chude Sokei in particular his essay Doctor Satan’s Echo Chamber, quoted at the beginning of this text.
13 From the NTS Radio broadcast RPBLC of Many Voices, May 2012.
14 Wilberforce was in fact opposed to Toussaint Louverture’s project of emancipation of the enslaved people of Saint Domingue (latter day Haiti), for example, and voted to send British troops to quell the revolution.
15 The Windrush scandal is a 2018 British political scandal concerning people who were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation, and, in at least 164 cases, wrongly deported from the UK by the Home Office. Many of those affected had been born British subjects and had arrived in the UK before 1973, particularly from Caribbean countries as members of the “Windrush generation” (so named after the Empire Windrush, the ship that brought one of the first groups of West Indian migrants to the UK in 1948).