Southern soul: identity and representation

As with Northern Soul, it’s genuinely difficult to identify the various elements that defined the ‘southern soul’ scene, or to construct a neat ‘homology’, as some subcultural analysts like to do. As I’ve suggested, the music itself was significantly more diverse than Northern Soul: rarity, and the exclusivity that accompanied it, was an issue here, but it was much less ferociously guarded and there was much less informal trading in obscure recordings. DJs like Robbie Vincent (my personal favourite, I admit) played a range that encompassed jazz funk, smooth Philadelphia-style soul and more mainstream disco, but with occasional forays into Latin and ‘pure’ funk. ‘Fusion’ was largely a positive term, not an accusation of betrayal. Herbie Hancock or Roy Ayers might segue into Alexander O’Neal, Tania Maria, Keni Burke or Maze – or even into better-known acts like Marvin Gaye or Earth, Wind and Fire. This was mostly dance music (although this was less the case on radio), but the tempo was often far from frantic.

Likewise, it would be possible to create a caricature of ‘southern soul’ fashions: wedge haircuts, piped jeans, white socks, deck shoes or plastic sandals, and brightly coloured shirts. But the style was more individualistic, and less closely policed, even when compared with that of Northern Soul. Likewise, I have not encountered any claims that drugs – aside from alcohol – played any significant role in the scene: it’s conceivable that they might have done so away from the dance floor, but they were not a defining element, as speed definitely was in the northern scene.

In terms of social identity, this southern scene also appears less exclusive and less strictly disciplined than its northern counterpart. Even at its height in the early 1980s, the age range was broader; and as in the disco scene, there was a gay presence in some of the clubs. The scene was (and is) by no means exclusively working class. To some extent, it could be described as suburban rather than cosmopolitan, although this might be partly to do with where it mostly takes place. It’s my impression that many of the participants were and are upwardly mobile working class, although such generalisations are risky; and this does have some kind of resonance with the music, which has little of the rough-edged, gritty urban funk of (at least some) Northern Soul.

Most crucially, however, this was also a much more obviously multi-racial scene, and it remains so – again, especially when compared with Northern Soul. This is not to suggest there was not racism, at least on the part of those who controlled the scene. Some of the black participants interviewed in Lloyd Bradley’s history complain about the exclusive entry policies at some of the clubs, which seemed to operate a quota on black customers. There’s some indication that the DJs themselves were unhappy about this, insofar as they were aware of it; but as with Northern Soul (and even to some extent with reggae), the fact remains that many of the key intermediaries were white. During the 1970s, Greg Edwards was the only leading black DJ on the scene (he was born in Grenada and raised in the US); although in the 1980s, several younger black DJs emerged, including Norman Jay and Trevor Nelson. Nevertheless, my impression – for which I have no demographic evidence – is that the participants in this scene were more ethnically diverse than in many others of the time.

This relates to another key aspect of the scene that distinguishes it from Northern Soul. This was not simply a scene for ‘consumers’ (record buyers or dancers) but also one that nourished producers – that is, home-grown performers and bands. By the end of the 1970s, several participants in the dance scene had formed their own bands; and most of them were black, often second generation immigrants. This was the age of what became known as ‘Britfunk’, with bands and performers like Light of the World, Linx, Imagination, Junior Giscombe, Hi Tension, Freez and (a little later) Incognito and the Brand New Heavies. Most of these bands hailed from the south east, although cites with larger African-Caribbean populations like Liverpool and Bristol also produced Britfunk bands of their own.

Some of these bands would be brought in to open for visiting US acts; although the difficult economics of live performance led them to concentrate more on recording. Initially, the music was not quite as polished as that being imported from the US, but it quickly became so. While most of the performers were of Caribbean heritage, it is hard to detect much Caribbean influence here: there may be a touch of Lovers’ Rock, and an occasional lilt of reggae, but this is essentially Black British soul music, reflecting a wider diaspora. It is less ‘righteous’ than roots reggae, although a few of the lyrics are implicitly political; and its production values are as high as any of the material coming out of the US studios. Significantly, those who produced it were aiming unashamedly for the mainstream market and did not wish to be ghettoized into a ‘black music’ category: several were regularly featured on Top of the Pops and had successes in the pop charts. In this sense, as Robert Strachan suggests, Britfunk seemed to offer a broader and perhaps less reductive sense of black Britishness than forms such as reggae – and one that might have held more appeal for more upwardly mobile, second generation listeners.

Britfunk was another relatively short-lived moment, although it has arguably had a longer impact. To some extent, it fell victim to the institutionalized racism of the music business. Record companies were mostly more interested in white bands – and there were several in the early 1980s who were clearly influenced by soul and funk (and indeed reggae) of the period, such as Duran Duran, the Human League and Culture Club. In some instances, the companies hired white producers who didn’t understand the music. Nevertheless, black artists gradually took back some control. By the late 1980s, the London DJ Jazzie B was running a successful multi-faceted empire involving music production, sound systems and a whole range of branded merchandise. Many of the original exponents of Britfunk are still around, and have nurtured a younger generation of black performers; and the changing technology of music production has also facilitated the emergence of a whole range of distinctively Black British styles, including jungle, dubstep, grime, and drill.


Representing southern soul

 As I’ve suggested, this ‘southern soul’ scene has largely passed under the radar of mainstream media attention. It has also largely escaped academic attention as well, for reasons I’ll consider in my conclusion. There is nothing here to compare with the outpouring of documentaries and memoirs – and indeed the growing amount of academic writing – on Northern Soul that has appeared over the past decade or so. One of the very few exceptions to this is a feature film I’ll go on to discuss here: Young Soul Rebels, made in 1991 by the black British director Isaac Julien.

The film focuses primarily on two black teenage soul enthusiasts, who run their own pirate radio station. Chris is straight, while Caz is gay; and their various romantic and sexual encounters are woven in with a rather creaky investigation plot following the murder of gay friend. The film sets the soul scene against a wider backdrop of the youth culture of the time, including skinheads, Rastafarians and punks. Caz becomes involved with a white punk named Billibud (a rather obvious reference to Herman Melville), while Chris’s girlfriend Tracey tries to help them get a show on a commercial radio station. The film culminates in a large-scale fight at what appears to be a Rock Against Racism carnival, as the identity of the white psycho-killer is revealed (although it hardly comes as a surprise).

Young Soul Rebels is an awkward hybrid, which seems even more awkward now than it did at the time. The film was made with major backing from the British Film Institute, on a budget of £1.2 million – significantly higher than any previous BFI-funded project. On release, the BFI also published a lavish illustrated book, Diary of a Young Soul Rebel, containing a copy of the script alongside contributions from director Julien and the film’s producer, the academic and cultural theorist Colin MacCabe. Prior to YSR, Julien had been primarily known as a director of experimental avant garde films, through his involvement with the black film collective Sankofa. (He has since continued to create film and video, although his work these days is mostly exhibited in art galleries.) To say the least, therefore, the film arrived already endowed with a considerable amount of cultural baggage. Yet it was clearly an attempt to cross over from art film to mainstream entertainment; and this is something that it ultimately fails to manage. The film was critically slated at the time, partially though not entirely for justified reasons; although it went on to win the Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival – an award that reveals much more about the bizarre politics of film culture than about the actual quality of the film itself.

The film is certainly well intentioned, and Julien’s comments on the soul scene do make a case for it to be taken much more seriously by mainstream observers than it was at the time. In an interview with the cultural theorist bell hooks, included in the accompanying book, he argues that this was a distinctively Black British phenomenon – although elsewhere, in the DVD notes, he acknowledges that it was an inter-racial scene. He also suggests that it offered a softer, more ambivalent form of black masculinity, as compared with the roots reggae scene, for example. Julien argues that in these respects, the scene offered ’a less fixed and more fluid space’ that not only ‘overturned notions of British culture’, but also challenged the certainties of conventional left politics (as embodied, for example, in Rock Against Racism).

These are important arguments, but the problem with the film is that it seems to apply them in a very schematic, literal manner. Although there is some sharp observation of the various youth scenes and subcultures of the period, it sometimes seems as if the film is cramming in everything it can. This social observation fits awkwardly with the rather unconvincing murder plot. The dialogue is often clichéd, the characters are one-dimensional and some of the acting is quite wooden. The film laboriously spells out a series of lessons about race and class oppression, and about sexuality – nowhere more than in the closing scene, where the main characters (male and female, straight and gay, black and white, working-class and middle-class) are shown cleaning records and then joining together in a kind of choreographed line dance. All in all, Young Soul Rebels offers a cautionary tale about the limitations of translating cultural theory into popular narrative cinema. Although the soundtrack still sounds good.


Read more…