‘Kitch’ should be celebrated as one of the great black British musicians of the 20th century according to Nathan Holder
Amongst the 492 expats – I refuse to use the word immigrant – aboard the SS Empire Windrush when it docked in Tilbury on the 22nd June 1948, was a Trinidadian musician who was well known throughout the Caribbean. This was a man who through his music, was able to articulate many of the struggles that people of Caribbean heritage in London experienced then and many that still prevail in today’s society.
“London is the place for me”, sang Lord Kitchener as he was interviewed by Pathé News on the steps of the Windrush. The song he wrote during the four-week voyage to his new home echoes the optimism that many expats had on arrival. They would arrive in London, their ‘Mother Country’, work, live for a few years and go back to the Caribbean. 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 welcomed them.
Despite these obstacles, Lord Kitchener was able to record at Abbey Road studios in early 1950, thanks to a man named Denis Preston who saw the potential for calypso in the UK record market. However, the man affectionately named Kitch used Denis’ platform not only to produce commercially viable music, but songs which told stories of racism, hope, self-reflection, and confusion. The record ‘Underground Train’ is a comical recount of an experience he had on the London Underground:
A ha my first misery, is when I embark at Piccadilly,
I went down below, I stand up in the crowd don’t know where to go.
I decided to follow a young lady, well I nearly met with my destiny,
That night was bad luck for Kitchener, I fall down on the escalator.
KItch deals with how non-whites were treated in London in the song ‘If You’re Brown‘, which makes for hard listening at times. You can almost hear the sadness in his voice – a far cry from the optimism he displayed on the steps of the Windrush.
[Chorus] ‘If you’re brown they say you can’t stick around, if you’re white, well everything’s alright,
If your skin is dark, no use to try, you’ve got to suffer until you die.
The song goes on to talk about a situation where he was offered a job then refused it when they saw his face, as well as telling the listener that it’s a ‘mortal sin’ in the eyes of the Lord to judge someone by the colour of their skin.
Perhaps we are too used to reading about the Civil Rights Movement in the US. In Britain, we rarely take as much time to consider how difficult things were for the Caribbean expats in London during the 1950s. 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 and Mighty Duke also discuss racial inequality in their music. In this respect, Kitch is somewhat of a pioneer by predating other musicians Nina Simone, Fela Kuti and Bob Marley who are well known for speaking out about racial discrimination in the US, Jamaica and Africa.
Kitch also shows how connected he was to the US African diaspora in ‘If You’re Brown’ when he says that he was in shock after reading about Governor Faubus sending the National Guard to prevent black children from attending Little Rock Central High School in 1957. As well as the continent itself, which shows in a song entitled ‘Birth Of Ghana’ which celebrated Ghana’s independence on the 6th March 1957.
‘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 West Indian community. In the song ‘If You’re Not White You’re Black’, he sings,
Your negro hair is obvious, you make it so conspicuous,
You use all kinds of vaseline, to make out you are European.
[Chorus] No, you can never get away from the fact, if you’re not white you’re considered black
The issue of colourism is one which continues today and is referenced here by Kitch who not only brings to our attention how some people of mixed heritage acted towards others but implicitly, how many white people may have interacted with many black people on a day to day basis.
You jut along the thoroughfare, you shake your waist like Fred Astaire,
And when you see me passing by, you watch me with a crooked eye
During Black History Month, it’s easy to think of black British singers who have inspired and brought happiness to countless people around the world. There are the entertainers and chart toppers of an older generation such as Sade, Dame Shirley Bassey and Billy Ocean with younger artists such as Lianne La Havas, Michael Kiwanuka and Stormzy who have become stars on an international stage. While championing those people, we shouldn’t neglect Lord Kitchener. This was a man whose music contains great insight into the life of an expat in 1950s London, not to mention the mix of jazz and calypso that help make his music significant. Kitch’s work is to this day is widely celebrated in his native Trinidad with hits such as ‘No Wuk For Carnival’ and ‘Sugar Bum Bum’ regularly played at carnival and other events. The ten times Road March competition winner deserves to be acknowledged as one of the most important black British musicians of the twentieth century.
Nathan Holder recently graduated with a Distinction in a Music Performance Masters from Kingston University, collecting the 2017 MMus Music Prize in the process. He has performed across Europe with artists such as Ed Sheeran and Petite Meller, and was appointed musical director for two original musical theatre shows in Hamburg, Germany. He is the director of OmniMusic Education, host of the podcast Backstage Spotlight and is working on his first book entitled ‘I Wish I Didn’t Quit: Musical Instruments’. Twitter/Insta saxo_n8 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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