Migrant Sound is a youthful celebration of migration and its impact on the UK’s music and culture. Combining broad societal stories with personal family anecdotal histories, this series permits emotional storytelling mixed with vibrant visuals of migrant culture, told through the lens of youth past and present.
The first episode Arrival, fast forwards viewers straight from the first generation of Caribbean immigrants to the UK, to the 2018 Windrush scandal, showing the repeated challenges and disrespect they have faced since they arrived in the country. Boiler Room meets photographer Pogus Caesar and the Banton family from Peckham, who all share how music helped them overcome the ignorance they met and shaped their own beliefs, across multiple generations.
This is the final short film featured alongside the current Heady Mix collection, Windrush. Those featured in Arrival explore the conflicts of identity brought about by a country who invited, then rejected, just as the stories featured in our collection deal with the same issues. Pogus Caesar accounts, ‘every time you think you are British, something happens where they say go home. But where are you going home to? Your narrative is really strange.’
It’s these sensations of otherness, of an assigned purgatory between belonging and not-belonging that swept through the Windrush community. Caught in a strange land that welcomed, only to then hang signs on pubs, bars and cafes that actively kept you out. This was a conditional invitation, exclusively on the terms of the host, without any consideration for those leaving the Caribbean to rebuild a desperate country.
That’s when music began to champion the cause of the migrant, of the downtrodden and the oppressed. Those searching for identity, found it in music, in the call to arms of artists like B.B. King, Bob Marley and Junior Walker. And when the clubs didn’t permit entry to Black people, the people started their own club. Unassuming trailblazers like Mr Banton opened their own front door, every Saturday, for the sake of music and community. The drumming beats of Jamaica thundering through South London, a beckoning call to all those who had been shut out. The racists amongst White neighbours disgruntled, but unable to articulate why – without the tropes of bigotry.
But the significance of music here goes way beyond being a soundtrack to Saturday nights. It was a peaceful way to protest; to turn up the volume and drown out the animosity and hostility. It was an ‘up yours’ to the systematic racism that showed no signs of relenting. Within the British Caribbean community relationships were founded and bounded in music. Without the makeshift sound systems of improvised clubs in homes like the Banton’s – perhaps isolation would have rotted through the community, making people feel alone and afraid. Instead these revolutionaries paved the way for generations to come. And not just for those with Caribbean heritage, but all people of Colour in Britain – and in fact all marginalised identities, could learn their defiant spirit from the swagger of the Windrush pioneers.
The community didn’t have to wait long until it wasn’t just the beats of Caribbean music that hummed with resistance. The lyrics written by influential artists began to vocalise the attitudes of the many. Reggae music changed, it became a political force – loaded with authority and desire for action. ‘The lyrics told you who you were’, recalls photographer Pogus Caesar in the short film. Music reverberated with unity and togetherness, and those same vibrations are still echoing today.
The power of hearing the UK’s first Black club – the Bamboo Club – rock with the very sounds meant to be kept out, must have been in equal parts liberating and limiting. Knowing there was finally a place celebrating Caribbean sounds but that it was only permitted on the fringes of society. Yet when you hear those featured in the episode of Migrant Sound speak of that time, there isn’t sourness or sadness. But this unrelenting, upbeat contentment; in the place of anger, just pride, in their actions that sought to unify with love.
Caribbean music became an anthem of ambition; ambition to change things, to be heard and to be seen. The Windrush generation brought beating life to the UK, banging the drum against marginalisation and ignorance. And now that baton is passed, carried by the next generation championing their own cause. A fitting close to a Heady Mix theme, which although has come to an end, will always be a continuous part of our narrative.
About the filmmaker
Boiler Room started with a webcam taped to a wall, opening a keyhole into London’s underground. Since 2010, they have built a unique archive spanning over 8000 performances by more than 5000 artists across 200 cities. Today, they remain true to that history. Supporting emerging artists, they tell stories from the fringes and connect local dance floors to the wider world.