The Queen of British Ska Looks Back on a Lifetime of Trailblazing
Pauline Black, the daughter of a Yoruba prince, was adopted and brought up in white English suburbia. But royalty—and music—was always in her blood.
All photos by Steph Wilson
It's 1979 and Pauline Vickers' ska band The Selecter has just started to take off, courting media attention and frothing crowds desperate for their addictive, upbeat 2 Tone sound. Working as a radiographer in Coventry—a city in the Midlands which still bore the brutal scars of heavy bombing during the Second World War—Vickers has run out of vacation days, but somehow needs time off to play shows.
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There's only one thing for it. She changes her name, so colleagues don't discover she's performing across the country and being written about in the music press. Pauline Vickers, a Yoruba prince's daughter who was adopted by a middle-aged white couple in post-war Essex, became Pauline Black. "I am black and that's the one thing my family never called me—they always called me colored," she states, when we meet her more than 35 years later, on the eve of her 62nd birthday. "I thought, 'They'll just have to call me black now.'" The queen of British ska smiles when she explains the 'ripples' of her name change are still being felt in her adopted family to this day.
Aside from her own piano lessons, Black was bought up in a decidedly unmusical household. It was up to her to discover music and when she did, she also found a culture and identity to call her own. "The first time music really impinged on me was Little Stevie Wonder playing his harmonica on 'Uptight,'" she explains of the moment her live changed when watching Friday night music show Ready Steady Go. "That then lead me in the direction of Tamla. What's wasn't to like if you were black in this country at that time with Tamla Motown?"
It was a short leap from Motown to a fascination with the American civil rights movement, and a society and struggle that seemed to be ignored in the place Black called home. "Within the media in this country there was a complete dearth of any kind of black influence; good, bad or indifferent, other than if somebody had done something really terrible, then that would make the front page of the newspaper if they were a person of color," she explains. "So I looked to America for any kind of inspiration, because there it seemed to me that blacks were doing something."
If you were black in those days, and female, then the logic was the place you would be most accepted would be in a hospital, either as a nurse or doctor.
Though she was offered a place at Birmingham Medical School, Black ended up studying combined science at Manchester Polytechnic. "Unbeknownst to me, my [biological] parents had promised my adopted mother that if I was clever enough, they would send me to university. I think they thought they were being protective. If you were black in those days, and female, then the logic was the place you would be most accepted would be in a hospital, either as a nurse or doctor. It seemed a safer environment." However, Black dropped out of the course and relocated to Coventry, where started singing in public at the age of 24.
It was the mid-1970s and local folkies would belt out John Martyn and Bob Dylan songs in the back room of pub that Black frequented. "One night a girl got up and sang a Donovan song," she remembers. "I was a fan of Donovan at the time and I thought, 'I can do that and I can do it better.'" Picking up a Spanish guitar her husband bought but never used, she taught herself a few chords and went back the week after, and then the week after that, accompanying herself on songs by Joan Armatrading and Joni Mitchell.
In 1979, Black joined the The Selecter, who came up alongside groups like The Specials, reinterpreting Jamaican ska and turning it into a new kind of British political commentary, singing about racism and sexism and working to buck long-held cultural stereotypes.
Though Black herself pioneered rude girl fashion, from her Brutus shirt to her Sta-Prest trousers, her first gig with The Selecter makes for a strange footnote when it comes to her signature style. "I hadn't thought it through!" she laughs of her pair of pink Spandex trousers. "At that time, what was current was the ladies in Chic and Sister Sledge. This was the disco era."
By the time the group's second gig—supporting The Specials in Leeds—rolled around, Black had managed to trawl a local branch of Oxfam for small, tailored menswear suit and a Dunn & Co. hat. "It was quite good that I'd finally got it together by that show, because Elvis Costello was there, and let's face it, you wouldn't want to be seen in pink spandex by Elvis Costello," remembers Black. "But as it was, all he did was tread on my foot at the bar!"
It was a bit like, 'The black people are getting a bit uppity, we better give them something to watch!'
Radical in their personnel as well as their sound, not only were The Selecter ethnically diverse, but they also had a 21-year-old female manager in Juliet Wills—who later went on the marry singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. Following 1979's all-male 2 Tone tour, with The Specials and Madness, Black made an effort to bring other women out on the road with the band, including the seven piece all-female Bodysnatchers.
"We also invited a band called Holly and The Italians but Holly unfortunately went on every night to a hail of beer bottles from the more unreconstructed males in the audience, so she left." Did you ever get treated like that? "No! They wouldn't dare," says Black sternly. Though Black left The Selecter in 1982, they reformed in 1991 and again in 2006 and are still committed to supporting female acts. Most recently, the band bought female punk trio The Tuts out on tour earlier this year.
As well as pursuing a solo career in the 1980s, Black also worked regularly on television, hosting children's show Hold Tight, as well as Black On Black. The first black magazine programme on British television, it followed the riots which rocked Afro-Caribbean communities in Brixton, Bristol and Toxteth across the country. "It was a bit like, 'The black people are getting a bit uppity, we better give them something to watch!'" she jokes. A landmark in British programming, it saw Black interview everyone from reggae group Aswad to Coretta Scott King and former Atlanta mayor, Andrew Young. "I got to meet all my heroes and all my heroines," she says.
Now, Black herself is a hero to many, including Gwen Stefani, who asked The Selecter to open up for No Doubt on the East Coast dates of the Tragic Kingdom tour in 1997. "We were playing these massive shows to eight year olds! I have no idea that they thought, probably just, 'Gwen will be on soon!" More recently, Janelle Monae has taken pointers from Black, from the sharply cut suits to the monochrome pallet. "I don't know about Janelle Monae..." says Black modestly. "I think Bruno Mars [has taken inspiration from me] myself, and I take that as a compliment!" Personally, Black's favorite contemporary musician is FKA Twigs. "She's the full package of artistry. I've always been a fan anyone who does a thing for herself, irrespective of whether people like it."
Not just the frontwoman of The Selecter, Black is also the band's manager, a move taken after years of being at the beck and call of male tour managers and label bosses. "I was tired of being run by men, purely and simply. I reckoned 'I can't do a worse job than some of them.' I haven't looked back since." She's also a regular guest DJ on BBC 6Music, standing in for both Pulp's Jarvis Cocker and Elbow's Guy Garvey on the radio station, after first covering for the beloved late DJ John Peel on his Radio 1 show in 1980.
Add to this her 2011 memoir Black By Design, her recent involvement with the Return of the Rudeboy exhibition at London's prestigious Somerset House and Subculture, a new album with The Selecter, and Black has a heaving diary. Does she ever feel like she's got too much on her plate? "Yeah, all the time! But I know constantly what's going on and my decisions are coming from a good and safe place."
I don't see how you can be black, female and in this society, in this country, and not vote for somebody who upholds social democracy.
Black also remains a powerful political voice. As someone who worked for Britain's National Health Service for five years before joining The Selecter fulltime, she is disgusted by the systematic dismantling of this key part of the welfare state by the Conservative government. "It's absolutely appalling," she states. "It penalizes people at the very point that they're at their sickest." This is, in part, her reason for supporting Jeremy Corbyn, an anti-austerity socialist and the controversial new leader of the Labour Party. "I admire his patience and his sincerity and the fact that he has some policies that are not only in direct opposition to the Tories, but also possibly half of his own party!" explains Black. "I don't see how you can be black, female and in this society, in this country, and not vote for somebody who upholds social democracy."
In fact, after our interview Black is straight off to the BBC to discuss her support for Corbyn. "It's not secret that whatever kind of music we do has some kind of political or social stance to it," she explains of her work in The Selecter. "We talk about issues." I ask if she thinks more musicians should align themselves with political causes. "They tend to take the soft option and align themselves with charitable causes," she says of younger bands, before neatly crystallizing her own lifetime of trailblazing. "I don't."
Subculture comes out in the US on October 2. Listen to an album stream on Noisey here.