The Cultural Impact of Migration: The Impact of Sound System Culture on Britain
Updated: Jun 14, 2020
Words: Jenn Finch
This report aims to exemplify the positives of diasporic culture through the case study of Sound System’s impact on Britain. It will explore how sound system culture has penetrated British mainstream culture and the important societal implications and consequences this had. Sound system culture is an ideal example to show how migrants transitioning their native cultures creates a cosmopolitan, vibrant society. This case study seems vital in a time where traditional nationalist feelings are rising due to anxieties surrounding globalisation, as it displays how multi-culturalism is something that should be embraced, not feared.
In 2013, there were 244 million international migrants globally. Urry argues that the huge increase in migration since WW2 globally has made it seem as ‘if all the world is on the move’ (Urry, 1999, p. 3). The globe is becoming more connected than ever through mediums such as the internet, connecting the world by defying space and time. There are also collective issues that transcend traditional nation-states such as climate change, meaning that people across countries are taking collective action together. However, despite these moves towards world unification, the world often seems more divided than ever before. Beynon expands on this by stating that ‘rather than being about unity, globalisation would appear to be about increasing diversity’ (Beynon, 2000, p. 5). This is apparent in a ‘troubling global pattern’ (Calhoun, 2017, p. 57) of extreme right-wing politicism worldwide, with nationalist propaganda being a strong driving force convincing people to embody these radical views. Brexit is an illustration of this, where people voted to leave the European Union, which Calhoun sees as a vote ‘against London, globalisation and multiculturalism as much as a vote against Europe’ (Calhoun, 2017, p. 57). Calhoun argues that ‘similar populist pushback against globalisation’ (Calhoun, 2017, p. 57) was also a ‘central theme of the Donald Trump campaign in the United States’ (Calhoun, 2017, p. 57). The influx of migrants post WW2 has meant ‘many local settings have increasingly been characterised by cultural diversity’ (Beynon, 2000, p. 14) which may explain this contemporary trend in backlash against globalisation, as people are increasingly becoming fearful of losing their traditional cultures. Yet, what these individuals are failing to acknowledge is that culture in contemporary society worldwide would be unrecognisable without diasporic contributions. Splicing together of different cultures is not something that has to be feared. Culture is the ideal accomplice to a unified society as it ‘oils the wheels of the social relationships and institutions that make up society’ (Featherstone, 2000, p. 4).
The aim of this report is to demonstrate the positives of multiculturalism through using the case study of Sound System culture's impact on Britain. Sound system culture is the ideal case study to illustrate the importance of hybridisation as it created a vibrant, unifying culture that helped to form relationships and remind the world that ‘others are neighbours with which we must necessarily interact, relate and listen’ (Featherstone, 2000, p. 4). Before delving into this report, it is important to quickly establish what a sound system is. Physically, a sound system is a huge range of speakers as displayed in the image on the front page of this report. Sound systems are operated by the sound system crew, which traditionally consists of a DJ, who operates the speakers, a selector who chooses the music, and an MC who serves as the crowd entertainer (Henriques, 2011, p. 4). Yet the term ‘sound system’ embodies much more than these physical attributes. Henriques defines the sound system as ‘a unique apparatus, a musical medium, technological instrument and a social and cultural institution’ (Henriques, 2011, p. 3). This definition demonstrates how the sound system plays multiple ‘different roles’ (Henriques, 2011, p. 3) all of which have played a seminal part in shaping British culture, influencing cultural mediums such as youth culture, fashions and music. These roles shall be analysed within this report. The fundamental youth cultures of the 20th century would not have occurred without sound system culture being bought overseas with the Windrush generation. The sound system is the perfect symbol to demonstrate how the ‘Eurocentric view of the world has been subverted and replaced’ (Beynon, 2000, p. 10) as it is a fundamental part of Western culture today, despite the fact it is not a Western creation.
Between 1948 and 1962, about 115,000 people from the Caribbean arrived in Britain (Ward, 2017, p. 354). Most were initially ‘encouraged by poor economic conditions at home and a shortage of labour in Britain’ (Ward, 2017, p. 349). It is vital to briefly examine the post-colonial context that caused this influx ‘into the mother country’ (Freeman, 1975, p. 29). Freeman argues that in post-colonial society the ‘migration of Third World workers to the industrial centres a mere extension of colonialism and a new stage in Capitalist imperialism’ (Freeman, 1975, p. 29). British Empire citizens were essentially exploited for Britain to maintain control over them despite the deteriorating Empire. They ‘had been promised skilled and semi-skilled work’ but found on their ‘arrival, that they were expected to do jobs English people didn’t want’ (Hebdige, 1987, pp. 75-76). This is supported by Thomas’s first-hand experience. He was born and bought up in Britain in the 1970s as a second wave immigrant of Jamaican parents. He says that ‘he felt at the time, the politics were about “putting the blacks in the worst housing” and “offering them low paid jobs”’ (Thomas, 2012, p. 114). The exploitation of vulnerable migrants who had hoped to find a better standard of living when reaching Britain is exposed further when looking at the false promises of the 1948 British Nationality Act. The Act had stated ‘migrants from the British empire were fellow British subjects’ (Ward, 2017, p. 349), a statement which had plausibility due to the unity the British empire had recently experienced in fighting together in World War Two. Yet the ‘Mothering country’ (Ward, 2017, p. 349), (Freeman, 1975, p. 29) did not receive them with warmth as promised in such policies. The migrants ‘faced discrimination, prejudice and the prospect of poor jobs, poor housing and poor lives’ (Hebdige, 1987, p. 76) so ‘began to seek refuge in their own West Indian culture’ (Hebdige, 1987, p. 76); the sound system was the perfect aid to provide this sanctity.
The Sound System’s Function as a Safe Space for Migrants
As migrants found themselves in a ‘strange and often hostile environment, they tended to stick together’ (Hebdige, 1987, p. 76). Featherstone sees the ‘incorporation of rituals and ceremonies that link people to a place and common sense of the past’ (Featherstone, 2000, p. 5) as essential in creating a ‘sense of belonging’ which is crucial to the concept of ‘local culture’ (Featherstone, 2000, p. 5). This is demonstrated through the sound system. The ‘landlords had created slums’ (Hebdige, 1987, p. 76) through exploiting immigrants desperately looking for housing. As many landlords ‘would refuse to house black people’ (Hebdige, 1987, p. 76) migrants had no choice but to pay unjust rent prices and live in poorly kept housing (Hebdige, 1987, p. 76), resulting in these areas deteriorating. This meant that the white people initially living in these areas moved out as they, unlike the migrants, could afford to do so and had the privilege of being accepted anywhere. Areas such as Notting Hill and Brixton became predominantly occupied by West Indies (Hebdige, 1987, p. 76). This resulted in the local culture (Featherstone, 2000, p. 5) of these areas being a unique and ‘truly Caribbean culture’ (Hebdige, 1987, p. 76) as people from ‘all over the British West Indies’ (Hebdige, 1987, p. 76) were situated in these areas, resulting in a distinctive hybridisation of culture from across the Caribbean.
The Soundsystem created a safe space, which filled an important nostalgic purpose for migrants (Featherstone, 2000, p. 8). For people from the West Indies, music being played through sound systems and dancing had been regular features of Caribbean life (Ward, 2017, p. 351), meaning such activities could be recreated within Britain through the sound system to ‘remind people of where they came from and at the same time make their new lives more tolerable and enjoyable’ (Ward, 2017, p. 351).
The sound system helped people regain a ‘lost sense of place’ (Featherstone, 2000, p. 7) through this reviving of ‘past cultural forms’ (Featherstone, 2000, p. 7). The multi-sensory (Henriques, 2011, p. xv) nature of the sound system helped ‘bodies to fall into its embodiment with nostalgic ease’ (Featherstone, 2000, p. 7). Henriques illustrates the multi-sensory function of the sound system, by stating that ‘with the sound system, bodies are placed inside sound' (Henriques, 2011, p. xvi). This depicts the ‘sonic force’ (Henriques, 2011) of the sound system, as it immerses one within it. Henrique also exemplifies the significance of aromas to supports this, illustrating how the scents of ‘rum, weed, sweat and drum chicken’ bought the individual to themselves through their senses (Henriques, 2011, p. xv). This emotional, multi-sensory experience helped project collective memories (Featherstone, 2000, p. 9) of the Caribbean homeland, resulting in giving migrants an important sense of belonging and unity and sparking a new, local culture for areas in the UK heavily situated with West Indian immigrants. By the 1970s, sound system culture had become a ‘core institution’ (Gilroy, 2002, p. 217) of black British culture. Although sound system culture was initially a culture which was purely embodied by diasporic blacks, it eventually began to spread. White youth culture was the perfect bridge to infiltrate Caribbean culture into mainstream, British culture. The next section will explore how this occurred.
Resonating with British Youth
By the early 1960s, there were ‘sizeable immigrant communities established in Britain’s working-class areas’ (Hebdige, 1988, p. 52). This meant there had begun to be a rapport being built between ‘black and neighbouring white groups’, (Hebdige, 1987) as the communities had forcibly become more integrated due to the sheer size of migrant areas fusing with working class, white communities. Caribbean culture was the perfect way to create a harmonious relationship between the two neighbouring communities, which shall be explored by looking at how youth culture encouraged multiculturalism.
The sound system played an important part in amplifying Caribbean culture. Genres which had come over from the West Indies, such as reggae and ska, were not included on commercial music platforms such as the BBC and radio (Gilroy, 2002, p. 218). Therefore, the sound system had the purpose of displaying this music as it could still reach large audiences due to it being ‘thousands of times more powerful than a domestic record player’ (Gilroy, 2002, p. 216). This display of music to a large audience, despite not being played on mainstream television or radio, meant the sound system had freed Caribbean music from commercialisation ‘which characterised the British music industry’ (Gilroy, 2002, p. 219). This also gave the culture a rebellious, anti-establishment edge as it proudly displayed its music in spite of it not being accepted into the British mainstream, making it ‘an important expression of politics which infused the roots music scene’ (Gilroy, 2002, p. 219). This displayed a confident attitude from second-generation migrants who were not just seeking to assimilate into British culture like their parents (Hebdige, 1988) (Thomas, 2012). British youth, seeking their own angsty style, resonated with sound system culture’s anti-establishment edge. West Indian ‘rituals, languages and styles provided models for white youth alienated from the parent culture’ (Hebdige, 1988, p. 56). The resilient display of underground reggae music being projected through the mighty sound systems illustrated this by depicting a carefree culture which did not care for societal validation, striking a chord with alienated, white, working-class British youth.
The first group to emulate Caribbean culture and style were the Mods (Hebdige, 1988, p. 52), who had grown up around the West Indians and had ‘responded positively to their presence’ (Hebdige, 1988, p. 52). Their ‘emotional affinity with black people’ (Hebdige, 1988, p. 53) was transposed through their deviant lifestyles which, according to Hebdige, resembled that of the West Indian migrants who had inverted the values and norms of the ‘straight world’ (Hebdige, 1988, p. 54). This was displayed in factors such as migrant’s different attitudes: ‘work was insignificant, irrelevant, and vanity and arrogance were permissible, even desirable qualities’ (Hebdige, 1988, p. 54). This attitude of work being insignificant and having confidence in yourself, which was being displayed by migrants, resonated with white working-class youth. They had also been victims of being trapped in monotonous, low paying jobs and distrusted the government after the same false promises of prosperous job roles in the ‘post-war period' (Hebdige, 1987, p. 56). The Mods were the first of a long line of youth subcultures to resonate with and imitate sound system culture and West Indie style (Hebdige, 1988, p. 52). Sound system culture had served an important function of providing ‘a space of encounter and dialogue across lines of ethnicity’ (Gidley, 2007, p. 145), as it had displayed to white British youth that they shared ‘common or parallel meanings in their blighted, post-industrial predicament’ (Gilroy, 2002) with their black neighbours. This created an important multi-cultural identity which presented the struggle as a working-class one as opposed to one scapegoating migrants as the issue. Sound system culture was no longer predominantly a black culture but was a culture representing the angst of Britain’s young working classes. This meant hybridised music and their subsequent cultures began to be created. The next section shall explore these more contemporary youth subcultures, and how they display Britain as a multi-cultural society.
Hybrid Sounds of Multicultural Britain
2 Tone: A Representation of a Working-Class Struggle
2 Tone was the first genre to fully embody hybridisation. Heavily influenced by reggae and ska, it conjured a working-class, multi-cultural identity through its ‘rude boy' style which resonated with both the sharply dressed Mods and the West Indians. They essentially spelt out the parallels between working-class youth of either race. This was overt from different mediums such as the name itself: 2 Tone, the black and white colours displayed on the album covers and the ethnic diversity of the groups such as The Specials and The Beat, who had both white and black members. This was hugely seminal at the time of the economic crash which had meant people initially pointed to immigrants to blame for the lack of working-class jobs. This was displayed through the rising of the National Front in this period, who were an extreme right party with racist, anti-immigration policies at the forefront of their agenda. The group won over 250,000 votes in municipal contests held across the country in 1976 (Worley, 2016, p. 6), displaying the hostile feelings against migrants during this period. The patent display of a utopian hybridisation that 2 Tone represented meant it was the ideal identity for working-class British youth. It had not merely been a Caribbean culture that had been adopted by white youth but was a multi-cultural creation that had made it apparent that similar feelings of angst were shared by both black and white youth. It had made the working-class struggle that cut across race overt, resulting in posing an important and competent challenge to the National Front’s politics. This was a message that was even more essential during the Thatcherite years to come. The message of 2 Tone became urgent as racial tensions grew, displayed in the Brixton riots of 1981. 2 Tone reminded the working classes that this was a collective struggle against the state.
Sound System Culture’s Impact on Contemporary Music
Sound system culture also played a huge part in the rave culture of the 1990s. The ‘sonic force’ (Henriques, 2011, p. xv) of the sound system had galvanised the rave movement as it had demonstrated the immersive experience of powerful, bass-heavy speakers. The sound system had made speakers no longer just about sound but had turned records into music you could feel (Hebdige, 1987, p. 75). Henrique characterises this immersion as a ‘sonic invasion’ of bodies and personal space (Henriques, 2011, p. xv). This immersion is live, as MCs and selectors improvise in response to the audience, the ‘sonic bodies’ (Henriques, 2011, p. xv) who made up the crowd and had the pleasure of experiencing the sound system’s sensory immersion. This immersion was adapted by rave cultures of the 1990s and was heightened further by the introduction of ecstasy. Jungle particularly embodied the sound system experience, as it kept the traditional, bass-heavy sounds which had been seminal to sound system culture and the sound had clear roots in reggae music.
Jungle, like its black and multi-cultural musical ancestors prior, was rooted in the urban realities of contemporary Britain (McKay, 1998, p. 33). Like 2 Tone, it was a perfect representation of multi-culturalism, yet at this stage, it did not need to be so patent as the hybridisation of music and culture was a natural part of British culture. Moose, a Jungle MC, expressed Jungle’s effortless transcultural nature as ‘not a black thing, not a white thing but a vibe thing. What we’re running- it’s Jungle, a multi-cultural thing’ (Back, 1996, p. 233). This ingrained hybridisation was depicted through Jungle’s melting pot of different genres and its mix of black and white MCs; the genre ‘articulated a new, local identity that transcended racial and ethnic difference’ (Gidley, 2007, p. 151). Genres such as Jungle and garage represented a nascent, multicultural patriotism (Back, 1996, p. 234) through its pride in its local origins, displayed in hits such as 1997’s It’s a London Thing which illustrates garage’s homage and pride in its multi-cultural, organic spaces (Gidley, 2007, p. 151). The multi-cultural spirit of such genres is further symbolised in Grime.
Grime represents globalisation as it is ‘a promiscuous hybrid of a whole host of global musical forms’ (Gidley, 2007, p. 151), incorporating influences from an eclectic range of genres such as bhangra, Brazilian baile funk and Bollywood (Gidley, 2007, p. 153). Grime still owes its homage to sound system culture, as the central part of the music, the rapper, parallels the role of the MC entertaining sonic bodies in dance halls (Back, 1996, p. 233). These contemporary genres illustrate how sound system culture has galvanised a ‘profoundly heterotopic and simultaneously local, national and transnational’ (Back, 1996, p. 234) British culture.
Sound system culture is an idealistic representation of multi-culturalism. It is a great model to display how hybridisation can be beneficial to society as it proposes the idea of multi-culturalism being positive. Hybridisation in music has become such a force that, ‘it’s impossible to theorize black culture in Britain without developing a new perspective on British culture as a whole” (Gilroy, 1991, p. 245). The sound system case study exemplifies the joys of migrant culture infiltrating mainstream Western culture by showing how musical hybridisation can ‘establish new connections and adopt new traditions, marked by multiplicity and multimodality, while also creating Cosmopolitan tastes’ (Kruger, 2014, p. 3). Sound system culture made the parallels between white and black youth patent through genres such as reggae and 2 Tone, creating a collective feeling of angst against the state. This message was vital in a time where hostile feelings and racial tensions were rising. Sound system culture also encouraged Britain to explore other, global cultures, which is displayed in the more contemporary genres galvanised by sound system culture, such as Jungle and Grime. Both genres pay tribute to world music through incorporating elements of global genres; also showing music displays how ‘there is a growing recognition that the peoples of the non-Western world have a history of their own’ (Featherstone, 2000, p. 3). This case study seems crucial in a contemporary Western world fearful of globalisation and its subsequent multi-culturalist hegemony, as sound system culture displays how hybridisation creates a vibrant, unifying culture that transcends across racial barriers, but most importantly it displays how this becomes a natural phenomenon overtime; genres such as Jungle effortlessly depict Britain’s hybridised nation. Sound system culture exemplifies the important role music can play in helping migrants not just assimilate but shape the mainstream culture of the country they now call home and shows how hybridisation can help multi-cultural societies become the norm. The case study displays how individuals face many of the same struggles that transcend across racial barriers.
Back, L., 1996. New Ethnicities and Urban Culture. 1st ed. Oxon: Routledge.
Beynon, D., 2000. Globalisation: The Reader. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.
Calhoun, C., 2017. Populism, Nationalism and Brexit. In: W. Outhwaite, ed. Brexit: Sociological Responses. London: Anthem Press, pp. 57-76.
Featherstone, M., 2000. Global and Local Cultures. 1st ed. London: SAGE Publications .
Ford, R. & Goodwin, M., 2014. Revolt on the Right: explaining support for the radical right in Britain. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.
Freeman, G. P., 1975. Immigrant Labour and Racial Conflict in Industrial Societies: The French and British Experience, 1945-1975. 1st ed. New Jersey : Princeton University Press.
Gidley, B., 2007. Youth Culture and Ethnicity: Emergening Youth Interculture in South London. In: W. D. Paul Hodkinson, ed. Youth Cultures: Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes. New York : Routledge, pp. 145-160.
Gilroy, P., 1991. There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
Gilroy, P., 2002. There Ain't No Black in The Union Jack. 3rd ed. London: Routledge Classics.
Hebdige, D., 1987. Cut 'n' Mix. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
Hebdige, D., 1988. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
Henriques, J., 2011. Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing. 1st ed. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.
Husbands, C., 1979. The National Front: What Happens to it Now?. Marxism Today, pp. 268-275.
Kruger, T., 2014. The Globalisations of Musics in Transit: Music Migration and Tourism. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.
McKay, G., 1998. DIY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain. 1st ed. London: Verso.
Thomas, S., 2012. Revisiting Brixton: The War On Babylon 1981. In: D. Briggs, ed. The English Riots of 2011: A Summer of Discontent. Sussex : Waterside Press, pp. 111-127.
Urry, 1999. Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
Ward, P., 2017. Soundsystem Culture: Place, Space and Identity in the United Kingdom, 1960-1989. Historia Contemporena , pp. 349-376.
Worley, C., 2016. White youth: The far right, Punk and British youth culture. JOMEC, Issue 9, pp. 27-47.