Koushik Banerjea

Koushik Banerjea is a lecturer in postcolonial theory in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics. He has written extensively about popular culture, music and film for Postcolonial Studies, Ethnic and Racial Studies and Theory, Culture and Society.



"Cities of the Dead: Soundscaping Race, Memory and Desire in a Forgotten London"

In the drab, shabby England of the late 1970s, early 1980s, its popular culture, and in particular the punk/ska musical hybrid of ‘two tone’, to riff on Michael Bracewell, ‘stood out like a sore thumb to be sucked’. The music, and live performance, of such bands as The Specials, encapsulated the possibilities for English pop to embody concerns more profound than the usual obsessions with teenage love. Set against a backdrop of spiralling racial violence, rapid economic decline and its attendant post-imperial melancholia, the popularisation of ‘skinhead reggae’ might be seen as the final atrophying of the Kinks’ British urban pastorale. And whilst the two tone bands themselves were avowedly anti-racist, their gigs were heavily targeted by elements of the National Front, keen to make good on the lyrical promise: ‘You’re going to get your fucking heads kicked in!’

With the demise of such seminal venues as The Lewisham Odeon or the Woolwich Coronet ( both in south London) the racial landscape articulated at a performative level by artists like The Specials, The Selecter and Desmond Dekker, now lives on purely at the level of memory. This paper, then, attempts to recover, via an imaginative cultural psychogeography, the long and often fraught history of (sub)urban contestation around issues of race, memory and desire within the subcultures of ska, reggae, soul and punk. Using cultural archives and drawing upon personal biography, it explores the idea of a disappearing or forgotten London as a kind of City of the Dead, haunted by its past but unwilling to listen to the historical blueprint contained within those late 1970s musical cultures. Of course, given the recent riots, and the ongoing gentrification and social redesign of the metropolitan centre, now more than ever the real chronicles of London cultural life are to be found in those hinterlands of postcode murder, grime and buried musical treasures. This paper is a part of that archaeology

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