Two hours before the show, Nowy Czas caught up with Janet Kay, a leading artist of UK reggae, who was that night performing along with other reggae stars, including Ali Campbell and Dennis Bovell, to celebrate the phenomenon of the Jamaican sound.
Born in London to immigrant parents from Jamaica, Janet had an array of massive hits in the late 70s, with songs such as Lovin’ You, Silly Games and Rock the Rhythm. Her incredibly delicate and high-pitched voice became a signature of Lover’s Rock, a genre which allowed UK reggae to achieve its own identity. As Dennis Bovell, a well-known music producer, suggests, this was “racial union of the purest kind.”
What music did you listen to when you were growing up?
- I listened to reggae as well as pop music and Motown bands. Radio stations in the late 60s and early 70s didn’t play reggae, so I listened to albums that my parents had. That was until the mid-70s when BBC London introduced a programme called Reggae Time by Steve Barnard, on Sunday afternoon. So my early music is a blend of reggae (thanks to my parents) and pop and Motown which was more mainstream and often played on the radio and TV. This blend became known as Lover’s Rock.
The Reggae Britannia show at the Barbican tonight aims to celebrate the impact of reggae on music and culture in the UK. Why do you think reggae was attractive to British audiences?
- Reggae was different from the music that was played on the radio. Reggae was cool, it was something new for them. There are different kinds of reggae – reggae can be happy, it can be political and biblical. Within reggae there are different genres, Roots Reggae, Roots Rock Reggae or Lover’s Rock , which all inspired generations of artists regardless of the type of music they chose to use.
Reggae from Jamaica told a Jamaican story. What stories did young black artists growing up in the UK tell?
- For us teenagers growing up in the UK, reggae was about our life. For some reggae was a carriage for their political or religious views; for some it was very personal. For me reggae was about my feelings, the first love and meeting the right person for the rest of my life.
What was it like for a young black female artist growing up in the UK in the 70s?
- I came from humble beginnings. I wasn’t privileged to attend singing, dance or drama classes. Signing was something I had always wanted to do, though the most I got was a church choir, Girls’ Brigade and a school group that was part of a music department at my school.
Just as I left school, a friend of mine who was friends with a musician Tony Gad, took me along to a studio where Tony and his mates were rehearsing. While we were fooling around and singing to a microphone in one of the rooms, Tony heard me sing. At that time Alton Ellis was looking for a female artist to do a cover of Minnie Riperton’s Lovin’ You. Tony said to him that he had met the girl who had the kind of voice that would suit that song. Ellis wanted to meet me straight away. Because I came from very strict parents, Ellis had to ask them first if I could record the song. They agreed! Lovin’ You was my first hit. It was in 1997. My career took off. Then in 1979 I had a massive hit with the track Silly Games.
And you became the first British black female to have a hit at the top of the UK charts... How did you feel about it back then?
- Oh, at the time it was happening I didn’t have time to think what I was feeling. I just went along with the flow. I just got on with it. I had always dreamt about a music career but I never knew how I was going to execute it. I was always looking forward to watching Top of the Pops as a little girl, but I never knew that one day it would happen to me.
You somehow paved the way for other young black female artists in the UK.
- I would like to think so. Many female artists came to me to say that when they saw me on Top of the Pops they realise that their dreams were possible. I made them believe in their dreams. When I was a teenager, my idol was Michael Jackson. Oh, it was wonderful to see him on TV! That black boy had it all. But he came from America, miles away from where I lived. So for the black young female artists in the UK I think I became someone they could refer back to. I was touchable, as opposed to untouchable. They could identify with me as I came from the same place as they did.
And eventually you got the title of the queen of Lover’s Rock. What do you think about the current state of the reggae scene?
- In the UK we don’t have a big reggae scene as we used to. Back then, you released a record, the next day it could be on sound systems, the next night you were signed. We don’t have that situation now. The whole industry in general has changed. Kids don’t buy albums as they used to, they don’t follow music charts. In the UK we’re not making videos, we don’t have much of an industry. It is clear we need to embrace the change.
What is most important however is good music and songs such as Silly Games.
- Yes, it is. 34 years on, people still sing Silly Games.
Series of documentary films about reggae music in the UK is this month on BBC4: http://www.bbc.co.uk/tv/seasons/reggaebritannia/