photo manipulation by nacrowe
the cultural roots of the SKINHEAD subculture are rather fascinating. the fact that in our modern nomenclature the term has a dark, far right-wing, xenophobic connotation ironically belies its origins in a cultural moment that brought a diverse confluence of cultures and styles together. its a term with many embedded identities that is at war with itself. its a subculture that is complicated and serves as the perfect metaphor for the UNITED KINGDOM's complicated relationship with its former commonwealth and itself.
DON LETTS' film THE STORY OF SKINHEAD (BBC, 2016) explores the SKINHEAD subculture and its inherent contradictions. the story begins with the UNITED KINGDOM's policy in the wake of WORLD WAR II of allowing inhabitants of its greater commonwealth entry and work visas to work in the island's borders. this set off shortly thereafter beginning in the 1940s what is now known as the WINDRUSH GENERATION, former inhabitants of the CARIBBEAN (JAMAICA, TRINIDAD & TOBAGO, etc) that begin working in ENGLISH factories and living in council estates. DON LETTS hones this narrative squarely with his own, as he was raised in SOUTH LONDON on a council estate by JAMAICAN-immingrant parents from this generation. what happened was that despite their parents closeted racism, white kids on these council estates in LONDON began to adopt the style and music of their JAMAICAN counterparts. poor white urban identity in some circles became intwined with CARIBBEAN immigrant culture.
eventually this movement, which didnt have a name, but later got deemed SKINHEAD by outsiders, was largely innocuous as it was mainly a subculture based around white appropriation of black culture. the fact that eyes were raised by an older white generation didn't stop these kids, and its debatable whether or not they shared in their parents XENOPHOBIC-leaning views. it must be said that racial jokes about PAKISTANI immigrants were common on the radio at the time and the education system was far from progressive, with educators often being explicitly derogatory towards the dress, speech, mannerisms and culture of immigrant children. racism was in the air and open on some level during this time in BRITAIN.
eventually shops emerged to cater to this subculture and it spread north. by the 1970s haircuts and fashions changed as the original SKINHEAD culture merged with northern football culture. this new identity helped solidify a new uniform for the emerging football hooligan and their street gangs of fellow team supporters. violence and gang-mentality entered the picture as these squads with face off against rival supporters, but the ethos was still tentatively not explicitly race driven. again, its complicated. definitely some cognitive dissonance going on here. it may be that some elements that had far right-wing sympathies based on those that preexisted in the northern white working class population itself, but none that were rooted in the SKINHEAD subculture per se.
enter the NATIONAL FRONT. this WHITE NATIONALIST political party used football (as well as youth events, dancehall parties, self-published newspapers, etc) as a means of attempting to convert young men to their side in the late 1970s and early 1980s. those that embraced their XENOPHOBIC, RACIST views forever altered the meaning of the SKINHEAD subculture. it been infiltrated a segment of poor northern white kids.
but culture shifted again. this time to PUNK ROCK which largely embraced REGGAE and its bedrock political messages wholeheartedly. but it wasn't a good fit for the SKINHEAD kids that went to their shows. too artsy. too posh. SHAM 69 bridged that gap. but unfortunately their gigs were infiltrated by NATIONAL FRONT SKINHEADS that caused SHAM 69 frontman JIM PURSEY to abandon the band and move on.
the 2 TONE SKA and OI PUNK movements of the early 1980s that came next didnt fair much better. famously they couldnt find gigs because of the fear around their following, which absurdly included NATIONAL FRONT SKINHEADS. this was much to their chagrin, since they named the movement 2 TONE as a means of delineating that they were on the side of multiculturalism and racial equality. OI PUNK was just a newer, more aggressive form of PUNK ROCK that placated to a generation of militaristic SKINHEADS looking for a community. again the NATIONAL FRONT infiltrated both to the point that it rendered them dysfunctional. this was especially the case after the SOUTHALL RIOTS OF 1979, in which SKINHEAD youth burned a pub in SOUTH LONDON in a largely asian community. OI was banned by MARGARET THATCHER and most of the bigger (non-racist) bands folded up, leaving only those funded by the NATIONAL FRONT in their wake. it was a coup for the ultra right-wing.
this in turn led to the SHARP SKINHEAD bands who were a reaction to these NATIONAL FRONT funded racist SKINHEAD bands. the SHARPS were explicitly anti-racist and that movement continues to this day.
its super interesting how this youth culture got hijacked and its "uniform" which was based on JAMAICAN style from the 1950s is now synonymous with WHITE NATIONALIST and NEO-FASCIST movements from POLAND, GERMANY, the UNITED STATES and even MALAYSIA. i even saw this in THAILAND where they sold NAZI paraphernalia in common markets with "SKINHEAD" gear. its truely bizarre and endlessly fascinating.
i have one other thing to add.
this contradiction of "loving" the music but "hating" the people is something that is not unique to the NATIONAL FRONT infiltration of certain segments of SKINHEAD culture. i've heard that contradiction by white AMERICANS my whole life. its a form of cognitive dissonance rooted in a potent cocktail of hubris and ignorance. the idea that you understand a people and a culture better than they do. its very AMERICAN and it deprives minority populations of controlling their own identity, which was probably the point in the first place. but what do i know, im only a former teacher. i saw this shit firsthand.
great documentary that brilliantly raises some unnerving issues about cultural appropriation and how hate can be used to subvert and infiltrate youth culture. endlessly fascinating.