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Selecter frontwoman Pauline Black on race, gender and the power of ska 

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click to enlarge The Selecter: The UK band still performs its 2-Tone Records hits ‘On My Radio.’ ‘Too Much Pressure’ and ‘Three Minute Hero,’ plus new songs from last year’s acclaimed Subculture. - JOHN COLES
  • John Coles
  • The Selecter: The UK band still performs its 2-Tone Records hits ‘On My Radio.’ ‘Too Much Pressure’ and ‘Three Minute Hero,’ plus new songs from last year’s acclaimed Subculture.

Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better. Other times, that process is reversed.

As a mixed-race woman in 2016, Selecter frontwoman Pauline Black isn't sure which way we're heading at the moment. First came her country's xenophobic Brexit vote. And now, just hours after this interview, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be holding their first debate.

"You know how summer goes to autumn — or fall, as you call it — and there begins to be a bit of a chill in the air?" asks the co-architect of the legendary 2-Tone ska revival. "Well, if you're a person of color in this country, then you know what a bit of a chill in the air means."

It's a chill that Black can trace back to getting sick at the breakfast table when she learned, at the age of 4, that she was adopted. Being the only non-white person in her family, she would eventually have figured that out on her own, once society drove home the idea that the color of one's skin is far more important than the color of one's hair.

Fast forward two decades. It's 1979. The ultra-conservative "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher has just become prime minister, while Pauline Black has just formed The Selecter. Within a year, the Coventry-based group recorded three hits — "Too Much Pressure," "On My Radio" and "Three Minute Hero" — for the influential 2-Tone Records, a working-class, overtly political label that was also home to The Specials, Madness, and The English Beat.

With her trademark fedora and notch lapel suits, Black remains at the helm of the eight-piece outfit, alongside original toaster Arthur "Gaps" Hendrickson. The Selecter's 12th album, Subculture, reached No. 54 in the UK last year, their highest chart position since their sophomore Celebrate the Bullet. The music is more varied and sophisticated now — Black has evolved from a good singer to a great one — yet still unmistakably The Selecter.

In the following interview, the hyper-articulate frontwoman talks about writing her memoir, growing up mixed-race in the UK, and being the lone female in what she calls the 2-Tone ska "fraternity."

Indy: The 2-Tone movement has clearly had a lasting impact on generations of musicians, even if not everyone knows about it. Do you think there are kids out there who hear the Selecter albums for the first time and think, "Wow, they must have really been influenced by No Doubt!"

Pauline Black: [Laughs.] I don't think that was the case. We did tour with No Doubt in the late '90s, back when they put their debut album out. I think Gwen was so fed up with whoever was supporting them at the time, she thought it'd be really great to have a 2-Tone band instead. She always really liked that kind of music. And, I think it was in Elle magazine in about 2011, she said one of her Top 5 albums was Celebrate the Bullet. So the woman has good taste.

Looking back on the very first wave of ska, if you were stuck on a desert island with just one or two ska records, what would they be?

The first wave? Okay, I think that it would for certain be the Ethiopians' "Last Train to Skaville." And I would also bring The Pioneers' "Long Shot Kick the Bucket," because that was the first ska record that I ever heard.

What did you think when you first heard it?

I thought, 'Wow, what is this?' This is like a rhythm I've never even heard before. It was just absolutely magical and the only thing you could do is dance to it.

Can you talk a bit about your book Black by Design, both in terms of what it encompasses and why you wrote it?

Well, it's subtitled "A 2-Tone Memoir," but I didn't want to write a book about the exploits of the band on tour or whatever. So I began from when I was 4 weeks old and followed it up to the present. And the reason it's called Black by Design is that I was adopted and brought up by a white working-class family, and it gave me kind of a unique look on life. When I was growing up, the views people had were quite racist in this country. There used to be signs out which said, "No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs." So we were just one above dogs, if you see what I mean.

When you were a kid growing up, did you identify with one race over another?

I have always refused to be that kind of — what's the word? — the miserable kind of mixed-race person, you know, who's not wanted by either side. I just think that's a bit of a fallacy, but that's pretty much how people tell it to themselves and I think that's totally wrong. I've always identified myself in the way that people would see me: as a black person.

And while I was writing the book, The Selecter's 30th anniversary was also coming up. So we thought it would be good to go out there and reintroduce people to the idea that, once upon a time, there was a whole number of bands who thought that multiculturalism was a really great idea — not that they knew that word back in 1979. But I think that now everyone has heard that word and thinks it's a good idea, largely. Don't you think so?

Everyone except Donald Trump.

Oh. Well, I mean, you can't tell that man anything.

Will you be watching tonight's debate?

Yes, I think everybody of color over here has their eyes on what is going to happen over yonder. [Laughs.] And we can definitely say we're all terribly unimpressed by Mister Trump.

And what about Ms. Clinton?

Ah, well, let me put it this way: 2-Tone was anti-racist and anti-sexist, but most people don't really think about the anti-sexist part. But being pretty much the only female within the whole 2-Tone ska fraternity, I think about it quite a lot. And I think that maybe the world might be a slightly safer place if there is a female president. So if I had to have a choice, I'd definitely vote for her. Unlike [Specials frontman] Terry Hall, who I hear at one of the gigs called her something quite unpleasant.

So I'm guessing you're not close friends with Terry Hall right now?

Oh no, there's nothing like that going on, not at all. You know, we see him when he comes through Coventry and things like that. I'm just wondering what poor Hillary Clinton has done or said [laughs] that caused him to make such a remark, that's all. I'm always interested in what other people have to say about what goes on within the world.

One more question: Is it Bob Marley's fault that Jamaican ska went away and everybody started getting stoned and listening to reggae?

Now, that's an interesting viewpoint! [Laughs.] I honestly couldn't say. Music is something that changes. I mean, in the past 37 years, if music had stayed the same, that would be kind of weird, wouldn't it?

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