Olympics Opening Ceremony, Multiculturalism and National Pride

Dizzee Rascal
Best of British

Friday’s Olympics opening ceremony was spectacular enough to tame the most cynical among us. From a technical perspective, the forging of the Olympic rings in a mock-up of Industrial Revolution Britain was simply incredible. But director Danny Boyle’s real triumph was in reminding a deeply unpatriotic nation that the British do have things to be proud of – and he focused on all the right things.

The ability to laugh at yourselves is a national asset, and the British are probably the world experts; so much so, that we tend to forget our national achievements. A reminder that this small island lit the spark that created a global industrial revolution – which is still underway – was timely. And that talent wasn’t a one-off. The 1940s creation of the computer by Alan Turing and the web in the 1990s by Tim Berners-Lee show a degree of consistency.

But it may have puzzled many viewers around the world to see an entire segment dedicated to our universal healthcare system. Our grandparents returned from the second world war only to vote out the hero Churchill and replace his government with the most left-wing one in British history, whose greatest achievement was the creation in 1948 of the NHS, along with a welfare state. The soldiers were no doubt grateful for Churchill’s war leadership, but their battle had been against a right-wing ideology, Fascism, which had attacked trade unions and workers’ rights. Having won that war, they returned home and expected Socialist ideas to triumph in Britain – and for a few years, they did.

So when a handful of online morons attacked the ceremony as “leftie”, they were kind-of right. Britain’s history is undeniably leftie in many aspects. It may have upset right-wing morons that the British celebrate the NHS as a national triumph, but the simple fact is: we do. Chief among morons on the night was right-wing Tory MP Aidan Burley:

The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing,the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next?

Followed by:

Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!

And of course, finished off with the essential back-pedal:

Seems my tweet has been misunderstood. I was talking about the way it was handled in the show, not multiculturalism itself.

For those who haven’t heard of him before, Burley’s previous claim to fame was organising a Nazi-themed stag night. His tweets are so beautifully laden with ignorance and hatred; I can only send Mr Burley my heartfelt thanks for such excellent material. Besides the fact that he still seems to think China is a communist country (which decade is he living in?), a couple of points stand out:

He clearly loathes the celebration of Britain’s socialised healthcare system, as shown by “Welfare tribute next?” – but yes, why not a tribute to British welfare? Let’s remember for a moment that pre-war Britain, the world’s most powerful nation, had widespread malnutrition and preventable diseases, while post-war Britain, virtually bankrupt, managed to put shoes on children’s feet and food in stomachs far more widely than ever before in its history. We need to remember that lesson when morons today spin the “we can’t afford it” line. We can afford whatever we have the will to provide. Our national wealth is huge – the fact that much of it is siphoned away by a small, global elite is merely a new hurdle to overcome.

But of most interest to me were the comments about multiculturalism. The ceremony’s soundtrack was a reminder that per capita, Britain is probably the most prolific creator of new music in the world. This was not always so – look at Britain’s musical history pre-1960, and you’ll find our country ranking pretty much nowhere in the creation of popular music. Unlike the gradual development of science that led to the industrial revolution, Britain’s rise as a global music hub has been meteoric. This is what really pisses off the closet-racist little-Englanders like Burley. Because our musical supremacy is the side-effect of something uniquely British: our openness to the world, and our transformation into a multi-racial country over the course of the past century.

It no doubt brought a tear to many eyes that one of the moments commemorated in the ceremony was the arrival in 1948 of the Empire Windrush, a ship carrying black immigrants from the West Indies, and representing the birth of Britain’s modern black community (although not its first). Many more followed, and then came Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, West Africans, Europeans and others. It should never be forgotten that these immigrants were met, initially, with a wall of hostility. Yet Britain (and London especially) has integrated immigrants into our culture – and our culture into theirs – like no other modern nation. And this is why Burley was so upset; not because the opening ceremony was unrepresentative of modern Britain, but because it represented us so well.

London is the world’s music hub because it’s the place where Europeans, Indians, Jamaicans, West Africans, Arabs and many others can meet, mingle and create. Last night’s ceremony was headlined by Dizzee Rascal, a grime MC from London. Dizzee Rascal (Dylan Mills) is half-Ghanaian, half-Nigerian; a blend that is a product of Britain’s imperial history, and more likely to be found in London than in Lagos or Accra. Grime is a British derivative of Hip Hop, with a big dose of Jamaican, British and other influences. The British rap style owes as much to Jamaica and London as it does to US hip hop, and has been honed by generations of London MCs (rappers) involved in the reggae, jungle, drum & bass, garage, grime, and dubstep music scenes.

So to summarise, we have a Ghanaian/Nigerian Londoner who excels in a London-invented musical style with roots in West Africa, Jamaica, Britain and other parts of the old British Empire. What could possibly be more British?

I felt proud on Friday night: I was proud of my great city (and its musical excellence), and many achievements of this country. But I was also proud of Ghana and Nigeria for their beautiful musical heritages. I was proud of the New Yorkers who created rap, which spread and evolved around the globe. I was proud of Jamaica, a small island with a loud voice. I was especially proud of generations of young Londoners who have ignored the hateful racists in British society, and combined their love of music in ever more intricate and sophisticated ways. I was proud of my grandfather and millions of others who fought fascists at home and abroad, and helped lay the foundation for modern Britain. Nothing we saw on Friday could have been achieved by Britain alone, without a global exchange between many cultures over many centuries. On that basis, “national pride” is meaningless. Why confine your pride to an arbitrary geographic area? Even the young Rolling Stones, mentioned in Aidan Burley’s moronic tweets, were merely creating a 1960s British adaptation of a black American art form, Rock & Roll.

Danny Boyle created a genuine celebration of what it really means to be British in the 21st Century. Most viewers loved what they saw; but some (including the unpleasant Mr Burley) are clearly uncomfortable with the reality of modern Britain, and would like to somehow reverse what has happened to this country. Mr Burley, this is our Britain, and we’re proud of it. Feel free to stay and enjoy the party.

British Multiculturalism In Music

Yesterday, multi-millionaire posh-boy and British PM David Cameron spoke out on a subject that he clearly knows much about: multiculturalism. It doesn’t work, he says. Though silver-spoon from head to toe, apparently “Dave” also has his finger on the pulse of British culture beyond his fave Tapas bar in upmarket Notting Hill.

Unlike Dave, I wasn’t ‘lucky’ enough to be raised in a monocultural ghetto like Eton. Over 40 languages were spoken at my London state school, and white kids represented no more than 15% of the school population. London is probably the most mixed, diverse and racially harmonious city in the world. Immigrants make up a high percentage of the population, yet racist groups like the BNP and EDL find it impossible to establish a toe-hold within the city. The good people of London have been notoriously intolerant of intolerance, ever since they fought and beat the fascists of Oswald Mosley at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936.

But how do you measure culture? How do you decide if an idea like multiculturalism has worked? For me, one answer is given by music. Thanks to immigration, and the British tendency towards cultural mixing, Britain has become one of the most creative music producers in the world.

Below is a small selection of “multicultural” British music – illustrations of the cultural power created when multiple influences come together without segregation. Feel free to listen to one or two… or all… or just read my comments on each track.

Ghost Town – The Specials – 1981
The Specials, from Coventry, were the original “two-tone” band, blending white skinhead music with Jamaican reggae to create UK Ska, and bringing white and black kids to the same gigs for the first time. The creation of the two-tone movement coincided with the fall of far-right street racism.

Food For Thought – UB40 – 1980
This mixed reggae band from Birmingham are still going strong, though much of their best work was made 30+ years ago.

Smooth Operator – Sade – 1984

Sade (pronounced Sharday): 50% Nigerian, 50% English, 100% British Soul.

Back To Life – Soul II Soul – 1989

Though black artists were rising from the late-70s, their styles were borrowed from Jamaica and the US. London-based Soul II Soul are credited with creating a truly British black sound for the first time.

Chok There – Apache Indian – 1993

Real name Steven Kapur, a DJ of Indian origin from Birmingham; blending Indian music with Jamaican-influenced Ragga, a true creation of the British Empire!

21 Seconds – So Solid Crew – 2001

This collective from South London were part of the UK Garage movement: a uniquely London music style whose roots include UK dance music, Jamaican dancehall and Hip Hop.

Terrorist? – Lowkey – 2010

Lowkey is a London rapper of mixed English and Iraqi descent, known for his political lyrics against racism and war.

So Dave, if you want to understand race and culture in your home city, take a bus up the road and let me help you. If I want to know whether to drink Beaujolais with foie gras, I’ll be sure to drop you a line.