By Acharya Samaneti
I usually write about prison, the dhamma, or how the two intersect.
Today I feel inspired to write about one of the great Bodhisattvas in my life, Mr. Terry Hall. When most people think of a Bodhisattva, they think about a great monk or an eccentric hermit living a life of meditation and study—sometimes heroes do not wear capes just as bodhisattvas do not always wear robes.
We understand a bodhisattva as someone who foregoes personal nibbana in order to help others achieve enlightenment. Terry Hall may not have made me achieve enlightenment per say, but he did ignite something in me that forever changed my life and my quest for truth and justice. His music and lyrics helped me whip the dust from my eye in many aspects of my life; and he helped me deepen my understanding of myself, including the different identities within me.
I will never forget the first time that I saw The Specials.
I was a teenager watching Much Music (back when it was still mostly music videos) and there were this British band playing on a blank white sound stage. The band was black and white; playing this kind of music that I had never heard before—I found it to be completely engrossing and joyful which made me want to dance. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and to say that I became obsessed with ska and the whole 2 tone movement afterwards would be an understatement—I ate and breathed this music, this scene, this ethos, this fight for social justice and the antiracist struggle.
Just because you’re a black boy
Just because you’re a white
It doesn’t mean you’ve got to hate him
It doesn’t mean you’ve got to fight
It doesn’t make it alright
It doesn’t make it alright
It’s the worst excuse in the world
And it, it doesn’t make it alright
2 tone changed my life, it completely changed how I saw the world and what I was able to do as an antiracist accomplice.
This scene (even if I was late to the party) was my scene, it is still where I feel the most comfortable to this day. 2 tone is a genre of British popular music from the late 1970s and early 1980s that fused traditional Jamaican ska music with elements of punk rock and new wave music. The name derives from 2 Tone Records, a label founded by Jerry Dammers of The Specials and references a desire to transcend and defuse racial tensions in Thatcher-era Britain: many of the 2 tone groups, such as The Specials, The Selecter, and The Beat, featured a mix of Black, white and multiracial people. It was part of a second wave of ska music, following on from the first ska music that developed in Jamaica in the 1950s and 1960s, infused with punk and new wave textures.
I also began to make peace with my ancestry; I grew up as an Acadian, which meant that I identified as a francophone and struggled with my English ancestry. As a francophone I identified as the linguistic minority and the struggle that came with that.
My English ancestry made me feel like an impostor and that this struggle was never really mine seeing as half of my ancestors killed and deported the other half of my French ancestry.
For years I told people that I was of Irish ancestry because it helped my narrative of the Acadian, the English oppressed the Irish and this helped me maintain the position that I had in this whole discussion. Terry Hall and The Specials changed all that for me.
The Specials were a celebration of British culture and how Caribbean immigration invigorated it, and the onstage demeanour of Terry Hall reminded us that they were in the serious business of challenging our perception of who we were. Terry Hall was the calm in the kinetic storm that was the Specials on stage. Among the flailing arms and legs, we saw a steady singer who would speak truth about racism, urban decay, deindustrialisation, unemployment and violence in inner cities.
These songs were released when Britain was experiencing riots in many cities due to this unrest from Thatcher policies.
Because of this music and this band, I discovered skinhead; I learned that they were antiracist and that this British subculture was part of my heritage. The Specials found themselves in the eye of the storm, with neo-Nazis frequently targeting their gigs. I educated myself on British subcultures and the skinhead vs neo-Nazi bonehead scene; this is where I discovered ARA (Anti Racist Action) and started a local chapter in my hometown.
As my education deepened, I also learned the politics of style; it is thanks to Terry Hall and The Specials that I discovered Fred Perry clothing and what it could represent. To this day, I pretty much only wear Fred Perry as a symbol of my dedication to the cause that is 2 tone, antiracism through celebration and joy.
My first tattoo was of Walt Jabsco with the word “unity” on top of it; I still love it and what it represents because I still live 2 tone everyday of my life.
That celebration, that deep appreciation for Jamaican musical culture and how it fuses with English culture (it is also thanks to the Specials that I discovered Trojan records and skinhead culture). It is also thanks to that tattoo that I was able to help a couple of ex neo-Nazis de-radicalize in prison; when they saw the tattoo on me they knew that I would be able to understand where they are coming from and how to free themselves from the trappings of hate.
Today feels a little darker without Terry Hall in it, but his legacy cannot be ignored. He has inspired a generation of people to fight racism and for social justice through dance, celebration, and joy. If this isn’t the Bodhisattva path, then I don’t know what is.
I leave you with a lyric by Terry Hall: “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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