Interview: Pauline Black, musician

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It’s the summer of 1996. Pauline Black, otherwise known as the Queen of Ska, 2-Tone’s original rude girl, is 42 years old.

Her band, The Selecter, which in its heyday was as big as The Specials and Madness, has been on the road again. Black has been acting too, winning major awards for playing Billie Holiday on stage and starring opposite Christopher Lee in a horror film. She’s feeling a bit swish. Life is good. She decides to splash out on a black Prada jacket on Sloane Street in London and then take herself to Selfridges for a late lunch.

In the store toilets she pauses to admire her new jacket. A well turned-out white woman watches this hip, successful singer and actress checking herself out in the mirror. And then she turns to her and says: “Why don’t you do something useful and make sure the toilets are furnished with toilet paper on a regular basis?”

Black wants to fly at her, but instead tears of frustration and bitterness fall. The woman has seen nothing but the colour of her skin (Black is mixed race) and worse still, has decided the only possible reason a black person could be in the toilets of Selfridges is to clean them. Black turns to her and shouts “What the f*** do I have to do?” Then she charges out and spends the rest of the afternoon mainlining coffee and cigarettes in a cafe, feeling beaten. But this moment marks a turning point. By the end of the day she has made a life-changing decision. Black, who was adopted as a baby by a white, working class family in Essex, has never met or spoken to her biological parents. Now, in her forties, she is going to look for them.

“I got taken for a toilet attendant,” she says with a generous cackle. Black describes this incident with great gusto and fury in her fascinating memoir, Black by Design. In person, she is a bit more sanguine about it. “That poor lady in Selfridges must have wondered what on earth she had done. I suppose she was a victim of her upbringing, just like I am. She got off lightly, really.”

Why did the moment trigger a desire in her to find her birth parents? “It was that feeling,” she replies. “What do I have to do? It was the immediacy of what she saw and how easily she drove off her stereotype. But really, we all have to find our place in the world. There is too much labelling – you’re mixed race, you’re adopted. And once you’ve been given a label, your path is laid out for you. This book is about my resistance to that. It’s a search for my identity.”

We meet in a north London pub on a Saturday afternoon late in July. The date is significant. The band’s new single, Big in the Body, Small in the Mind, is released today. They are playing Islington Academy tonight for the first time since Black gained official ownership of The Selecter name following years of wrangling with other members. Now, as one fan site puts it, “there is only one Selecter and it belongs to Pauline Black”.

More than that, they will play, for the first time, their cover of Back to Black by Amy Winehouse, the B-side of the new single. During the interview, Black and I talk about Winehouse, her talent, and her love of ska, 2-Tone, and reggae. Covering Back to Black is a way for the older British female musician to pay respect to the younger one. “There is a symmetry in it,” Black says, adding that a fan in Germany first suggested she cover the song two years ago. “Amy loves all the 2-Tone stuff and has covered songs like Monkey Man. Who else in the ska firmament would cover one of her songs? It seemed like the perfect fit.”

By the time our conversation has ended, though, Winehouse’s death has been announced. Neither of us finds out until we’ve parted ways. Black hears about it while she is unpacking vinyl copies of the single (they decide to cancel the digital release that day). And at the gig that night, when she sings Back to Black to an audience of ska fans in trilbies, skinny trousers, black and white checked shirts, and braces, everyone is blown away.

“We’d been rehearsing the song all that day, just down the road from where she died,” Black says when I catch up with her again a fortnight later. “And performing it live for the first time that night was strange. Amy Winehouse was one of the best in the world. She could take any song and make it her own. I think in the future her songs will be like Gershwin standards, interpreted by lots of different musicians.”

I wait for Black in the pub where crowds of Selecter fans are having drinks before the gig. Even the barman can’t wait to set eyes on this charismatic frontwoman, famously described by Rolling Stone as possessing “the best voice that ever graced a 2-Tone release”. In fact, no one even notices her when she arrives. Black’s “original rude girl” image is legendary: the red lipstick, slimline black trousers, socks showing, tucked-in shirts, bags of attitude, and, above all, the dove-grey trilby. So when she walks in with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, no lipstick and a big smile, it’s like she’s in disguise. She looks much younger than her 58 years.

We head upstairs and she asks for a Diet Coke. Black comes across as strong-minded, intelligent and open, just as she does in her autobiography.

“That’s how I am,” she shrugs. “I hate prevarication and the games one has to play to communicate. My songwriting and image are upfront, so my writing has to be that way too.”

After the interview, Black disappears into the upstairs pub toilet with her vintage vanity case. Five minutes later she comes out transformed into the Queen of Ska for the photoshoot. It’s this uniquely androgynous look in a music scene renowned for its testosterone that made her an icon in the late Seventies and Eighties. She was part of the new wave of women in punk, rock and reggae, alongside Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde, who didn’t give a damn what anyone – especially men – thought of them. “It was about being a feminised rude boy,” she says of the look. “I didn’t want to go on stage in dresses and skirts. I wanted an upfront image and I preferred wearing trousers. It was great that no other woman was doing it because there was no blueprint. I could do what the hell I liked.”

When they first started performing live, the critics were confused. Who was this boyish lead singer, swaggering around the stage, venting aggression and belting out songs in a wild, theatrical soprano? “I loved getting mistaken for a boy,” she laughs. “A spot of androgyny is never a bad thing. And black women are so often forced into that exotic, fake, bouffant look. The only woman who has managed to embrace and own that is Beyoncé. In those days black women in music basically looked like Chic. And there was no way I was doing disco Spandex.”

Black’s memoir begins long before all this, in 1950s Romford, with her vomiting her breakfast up on to a pile of starched sheets her mother has just finished ironing. She is four years old and her mother has just told her she’s adopted. The chapter is called “A White Lie”. “It really was a moment of shock,” she says. “Until then you’re not really thinking about being different and then – bam!” She claps her hands together. “You’re not part of this family.” Slowly, Black learnt that her “real” mother was an Anglo-Jewish schoolgirl from Dagenham who had given birth to her in a home when she was 17 and then given her up. Her father, she was told, was from a place called Nigeria.

“It can’t have been easy for my parents,” she goes on, again much more measured and forgiving than she is in the book. “I hadn’t thought about it enough from her point of view until I wrote about it. I mean, she was a white woman in her forties going around with a black kid. It was like carrying a sign around all the time saying, ‘I adopted her’. That was always her opening gambit. She always had to explain my back story. We both did.”

It was a difficult childhood. Racism was ingrained in society in the 1950s. In white, working class Romford, no one, including her own family, had a good word to say about black people. Throughout her childhood Black’s race was at best, ignored, and at worst, vilified. Her brothers and uncles were openly racist in front of her. In effect, she was brought up as though she was white and taught to fear black people. Later, when she began to describe herself as black instead of coloured, she was shouted down by her mother. (She would eventually change her name by deed poll from Vickers to Black, when she joined The Selecter.) When she grew an afro in defiance, her mother screamed at her that she looked like “a golliwog”.

“My hair was always a cause for consternation,” she sighs. “There was this ongoing issue of what the hell to do with it. You just didn’t talk about black people in those days. To my family black people were ‘over there’. It was only when independence and the civil rights movement in America came in the 1960s that I started to get a sense that not everyone thought like that. Some people thought like me.”

One of the most saddening experiences of racism in the book is when Black tried to join the Brownies. She waited outside church while her mother was told in no uncertain terms that there was no way she would be permitted to join. “God, I wanted to be in the Brownies so much,” Black tells me. “I mean, I was brown! If you can’t be in the Brownies, where can you be? I felt I had a right to be there. For my parents, that was a real eye-opener. There it was, attached to the church, with Christian principles, and a bigoted old biddy saying ‘we’re not going to take one of them’. What a thing to say. It was indicative of the times.”

Black knew what she had to do. “I just listened and watched and waited for the day when I could get out of there,” she says. Music, mostly via a radio she would sneak into her bedroom every night, was her salvation. “It was my conduit,” she says. “It was the only way I was able to explore notions of blackness. And then Motown came along and I started seeing black people on TV programmes like Ready Steady Go! You can’t imagine what that was like...”

Eventually Black did get out, to Coventry, where she trained as a radiographer. “My parents said ‘work in a hospital. That’s what black people do’,” she recalls dryly. But it just so happened that a new music scene was starting in the small city where Black still lives today with Terry, her partner of 40 years. A music genre called 2-Tone was on the up, fusing ska with reggae, punk, new wave and rock. For once, as Black notes in the book, she was in the right place at the right time. She soon met members of the newly formed Selecter – seven including her, and only one of them white. Within weeks they were on Top of The Pops, and Black was wondering if her birth mother might be watching.

Success was shortlived, however. The Selecter formed in 1979 and released a clutch of hit singles including On My Radio and Too Much Pressure. They went on the legendary 2-Tone tour with The Specials, Madness, and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, playing to 1,500 people a night. And then, in 1982, came the acrimonious split. “We were almost evangelical in our desire to get out there and change things,” she sighs of those intense years when National Front skinheads would pitch up to gigs and lead “sieg heil” chants at the front of the stage. “The oestrogen was coursing through my veins. I wasn’t scared of much. But behind the scenes there was fighting. A lot of it. You can have an ethos of unity and racial harmony but you’re really living in the real world like everyone else, with all its pressures and prejudices. There was so much difficulty. Which way to push the music? Towards a more white, rock direction or a more black, reggae direction? And things were moving so fast. We never had time to breathe.”

The Selecter reformed in the Nineties, the decade when Black began the search for her birth parents. She waited for eight years after her mother’s death. It didn’t take long to trace them. Her birth mother emigrated to Australia in the 1960s, has a family of her own, and they’re now in regular contact. Black has been to Australia to see her and her extended family five times now and they write every week. “She’s in her early 70s and hugely fit,” says Black, proudly. “Her energy is amazing. I saw it immediately and thought, ‘I’m definitely her daughter’. The last time I went to Australia she saw me perform on stage for the first time.” What did she think? Black laughs. “She thought it was extraordinary.”

Her father died just a year before she traced him. “If only I’d looked a bit earlier,” she sighs. “It did hurt when I found out. It really did. But I’ve gained a half- sister and so many relatives on that side too.” It transpires that her birth father, who came to London from Nigeria to study, was a Yoruba prince.

Black’s story is extraordinary, and at times very sad. Not that she wants anyone to feel sorry for her. She comes across as a survivor, someone who has made her own luck, made herself. As she prepares to transform herself in the pub toilet, she tells me a story. “I was on the radio recently, talking about my life, and afterwards a white man married to a black woman with a mixed race child got in touch. He was quite aggressive, asking why people like me and Barack Obama keep saying we’re black. ‘You’re not black,’ he said, ‘And my child isn’t black either.’ As though it’s a bad thing to be!”

She shakes her head and for a moment looks weary. Then the original rude girl returns. “Until there is no racism in this world, I will carry on calling myself black,” she says. “And be proud of it.”

Pauline Black will appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday at 8:30pm. Tickets, £10 (£8), tel: 0845 373 5888, www.edbookfest.co.uk Her book Pauline Black: A 2-Tone Memoir is out now. The Selecter’s new album, Made in Britain, is out on 1 September.