“Dr. William “Lez” Henry is currently a social anthropologist and the author of What the Deejay Said, a book exploring the central role Jamaican music and culture played in shaping black cultural politics in the 1970s and 80s in the UK. But before that he was a British dancehall DJ by the named of Lezlee Lyrix.
His background as a British DJ channeled through his academic career makes Henry a fascinating and informative voice when talking about the intersection of race and culture in the United Kingdom. For our program Dread Inna Inglan: How the UK Took to Reggae, Saxon Baird talked extensively with Henry about his own experience growing up in a racially-divided community of South London and the importance of sound system culture for many in the Black British communities in the late 70s and 80s.”
How did you first get involved with the sound systems?
I first got involved with sound systems probably around 1971 with Shaka Sound, which was started and ran by Jah Shaka. Number one dub-sound probably on the planet. I used to carry speaker boxes for Shaka. I was young then, about 14. I used to get into the dances for free because I would help fill the back of the van and string up the sound. Used to call us “sound boys.”
You grew up in South London, in Lewisham, which is a really interesting place because it had a very vibrant sound system culture. Jah Shaka’s record store was located there and so was the Moon Shot Youth Club. However, there was also a lot of tension. There was a National Front march in the late ‘70s and then the tragic New Cross Fire. How did all these elements come to play a role in your perception of the world and your identity?
Well, to be honest it’s a lot of the stuff I use in my writing and my work. And it was reflected in a lot of my lyricism as well. One flash point during the time I was growing up happened in the early ‘70s, when members of a National Front pub which was adjacent to the Moon Shot club–which is where Shaka Sound played a lot of their early shows – attacked us one evening when we were going home. Apparently, there was a skirmish going on between some people in Moon Shot and some people from the pub. And they ended up attacking us in street. And that is a good example of what it was like to be black then. In fact, when I was younger, we used to learn Martial Arts. We are talking 14, 15, and 16 year olds learning this because we used to get by attacked by white men regularly. And I am talking big white men, like in their 20s and 30s, attacking kids. It was a dreadful and terrible time to grow up in. Racism was rife, and it was brutal in many ways as well. For us, in the ‘70s, we were going to school and kind of running that gauntlet of hatred. Its not the only thing that was against us but it was very significant in the way we view the world or viewed the world at that time.
I mean that’s what Shaka and other sound systems used to do; they represented a safe haven for us. Where we could go out and hear music that more reflected our social, political and culture sensibilities and be amongst our own as African-Caribbean people or African people because that’s who it specifically was occupying those spaces at the time.
Read more or listen to the interview on Afropop