Brixton’s living history: a tour with Blacker Dread
By JS Rafaeli
On the streets of Brixton, you can’t walk more than five meters with Blacker Dread, before someone wants a piece of him. People walk up out of the blue just to shake his hand; drivers give a beep and a thumbs up as they pass by; folks shout “Respect Blacker!” from the other side of the street.
For over twenty years Blacker – born Stephen Burnett-Martin – ran the iconic Blacker Dread record store on Coldharbour Lane. But, as the reverence and love he commands on the street attests, his roots in this corner of Lambeth go much deeper.
“This man is the greatest,” one of his friends is eager to explain. “In this community, he is the godfather. If you have a problem, you go and see Blacker. If a parent is worried about their kid going in the wrong direction – they send them to see Blacker. A lot of people who have fallen down, Blacker has picked them up. This man is all four corners of the earth.”
Blacker’s role in Brixton life is now the subject of the recent BBC documentary, Being Blacker, directed by Molly Dineen. We asked Blacker to take us on a tour, to show us some of the landmarks that have defined his life in Lambeth.
We start at the back of Brixton Market, outside what is now a vegan snack bar called Eat of Eden. “Back in the mid-1970s, this was Coxsone’s Record Shop,” Blacker begins. “Lloyd Coxsone also ran the Coxsone Outernational Sound System. One afternoon, when I was about fifteen, I was walking by here with six of my friends, and saw them loading record boxes onto their truck. I asked if we could join them – so all six of us just jumped on and went off to a gig in Wolverhampton. For me that was it – that sound system was my life for 20 years.
At first I was just carrying boxes – I wasn’t even allowed to touch the wires. All the wiring had to be done by real experts, because if you did it wrong, it would probably catch fire. But, eventually, I hung around so long that they let me have a go as the Selector, and that’s what started my path into DJing, producing records and eventually opening Blacker Dread Records”.
We then follow the path of Blacker’s career to the 414 Club on Coldharbour Lane, where he cut his teeth as a DJ. “This is the longest-standing club in Brixton. It’s been here nearly 40 years. When I was a DJ in the 80s, I used to play here every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. This was our club – it was the place to be. And it’s been kept with the same ownership that whole time,
which is amazing. Brixton is changing very fast, and we need to be supporting these businesses to stay here, because they come from out of this community”.
When I ask if there was one night, or one record, that he particularly remembers defining his time at the 414, he gives a laugh, “too many, too many. But I always think of Love and Hate by Dennis Brown, those lyrics made a real impression on me.”
One of the most memorable moments in the Being Blacker documentary is when Blacker takes off his hat, to reveal dreadlocks that stretch down past his feet, trailing behind him as he walks. Locks like that don’t just look after themselves, and our next stop is Blacker’s favorite hairdresser’s, Zion Roots, on Rushcroft Road.
“In the seventies, with all the troubles and strifes going on in England, you needed to be a part of something bigger,” he explains. “And what I found was Rastafari. The Rastafari movement caught me, because I thought it would preserve my culture, and who I was. Their teachings are peace, love and unity. One heart, one soul, one destiny – that’s why Bob Marley sang “one love”. Not everyone who wears locks is a Rasta, but I believe my locks show who I am. For me, it’s a significant message – I’m saying that this is who I am, and that I have love in my heart. And Zion, who runs this shop is brilliant. She takes care of my locks using the natural ways.”
We come to the site in the market where Blacker Dread spent two decades running his famous record store. Part of Being Blacker tells of the story of how Blacker lost the shop when he allowed it to be used for money laundering – and spent 13 months in prison as a result. Today the building is divided between a small fashion boutique, and, inevitably in modern Brixton, an estate agents.
“I know I made a mistake, and I’ve paid for it,” sighs Blacker. “But in its day the store was much more than just a place to buy vinyl – it was a real community hub. People would bring their children in, and if they were going the wrong way, you’d try and steer them right. There were a few key record stores in Brixton – Blacker Dread, Soferno B., Red Records – they were places people would come to share their problems. Sometimes people have no one to listen to them – and that was what the record stores provided. Now, there’s only Supertone on Acre Lane, he’s the last man standing.”
Next door to Blacker’s old shop stands the grocery store, Esme’s Roots. “I still come down here to buy all my Caribbean food,” Blacker smiles, seeming to cheer up a bit. “I don’t eat no junk food or meat, so I still come here to get my real food – if I need a mango, or a coconut, or proper Jamaican drinking chocolate, it’s always Esme’s – this is an iconic place for me.”
“If you look around this market, this probably the clearest place you see how Brixton is changing,” Blacker continues. “There is so much new development here, that a lot of people from the community feel abused and pushed aside. We’re not against progress, and we understand it’s about money – but the people in charge need to treat the community a bit more gently, and not come in with the iron fist. Don’t push out the people who made the area for your progress – embrace the people for your progress. And if you embrace the people, you will reap the rewards.”
Perhaps it is a hopeful sign that Blacker ends his tour of Brixton at the Black Cultural Archive, which opened its impressive new building on Windrush Square in 2014.
“This is our history, it’s our legacy,” Blacker declares passionately. “We need this so people can see the story of black people in England. Standing at a place like this, my message to young people is to have pride in yourself, to know that your culture and your ancestors did a lot. The youth have to know that they can fight for a better society – so their children won’t have to go through what we went through”.
As he walks off through the Brixton crowds, with people still stopping to shake his hand and ask for advice, it’s hard not to see Blacker Dread as a living symbol of Lambeth’s history – in all its complexity, excitement and tumult. Throughout our conversation, Blacker’s message was always one of unity, love, and how each of us has a duty to help one another. This is a message just as vital to Lambeth’s future as to its past – a message that all involved in shaping that future should hear.