Race and music in many ways seem to be intertwined. In some ways it’s something that society embraces as a way to celebrate different cultures, it can challenge dominant cultures, it can bring cultures, communities and people together, other times it can push them apart.
Just to be clear, let’s look at some of the music that is at its root at least, black music. There’s the old forerunners like blues and jazz, then rock n’ roll. From the Caribbean emerged reggae, ska, calypso and later dub and dancehall. Back to the US and we see Motown, soul, R&B and later hip hop, disco and house and techno. Then of course there’s the UK’s interpretations of black music, things like garage, jungle, bashment, grime and dubstep.
What Gordon experienced as a white DJ playing black music, in black communities in white cities, gives an intriguing insight into the complexities of race in the music industry.
“I think as a white man I’ve opened a few doors. I’ve had to play games with promoters where I think if I was black it might have been more difficult to get into certain clubs or on certain radio stations even.
“Because I had white skin I could get a meeting easier than had I been black back in those days, but only with some and not all club owners. I would get them to let me start a new soul night and then start introducing guest DJs who happen to be black, so kind of sneak under the radar, then eventually I would move onto another venue and leave what used to be my guests as the resident DJs of the night and I know clubs with two or three black lads as DJs and the clubs had originally been reluctant and taken some persuading to do it. But there are subtle ways and if we worked together we made it happen.”
“It’s a pity it had to be this way in the early years but its how some of the clubs were, we already know that white audiences walked in with no hassle back then, but if you were black you were often stopped at the door and asked if you were a member and turned away.
“Even though the club wasn’t a members club, so after these first experiences of this subtle but sometimes blatant racism, when I set my soul events up I made it clear to the managers, staff and door staff at the club that a lot of black people will be attending my nights so I don’t want to see anyone turned away unless there dressed like a tramp.
“Black or white, we always had standards of dress at my events as I believe the music and the people who enjoy it deserve a nice venue where they can put on their nice clothes and feel warm and safe as well as welcome.”
He also says at the time, even white promoters or managers who ran mixed nights, or where they played black music, still were often guilty of discrimination in various ways.
“I did the bank cafe bar for 6 years, it was rammed every week, there was a nice mixed crowd there, black people, white people, Asian people; it was a really nice vibe. 1,800 people each week, it was packed, it was classy – a dress-up joint – and it went through about three or four managers but they didn’t get rid of me.
“Eventually this manager came in and he was a racist, there was no doubt in my mind about it, and he was making bad judgments based on it.”
After a string of incidents where the manager had picked on black punters and had them ejected for minor things, or things that white punters were routinely getting away with, Gordon had had enough.
“In the end I said you know what, you can stick this up your arse. Because of that [racism] and because from day one he was asking me to switch the music up a bit, play a bit of Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones [laughs] and all that and I said ‘no we don’t play that, the reason this is successful is because we play black music’. The Bank wasn’t the only club I walked out on because of racism.”
Gordon wasn’t always on the side of privilege however. His viewpoint on it though was pragmatic.
“Nine times out of ten I’d get the love but I did get racism. People saying ‘why’s a white man making money off a black mans’ ting?’ That was one of the comments I’d get, which would disappoint me because as a white man it had been hard for me. I’d had to slog to get into this scene and people weren’t accepting me necessarily.
“One time I was asked to play at a club in Birmingham and when I arrived with my records, I got to the door – now this club was a true black club, in terms of, if you weren’t black, you weren’t getting in – there was a couple of white women who got in because they were with certain gangsters or whatever and no one’s gonna argue with them.
“I arrived with my records and the doorman said ‘what can I do for you?’ and I said ‘I’m Gordon West’ and he said ‘nah man Gordon West is a black man, who do you think you are?’ and I was like ‘you think I’m gonna come here with records if I’m not playing?’ and I said ‘okay well can you tell the promoter that the white Gordon West is here and I’ve been sent home by you’.”
“So I’m heading back to the car, then one of the local bad boys – who had seen me play because he used to hang round with the Manchester bad boys and because we used to do the Kitchen and those places so the local bad boys used to stand near the decks – said ‘what a g’wan? seen your name on the poster, when you playing?’
“I said ‘well they won’t let me in’, he said ‘what you mean?’ I said ‘well they told me Gordon West was black’, so he said ‘come with me’, told two guys he was with ‘pick up the box man’ and the doormen said ‘I told him he can’t come in’ and the guy said ‘him coming in, him coming in now, I said he could and he’s playing here tonight’ and the doorman just stepped aside, and I just got escorted to the stage. It was a bit scary, but then I dropped a tune and everyone immediately forgot about it.”
Race was something that was hard for Gordon to ever fully escape from throughout his career, but not something he had ever anticipated as his stature grew within the scene.
“The first time I got scared about my colour – and Sam Brown will vouch for this, in fact a few readers might even remember this – we were doing a pirate station Laser or WBLS, can’t remember which, but it was more popular than any of the proper stations.
“I would get on a bus or be in a shop and all I had to say was ‘hello, can I have…’ and people would recognise the voice. Often people would stop me in the Arndale, it was crazy. I did a gig at Barnhill Street, way before I got any residencies, and I think we had Coffee and a few other reggae artists live.
“Sam went on before me, and it was still a rumour that ‘GW’ was a white man at the time. So Sam Brown got on the stage and was like ‘wha’ g’wan?’ and he was saying to the crowd ‘what if I told you Gordon West is a black man?’ and everyone went ‘wooo!!!’ big cheers, and then ‘what if I told you he was a white man?’ and everyone was going ‘booo!!!’ and I thought oh shit, I’m in trouble here!
“I was on stage and they were proper booing. In the end Sam introduced me as ‘the black DJ who’s all white’, because that was my jingle on the pirate station. Everyone was expecting a black person and there was a massive cheer, everyone was stomping their feet and making a proper racket and then I walked on and the room went quiet and I thought oh shit and even Sam looked at me and said ‘we’re in trouble here!’”
“He said ‘come man, tek the mic’, and I think they thought it was a wind up, but then I said ‘evening everybody’, and there was a big cheer when they recognised the voice, and Sam said just get on the decks and show them who you are.
“So I dropped Bobby Womack How Could You Break My Heart? I said on the mic ‘this is how your making me feel’, and I dropped it and everyone went wild. Then Sam said ‘what would you do if I said Gordon West is a white man?’ and they all cheered.”
The beauty of music is that it’s one part of life where love always prevails over hate.