In 1964 the comedian Lenny Bruce found himself convicted in an obscenity trial. That, in a nation with a consitution that guarantees freedom of speech, is quite the achievement. It suggests that Bruce was taking the idea of freedom of speech and seeing exactly how free he could be. Very little was out of bounds for Bruce. He could be vulgar, he could be offensive (whatever that means) he toyed with attitudes towards sex, religion, politics and, crucially, with race. In one famous “bit” Bruce suggested that certain words had power only because we bestowed that power upon them.
“Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.”
Think of a derogatory word to describe a minority group and Bruce was arguing that to erase or suppress them was simply to reinforce the negative power of the word. Only be reclaiming the language of the hateful could we ever hope to dilute the power of that language.
It’s not for me to say if Bruce was right or wrong. I don’t have to worry about someone using such language against me. I can’t possibly understand the power of certain words.
Which brings us to the latest single from Cornershop; “Everywhere that Wog Army Roam”, taken from their astonishing album “England is a Garden”.
There are voices who would argue that they shouldn’t use that word.
It’s a problematic word.
It may even be offensive…
But what does “wog” mean? Is it comparable with the “n” word? Should it be erased from the English language? Is using it in a pop song simply an act of provocation, a means of puncturing the bubble that surrounds polite society?
“Wog for me is a word that is rather offensive as it’s a word that was created by Whites as a noun for some Blacks. Coolie would be another such noun, and as well as class they both denounce race and standing.” said Tjinder Sing when I asked him exactly those questions.
“Broken down the word has geographical and historical relevance, and expanding its acronym it becomes Western Oriental Gentleman/woman. Well if Gentleman and Gentlewoman or Gentleperson has anything to do with it, that shows a glimmer of hope in the abbreviation, and we can build on hope. You can’t build too much on a word like Paki, which would have originated from Packer, on the docks. What is evident is that all these words and changes of words have a space in all our galleries, and should maybe be kept there like slave owning statues, to highlight what they meant, where they came from, who they hurt, etc. This is why I don’t think Wog should simply be chucked away – or nothing will be learnt from it. There is a school of thought that wants to do away with this past, and move on – I understand that too, but in the few decades I have lived, I have always been close to the orbit of feeling like a Wog more than anything else. So I unpack the word, reclaim the word and turn it into doctors and leave it in a history book for all to see.”
What about the recent decision to remove an episode of Fawlty Towers by the BBC? That episode saw the character of the Major use the word but for me it seemed that the purpose of that scene wasn’t to condone the use of such language or to argue that racism was funny but was, instead, to highlight the racism in Britain’s colonial past and to mock it, to show how out of step it was with the attitudes of the time. Is that too simplistic? Does that simply highlight how unaffected someone like me is by something like that scene?
“This again is all to do with history and the climate from which it came. We need that history to show how things were – to give us co-ordinates on the direction we have come from for right or wrong. Some think that “Mind Your Language” was more offensive, but there was probably an element of class attached to as to why one got more stick than the other. However, I loved “Mind Your Language”, it was the first English program I sat with both parents waiting for a turban, a sari, an Indian accent – we could not have been more pleased with these seconds of television. Stereotypes can be unpacked again, and we can look back and say how horrible it was, but to be pleased by seconds of someones attire, or accent because you associate with it, is sadder in retrospect than the stereotypes themselves. If you were not English, you got what you were given, and the seconds we enjoyed were something to hang hope on. I think “Faulty” Towers is a monument to how things were, and by hiding these things, it wont make those feelings go away.” explains Tjinder.
What about the video itself. It seems clear to me that Cornershop have always done something important by using, and utilising, language, cultural reference points and even instruments that expose people from outside of a particular demographic to things they wouldn’t otherwise discover. Is that a deliberate act? Cultural missionary work maybe.
On the video Tjinder says “The characters in the video are Indian figures within a cartoon reggae album cover, which was a phase in the early 80’s, such as with Yellowman or Scientist: These characters are then expanded upon. Some have more superpowers than others when you spend more time with them, and the police characters were going to naturally lead up to a bloodbath, but we decided to take a tip from carnival so the two police officers end up showing that they are normal and join in without truncheons and tazers… in this case.”
And on the cultural missionary work? “I don’t think it’s a deliberate act, but just the way the songs have already written out these characters. It is lovely that you like the cultural points, instruments and language to show something that you may not otherwise happen upon – that’s a success for us. However, it has also made our lives as musicians a lot harder, because not everyone cares to happen on something different. Ultimately, do you want things on a plate or do you want to try that much harder to get to near what you want – in that respect, we are happy to say we don’t mind putting in the extra hours, and appreciate that enough listeners do that too.”
One of the great joys of Cornershop lies in their refusal to dumb it down. They are, of course, melody makers but, crucially, they transcend the normal confines of “rock ‘n’ roll” by casting their net further than “The White Album” or “The Village Green Preservation Society”. Equally important is their willingness to say things…about things. While everyone enjoys a jolly song about a cup of tea or an arms in the air anthem the truth is that the thrills and spills of those sorts of things very often lead to bellyaches. Cornershopp want their audience to think and they believe they are capable of doing so.
Very few bands can prompt, or provoke, an examination of race, language, freedom of speech and colonialism with just a song title…I’ll go further, only one band is capable of such a thing and that band is Cornershop.