How 'The Queen Of British Ska' Wrestled With Race | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

How 'The Queen Of British Ska' Wrestled With Race

The British ska-revival band The Selecter formed in the late 1970s, playing what can be described as rock fused with calypso and American jazz.

Much of what set the band apart was its charismatic lead singer, Pauline Black. As one of few women in a musical movement dominated by men, she was called "The Queen of British Ska."

That experience is one of many recounted in her new memoir, Black by Design, which has just been released in the U.S.

Black opens her memoir with a scene from 1958: She is 4 years old and living in the working-class town of Essex, England, where her journey of self-discovery is about to begin.

"I think it was one of those occasions where I had to be told I was adopted, because the family I had been adopted into were a white, working-class family," she tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon. "I was about to start school — and, of course, I would be the only black child in the school."

After Black learned she was adopted, she started to pick up on certain tensions in British society.

"For a lot of black people that grow up in a predominantly white society, obviously you do notice the difference," she says. "It's not just a question of skin color. It is a question of attitudes. It is a question of expectations."

Black says that this social consciousness led her to a career in music.

"Somebody was looking for a lead singer for a band," she says, "and I looked at this particular band, and looked at what they were saying — which was an anti-racist stand and also anti-sexist stand — and for me, I felt at that time that it was a perfect fit."

The Selecter disbanded in the early '80s. (The group would re-form a decade later.) Black got more heavily involved in acting. She says it was around this time that she decided she wanted to learn more about her birth parents.

"I had gotten to the age, I suppose, of 42 years old, and I'd always known that my mother was 17 years older than I was. And I thought, 'Well, if I want to be in a position when I'm meeting someone who probably still has their health still together, and we can sit and we can talk, I'd better do it now,'" she says. "That really led me off on that journey — and it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride — but it took me, I would say, the best part of two weeks to go from not knowing who my mother was to actually talking to her in Australia."

By the time Black decided to meet her father, Gordon Adenle, he had passed away.

"I got in touch with his second wife — who is a lovely lady; she's nearly 90 now — and she told me to get on a train and present myself at her door the following day," Black says. "As soon as she saw me, she just burst into tears and said, 'You're so much like your father.'"

Black says that getting in touch with her biological family has let her put down roots — something she values highly.

"I know [this] probably sounds a little bit like a cliche, but I feel that it's very, very important for every individual on this planet to know where they came from and who they came from," she says. "It just gives you a sense of belonging, and I think that sense of belonging is more profound than probably any of us give it credit for."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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