There is a strange kind of symbolism in the death of Rico Rodriguez coming as it did ten days ago, right as Europe's ongoing refugee crisis was becoming unavoidable. There is really no doubt that the man had soul and put it all into his trombone playing, that he was an important figure in the British 2 Tone scene and deserved all the recognition he is now receiving. But what stuck out to me upon first hearing the news was his age when he died: Rodriguez was eighty years old.
This may not seem particularly noteworthy on its own, but when you take into consideration the average age of most denizens of the original 2 Tone movement, it becomes clear that he was significantly older than most of them. If you watch closely this video of “A Message To You Rudy” (probably the best-known single from the Specials that he played on) you can clearly see that while most of the band members are around their early twenties, Rodriguez looks to be about in his early forties.
Youth subcultures, particularly in the turmoil of late 70’s Britain, are rather well-known for being mistrustful of older folks. Insert here the “don’t trust anyone over thirty” mantra that we all know so well; certainly a cliche but it also comes from somewhere. And the the young people comprising that first wave of punk and the British ska revival surely exhibited a markedly different outlook on life than their parents, whatever their political outlook might have been. The notion that the security and stability of the 50’s were over and that they weren’t coming back, that one must embrace the decay to fight and transcend it, this was a worldview that outright alarmed those who were old enough to remember World War II.
Rodriguez was an exception. What was it that commanded respect among the younger generations? Rodriguez wasn’t born in England. He was born to Afro-Cuban parents who moved to Jamaica when he was a baby. It wasn’t until 1961 that he came to Britain in search of work -- not quite the Windrush generation but pretty close. By the time of the 2 Tone movement he was already a veteran of the British roots reggae scene. So much so that acknowledging only his work with the Specials does something of a disservice to him.
In some ways, Rodriguez’s participation in the 2 Tone movement speaks to just how influential anti-racist ideas had become among so many British youth in the late 70’s. This influence was by no means absolute -- these were ideas that at many points had to do literal battle with racists and fascists attempting to exploit fears around immigration -- but it nonetheless created a sense that blacks and migrants were more a meaningful part of the social landscape than anything to be feared and kept at bay. Such ideas, when given enough credence, can create a kind of fluidity that tests a great many de facto subcultural assumptions (“no old folks allowed”), in turn creating the potential for it to transform from a subculture into a counter-culture.
Now, put these notions in context of the refugee crisis. Conservatives like David Cameron and Angela Merkel will wax tragic about the thousands of displaced while also warning against “chaos” should the integrity of their countries’ borders break down. Those of the far right will howl about protecting the sanctity of “my culture.” But figures like Rodriguez, the Specials and countless other artistic manifestations reveal just how dynamic culture becomes when its presumptions are thrown out the window and different expressions are allowed to collide. There is nothing inherently sacred about this or that country’s artistic traditions; in fact most of the time those selfsame traditions are themselves the result of different tendencies, ethnicities and experiences having the chance to meet. 2 Tone, one of the most recognizable and influential moments in post-war British music, would almost certainly never have happened if the government would have listened to Eric Clapton’s advice to “get the coons out.”
What I am arguing here -- and what I think the music of Rico Rodriguez and the Specials represents -- goes far beyond the bland liberal notions of multiculturalism that see disparate ethnic or racial experiences as respectfully standing next to each other without reaching across the boundary. What I am arguing is that there are entirely new cultural logics that get created out of such moments, evolutionary artistic steps that push art as a whole forward. Yes, 2 Tone was on the surface the meeting of “white culture” with “black culture,” but it also created something entirely new, with gestures and narratives that hadn’t been seen in quite the same fashion before. Outsider affinities between Jamaican reggae and British punk may have been there, but it took actual human agency to draw them out so starkly.
Naturally, none of this is possible in a world of closed borders. Those who seal themselves in a bubble will likely find their worldview warped and atrophied in very little time (look at how stultifyingly provincial most white supremacists seem and you’ll catch my drift). Cosmopolitanism is fluid, unpredictable, often dizzyingly anarchic, but it is also just about the only redeeming quality of life under capitalism. The 2 Tone movement, on a very instinctual and basic level, got this. If the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party and the thousands he spoke to on Saturday’s refugee solidarity rally in London are any indication, then it would seem that a growing number of today’s young folks get it too.