Express Condemnation


For the past few days, I've found myself thinking a lot about Express. I've no idea where he is or what he's doing today, but in 1993, Express - a rapper from Northampton called Simon - wrote one of the greatest pieces of anti-fascist poetry ever set to music. Gone to da Dogs was an impassioned response to the by-election that saw the British National Party win a seat on Tower Hamlets council, when Derek Beackon was elected in the Millwall ward on the Isle of Dogs, beating Labour by seven votes. My mind has turned occasionally to what he must be making of the European election results, because he made more sense of what happened in 1993 than most other folks at the time.

Rather than just vent his fury - though he did that too - Express managed to look beyond the heat of the moment, investigate why the vote had gone the way it did, and in the midst of the menace issued some threats of its own to an organisation that, at that time, was only beginning to try to shake off its thug image. Despite self-deprecatingly considering the song the work of "a 26-year-old black man who sees something on the telly that upsets him and he tries to reflect that," as Simon told me in an interview for the NME that ran when the single came out, ...Dogs was not something he was able to quickly dash off. "It took a long, long time to write, it was a real struggle," he explained. "I was incensed that all these people were fooled."

As the country gets used to the idea that parts of it are being represented in Europe by men from a fascist organisation, we would do well to remember the lessons of 1993. Beackon was elected during a period of widespread antipathy towards the political class, in a council ward that had traditionally voted Labour. The mainstream parties, obsessed with winning the 100,000 or so undecided votes in key marginal seats that held the balance of power in general elections, had written off places like the Isle of Dogs - the Tories because they had no chance of winning, Labour because they took their success there for granted. Into the vacuum stepped the BNP with their poisonous scapegoating, picking up votes from the disinterested and disillusioned who didn't think too much about who they were voting for as long as it wasn't one of the parties that had been in power locally or nationally. Yet Beackon's term in office was a disaster - boycotts from other parties and his own limitations made him, as with his fellow party members, an ineffective councillor, and despite increasing his vote, Labour won the seat back after successfully mobilising a much larger turnout a year or so later.

It's tempting to see the election of two BNP MEPs in the same light; a blip, an unintended consequence of a browbeaten populace trying to give a bit of a kicking to the incumbents in the midst of a precipitous drop in affinity for mainstream politics and mainstream politicians, something that won't happen again now that people in those areas have realised exactly what they've done. But this is as simplistic and naive as the view, expressed and apparently sincerely held by people whose perspicacity and wisdom I generally hold in high regard, that every BNP vote was cast by thoroughbred racists whose opinions are intractable and who are beyond persuasion or redemption. Some of them, doubtless; but not all. Yes, every one of those voters should feel ashamed of what they've done, but democratic politics is about persuasion, not exclusion: we're in this mess precisely because our political leaders had already decided that there were no-go areas for their policies, places they couldn't be bothered to seriously campaign in, people they opted to leave behind because their statisticians and pollsters told them the arguments weren't worth winning in that particular area.

It was heartening to hear David Cameron telling the BBC that he felt his party shared some of the blame: he's right, but as always the proof of that pudding will be in the eating, and Cameron has to ensure he and his party will never again abandon any of the electorate to fascism. Labour has long stopped being a party of the working class, but if comments such as those by Harriet Harman are to make any difference, they have to quickly learn how to re-engage with what was once their core constituency, and stop taking the votes of the working poor for granted as they rush to tailor policies to the affluent. Labour and the Conservatives have failed these people, not just in the election campaigns they fought in a lacklustre, can't-be-bothered manner, but in the years they've spent ignoring them. Yes, for dyed-in-the-wool fascists, words are wasted: but I refuse to accept that every one of those 944,000 votes the BNP polled come from putative members of the Waffen SS. Many of them are hearts and minds that can be won back from the dark side - if our elected leaders have the stomach for the fight they're belatedly starting to talk up. And it is a fight: yes, Beackon was unseated quickly, but condemnation of the fascists was much more widespread and they had not managed to infliltrate the mainstream as effectively as they have done today: now they have a platform and, even when they're being thrown (or should that be egged?) off it, the mainstream media feels compelled to treat them like a legitimate political party now. They will be far more difficult to take down after five years in Brussels than a few months in Tower Hamlets.

Simon found himself wrestling with all these contradictions when he wrote ...Dogs, and his description then of what the song was about, how it was structured and what conclusions he'd drawn about what he was discussing is as relevant today as the record itself. "The BNP is the NF, it's the same thing, they couldn't see that it's just the name that's changed," he told me 15 years ago. "The first verse is me trying to explain that; in the second I'm trying to work out why they voted BNP, and it still doesn't calculate, so I turn to them and ask why. And in the third verse I talk about the type of people that they actually voted for. The fact is maybe 40% knew they were voting for a racist, and the rest didn't care. That's what the BNP was preying on and it paid off for them."

You can't buy Gone to da Dogs anywhere; it was lost pretty much as soon as it was released, got little airplay and to the best of my knowledge never appeared anywhere other than on the limited-run 12" single released by the coincidentally named label, Expressive. But rarely has there been a more pressing need to give a track a new airing. I don't have the right - legally, morally - to post the audio up here, but if someone reading this has a link to it, or is in touch with Express or the people behind Expressive and can find out if they'd be OK about me posting it, please drop me a line. I'd love for people to hear it, because the music - an echo of Ice Cube's similarly militant post-LA riots We Had to Tear This M--- F--- Up - and Express's delivery (matter-of-fact yet urgent; calm but determined) and the complex sets of internal rhymes and the lyric's percussive rhythm all contribute to its drama and power. Instead, though, here's part of the lyrics for the final verse:

"Keep myself very diligent because you look very innocent
Friendship you may send me, now you're gettin' friendly
Before I get pally, remember Quddus Ali
You won't find this black boy alone in an alley
Your big black boot kicks me back to reality
Your British bulldog and your Garnett mentality
Tattoos on your faces, your jeans and your braces
You show no remorse 'cos your brother's on the force
Your father's no better, an ex-bloodletter
He be plottin' treason down at the Legion
Your mother's in her 40s but 50 approaches
She voted BNP 'cos she can't stand the roaches
As for your sister, the whole family dissed her
Now she lives with Winston in a flat in Brixton
Friction - no pause in amount that you're causin'
Appalin' the hate that you instigate
Your fate, I feel, is bleak and then weakened
When your propoganda's outlawed like slander
See, I seek unity for the whole community
But trouble me an' mine before such a time
I'mma tell ya, I'mma fell ya, like a tree
Lay you out like a log 'cos you've gone to the dogs.


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