Up close with Blacker Dread

Observer senior writer

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

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FOR Britons of Caribbean descent, 2018 is the celebration of a major landmark. It is 70 years since the SS Windrush sailed into London's Port of Tilbury with over 350 West Indians who settled in what was then the mother country.

Caribbean accents are fast dying in the United Kingdom. Colourful personalities like Lord Kitchener of Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaican Count Suckle, who helped put West Indian culture on the map there, have died, but alive and kicking is Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin, a Jamaican stalwart in Brixton.

Blacker Dread is the subject of Being Blacker, a 90-minute documentary by award-winning British film-maker Molly Dineen. It premiered on BBC 2 last Sunday and is scheduled to play in select theatres in the UK.

In it, Blacker Dread reflects on his life in the UK: how things have changed since he first moved there over 50 years ago, his role as a father figure to marginalised youth and his near three-year prison sentence for money laundering four years ago.

The 60-year-old Blacker Dread felt there was no better person to tell his story than Dineen whom he first met 40 years ago when she was launching what would become an impressive career. Her credits include similar profiles on former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, as well as Heart Of The Angel, an exposé on the London Underground's Angel tube station.

Dineen filmed Blacker Dread's mother's funeral and his daughter's wedding. She did not hesitate to document his story when he approached her.

“When I reconnected with Blacker I stepped into another world. He's a wonderful character who has lived the most incredible life, and Being Blacker looks at the social and cultural issues which have forged his path,” she told the UK's Wire newspaper. “Blacker Dread as seen in this film could only exist in this extraordinary world where family and music are at the forefront, but racism and violence are also everyday occurrences. And if you think any of these are things of the past in London, then Being Blacker will prove eye-opening, to say the very least.”

In the trailer for Being Blacker, Dineen and Blacker Dread meet at his Brixton home days before he is scheduled to start his four-year prison sentence. She asks him what will happen to his locks once he goes behind bars.

He tells her prison officials have no issue with his ankle-length locks, which are concealed when he is in public because people always stare or want to touch them. He usually admonishes the 'admirers' who are women.

Blacker Dread has been a Brixton staple for over 40 years. His Blacker Dread Muzik Store in that West Indian-strong city is a source for the latest and hard-to-find reggae titles on vinyl and cassette, or Afro-centric books, tapes and DVDs.

He has also produced songs by top Jamaican and British artistes, and co-founded the annual Brixton Splash carnival in 2005.

Four years ago, his reputation took a hit when he was jailed with five other people for stealing £700,000 from ICMD Ltd, a company that focuses on the marketing of specialty chemicals and food ingredients.

Probably the most poignant scene of Being Blacker is when Blacker Dread speaks of leaving the UK to live permanently in Jamaica.

“I'll miss the people. But you have to be selfish at one point in your life,” he said.



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