Ask most Americans what they think of ska music, and the reaction will likely land somewhere between a giggle and a dry-heave. Once the province of a young Bob Marley, and later of bands angry enough to rage alongside the English punk movement, the genre's last brush with mainstream relevancy, in the 1990s, left it with a semi-permanent stain. Appropriated by suburban punks who barely understood how to do punk rock credibly, let alone blend it with horns and the jumpy rhythms of Jamaican dance music, the triple-diluted version often sounded cartoonish, like it was made exclusively for Saturday morning cereal ads.
But if you ask Pauline Black, singer of British ska legends the Selecter, even worse than the mishandling of ska's musical heritage during its so-called "third wave" was its total lack of political consciousness.
"Dare I say, it was a sign of the times in the '90s," she says. "Nobody, really, was caring that much about what was going on socially in the world. It's almost like those were simpler times, and they felt that maybe a lot of the subjects we were dealing with in the late '70s had been resolved in one way or another, which they obviously hadn't."
As the product of blue-collar Brits and West Indian immigrants uniting against common ills, ska of the sort Black played was, inherently, music of protest. Speeding up the already fleet-footed rhythms that lit up Kingston dancefloors in the 1960s, the sound of the 2 Tone era—named for the label that put out many of the bands—was a frantic reflection of life in Thatcher's England. Like their peers in the Specials and Madness, the Selecter operated on a platform of racial equality and empathy for the working class. But as one of the few prominent women in the scene, Black added a feminist agenda, too. As a woman of color, she says it would've been a "dereliction of duty" for her to do otherwise.
She still sees it that way. Now leading a new version of the Selecter, with vocalist Arthur "Gaps" Hendrickson as the only other original member, Black isn't content to rest on her back catalogue. As she admits, the first incarnation of the band was hardly successful in eradicating the problems she addressed on record, and given that racism, sexism and xenophobia have taken on newer, more virulent forms of late, they deserve fresh responses. On Subculture, the Selecter's 2015 album, Black takes on domestic violence, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, on the ghostly reggae tune "Breakdown," the state-sanctioned murders of black youth in both America and the U.K. On "Frontline," the lead single from the upcoming Daylight, she confronts a new concern—the internet. Specifically, it's about the many ways in which living life online distorts reality.
"We live in a world of, presumably, alternative facts," she says. "That's not to say the media hasn't served up lies as its proverbial food for thought for years and years. But I think people can, not be gullible, but they can certainly be drawn into things, like, 'Here they are, on the internet, so they must be true.'"
Black's intent with this current iteration of the Selecter isn't necessarily to salvage ska's reputation. But if there's value in leading by example, there might be hope for it yet.
"I think we've always made music that tickles the soles of the feet," Black says, "but hopefully, it also tickles the brain cells as well."
SEE IT: The Selecter plays Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., with the Grand Yoni, on Monday, August 14. 9 pm. $30. All ages.