Life & Culture

She sang the protest songs the last time Britain rioted

In 1981 Pauline Black made records about prejudice as black youths fought police on the streets. As a mixed-race woman she knew about racism. And then she found out she was Jewish.


Pauline Black was 42 when she decided to track down her birth mother - and realised that she was Jewish. It had taken 38 years to make the discovery. Black first found fame as a pioneer of the 2-Tone ska movement of the 1980s. Her band, The Selecter, was one of the multi-racial groups to rise to prominance against the backdrop of the riots that swept the country in 1981.

Subsequently, Black turned to acting and appeared television drama series such as The Bill.

She was only four years old when she first learned from her white middle-aged parents that she was adopted, and that her father was Nigerian and her mother from Dagenham. That it took her so long to seek out her birth parents was because she had decided not to begin the search as long as her adoptive mother was alive.

"By the time you're 42 you have to do the maths and you think to yourself: 'My mother's 17 years older than me, maybe I had better get on with it'."

With the little information left by her adoptive mother, and a lot of her own detective work, she was led to her mother, Eileen Magnus - and a half-brother and sister, numerous cousins and aunts - in Australia.

Learning about my Jewish roots was a defining moment

The phone call came at five one morning. "Hello, is that you, Belinda? It's mummy, darling."

"My mother called me by my real name, which was Belinda," says Black, recalling the life-changing moment. "That was the biggest shock. Of course 42 years might have gone by, but in her head I was still a little baby, and she was my fantasy figure, so that reunion was quite strange for both of us, but nothing more so than being called Belinda Magnus, a name that didn't really feel belonged to me, but was mine."

Black discovered that her grandfather's parents had emigrated from Greece where they had been traders. The revelation of these Jewish roots brought back memories of her childhood.

"At school there was a young Jewish boy that I grew up with. We used to get on really, really well together. He didn't go to school assembly and I was the only black kid at the school, so that marked us out. Maybe there was some understanding between us," she says.

Having grown up in the 1960s in Romford, surrounded only by white people, Black had always felt an outsider. And having watched as a girl the television series All Our Yesterdays, with its newsreel footage of the Nazis and the Holocaust, she began to recognise a pattern to the oppression experienced by minority groups.

"I began to discover what had happened during the Second World War, and I equated that with what I saw black people were going through in places like South Africa. As I grew up I started to realise what racism was about."

To discover that she was Jewish years later only served to sharpen that realisation. "It's a bit like having two helpings of something that maybe gives you indigestion - or other people indigestion, probably!"

It was racial alienation that in part led Black to form The Selecter, in the search for an identity. "I didn't know any other black people. Through music I've found people of a like mind who have had something to say politically about the racism that pervaded this country at the end of the '70s and early '80s. That was what I felt I could do something with, and write songs for, and perform on stage.

"Learning about my Jewish roots was certainly a defining moment. It's very important for me to know the truth of my identity. Without that, you're always wondering certain things, and so yes, it was complete closure."

She also discovered she had inherited the performing gene from her mother's side of the family. Her cousins had sung and toured with the D'Oyly Carte Opera, while her grandfather was a music hall artiste. Her half-brother was a bassist in a punk band at the same time as she was performing with The Selecter.

Finding out that her lost daughter was a singer was also a surprise for Mrs Magnus. "My mother was absolutely knocked out. She's a bit of a performer herself. I think that being a show-off came quite naturally to me."

Poignantly, Black never gave up thinking about her mother throughout her musical career. "It was something I had fantasised about. When I was on Top of the Pops, I used to think: 'Ooh, I wonder if my real mum is watching, I wonder what she might think or if she might recognise me.' But it's rather strange – I found out that my mother had watched an episode of The Bill that I had been in, totally oblivious to the fact that her daughter was in it."

Since discovering her family, Black has travelled to Australia four times, and they have visited her. Her last trip to was the first time her mother had seen her perform with The Selecter. The band have plans to tour there next year, giving the whole family the chance to watch.

The emotional journey has given Black more than she could have hoped for. "It certainly improves your self-esteem, knowing what your roots are, knowing there are people there, a mother who has that wonderful thing I suppose all people search for, which is unconditional love. That's a very important thing to have if you are mixed-race and have grown up in a society that tends not to put that kind of background to the fore."

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