Don Letts, filmmaker, musician and DJ, came of age during the original punk scene in London. Born in England to Jamaican parents, Letts was always one of the few persons of color in what he, in this interview with Jennifer Otter Bickerdicke, calls a ‘white boys network’. In the past 40 years, he has documented the punk scene (The Punk Rock Movie, The Clash: Westway to the World) and then expanded his range and vision (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Gil-Scott Heron and Brother From Another Planet: Sun Ra), even venturing into indie films (Dancehall Queen). He has just published a timely and brilliant autobiography, There and Black Again.
Don Letts is the coolest person in any room he enters. Even if you did not know his amazing pedigree, from making indie feature films like the 1997 gem Dancehall Queen and documentaries like The Punk Rock Movie, The Clash: Westway to the World to the more than 400 music videos he crafted for a Who’s Who of rock music, including the Clash, Big Audio Dynamite, Bob Marley & the Wailers, and Elvis Costello, the man commands a presence that makes one take notice. He is almost electric, the ideas buzzing in his mind lighting up his face and making it often hard for him to stand still. Letts has a confident yet self-effacing demeanour, always quick to make a joke.
Like many Gen Xers, my first knowledge of Don Letts was in the late 1980s, with the release of Big Audio Dynamite’s second studio album, the ground-breaking No. 10, Upping Street. To my native Californian ears, the LP was weird, wacky and futuristic; listening to it today, the samples and sounds Letts brings to the band are just as interesting and modern as if the tracks would have been laid down today. Since that time, I have been a Letts super fan; no film can educate, entertain and engross like a Don documentary. Check out any of his work, from 2005’s double dip of output The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Gil-Scott Heron and Brother From Another Planet: Sun Ra to a personal favorite, the BBC’s 2016 The Story of Skinhead.
The Story of Skinhead (BBC) – Don Letts, director
When a copy of Letts’ new memoir, There and Black Again, came across my desk, I was ecstatic yet scared. I could not wait to read more about the man who had captivated and inspired me since my teenage years, but I was worried about the possibility that it might not live up to my expectations. My fears were assuaged within the first few paragraphs of this magnificent piece of work. Letts has been able to capture the raw, real energy he emanates in life and put it on the page. With his typical bombastic enthusiasm, Letts does not shy away from uncomfortable topics, whether that be race, relationships or being the fat kid at school. In a society of memes and Insta, There and Black Again is important. It does with words what Letts’ films do with images: You put down the memoir seeing the world you live in differently.
I caught up with Letts on a Tuesday night in May to talk about how he got into film, what is punk rock and the writing of his book. A key starting point to Letts’ incredible journey was when he first picked up a Super 8 camera. “For a young Black man in the early 70s to be a filmmaker? Forget about it,” he recalled. “It was an old white boys network.” Yet Letts was inspired after seeing the The Harder They Come—the Jamaican film starring Jimmy Cliff—as a 15-year-old kid living in the London borough of Brixton.
“I was really taken by its power to inform, inspire and entertain. At that time, as a young black British kid trying to work out what the fuck that meant, my soundtrack was reggae,” he said. “But we didn’t have any visual accompaniment. There wasn’t a visual representation. Then along comes The Harder They Come. All of a sudden, I understand that style, attitude, environment and the culture.”
A track by Linton Kwesi Johnson called “Five Nights of Bleeding” had an equally transformative impact on a young Letts.
“Five Nights of Bleeding” – Linton Kwesi Johnson:
“That record made me start thinking visually,” he recalls, adding that the rise of punk rock around the same time gave him the impetus to try his hand at film. “The whole thing about punk is that it broke that fourth wall of ‘We’re the band, you’re the fans and forever it shall be so”. Instead, if you were brave enough, if you had an idea, you can be part of this thing, too.”
Letts started recording the burgeoning scene around him, capturing the early days of bands like The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Adverts. It was only after an NME journalist declared in the magazine that Letts was making a movie about punk rock that the idea to make a documentary took hold. “I thought it was a good idea. I thought, I’ll call this stuff that I’m shooting a movie. That was my entrance into the space I have been fortunate to occupy for the last 40 years”.
Letts compiled the material he had shot and created the classic film The Punk Rock Movie. Soon after, The Clash asked Letts to make a music video for them, as did John Lydon’s new Public Image Limited. “It just built from there really,” he tells me.
The Punk Rock Movie – Don Letts, director
I then asked Letts to try to define what being punk means in 2021. “If you can explain it, that it ain’t punk rock,” said Letts with a laugh. “It’s going left when everyone’s turning right. It’s turning problems into assets. It’s understanding that a good idea attempted is better than a bad idea perfected. It’s being brave enough to go somewhere that others won’t.” Letts then underscores how punk is a way of approaching life, “not just a musical thing.” “If it was just a soundtrack, we wouldn’t be talking about it 40, 50 years later,” he argues. “It informed all these different things.” When asked to delve a bit deeper into that idea, Letts points to himself. It’s a concept that is hard for Letts to succinctly describe. “I never think about this shit. When you ask me a question on something that I do intuitively, I get all discombobulated. All I know about punk rock is I know it when I see it or smell it or taste it or feel it or touch it. I just know it. Can I put my finger on it and identify it? No, that’s the point”.
Letts continues, saying, “I don’t actually like going on about punk because it’s almost become a dirty four-letter word, but sometimes there’s no other word. And sometimes it gets misused. So it’s confusing. People keep looking back at the fucking thing that happened in the late ‘70s. It belittles the idea that punk is an ongoing dynamic. It’s not something to look back on. It’s something to look forward to. All you need is good idea and to be motivated. Malcolm McLaren taught me that is what punk attitude was about. Put it in the context of an ongoing dynamic that isn’t just about music. We’ve probably got enough people with a punk attitude in music. I say this over and over. We need punk politicians, teachers, doctors, things like that. People need to see the art in all aspects of life, not to just the guy on stage with a guitar or somebody with a mic in their hand. It’s all important.”
Talk turns to the genesis of writing There and Black Again. “For the whole of the 21st century, race has been this underlying thing that’s been hanging over everybody’s head,” Letts asserts. “You might not think it is over your head. But trust me: if it ain’t sorted out, it is. We are not going anywhere. We got to work this shit out. If we don’t work this out, ain’t nothing else: ain’t environment, ain’t the whales, ain’t nobody fucking safe,” he says.
Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not be Televised – BBC, Don Letts, director:
The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests around the globe made Letts stop and evaluate his own life.
“In my bubble, I can think that ground has been gained, footsteps have been made towards a slightly better place. But when I looked outside my bubble, it was disturbing. Here I am, trying not to be defined by my color. But somehow that’s the topic, the top objective or the top argument. Hence the title of my book. I’ve gone all the way there. And here I am, fucking black again. I’m dismayed by that.” However, Letts is also hopeful about the future. ‘I’m optimistic by the reaction of the youth and the global reaction,” he tells me.
The two of us have grumbled in the past to each other about online communities. Yet in this particular area, Letts thinks that social media has helped engage a new generation of tech-savvy advocates wanting to make change: “They’ve got proactive, they’ve got involved, because we’ve done the protest songs. We’ve done the peaceful marches. We’ve been doing that 60 years and change is fucking overdue.”
Letts feels that the new round of awareness “are not just platitudes,” and shared that the events of last summer made him take a personal inventory. “I had to ask myself, ‘What have you been doing for the last forty years? Have you been bringing something to the table?’ It made me check my output”. The self-reflection was powerful for him, Letts confides. “I quite quickly realized that the arguments have never been far from everything I’ve done. If you look at the subject matter of the films I’ve made, if you look at the songs I’ve written with Big Audio Dynamite: I’ve never strayed too far. I think I’ve always justified the space I’ve occupied, put it that way”.
The Black Lives Matter movement also made Letts realize the everyday racism he takes as being “normal”. “I’m a stranger in a strange land,” he describes of being black in a white world. “Even though they like my music and like my culture, they are not so sure about me. I have just taken that as the norm. It almost made me sad that a lot of times when people say shit to me that I realize is racist, I’ll just take it as water off a duck’s back.”
A lot of the book focuses on Letts’ journey for self, whether that be through music, art or physically going to Jamaica, the country his parents immigrated to Britain from. Letts does not shy away from uncomfortable or potentially unflattering depictions of himself and his life, instead opting for unflinching honesty. I asked him how hard was it for him to be so open and potentially vulnerable in such a public arena.
“I’ve spent my life being really deep about the superficial, superficial about the deep. It’s just the way I operate,” he reveals. “Mal Peachey (co-author) would have to pin me down and tell me to talk about my emotions. It was really uncomfortable. I kept thinking of that line that Jack Nicholson has in A Few Good Men: ‘You can’t handle the truth’. That was always in the back of my mind.”
In the instances when Letts would try to skip over a subject, Peachey would demand a reply, not allowing for any wiggle room. “He’d pin me down and say, ‘No, how did that make you feel? What are your thoughts?’ I’d be like, ‘Fuck off, leave me alone.’ In the 21st century, the most powerful thing is the truth. Everything else is bullshit. Just trying to identify on a personal level is so hard.” He goes on to quote John Lennon to underscore is point, saying, “That John Lennon refrain is in my head- just give me some truth. It’s powerful to be truthful, but I struggle with it”.
But what else could there possibly be for Letts to do? He has conquered pretty much every area of the arts, always seeming to be at the right place at the right time. In There and Black Again, Letts’ life is a roll call of some of the most important moments (punk, MTV, hip-hop, the renaissance of the documentary) and people (Andy Warhol, the Beastie Boys, Sinead O’Connor, Paul McCartney, Bob Marley) of the last 50 years. What else could he possibly still have on the bucket list? “I want to make a film about Afrofuturism,” he discloses. What is Afrofuturism, for those who are unfamiliar? “It’s a philosophy”, he tells me. “For me, it’s the only way forward for Black people. It’s about looking to the stars, not the streets. It’s a really liberating school of thought. If I could only make one more film in my life, that would be it. We need it.”
What does Letts hope people come away with after reading There and Black Again?
“I’d be happy with a little punk rock attitude,” he asserts. “I’m not talking about a fucking Mohawk or a safety pin. We’re going to need it going forward; we need to have a different way of thinking. That spirit and that attitude helped me to be who I am today. Nothing can come out of a void.”
There and Black Again by Don Letts is published by Omnibus Press.
Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is the author of You are Beautiful and You are Alone: The Biography of Nico, out on Hachette Books on August 20, 2021.