The Skinhead Movement: Origins and Misconceptions

Article written by Guest Writer Jenny Woo

There are many different facets and interpretations of what the skinhead movement is and what it means. The very concept of “skinhead” seems paradoxical. Skinhead is a subculture born out of multiculturalism (the adoption of Caribbean music and style by white British youth in the 1960s) and then later connected to right-wing extremism. Today the subculture is associated with everything from first wave Jamaican ska to melodic oi!, to politically motivated anarcho-communist and also to racist hardcore music. It’s not difficult to see how those outside of the skinhead scene, let alone those who are involved in it, come up with a million different interpretations and ideas of what it is and what it could be. When I was first asked to write a short article on what the subculture is about, it became immediately apparent to me that there was only one way I could speak about it honestly. There are a million definitions of the term, but I can only speak the truth about it by writing about what it means to me.

I first started out in the punk scene at the tender age of 13. I was always a rebel at heart– I never felt like I fit into the definition of “normal”, and I always had the urge to push the limits of both myself and others. Punk music, for me, was a road to freedom. It gave me the opportunity to break the expectations about what teenage girls were allowed to wear, were allowed to say, and were allowed to be. My adherence to the values of “live for today” and “rebellion” were the foundation of my self-esteem and guided me towards playing in bands, spiking a mohawk and speaking out in class. In short, it gave me the courage to try out different ways of living and of being myself.

60-s skinhead

60’s Skinheads may have cut their hair short in defiance of the more middle class hippie culture

However, a few years down the road I came to the conclusion that I no longer needed coloured hair or a studded jacket to stand out in a crowd. I felt like I had enough inside me to set me apart, and although I loved the music and the sentiment behind the punk scene, I no longer wanted to live just for today– I wanted to believe in a bright tomorrow too. I was looking for a philosophy or a way of life that allowed me to take strength in my differences, but that brought home the importance of using these strengths for a purpose. When I ran into a few skinheads at a local punk show, I knew then that I had found what I was looking for.

Skinhead is a movement that was born from the energy of working class youth in impoverished areas of Britain during the 1960s. These individuals found solace in the music and style of the Caribbean immigrants in England at that time, and decided to express their soul and their rebellion by crossing the racial/cultural line and embracing elements of Caribbean culture. The start of the skinhead scene was born from the idea that even though you are working class, the perceived low socio-economic status of this class did not determine your value as a person. Each person should be proud of who they are, and working to put food on the table is not a shame, but an accomplishment. This identification with other marginalized groups (i.e. Caribbean immigrants) created a whole new subculture devoted to cropped hair, Sta-Prest pants and an appreciation for “black” music. Eventually the skinhead scene merged with the punk scene that was erupting in Britain. This was due to the fact that both subcultures deviated from the norm and were developed for and by the youth. Oi! music was born out of this merge— a collision of skinhead values and punk sound.

I do believe that it’s a shame that “skinhead” has been labelled as a racist phenomenon, when it certainly does more to bring people of different races and backgrounds together.

Throughout the years, certain groups— most notably far-right political groups— have attempted to utilize the energy and anger of the marginalized working class in England for their own causes. During the 1980s, “skinhead” was often linked synonymously with racism due to this connection, and the concept’s original roots were forgotten. However, in recent years many groups have reinstated “skinhead” as a concept firmly rooted in the traditions of Caribbean/British ‘60s culture, and others have reacted by creating anti-racist factions such as “Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice” (SHARP), and even far left-wing factions such as “Red Anarcho-Communist Skinheads” (RASH). The skinhead movement, largely due to the internet and other means of globalization, has spread all over the world and is now prominent in many developing countries where the struggle of the working class is even more apparent than in the West.

80-s skinhead

 

Given all this confusion, misconception and taboo, why did the skinhead culture appeal to me? I immediately identified and felt fortified by the values behind it. The idea of being proud of who you are for the person you are as opposed to what you have completely liberated me from the pressure of modern adolescence. The idea of being proud of what you work for instead of what you have gave me guidance during my hardest struggles. The values of loyalty and community ensured that I had friends with me who believed in the same things and who stood behind me. Skinhead, for me, was punk without “rebellion-for-the-sake-of-rebellion.” It’s not only about standing out from the crowd, but standing up for something. Through it I became passionate about music and community, and I learned that I had something inside me to give.

In addition to the values behind the subculture, I love the idea of supporting a tradition that is both stable and fluid. I love listening to first-wave music from the ‘60s and feeling the same thing that generations before me have also felt. I love the connection between different times and different people all over the world. Since becoming skinhead I have travelled to Mexico, Indonesia and Eastern Europe, and met people at all stages in life who felt the same way I feel and who share a community and a purpose. I love the idea that traditions change and adapt by means of the hands of those who adopt them. Due to the fact that “skinhead” has been developed and defined in so many ways, those who participate in it are free to adopt it in ways meaningful to themselves. By each doing it in our own way, each person in his or her own way contributes to this tradition and therefore the tradition grows and becomes even richer. The roots and history of the skinhead subculture have defined, but not determined, its future.

I do believe that it’s a shame that “skinhead” has been labelled as a racist phenomenon, when it certainly does more to bring people of different races and backgrounds together. I also resent the fact that it’s often dismissed as being a rebellious subculture for the young and aggressive– because it is, and can be, so much more. That being said, it would be a shame to define skinhead as strictly anything. I suppose that with any concept in the world, “skinhead” only has truth insofar as what it means to our own selves. For me, skinhead is about a long-standing multicultural multi-generational tradition based on values, community and heart. It has both defined me and allowed me to define it, and I am I proud to grow up with something that has given me the power to find both myself and something worth fighting for.

Jenny Woo is a singer/songwriter who has played in various punk and oi! bands over the years. She is originally from Edmonton, Canada

7 Thoughts on “The Skinhead Movement: Origins and Misconceptions

  1. M Page on 3rd June 2015 at 1:36 pm said:

    “Skinhead is a subculture born out of multiculturalism (the adoption of Caribbean music and style by white British youth in the 1960s) “. Talk to anyone involved with the original skinhead movement in the 1960s and you’ll find this statement completely inaccurate. The skinhead movement was born out solely out of a social class. It’s relationship with music was a distant sidebar. Popular myth has is it closely tied with Jamaican culture. When skinheads did go out the clubs would be playing the music popular at the time: soul, bands like the Rolling Stones and some reggae. Skinheads were not define by a music ‘scene’ when they first appeared and the music connection with early skins is overplayed and exaggerated. That connection did not come until much later in the 70s.

    • Dazzah on 29th June 2015 at 3:37 pm said:

      You suggest we ask anyone involved in the original movement, I suggest you gather up all the data from them that supports your narrative and write your own article instead .

    • Troy boy on 29th June 2015 at 4:14 pm said:

      Nice try M page at revising and trying to distance the subculture from music : July 28th 1967, British-based Jamaican music company, Island Records launched a label to showcase the output of one of the most popular and successful producers of the Ska and Rock Steady eras – Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid. The imprint, called ‘Trojan’ after the title Mr. Reid had acquired during his early days in the music business, surprisingly failed to fulfil its potential and folded after a matter of months. And this may well have been the end of the Trojan story had it not been for the creation of a new Jamaican music company, launched in the summer of ’68, which was in need of a suitably dynamic name.
      The result of a merger between by Island Records and its distributor B&C, ‘Trojan Records’ promptly launched an ambitious programme of issuing singles on a variety of labels that highlighted music from every producer of note, ranging from British-based music makers such as Robert ‘Dandy’ Thompson, to such esteemed Jamaican operators as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Edward ‘Bunny’ Lee and, of course, Duke Reid himself.
      Trojan’s rapid growth during its first year was due in no small part to the development of a working class youth movement that embraced Jamaican music as part and parcel of its culture: Skinheads. The purchasing power of this fast developing demographic resulted in an explosion in sales and in the summer of ‘69

    • Bazza on 31st May 2016 at 6:43 pm said:

      Actually M page the skinheads evolved from the mods of the 1960’s who rode around on scooters and listened to the more mainstream music the rockers who evolved into he greasers rode motorbikes and it was they who listened to the
      Stones, as was shown when the Hell’s Angels acted as bouncers at one of their big concerts in America. The skinheads initially listened to Tamla Motown music and some of the Atlantic output although reggae was also adopted later. The music differentials were there from the start with the greasers going for what was then dubbed underground later heavy metal or just metal.

    • robbie on 3rd June 2016 at 8:54 am said:

      That depends what history you look at and what you class the first skinheads as , it could also be taken that the first skinheads came from the Caribbean as being part of the security to the sound crews , that played there ska etc on the street .
      Think you argue on origins to the cows come home and there is no correct answer.

  2. Rudie 72 on 26th October 2015 at 5:21 pm said:

    I was far too young to be a skinhead myself in ’69 but there were a few in the family. And Reggae music was indispensible to them. I recall listening to Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker and loads of motown. Dekker and Prince Buster seemed to be the real heroes. If there hadn’t been a genre the early skinheads could call their own, there wouldn’t have been a movement. No youth subculture can exist without it, it’s one of the things that gives the people in it its identity. And there was no oi! music back then :)

  3. The Chimp on 20th May 2016 at 8:31 pm said:

    One take of an original 60s Skin growing up in Medway Kent. Young mods too young to be original mods grew up trying to be like their older Mod icons. Back then you were either a greaser or a mod! It was more about protection. Playing catch up to the mods heyday and the original mods and only being a 14 year old in 1964 (born 1950) you bought the clothes and listened to the music. Rode scooters illegally as soon as you could afford one. As the original mods did. As the older mods started growing their hair and going towards phsyc mod and swinging 60s look the younger generation growing up rebelled and cut their hair shorter and reverted to their heroes original look. Hair started getting shorter and the mod music was being replaced by blue beat ska and reggae. Tonic trousers and suits were still being worn jeans were still worn by greasers! Decent suits, shoes, button downs and Scooters were still being used and the younger generation had taken over the fighting from the older mods with the bikers. Ska and reggae was taking took over and hair was getting even shorter. We never classed ourselves as skinheads until the term appeared in newspapers in late 69. We were a new movement different from mod until the term Skinhead became a label. Then boots braces and even shorter hair took over. The younger generation took over the fighting with the new 16 year old skinheads fighting the now 20 something bikers. Got a family by 71 after being a Ska and reggae dj and was now not a a part of the scene anymore. Nigel Morris. A small part of the once private and interesting story of my Dad growing up in Medway.

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