From Africa to Oxford, artists recognise their debt to slaves

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The origins of the line-up in aid of anti-slavery charities, 200 years after the crime's supposed abolition in Britain, range from Africa to Oxford. It recognises the undeserved reward African slaves gave the world for their suffering: music which, starting with American and Caribbean plantation songs, helped spark rock and roll, reggae and rap, meaning even last night's headliners, Razorlight, owe something to an African past.

The spectre of Live8, a global, self-congratulatory spectacle, the main effect of which, perhaps, was to make its audience feel good, is present, too. But last night's show was on a more human scale, recalling warmly genuine, anti-apartheid and anti-racist benefit gigs of the past.

Stop the Traffik charity co-founder Steve Chalke gives historical context, and a guide to fairly traded chocolate (far more serious than it sounds), amid hopeful talk of another William Wilberforce.

A lush, lovely set by a velvet-jacketed Ed Harcourt and a scrappy one from Babyshambles' Drew McConnell (who boldly segues Woody Guthrie's "Bound for Glory'' into Pete Doherty's "Killamangiro''), are among the early British acts. But Africa's Emmanuel Jal is the first to fuse his music with the cause. "That's My Story'' is a raw, vivid rap describing his past as a boy soldier, "No Bitches, No Guns, No Bling'', about his refusal to exploit it as a record label-approved "Gangsta". He talks of "love'' as the only effective reparation for Africa's wounds, while his growling voice, abandoned high-stepping and funky Afro-rap make his continent a place of pride, not pity.

Supergrass sensibly stick to their crowd-drawing adrenalised versions of "Strange Ones" and "Time'', which precede a pensive "St Petersburg'', from their last album, widely seen as a farewell. A blistering take on their first, teenage hit, "Caught By The Fuzz" suggests otherwise.

The actors Rhys Ifans and Samantha Morton join main MC and Stop the Traffik lynchpin Daniel Beddingfield in trying to keep the message more concrete than mere sloganeering, with varying success. A Togoan ex-slave and anti-slavery activist does that much better, of course.

Presumed lost 90s star Finley Quaye returns as a shorn, shade-wearing bluesman, Africanising "House of the Rising Sun" and checking into "Heartbreak Hotel''. It's a shadowy, introverted, fascinating set, suggesting he has a surprising amount left to give.

Close to midnight Razorlight, the band who probably attracted the majority of this crowd more than thoughts of slavery, finally appear. Bony Johnny Borrell's ludicrously tight, white, 70s Jagger-style outfit is an odd closing image. But other thoughts from tonight will, hopefully, outlast it.