Having Words: A conversation between Don Letts and Zakia Sewell on art and activism
The Dr. Martens boot has become a cultural symbol for rebelliousness. This legacy is celebrated in a new collaboration with punk pioneers The Clash. To celebrate the capsule release, we tapped director and musician Don Letts – a close friend and collaborator of the band – and broadcaster and writer Zakia Sewell to discuss punk’s enduring legacy and music’s ability to drive modern day activism.
An afternoon at Don Letts’ London home tracing five decades of British subculture.
Piles of cassettes and DVDs, boomboxes, gold record plaques and personal photographs with the Clash and Bob Marley: this is the ephemera-filled garden shed-cum-treasure cave of Don Letts. Rising to prominence at the peak of the punk movement, the work of the prolific film director, radio presenter and DJ has spanned nearly 50 years of British subculture.
Today, Letts is sitting on his sofa with NTS radio DJ and writer Zakia Sewell. During the photoshoot is his lusciously overgrown garden, Letts insists on standing behind Sewell. “I keep telling you, I’m always in the background. I’m the past, you’re the future!” he remarks, both artists throwing their heads back in laughter. But he’s right: Letts’ artistry has always focused on the undercurrents of the underground, platforming new talent while always honouring those who came before.
Here, both artists trace the threads connecting their generations; from austerity, activism and collectivism to personal style and cultural shifts. And despite those shifts, one thing is clear, however: the radical power of music will never fade.
© Sophie Jouvenaar
Zakia: What did punk mean to you at that time?
Don Letts: I’d never heard the word before apart from in gangster movies from the 30s and 40s! Punk came along with DIY and I think that was its major gift – not the fast and furious guitars. The fact that it enabled people to express themselves.
Zakia: When you talk about this idea of there being no future, it feels like we’re in similar times right now. I don’t know if we have an equivalent movement in one place. Subculture today works in a very different way. You might be talking to someone on Reddit or Instagram, and you might share values and tastes, but you’re not brushing shoulders with them.
Don Letts: The digital age had a positive and devastating impact on the growth of subculture. Of course, subculture is not dead – it just doesn’t look like it used to. The digital age has enabled people to express themselves and have a much wider reach. A downside of it is that it’s taken away the passion and struggle that was part of the creative process. The advent of the digital age is positive and negative.
© Sophie Jouvenaar
Zakia: I’m a child of the 90s, so I grew up during New Labour, multiculturalism, Brit-pop. There was a sense of hope in the air and I reaped the benefits of the system. As I’ve gotten older that’s withered away. Out of hard times, that is when people band together – that raw need for creativity reemerges. It becomes about survival. The last couple of years have changed things; I’ve noticed a punk energy, artists like Wu-Lu and Sam Akpo. Young Black guys just thrashing! There is a need for this collective scream. I get really depressed about Britain; I think, ‘Oh god, it’s all over here!’
Don Letts: It’s had its time! Don’t get me wrong, I’m Black British and the product of the duality of my existence. I had pop music coming in one ear growing up and bass-heavy music coming in the other. But the age of America and England being the kingmakers… that’s over! The digital age has facilitated that. Joe Strummer used to say, ‘Make sure your bullshit detector is finally tuned’, and if it is finally tuned, you’ll realise that there’s inspirational stuff going on all around this planet. There are still people who believe in music as a tool for social change.
“There are still people who believe in music as a tool for social change” – Don Letts
Zakia: The ‘activist’ element to punk, what were the aims of it?
Don Letts: A corny phrase comes to mind: ‘Music can change people and people are the world.’ Linton Kwesi Johnson also once said to me, “Music doesn’t affect change, it reflects it.” I disagree! It changed me, and I’m part of the goddamn world. I know we’re chipping away at a very big block but, what else are you gonna do?
Zakia: I have felt the power of music. Live music still has that power of waking me up, and once you’ve been woken up, you have the energy to go out into the world and do what you need to do.
Don Letts: The beautiful thing about the live experience is the fact that it’s a synchronised experience. It’s testament to the power of collective will. It can also facilitate escapism.
Zakia: I’ve been on dancefloors where the vibe has been loving – and that is a very positive feeling. I’ve also been on dancefloors where the collective feeling is a bit aggy, and that energy is revolutionary. I think that’s why there is an attack on the arts and these spaces.
Don Letts: They’re the places where people wake up!
© Sophie Jouvenaar
Zakia: Going back to this idea of escapism – knowing how to harness that energy and turning it into something useful…
Don Letts: John Lydon said, ‘Anger is an energy.’ We just need to focus on that. I ain’t talking about throwing molotov cocktails, I’m talking about doing a bit more than swiping on your phone. It’s too passive. I’m curious, as a young person who wasn’t even born when The Clash were doing their thing, are they still as important in your life?
Zakia: Back in the day it was more tribal, you had your soul boys, punks, mods. It was important that you dressed in a certain way to identify yourself as belonging to a gang. I don’t think that exists now – people are taking bits and bobs, it’s more of a patchwork quilt. It’s rare to find someone who says, ‘I only listen to this type of music!’
Don Letts: Unless they’re 10 years old!
Zakia: Or listen to techno! I feel like eclecticism is the flavour of the current day.
“Live music still has that power of waking me up, and once you've been woken up, you have the energy to go out into the world” – Zakia Sewell
Don Letts: You’ve pointed out an obvious irony with those subcultures back in the day – we were asserting our individuality by dressing like the rest of our mates. Back then, that’s all we had, so we put everything into it. Nowadays, because of the economy, it’s probably more important for people to get their heads together rather than their hair-dos. It’s good that people do have a sense of style still, that’s still part of my DNA. But anyway, you know about collective experience and style, because you broadcast [on the radio].
Zakia: One thing that has been really important to me is my radio show; realising that it’s a virtual meeting place for people. People would be in the chatroom sending messages, listening at the same time as their loved ones across the world. That taught me about the value of these digital spaces, even if they can’t replace the real lived experience of rubbing shoulders with someone on the dancefloor. The fact that you can be connected with people with wildly different worldviews, perspectives and cultures – that gives me hope.
View the Dr. Martens x The Clash collection here.