Revisiting Roddy Doyle’s 1987 breakout novel, The Commitments, in which Blackness stands for joy, revolution and good music … but reveals the duality in how we talk about race.
Roddy Doyle’s debut novel was a slow-burn, cult, breakout hit, somehow all at the same time.
It was self-published, initially to not so great acclaim in the Dublin music press. Then musician Elvis Costello praised the book’s portrayal of garage band life, publisher Random House picked it up – and suddenly, The Commitments had arrived.
A film adaptation followed in 1991, along with two soundtrack albums. The film was dwarfed at the box office by Disney’s animated feature, Beauty and the Beast ($14m worldwide gross Vs $248m), but The Commitments’ cultural legacy was set.
Doyle’s novel had captured something raw and relatable about being working-class in Ireland in the 1980s (and working-class, young and unseen elsewhere). And key to it all was the music, man.
Jimmy Rabbitte isn’t so much the book’s protagonist as an inciting incident. “You’d never see Jimmy coming home from town without a new album or a 12-inch or at least a 7-inch single.” This is old money – vinyl records and cassette tapes – but the point is, Jimmy knows his stuff.
It’s why Outspan and Derek ask him to manage their band. And it’s how he brings together an eclectic bunch of musicians, unleashing the spirit of Dublin Soul.
In the end, personality, hormones and ambition knock the band off its wheels, but for a while, they’re electric. And all it takes is for them to embrace their Blackness. “Say it once, say it loud, I’m black an’ I’m proud,” Jimmy says.
Black pride is the spark that ignites a musical revolution from a garage in Dublin. There’s just one thing: every character in the book is white.
Being Black is a state of mind for the fictional band members of Roddy Doyle’s novel. It’s something they put on and take off, a mantra that helps navigate their own exclusion and deprivation. Ultimately, it’s an enabling concept through which they find a voice, for themselves and their audiences.
In these terms, surely borrowed Blackness is a positive thing? Well, it is and it isn’t – or at least, it reveals interesting things about how Black culture is interpreted, embraced and even exploited.
It can be uncomfortable looking back, especially when how we were no longer chimes with who we are or want to be, but a couple of questions can give us a steer:
As you might expect, then, this page unpacks notions of Blackness in Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Commitments. It doesn’t get into the 1991 film (which in any case differs slightly from the book).
Either way, there are spoilers, plus quotes and concepts that may be jarring to run into without warning if you’ve experienced racism (particularly as a person of colour).
Keep in mind, this textual and social analysis is just one way of responding to The Commitments, not the only way. I can’t cover all the nuances of race or the origins of music, but have included links to aid your research. In the end, as always, you should make up your own mind.
For Jimmy Rabbitte, music maven turned manager, “black and proud” is a rallying cry. It’s a way of introducing the band to good music – and the liberation of being your true self without shame.
When Jimmy plays James Brown for Deco and Outspan in his tiny bedroom, they bounce in time, they grin along, they sing it back. The music is transformative.
“—Wha’ did yis think o’ that?
—Play another one, said Outspan […]
He put on Night Train for them. It was even more brilliant than Sex Machine.”
Sold on the idea of making their own Dublin Soul (“Fuckin’ deadly”), the band leans into their brand new musical ‘roots’.
In 2003 film School of Rock, bogus teacher Dewey Finn doles out rock CDs to teach his class of pre-teens about ‘real’ music. In The Commitments: “Deco was on a strict soul diet: James Brown, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye.”
Jimmy has pianist James mimic Little Richard. The Commitmentettes listen to The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas.
Joey Fagan, who’s played with most of these musicians for real, turns teacher (both of music and Blackness, it must be said).
Being Black in this metaphorical sense is imitation as education. It inspires them, just as artists have always inspired teenagers and musicians around the world.
Inadvertently, though, the imitation mimics the unspoken and under-compensated exploitation of Black music that’s entwined with the industry. As Sarah Osei writes:
“music is indebted to black people. You cannot imagine modern music without its African influences. It just doesn’t exist.”
If the story’s comedy, at its simplest, lies in white folk calling themselves Black, well, it’s comes with an inconvenient truth bundled in.
Invoking Blackness as a stepping stone lends a second, ghost narrative to The Commitments.
The book is about young people striving for freedom amid crushing austerity, but their journey is also symbolic of the anti-Blackness in how we tell – and sell – music.
For the band, this is a gentle ignorance. Most of them know zip about music, let alone its history. Motown moves them; it touches their soul. On stage, little by little, they discover their authentic selves – through the words, music and posturing of Black heroes.
Back in the pub, the language is far more telling. Rock and Roll, Jimmy tells Derek and Outspan, is all about sex:
“Did yis know tha’? (They didn’t.) —Yeah, that’s wha’ the blackies in America used to call it.”
So there it is. James Brown is a god on vinyl … not so much in the pub.
Can we at least say this isn’t racist so much as a dialectal tic, language so commonplace as to be inoffensive? Perhaps. But it plugs into and reflects a social narrative of race so deep-rooted it’s easily overlooked and often excused … and is more, not less, destructive for its invisibility.
Then there’s the casual use of the n-word, a word that holds a history of bloodshed and hatred. There’s no ignorance of its implications when Jimmy, talking of Black Americans, says:
“They could chain the nigger slaves but they couldn’t chain their soul.”
Actually, there’s some complexity here because The Commitments see themselves in this kind of Blackness, too. Their Blackness – or at least, their selective use of it – speaks to the full spectrum of their lives, as an enslaved people with Soul.
Borrowed Blackness in The Commitments is a door that swings both ways. It’s funny, innocent – even joyous – but on inspection, reveals messier inner workings.
What it most encapsulates is alienation and hardship. Doyle talking to The Guardian about the book’s era says:
“Ireland was probably by a distance the poorest country in the EU … The unemployment rate in that part of Dublin where the fictional suburb is based was 40%.”
It’s a long way from contemporary Dublin, tech hub to Google, Facebook and Twitter. But if there’s affluence now, the austerity of the 80s was equally astonishing. In the UK, similarly, unemployment topped 3m, with seismic repercussions.
Arguably, the book’s characters struggle with this because of their whiteness as much because their circumstances are unfair. They translate it through Blackness because, in the white, western gaze, poverty, inequality and exclusion often are that experience.
Either way, it voices a sense of loss, and offers redemption in the culture of Black America, via slavery, invisibility and, ultimately, promised lands. Being ‘Black’ in 80s Dublin is a doorway to solidarity, hope – yes, and pride; it negates the loneliness of deprivation.
So it is that Jimmy declares:
“The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads.”
The lads gasp – not because they’re repulsed, but because it speaks to their experiences of exclusion. Yet even as band members claim kinship through Soul, racist tropes and language are ever-present.
Moreover, this borrowed identity implies Black European and Black and Irish are mutually exclusive; that without any ‘real’ Black people, the band can fill a vacancy. Northside / Barrytown of the 80s may have lacked diversity, but even Doyle recalls teaching Black kids (in The Guardian, as before).
Perhaps the rallying cry isn’t a two-way door so much as a double-edged sword.
If we’re talking complex cultural appropriation and adoration, let’s talk Joey Fagan.
Joey’s an extension of Jimmy – his future self come calling, if you like. Both men know music – they feel it. Jimmy gleans his smarts from tapes, radio, even his sister’s gal mag, Jackie. Joey has lived it for real, with album and stage credits to prove it.
If Jimmy has a nascent sense of what being Black means for young Dubliners – of what it could do for them – Joey knows what it means for Black people, too.
This, then, is the other side of their borrowed Blackness. It’s played for laughs, but coughs up a prescriptive dialogue about what being Black is, or should be.
Joey says drugs have no place in Soul … which is true only if we ‘white wash’ history – James Brown’s, too. And what is Soul? Ordinary music any Brother can play (the “Brothers” being The Commitments, mind. See also the appropriation implicit in “bro”).
Joey’s biggest regret is not being born Black. Yet this doesn’t stop him denying Blackness to Charlie Parker himself:
“Charlie Parker was born black. A beautiful, shiny, bluey sort of black. —And he could play. He could play alright. But he abused it, he spat on it. He turned his back on his people so he could entertain hip honky brats and intellectuals.”
This is Joey’s response to jazz, which is both fair enough and one hell of an overstep. By rejecting the boundaries of race, class and acceptable musicianship is Parker no longer Black enough?
Not for Joey, who declares Parker has no right to his black skin: “They should have burnt it off with a fucking blow lamp”.
Knowingly or not, that passionate declaration connects with the atrocities of lynching (warning: upsetting material). Hell, yeah, it’s problematic.
Irish immigrants in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s were no strangers to discrimination.
Whether the phrase “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish” was common is contested, but there doubtless were variations of it. One public awareness film of Britain’s Race Relations Act 1968 shows a card advertising a room for rent that clarifies: “No coloureds, no Irish, no children”.
This is not the beginning nor end of anti-Irish discrimination, which has long history, persists in parts of the UK, and is no more homogeneous than any other kind of national identity or racism.
In these terms, for The Commitments to recognise their lives as Black isn’t so strange after all. It speaks to a historic discrimination that would have loomed much larger for its characters at the time.
This isn’t to say the two are exactly the same; perhaps what connects them most is a deep-rooted invisibility of social Othering. But, as this detailed Reddit response summarizes, whiteness could evade some of the discrimination dealt out to Black and Asian immigrants.
It’s fitting, then, that the band can slip Blackness on and off like a coat, cloak or costume. They choose when to be Black, but are protected by whiteness from the racist words and tropes they themselves use. Ignorant of lynching, they can conjure its shadow without even knowing or fearing it.
Their imitation is flattery, funny and destructive, all at the same time. One doesn’t negate or trump the other; rather, each contributes to the novel’s complexity, interest and continued relevance.
We’re also talking about inspiration rather than bald appropriation or “black face”. The band inject their own lyrics and moves, crafting something that speaks to their experience rather than mere mimicry. What they create is as much Dublin Soul as Soul. Of course it is: they’re not actually Black, after all.
But, after cherry-picking the good (music, solidarity, revolution), they discard it when it’s no longer useful. It’s no little irony, though, that the country music Jimmy embraces instead also springs from Black America.
Or perhaps, like any teenage dream, it’s just one more transient identity, a brief spark of possibility before the realities of austerity or adulthood kick in.
More than anything, the presence, absence and echoes of race in the novel are a marker of where we were – and the messy inner workings we’ve inherited.
The Commitments (1987), by Roddy Doyle
Quoted edition published by Vintage, 1998
Picture credit: hosein zanbori