Les Back on Junior Murvin

police and thieves album coverPolice and Thieves as a Political Proverb: Junior Murvin’s Gift

On Monday 2nd December, 2013 the Jamaica Observer reported that roots reggae singer Junior Murvin had died at the Port Antonio Hospital in Portland.[1] He was 67 years old. Murvin’s 1976 hit Police and Thieves earned him international acclaim, a year later it was covered by The Clash on their eponymous debut album. The song is enduring precisely because it bore witness to the suffering caused when society turns on itself, when “all the peacemakers turn war officers.”  Four years later Police and Thieves achieved modest success in the UK Single charts reaching number 23 in 1980 and earning Junior Murvin a British TV appearance on Top of the Pops.

Watch his TOTP appearance here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9daUVmLzjw

He was born ‘Murvin Junior Smith’ in St James Parish, Jamaica, the exact date of birth is not known for certain but mostly likely it was in 1946.  After his father’s death he moved to the coastal town of Port Antonio where he lived with his great-grandmother, a deeply religious person.  Murvin found his voice in the Methodist church, although initially he was too shy to join the choir.  He sang as he pumped air into the church pipe organ every Sunday. As a boy it was the great voices of Black America that inspired him. He would sing renditions of Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole tunes for the entertainment of neighbours and family.

Junior Murvin styled his soaring falsetto after the great Chicago soul man Curtis Mayfield.  Murvin described the softly spoken radical as the “most influential roots singer.” On the surface this might appear an odd choice, given the association of ‘roots’ with reggae. Murvin explained in an interview in 2011 “roots that sing all different kind of music.” [2] Amongst the scattered troubadours of the African diaspora a conversation was going on across musical genres that retraced the legacy of Atlantic slavery and the injustices that the African people encountered in the New World from Chicago to Trench Town.

Long time reggae devotee John Pandit, aka Pandit G of Asian Dub Foundation, commented:  “Junior Murvin was one of the great roots reggae vocalists, influenced by Curtis Mayfield in both vocal style and lyrical content. Junior, like the pioneer Alton Ellis and his contemporary Cornel Campbell, used his clear melodic falsetto voice to reach out to people with songs of social protest.”[3]

Police and Theives was the clarion call but the road to writing it was a long one.  He learned to play the guitar bought for him by an aunt living in the US. He then travelled to Kingston where had a series of fruitless auditions including one with Lee “Scratch” Perry at the legendary Studio One label. He stayed with an aunt in Kingston and became part of the emerging music scene in Trench Town, a poor district in west Kingston.  Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, Ken Boothe and the Heptones were all emerging and defined what reggae music would eventually become. Murvin took the name Junior Soul and had some modest hits in Jamaica.

He was now writing songs that wove biblical references and dread maxims drawn of rastafari into his account of the turf wars and social upheaval in Trench Town.  Jamaica was being ravaged by an unprecedented period of economic and political strife.  The reforms promised by Michael Manley’s People’s National Party stalled under the economic crisis resulting from a weakened aluminum market, high inflation and a decline in private investment.

He returned to Lee Perry in May 1976 with a notebook full of songs.  By this point Perry had built his legendary Black Ark studio.  ‘Scratch’ heard something in Police and Thieves and, after adding lyrics of his own, arranged to record it with a group of crack session musicians who had been working in his studio. Drummer Sly Dunbar, bassist Boris Gardiner and guitarist Ernest Ranglin provided the rhythm.

All the sonic alchemy of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s production came together on the recording sessions.  The music made on these recording dates formed the basis of Junior Murvin’s debut album, also named Police and Thieves, which was released in April 1977, also including tunes like Rescue Jah Children and I Was Appointed. Taken together the album is a defining expression of dread aesthetics and political reggae.

Listen to the full album here:

John Pandit commented: “Tracks like Rescue Jah Children [a commentary on African liberation struggles in Rhodesia and Mozambique], Time Stiff and Bad Weed are incredible, not just for the lyrics, but the way his voice flies above the bass heavy rhythms yet remain integral to the music.”  Murvin’s voice and words soar above the rhythm section, which provides the foundational historical resonance while Perry’s cosmic sound effects seem to call to the future.

A State of Emergency was declared on June 19th 1976 in Jamaica and hundreds of people were detained and a special detention centre was created at Up-Park Camp military headquarters in Kingston to hold the people who had been accused of trying to overthrow the government.  In the frenzied political atmosphere Murvin’s new release Police and Thieves was banned by Jamaica’s two main radio stations – RJR Radio Jamaica and JBC Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation.

In London on August Bank Holiday 1976 Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves was played everywhere at The Notting Hill Carnival.  The music turned into a prophesy as violence broke out between groups of carnival goers and the police. The police tried to arrest a pickpocket near Portobello Road and several youths went to the aid of the thief.   Violent conflict escalated between black youths and their white associates and the police.  The subsequent investigation – costing a record £250,000 – led to the trial of 17 black youths who faced 79 charges.  Only two were convicted.

Murvin’s line “police and thieves in the street scaring the nation with their guns an ammunition” was now not a tune from ‘back home’ but felt like a news report from London.  It captured the way crime and race were being linked as a way of winning public consent and managing the economic and political crisis.   In the CCCS’s groundbreaking book The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain there is a chapter by Paul Gilroy entitled fittingly Police and Thieves. Gilroy wrote: “In this moment blacks have been identified as the ‘dangerous classes’ whose criminal culture erupts periodically, infecting the healthy Britishness of the working class communities they once invaded. The popular conceptions of their criminality embodied in the mugger, the Rasta and, latterly, the rioter have been defined and amplified by the police.  They ground common-sense knowledge alienness in authoritarian legality. The lesser breeds are once again outside the law.”[4]  Criminalising young black people in this way puts them at the centre of the struggle to maintain the moral consensus, as the ‘peacemakers’ become ‘war officers’ charged with the task of defending society as a whole.

A few years later John Solomos reflected: “common sense images of violence and disorder during the 1970s fed into policy debates about the growth of a ‘violent society’ and the need to respond to this trend with strengthening the police… dominant portrayals of the events located the riots as ‘mob violence’, ‘criminal greed’ or simply the outcome of the corrupting influence of growing street crime”.[5]   A key pattern was established that reduced youth street protest to crime and nothing more while sanctioning greater police powers.

In an interview with Angus Taylor on 20th October, 2011, Junior Murvin commented: “I wouldn’t even say Police and Thieves is a song. I would say it has moved from a song to a proverb. A proverb is greater than a song, I would put it that way.”[6] He said the words just a few weeks after another bout of rioting in British cities, precipitated by the killing of Mark Duggan, a young black man, by police in London.

On 6th August, 2012, Zara McFarlane – one of the brightest young stars of the British jazz scene – released a cover of Police and Thieves to celebrate Jamaica’s 50th Birthday as an independent state.

Watch the video for Zara Macfarlane’s cover here: http://vimeo.com/79289197

A year on from the 2011 riots her brooding rendition takes on a poignant quality; these events were not simply a replay of the unrest of 1976 or even the unrest of 1981. Karim Murji and Sarah Neal pointed out: “On one level, there was a process of deracialisation because of the ethnic compositions of the riots and the visible involvement of young white men. However, this deracialisation also had a spatial component in that riots happened in unracialised or only selectively racialised geographies (for example Gloucester, Enfield, Ealing)… On another level, and with some irony, the deracialisation of the riots reflected the unfamiliar and multicultural sub-narratives of the disorder in London and Birmingham.”[7]  The ‘thieves’ of today may not be racialised as crudely or as openly but the “authoritarian legality’ of today’s war officers is certainly alive and well.

In the aftermath of the 2011 riots there was well rehearsed disavowal that those events had anything to do with racism amongst the political class regardless of party.  At the same time hatreds that connect to the enduring legacy of racism were licensed.  The morally degenerate Chavs, the hooded strutting rioters pictured in front of burning cars, the out of control under-classes, the nihilistic ‘bad man’ gangsters became the targets. This hatred is not marked linguistically in racial terms but it is shown everywhere visually and symbolically through a cast of racialised and classed characters. It is not spoken or say-able in public but it is displayed and circulated on every aspect of the mainstream media.  This poses a serious challenge because we are faced with a form of racism that disavows that it is racism at all, that knows it cannot speak in openly racist terms.

Police and Thieves remains relevant because it shows that the encounter between police and criminals in the street is deeply implicated in maintaining a damaged social order.  The majority can take pleasure in hating the rioters and criminals, a form of fearful compensation for their consent to live in a divided society.  Proverbs are wise maxims bearing on the conduct of life. Questioning who stands to benefit from the spectacle of police and thieves confronting each other in the street is Junior Murvin’s enduring gift to us.


Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London


Special thanks to John Pandit for sharing his insights. 

[1] ‘Junior ‘Police and Theives’ Murvin Dies at 67’ Jamaica Observer http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Junior–Police-and-Thieves–Murvin-dies-at-67

[2] ‘Interview: Junior Murvin’ by Angus Taylor on Thursday, October 20, 2011


[3] Email correspondence 20th December, 2013.

[4] Paul Gilroy, ‘Police and Thieves’ in CCCS The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain (Hutchinson, 1982) pp 173-4.

[5] John Solomos, Riot, Urban Protest and Social Policy: The Interplay of Reform and Social Control, Papers in Ethnic Relations No7 (CRER University of Warwick, 1986) p. 9

[6] ‘Interview: Junior Murvin’ by Angus Taylor on Thursday, October 20, 2011


[7] Karim Murji and Sarah Neal ‘Riot: Race and Politics in the 2011 Disorders’, Sociological Research Online, 16 (4) 24 <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/16/4/24.html> see 2.8

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