On a Saturday morning two and a half years ago, Saffiyah Khan put on a T-shirt that would change her life.
A bunch of fascists belonging to the English Defence League (EDL) held a demonstration in the centre of Birmingham, one of the United Kingdom’s most ethnically diverse cities, on 8 April 2017. The 20-year-old Khan intervened to defend a woman in a blue hijab, Saira Zafar, at a counter-demonstration in front of the city library. Far-right EDL members had cornered her and were shouting abuse as they closed in on her.
Zafar told The Guardian newspaper after the incident: “They were saying ‘You’re not English’, ‘This is a Christian country, not your country’ and ‘Go back to where you came from’. I was alarmed and worried for my safety.”
Khan, who is a Brummie of Pakistani and Bosnian descent, stepped in because the police were not responding: “I wasn’t going to let someone who was speaking the truth and being replied to aggressively be put in that position.”
A photograph of a slightly bemused Khan, serenely staring down the ranting EDL leader, Ian Crossland, went viral. In the picture, a police officer is holding Crossland back. With his unshaven chin jutting out, the right-winger appears to be radiating rage. In contrast, Khan, hands in jacket pockets, seems calm and nonchalant as she gazes down at the shorter man.
Crossland later described Khan on Facebook as a “dirty unwashed left-wing scrubber … She’s lucky she’s got any teeth left.”
The Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore commented on what made the picture so potent. “Female insouciance against fascism takes a special bravery. It signals to us that we all might be braver, that we can stand up and fight, that men who cannot tolerate difference cannot tolerate being laughed at either.”
There were additional pictures of the police taking Khan away. She was still smiling and the black T-shirt she had on under her denim jacket could be seen, bearing the name of veteran British ska band The Specials.
Unity through music
The Specials were an outspokenly left-wing band in the late 1970s and early 1980s, signed to the influential 2 Tone Records label. “The Specials sought to unite black and white kids through music,” wrote Kenneth Partridge in Billboard magazine. “The septet featured a nattily dressed multiracial line-up and raucous sound built from English punk rock and Jamaican ska.”
Their best-known song, Ghost Town, which reached No. 1 in 1981, was aptly described in a recent New Musical Express article as “a state-of-the-nation song about Thatcher’s Britain that could equally be written about the urban decay and disenfranchisement that fostered Brexit”.
The highly revered band has recently reformed after almost four decades apart, after they split in 1981.
Khan discovered The Specials on the internet as a teenager. Her dad had grown up with their music in the 1980s. It was the band’s politics that attracted them both.
“The Specials, for me, reignited the idea of honour and unity being intrinsic to all anti-racist struggles,” Khan told Billboard. “They are living proof that such politics will stand the test of time and transcend religions and colours.”
The Specials saw the photograph of Khan and Crossland and, within hours, rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding had contacted Khan and offered her tickets to a show.
“My family loved it, and my dad teared up when we went to meet them after,” she said. “Lynval did a little shout out for me during the set. My family, being as unhip as possible, did all the pointing and the waving, at which point I pretended I didn’t know them.”
Meeting Khan made a big impression on Golding. “She was thanking us for inspiring her, and I was like, ‘Thank you for inspiring us,’” he told Billboard. “We got the band together 40 years ago, and that means a lot: It wasn’t wasted time. The Specials’ music literally touched a young 20-year-old girl. This is what it’s all about.”
But it gets even better.
A music makeover
For their new album, Encore, The Specials decided to do a makeover of the ska classic Ten Commandments of Man. It was a massive hit in 1965 for a forefather of ska music, Prince Buster. But as bass player and founding member of The Specials Horace Panter told the BBC, the song “has not travelled very well, and from listening to it again it felt important to do a contemporary version”.
Sexist lyrics made changes to the song essential. For example: “Two, thou shall not encourage no man to make love to you… For I am your man, a very jealous man. And is ready to lay low any other man that may intrude in our love.” Or, worse: “Thou shalt not drink nor smoke. Or use profane language” and “Thou shalt not provoke me to anger. Or my wrath will descend upon you heavily”.
But Panter said the problem was that “our attempts ended up sounding like comedy versions of the song”. So, a few months after the concert that Khan and her family attended, singer Terry Hall asked her to do a personal riposte of the song.
Now called 10 Commandments, it is one of three spoken-word songs on Encore, which was released to critical acclaim earlier this year.
The commandments of I, Saffiyah Khan
Thou shall not listen to Prince Buster
Or any other man offering kindly advice
In matters of my own conduct
You may call me a feminazi or a femoid
And then see if I give a stinking shit
The later commandments according to Khan include a strong response to victim blaming:
Thou shall not tell a girl she deserved it
Because her skirt was too short
She walked home, streets lights illuminating her as a target
But she started it, because she looked at him
And he finished it ‘cause he wanted to
And they’ll bring out her skirt as “exhibit A” before the judge
And she should have the right to say
“Thou shall not tell me what to wear
Nor how to wear it”
After just one concert with them at the 100 Club in London, The Specials invited Khan to perform on their expansive, sold-out tour of the United States, Europe and the UK. The tour began in April and continues into November.
And it all started with a T-shirt.