Was it right that Penny was met with blank rejection?
Richard Rieser reveals the struggles that Penny Pepper, a former long-time resident of Upper Street, encountered as a wheelchair user in the music world
16 November, 2018 — By Richard Rieser
Penny Pepper: ‘As a wheelchair user she was not able to promote her work easily’
PENNY Pepper, a former long-time resident of Upper Street, is a disability activist, writer, poet and musician. In her excellent new book, First in the World Somewhere, she recounts her struggles for identity and trying to live her life.
Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, she was often defined by her juvenile arthritis, with an oppressive health and social care system separating her from her peers. Young Penny adopted the stage name Kata Kolbert, wrote many songs and self-funded her first single, Live Your Life, hoping to break into the post-punk world.
Pop in the late 70s and 80s included disabled men who struggled for access and recognition. Male performers Ian Dury (polio), Johnny Rotten (scoliosis), Ian Curtis (epilepsy) and Robert Wyatt (spinal injury) did make it. Penny as a female wheelchair user was not able to promote her work easily in the music industry.
Her wheelchair was not sexy. Her demo tape was met with blank rejection because she was disabled.
Not to be put off, Penny and friends laboured over several years to produce an LP, Spiral Sky (1994), where eight numbers were written and sung by Penny. Performed at Disability Movement gigs, this music proved very popular, but the same prejudice continued in the mainstream.
This LP featured at the top of the Greek charts for a week in 1994 and popular track Marriage of Convenience can be found on YouTube.
Penny will be speaking at the Royal Albert Hall on December 17 as part of a spoken word event organised by For Books’ Sake.
Today, some of the barriers that Penny faces are less common in the music industry. Organisations such as Drake Music, HeartnSoul and Unbound support and encourage disabled people who want to be musicians.
Musicians such as Stevie Wonder (blind), violinist Itzhak Perlman (polio), percussionist Evelyn Glennie (deaf), Susan Boyle (learning difficulties) and opera singers Andrea Bocelli (blind) and Thomas Quasthoff (thalidomide survivor), among many others, have made it to the top of their profession.
But all of them recount the extra barriers they have faced because they are disabled. Many classical composers were disabled, Beethoven (deaf), Delius (blind), Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Rossini (depression), Berlioz (bi-polar) and Mozart (autistic spectrum).
Disabled young people should learn from this that they can be musicians. The non-disabled majority should reassess what is “normal”, confining such double standards to the dustbin of history.
UK Disability History Month is an opportunity to explore the links between the experience of disablement in a world where barriers faced by people with impairments can be overwhelming. But creative impulses, urge for self-expression and the need to connect to our fellow human beings often trump the oppression we as disabled people have faced, do face and will face in the future.
• Disability History Month is in its ninth year and this year’s theme is Disability and Music. I set up the month in my kitchen in Mildmay and we aim to celebrate the lives of disabled people now and in the past. We want to challenge prejudice against disabled people because we have a physical or mental impairment and to learn what disabled people need to achieve full equality. Go to our website at www.ukdhm.org to read our broadsheet and to find more information about the events we support.
• Richard Rieser is co-ordinator of UK Disability History Month, and manages charity World of Inclusion in Mildmay, N1.