Barnes and Mullins

Barnes and Mullins

Beyond the Bassline: 500 Years of Black British Music opens at the British Library

Opening at the British Library tomorrow, Beyond the Bassline (running until 26 August 2024) is the first major exhibition to document the 500-year musical journey of African and Caribbean people in Britain.  

 The British Library is home to one of the largest collections of sound recordings in the world and Beyond the Bassline explores the people, spaces and genres that have transformed the landscape of British music. It celebrates music as a form of entertainment and vehicle for community, as well as a source of liberation, protest and education.  

 Encompassing more than 200 exhibits, many going on public display for the first time, highlights include:  

  • Handwritten accounts from 1512 listing the materials for the wedding outfit of John Blanke, the earliest recorded musician of African descent in Britain – a gift from King Henry VIII 
  • The Peacock, the 2019 winning Carnival Queen costume measuring over 4m high and wide, on loan from Hughbon Condor, High Esteem Carnival Designs, Leeds 
  • Leading jazz musician Coleridge Goode’s diary from 1958 with notes on his performances 
  • The video camera used by Jamal Edwards, who at the age of 16 founded SB.TV, the first YouTube channel dedicated to Black British music, on loan from the Jamal Edwards Self Belief Trust 
  • A jacket custom made for Skin, lead vocalist of Skunk Anansie, who challenged the music industry’s perception of a female artist with her bold, androgynous style 
  • Stormzy’s signed set list for his iconic Glastonbury performance in 2019 and the bottle of champagne he toasted with to celebrate being the first solo Black British musician to headline the festival, on loan from 0207 Def Jam 
  • Trilby, shirt and scarf from Pauline Black, lead singer of Two-Tone band The Selecter 
  • Dennis Bovell’s 1970s Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, which was pivotal in his band Matumbi’s sound, and played on lovers’ rock anthem, Silly Games by Janet Kay 
  • The double bass Gary Crosby learned to play on and has played with bands the Jazz Warriors and Jazz Jamaica 

 Beyond the Bassline is divided into different spaces that form a loose chronology of 500 years of Black music in Britain, from The Ocean (1500s-1870s) through to On Stage (1880s-1960s), The Frontlines (1950s-1980s), In the Record Shop (1960s-1980s) and Cyberspace (1990s-2020s). Each section is “interrupted” by new soundscapes, artworks and films created by artists and community collectives from around the UK.  

  Foregrounding voices from Cardiff, Birmingham, London and Leeds, the new “interruptions” comprise: 

  • A short film by Jukebox Collective from Cardiff that captures the vast histories of Black communities in Wales, with themes of migration, identity and movement relating to the ocean, explored through the medium of dance 
  • A textile and poetic composition exploring the legacy of frontline protest music and resistance within the African Caribbean community of Leeds following a series of workshops guided by literary activist, theatre maker and published writer Khadijah Ibrahiim and visual artist Marcia Brown 
  • Mosaics honouring Rastafari culture created by charitable enterprise and network Rastafari Movement UK Wellbeing from London with an accompanying sound piece arranged by musician Roots Hitek and gospel artist Renée Landell  
  • A film made in collaboration with Roundhouse Young Filmmakers from London exploring the do-it-yourself spirit within Black British music directed by Hannah Oliver and Yvonne Shelling and a bespoke sound system made by audio builder Friendly Pressure  

  The exhibition culminates with iwoyi: within the echo (2024), a new, five-channel 16-minute film and sound installation exploring the Black radical imagination and the potential of Black British music to manifest reparative futures. Directed and created by Tayo Rapoport and Rohan Ayinde in collaboration with Errol and Alex Rita’s Touching Bass, the film is produced by NOIR and has an original score made by Melo-Zed.

Dr Aleema Gray, lead curator of Beyond the Bassline at the British Library, said: ‘The exhibition represents a timely opportunity to broaden our understanding of Black British music and situate it within a historical conversation. It brings together the people, places and moments that have formed part of the British soundtrack and an expansive cultural industry that transformed Britain. It’s the continuation of an important conversation about African and Caribbean musical heritage in Britain. We want to take visitors on a musical journey through time and space to explore and appreciate a wider history of African and Caribbean presence, culture and creativity in the UK.’

Associate Professor Mykaell Riley, a founder member of the British roots reggae band Steel Pulse, Director of The Black Music Research Unit at the University of Westminster and guest curator of Beyond the Bassline, said: ‘The music celebrated in this exhibition is more than a collection of sounds. It is a living history, echoing through the centuries. It is an ode to the spirit of community and the radical force of alternative Black British music genres such as jungle, drum and bass, grime and Afrobeats. We hope the exhibition electrifies, provokes, and, most importantly, energises and inspires continued exploration into this essential facet of British cultural heritage.’

 Beyond the Bassline at the British Library is a partnership with the Black Music Research Unit, part of the University of Westminster’s Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media. The exhibition has been curated by Dr Aleema Gray at the British Library in collaboration with Mykaell Riley at the University of Westminster and follows a three-year partnership to research, foreground and reposition six centuries of African musical contributions to the UK.  

 There will be Beyond the Bassline panel displays and events at over 30 local libraries across the UK, arranged through the Living Knowledge Network, with each library’s collection, regional connections and local music scene at the core, to help tell a national story about Black music in Britain.  

 Liz Johnson Artur – Black Balloon Archive display (until 1 September 2024) 

A selection of works from photographer Liz Johnson Artur’s Black Balloon Archive, which is described as an ode to the everyday practices of living in the African diaspora, are on display in the free Entrance Hall Gallery until 1 September 2024. Johnson Artur has personally selected 11 works to explore representations of pleasure, intimacy, beauty and love. 

 Season of events  

The exhibition is accompanied by a season of in-person and online events, including: 

  • Live performances by Soul II Soul (10 May) and Ezra Collective (11 May) 
  • In conversation events with Eddy Grant (26 April), George the Poet (31 May), Joan Armatrading (18 June) and Pauline Black, Andi Oliver and Olivia Dean hosted by Miquita Oliver (13 June) 
  • Guvna B, Ray Paul, Lisa Maffia, Seani B and Jonzi D discussing their journeys as music entrepreneurs (7 May)  
  • Club takeovers by No Signal (5 July), Queer Bruk (21 June) and Touching Bass (12 July) with Jamz Supernova and DJ Paulette (3 May) and Girls Can’t DJ (17 May)  
  • Decus Ensemble and Le Gateau Chocolat celebrating late 18th to early 20th century Black British composers (24 June), a performance by Michael Ohajuru of the John Blanke Project (4 June) and Reginald Mobley singing Ignatius Sancho (5 June)  
  • DJ Flight, DJ Krust and ‘Thee Junglist Historian’ Julia Toppin discussing the story of Jungle (27 June), MC Bushkin, Spoony, Kele Le Roc, Zed Bias and Megaman celebrating 30 years of UK Garage (16 July) and Seani B hosting Trailblazers of Reggae with Daddy Ernie, Lady V (V Rocket International), Mad Professor and Carroll Thompson (2 June)  
  • D Double E presenting Rhyme-Antics with Deyah, Isatta Sheriff, JayaHadADream, Speech Debelle, TrueMendous and Wish Master, supported by G-SHOCK (23 May)  
  • A tribute to Sonny Roberts, the pioneer studio and record label owner and producer, with his daughter Cleon Roberts in conversation with Linett Kamala (2 June) and Eddie Kadi discussing his personal musical journey (11 July) 

 Beyond the Bassline: 500 Years of Black British Music edited by Paul Bradshaw 

Published alongside the exhibition, Beyond the Bassline: 500 Years of Black British Music is a volume of essays, features and interviews with more than three hundred images of photographs, paintings, posters and record sleeves.  

 Edited by music journalist and publisher of Straight No Chaser magazine, Paul Bradshaw, with introductions by Dr Aleema Gray and Mykaell Riley, Beyond the Bassline features specially commissioned pieces from musicians, composers, DJs, writers and photographers, as well as important voices in politics and history.  

 Authors and contributors include Tej Adeleye, Christian Adofo, Ishmahil Blagrove Jr., Stephen Bourne, Garth Cartwright, Monique Charles, Dalia Al-Dujaili, Tracy Durrant, Juliet Fletcher, Vivien Goldman, Julian Grant, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Anthony Joseph, Julian Joseph, Cassie Kinoshi, Kevin Le Gendre, Charis McGowan, Rasheda Ashanti Malcolm,  Tony Montague, Malik Al Nasir, Sharon O’Brien, Michael I. Ohajuru, Lisa Amanda Palmer, Amar Patel, Ade Egun Crispin Robinson, Angus Taylor, Chardine Taylor-Stone, Andy Thomas, Julia Toppin, Ayanna van der Maten McCalman, Derek Walcott, Richard Williams,  Val Wilmer, Anthony Wright and Benjamin Zephaniah. 

Resources for learners of all ages 

A range of creative workshops, interactive tours and self-guided visits aimed at primary and secondary schools accompanies the exhibition, and there will be a free livestreamed event (1 July) for secondary school students with writer, teacher and broadcaster Jeffrey Boakye discussing the lives and songs of pioneering musicians to tell a wider story of the Black presence in Britain. 

There will be a series of accessible tours and relaxed openings, and a family takeover day marking international Make Music Day on 21 June, with workshops aimed at young children and families. 

Beyond the Bassline tickets ( range from £10-£15 with free tickets for children under 11 and other concessions available. There are Pay What You Can days on the first Wednesday of every month.   

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