By Yuri Prasad
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Beyond the Bassline exhibition reveals centuries of sound created in black Britain

New British Library exhibition details 500 years of black British music is vital but some genres are better treated than others
Issue 2905
THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH’S portrait of Charles Ignatius Sancho, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in his south London home

Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Charles Ignatius Sancho, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in his south London home

 
Too many histories of black Britain start with the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in 1948. Yet black people had been here for hundreds of years before then.
 
So it’s good that the British Library’s new exhibition Beyond The Bassline is true to its tagline—“500 years of black British music”.
 
The exhibition explores music made by black people in the context of the societies they lived in. And to do so, it must tell a story of how concepts of blackness developed, and how in turn they also changed Britain.
 
The exhibition takes us from the few known black musical figures of the 17th century through to the eras of classical, jazz, reggae, hip hop and grime. That’s a massive historical sweep, and inevitably some genres come out of it better than others.
 
Perhaps the most interesting perspectives come from looking at the earliest black British music. These are far less chronicled and, unlike many contemporary genres, have not already had major exhibitions.
 
During the more than 200 years of the transatlantic slave trade, black people that found their way to Britain, rather than its hateful colonial plantations, could not legally be enslaved.
 
Black musicians here plied their trade in both the streets and in the most respected courts in the land.  Among them was Charles Ignatius Sancho—an abolitionist who had himself been enslaved by the Spanish. 
 
Sancho was a writer and composer—and the first African to publish music in the Western classical style. He came to be seen as a man of refinement and Thomas Gainsborough was commissioned to paint his portrait. All the while the rich, who so enjoyed Sancho’s compositions, were making their fortunes through the barbaric trade in black flesh.
 
After Britain was forced to give up the trade there was a period in which abolitionist artists, poets and musicians became popular.
 
One of them was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose father was from Sierra Leone, and was perhaps the greatest ever British composer and conductor.
 
At the turn of the 19th century, the south Londoner’s works were performed in the greatest music venues in both Britain and the United States.
 
But just how closely were his esteemed audiences listening? His first published poem celebrated half a century of Liberian independence from the US. It contained the lines, “Beloved Liberians! Now from Bondage free/May ‘God our Strength’ your Motto and your hope for ever be!”

His outstanding trilogy, The Song of Hiawatha, are compositions based on poems about a Native American hero called Hiawatha and his love for Minnehaha. This humanising tale of Native Americans stands in stark contrast to the prejudice embodied in the US state. It is easy to see Coleridge-Taylor’s motivation for putting it to music.

Despite this implicit criticism, Coleridge-Taylor was invited to perform before US president Theodore Roosevelt at the White House.
The exhibition continues to the Jazz Age, starting in the 1920s and continuing into the 1950s. 

It details the backroom and basement clubs in which black musicians played and danced alongside mixed race audiences. It’s no accident that these jazz boltholes were also a refuge for people whose sexuality was still illicit.

And it was here that musical anti-racism found its home. It’s a pity that Beyond The Bassline doesn’t spend more time discussing this vital period. Readers wanting more should try Rick Blackman’s book, Babylon’s Burning

The advent of radio, and the growing popularity of records, was to create another dimension for blackness—black British jazz singers where now regularly to be found in white people’s living rooms.

In the 1950s from Cardiff’s Tiger Bay came Shirley Bassey. She was joined by others, including Cleo Laine, from west London’s Southall.
 
Some of the best-known voices in Britain now belonged to black people that had been born here, and at a time when mass immigration from Asia and the Caribbean was beginning.
 
The music industry couldn’t simply present Bassey and Laine as racial “curiosities”. Instead, it tried to homogenise them and rob them of their blackness.
 
So, the musical story of what came before Windrush makes for a vital exhibition. And documenting the genres that came afterwards takes us further into the realm of resistance.
 
It’s brilliant that finally there is recognition of the centuries of sound created in black Britain. But we now need something bigger and more permanent—something that will send echoes to the next generation.

  • For Beyond the Bassline tickets—£15 for adults and £10 for children—go to tinyurl.com/BritLib0524
  • Panel displays from the exhibition will be on show at libraries across Britain until 25 August.
  • Read more on the history of Black British music in Babylon’s Burning by Rick Blackman, £10 from Bookmarks Bookshop 020 7637 1848.

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