Poster for Bass Culture exhibition
The long journey of mapping black British music
Mykaell Riley has spent his academic life mapping Black British music, working to define and explore its historical and cultural significance, for past, present and future generations.
As senior lecturer and principal investigator for Bass Culture Research at the University of Westminster, Riley has worked tirelessly in response to the disengagement and lack of education surrounding the heritage of Jamaican and Jamaican-influenced music in Britain over the last six decades, producing the first major study of the history and impact of Jamaican influenced music in the UK.
Locating, capturing and preserving memories, experiences and ephemera from three generations of musicians, music industry participants, and audience members, the work focused on London’s black community and the overlooked impact of their contributions to British popular music and, more broadly, to the British way of life.
Now, through his role as director of the Black Music Research Unit (BMRU), Riley is partnering with the British Library to expand his work and the unit into a national archive, to engage with the music industry and broader public in a national conversation on black British identity through the medium of music, culminating in a ground-breaking exhibition in collaboration with the National Sound Archive.
Here, he tells MAG about uncovering overlooked narratives, the importance of accessible data and rethinking Black music contributions to British history, culture and popular music in light of this new collaboration.
“Having been in academia for 10-15 years, it was apparent that Black British Music as a subject wasn’t recognised in an academic sense; in fact, I remember being told my expertise was irrelevant and unnecessary! Another issue was that no one knew where the supporting artefacts were. Even in a museum context, they didn’t really know! People would cite content they thought existed, but each time a small exhibition or event occurred, there seemed to be no legacy or accounting of these processes. On that basis, I knew we needed an actual space to collate the information and material, and a hub to share it all. So, in 2006, I set about creating the Black Music Research Unit (BMRU) to explore the impact of Jamaican and Jamaican-influenced Music on British culture.
To apply for research funding, the BMRU had to be located and developed within academia, with research as a central focus. I spent the next eight years applying for research funding, which was quite a battle. On average large funding bids took two and a half years to develop and submit! The fundamental problem was the organisations I was applying to such as the Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund didn’t fund academic research. Hence in a last-ditch attempt, I applied to the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and lo and behold, they came back with an offer! It was three times less than the budget established by the previous bids but the most significant research awards in the subject area.”
Bass Culture exhibition at P3. University of Westminster. Photo courtesy of Adrian Boot
I set about locating and capturing memories, experiences and ephemera from three generations of musicians, music industry participants and audience members focussing mainly on London’s black community. The public-facing part of the project was a month-long exhibition held at the University of Westminster in a space called P3, the largest basement in central London measuring 14,000 square feet. We created a programme of concerts, talks, fashion shows and raves during the exhibition, attracting over 5,000 people. Other spin-offs included a full-length film, seventy long-form filmed interviews, a short animation and a podcast series on the history of the Jamaican sound system culture in Britain.
In terms of a physical archive, from the very beginning, we were offered artifacts ranging from collections of hip hop records to 70s gig flyers and posters. With all the costs of insurance, space and upkeep, the BMRU couldn’t house it all. So, we adopted the role of a through-port, channeling information to the most suitable organisations. We now have links to the Museum of London, the British Library and National Sound Archive, the V&A and the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) in order to keep a record of what goes where, so we can access it in the future.
In the first week, our queue rivalled Madame Tussauds, opposite our Marylebone campus, so much so that people started crossing the street to our venue thinking they were in the wrong queue!
This new exciting phase is now working towards a national exhibition on Black British Music, in partnership with the British Library and the National Sound Archive in 2024.
In contrast to our Bass Culture project that focused mainly on London, we will cover the whole country, mapping regional stories to create a national conversation. Oral histories will be a vital part of the project as they represent the community memory and reflect the community experience. Our podcast series was mentioned in the Guardian because they saw how these oral histories become such an essential resource within the subject area.
The legacy of this new exhibition will be an incredible resource that represents the national history of the subject, allowing us, in turn, to challenge the National Curriculum. By partnering with the British Library, we will effectively have a national reach, as anything published will be shared with their network of over 600 affiliated organisations and libraries across the country. The material will eventually be held in various partner organisations depending on the suitability of specific content within their institution.
The other component of the project is our international partners. Historically there is no such thing as Black British Music for many Americans. Most are unaware of Black British Music or that on occasions it predates theirs! A longer-term aim is to have international students studying Black British music within the British Library, one of the most extensive resources for music research in the world!’
The research for this new exhibition project will start with the contract given to John Blanke, the African trumpeter in the royal courts of Henry VIII, as he represents the first African musician to extract a written agreement for his services. We know very little about him, which is not dissimilar to many Black musicians in Britain five centuries later. Even if you achieve prominence, in most instances, you’ll disappear because you’re not accounted for in history books! As such, I’m currently tracking down researchers of any period to identify black British musicians and their contribution.
We have increasing support from the music industry who are leading on EDI (Ethnicity, Diversity, and Inclusion). Although there are historical implications, this is positive as we work towards collaborating on events over the next three years. I should also mention we’ll be putting out a call for papers—anyone who has a unique story about black British Music get in touch. You don’t have to be doing a PhD!
Discover black British music with Mykaell Riley’s playlist, exclusively curated for MAG Beyond The Music
SHOUT OUT : If you have any photographs, clothes/costumes, film or memorabilia that represent British music culture or would like to discuss submitting a paper for the project please get in touch with Mykaell on M.S.Riley@westminster.ac.uk, or go to the Black Music Research Website here.