Black British music in the spotlight at new exhibition

Black British music in the spotlight at new exhibition

What do a champagne bottle signed by Stormzy, Beethoven’s tuning fork and a giant peacock in carnival costume have in common? They’re all currently on display in a unique exhibition at the British Library.

“Beyond the Bassline: 500 Years of Black British Music” is the first major exhibition to document the rich musical history of Britain’s African and Caribbean heritage communities.

Featuring immersive soundscapes and original, commissioned artwork, “Beyond the Bassline,” on view through August 24, is not a typical library exhibition.

It consists of five sections, beginning with “Ocean”, which explores the fraught colonial past of black British music, and ending with “Cyberspace”, which examines the contemporary impact of technology and the increasing mainstream popularity of black British artists.

In addition to historical artefacts such as the tuning fork given to black violinist George Bridgetower and the peacock costume of Leeds Carnival designer Hughbon Condor, each section will feature soundscapes, moving images and artistic collaborations with community organizations from across the UK.

“I like to think of it as a journey through time and space,” Aleema Gray, the exhibition’s chief curator, told AFP.

The primary target group is “young people, music fans and people from the African and Caribbean heritage community,” who historically have not always felt welcome within institutions like the British Library, she added.

“Part of the initiative was about breaking down those barriers,” she explains, noting the use of “we” and “our” in the text labels, which she hopes will give the feeling that they are “speaking to the visitors” as they move through the exhibition.

Gray was recruited specifically for the project, which was first envisioned by Grammy-winning musician and academic Mykaell Riley as a partnership between London’s University of Westminster and the library.

With more than six million recordings in its archives, the library has one of the largest sound collections in the world, making it a fitting location for an exhibition that focuses on both sound and image.

Compiling “Beyond the Bassline” consists of 300 objects and took more than a year. Gray described it as a kind of “marathon” with the aim of taking visitors on a journey through almost six centuries of music history.

– Community and inheritance –

Music as a means of community is an underlying theme in the exhibition, said Gray, who wanted to highlight regional stories and recognize London’s dominant position in the black music scene.

Contributions include a dance video shot by the group Jukebox Collective from Cardiff on the Welsh coast, and an elevated, church-like installation celebrating the influence of faith and religion on black British music.

The final installation is a stunning immersive short film, Iwoyi, created by Tayo Rapoport and Rohan Ayinde in collaboration with South London group Touching Bass.

Gray is overwhelmed by the public reception of the exhibition, especially by musicians and young people.

“I’ve seen so many musicians come here and say, ‘we’ve never been recognized (before),’” she said.

It was “one of the greatest achievements” of the exhibition to see how honored many felt to have their stories brought together in a place like the British Library.

Gray is already focused on efforts to strengthen the exhibition’s community legacy, including a book and events that will feature further collaborations with local artists.

“The exhibition is not just about the past and the present, it is about the future,” she said.