Black Music Doesn’t Thrive In Today’s Britain Without The Diaspora’s Movement

Words: Jesse Bernard

The talking drum is the well from which all Black music has sprung over the past century, going back even further than that. Black music, as we know it, doesn’t exist without the talking drum. As it made its way across the Atlantic throughout the centuries since The Middle Passage, enduring the violence and brutality Black people were subjected to, the talking drum sprouted seeds across the diaspora from South America, the Caribbean, North America and Western Europe.

The discussions surrounding the origins of particular Black sounds, mostly around drill, grime, dancehall and Afrobeats, are often limited as we try to compact and compartmentalise them based on geographic borders. Music doesn’t move in this way; it’s more akin to the cycle of the earth orbiting the sun. Sounds are often seasonal but eventually, they come back around.

It’s the movement of Black people in, to and from Britain that really tells us the story of how these sounds form and develop. One family leaves Jamaica and arrives in London but perhaps their relatives decide to settle in New York or Toronto, and as one family unit disperses across the globe, so does that culture. In The Bronx, New York City in the late 1970s, hip-hop was created by a Jamaican DJ who employed toasting techniques with this new breakbeat. Across the pond, some 10-15 years later, Jamaican DJs would employ similar techniques but marry them with electronic sounds and faster tempos, which would later become jungle, UK garage and grime.

Imagining Black music, and by extension ourselves, outside the walls and structures of the industry not only expands our understanding of the way, but it also highlights the limits of genres and boundaries. It’s very common to come across artists who feel as though their music can’t be boxed because that’s not how they see it in their vision. J Hus, for example, on any given track can journey through a myriad of sounds of which the vessel is rap. Chanté Joseph writes about the social and cultural conditions in which an artist such as J Hus would be born, recognising that the playground experiences and the melting pot of cultures of African and West Indian children born in the UK have essentially created the musical landscape that now exists in pop.

In Terraformed, the author Joy White points to the colonial past of the Royal Docks in Newham—as goods were brought in from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean—in relation to the borough being one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the UK, as well as being the site from which grime would eventually become the country’s most influential cultural export. Seeing music in a way that removes any geographical anchors within the diaspora also acknowledges the migration patterns of Black music that have existed particularly in the past thirty years, where the internet has played a vital role in which sounds travel across the Atlantic.

The internet, in some ways, has removed many of those geographical and cultural barriers that would limit the exposure an artist in the UK would have to music from across the diaspora. J Hus doesn’t become the musical lovechild of Sneakbo and 50 Cent without an early childhood exposure to Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and adolescent years listening to Jetski Wave. He’s representative of the many different cultures young people have been exposed to from growing up on the World Wide Web.

The same can be said for drill: essentially a US export, in the space of five years the UK has imported the sound, reproduced and repackaged it then exported it back to its country of origin through artists like Pop Smoke. Early UK pioneers are considered to be Smoke Boys (fka Section Boyz), 67 and Headie One, but drill has been able to thrive and establish a footing in a space grime once dominated through the exportation of the sound to Brazil, Australia, South Korea and North America. Drake often gets depicted as this cartoon-like villain, whose sole mission is to obtain and absorb every popular Black sound until he goes full Thanos mode and destroys the music industry. But while he does that, it also highlights the complex nature of how Black music within the structure of Western pop can muddy the waters of origin due to the element of appropriation that exists in mainstream music.

More contemporary sounds, such as the match-made blend of Afrobeats and dancehall, has led to an emergence of a trend now considered popular. While these chart-topping artists such as Not3s, Young T & Bugsey, NSG and more signify to the wider public and world that Britain is now culturally diverse, the growing socioeconomic inequality where many young children are still dependent on free school suggests that this idea of success is still only afforded to a select few.The sounds that have emerged in Britain over the past decade belong to those children just as much as it belongs to those inspired to create. They may not be able to lay any economic claim to it but, socially and culturally, it’s as much theirs as it is those who create it since these stories all emerge from local environments, often neglected and ignored by the state.

It could then be argued that the success of certain genres (while others like drill remain under heavy scrutiny, policing and surveillance) feeds into the wider image of Britain portrayed to the world. If only some Black sounds in Britain are considered marketable, despite drill proving to be culturally and socially influential, it suggests that while in this age of self-starting and DIY success, this visibility doesn’t necessarily mean that success trickles down locally.

As Kevin Quashie writes in The Sovereignty of Quiet: “This is the politics of representation, where Black subjectivity exists for its social and political meaningfulness rather than as a marker of the human individuality of the person who is Black.” It’s often how we recognise the humanity and individuality of the artists we know and admire, particularly when they share stories of struggle and recovering from violence, but can ignore the daily realities very similar to these stories that exist in our communities. While this period of cultural expansion within Black music has been considered historic, it’s important to recognise that for daily Black life in Britain, those DIY success stories are still few and far between.

When Black people began to migrate from Africa and the Caribbean, families divided and went their separate ways across the Atlantic, some landing in the US, others in the UK, and many of us have relatives spread across the world who sought promised opportunities. Within these families, music and other aspects of our lives are shared and, of course, in the past decade, social media has made it much easier for cultures to interact. Our language has now been influenced by American slang, pidgin and patois because of that exposure. As the lineage of Black music across the Atlantic can be traced through migration patterns, observing them at a personal level allows us to see our sounds in that same way.

Few sounds of this island are really of this island alone, when the people who created them come from all over. As Paul Gilroy writes in Small Acts: “The idea of the Black community necessarily expresses something more than just the physical concentration of black people,” and it’s one of the reasons why Black music has been able to permeate borders in ways its creators have not. Britain’s cultural project has been a peculiar one. For now, it seems that while Black-led sounds are proving to be influential both locally and globally, Black music doesn’t arrive and survive in Britain without the movement of Black people across the diaspora.

Posted on September 24, 2020