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Olivia Stock
28 February 2024, 12:24

500 years of Black music in Britain explored in new London exhibition

Opening this spring, the Beyond The Bassline exhibition will explore the people, spaces and genres that have defined the landscape of Black British music

Photo of three people sitting next to wall of sound systems at Notting Hill carnival
Credit: Adrian Boot

A new major exhibition documenting 500 years of Black music in Britain is opening at the British Library.

Running from 26th April to 26th August, Beyond the Bassline will chart the influence of Black British musicians, creatives and entrepreneurs in popular music since the 16th-century. The immersive exhibition will feature over 200 artefacts that span across five centuries, along with live performances, interactive displays, and archival footage traversing musical genres from classical, gospel and jazz through to reggae, jungle and afroswing.

Exhibits on display include records from musicians Fela Kuti and Shirley Bassey, nostalgic video archives of grime’s golden era captured on Risky Roadz DVD, and the equipment that Jamal Edwards used to start grime Youtube channel, SBTV

Beyond the Bassline will also spotlight the spaces – physical, digital and symbolic – that have “cultivated creative expression” and inspired a wealth of Black British music genres, including Bristol’s Bamboo Club and Reno in Manchester, and carnivals, community centres and record shops across the country.

The exhibition – curated by Dr Aleema Gray at the British Library in partnership with the University of Westminster’s Mykaell Riley – aims to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of the complexity of Black British music history among visitors. It follows a three-year partnership working to “research, foreground and reposition six centuries of African musical contributions to the UK.”

A programme of public events will accompany Beyond The Bassline, including live performances, club takeovers by No Signal, Touching Bass and Queer Bruk, and in-conversation events with singer-songwriters such as Eddy Grant and Joan Armatrading. 

iwoyi: within the echo – a new ten-minute film and sound installation created in collaboration with Touching Bass – will also be broadcasted for the first time, exploring the radical potential of Black British music to “manifest reparative futures.” Find out more about the programme here.

“The exhibition represents a timely opportunity to broaden our understanding of Black British music and situate it within a historical conversation,” Dr Aleema Gray, lead curator of Beyond the Bassline, shared. “Black British music is more than a soundtrack. It has formed part of an expansive cultural industry that transformed British culture.”

Associate Professor Mykaell Riley, guest curator of Beyond the Bassline at the British Library and Director of The Black Music Research Unit at the University of Westminster, added: “This is British history, this is popular music. And the exhibition is not an end point but the beginning of a new positioning of Black British music, within academic research and high art spaces.”

Tickets to Beyond the Bassline are available here, and cost £15 with concessions available. There will be Pay What You Can days on the first Wednesday of every month.

Another new exhibition exploring the history and global influence of Black British music is set to open at the V&A East Museum in 2025.