The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote last year. In this essay I explored the ways in which the momentous arrival of the SS Empire Windrush to the UK in 1948 has contributed to the development of a unique Black British Diaspora. I also use Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic as a starting point. If you are interested in reading the complete essay, please contact me.
The Sounds of Black Britain
In the video, Jazzie strolls down an inner London street, crested by dreadlocks and waving a ceremonial stick, in full Rastafarian fig. A group of mixed race children in a park play amongst the autumn leaves chanting the tag line, ‘What’s the meaning, what’s the meaning of life?’ A singer, backed up by a line of dancers in a painstakingly recreated forties ensemble repeats Jazzie’s exhortations, ‘Elevate your mind, free your soul.’ A line-up of black classical musicians in evening dress play the harmony on violins. The collection of images is an unmistakable statement about the hybrid nature of black British identity. (Phillips and Phillips 318)
As Phillips and Phillips suggest here, the video for the black British group Soul II Soul’s hit, ‘Get A Life’ demonstrates how the mix of different black cultures can come together to create one identity. The group in itself is a reflection of the search that many Caribbean migrants embark upon to find their identity within the black British diaspora. The bonds of solidarity formed between members of the community have been essential in fuelling creativity and art forms. As discussed in the previous section of this essay, the bonds of solidarity formed between members of the black British diaspora were built upon their similar backgrounds and experiences in the Caribbean, as well as their experience of anti-black racism within the UK.
Music has always been a fundamental part of Caribbean culture and because of this it has also become a huge part of black British culture too. Music travels, music evolves and music connects people, just like the ships that travelled from the Caribbean in the mid-twentieth century bringing hundreds of West Indian migrants to Britain. Music is a sure way of getting yourself heard and expressing one’s true feelings. It is an unquestionable way of demonstrating one’s “style” and creativity.
Music can also be political and used as a form of resistance, just like London’s Notting Hill Carnival began as a way to confront the racism and discrimination faced by the Caribbean community in Britain. In this way, one can see how the aim of black British music has always been to reflect the time in which it has been composed. Constantly drawing on different sources and values, music has helped the black British diaspora to manage a hostile urban environment and creatively destabilise the structures put in place by white racism.
As mentioned, the group Soul II Soul became iconic in black British culture because they were creative proof of the ability of a diasporic identity being born out of the collaboration of different cultures. They were able to create a completely new sound – a sound that had never been heard before anywhere in the world. This unique black British sound mirrors the distinctive dynamic of black British culture. In The Black Atlantic, Gilroy attributes much of the black British sound’s influence to black America. However, when listening to black British music, one can directly hear the influence of the Caribbean within the beats, and even the lyrics. What is even more fascinating, is that whilst the black British sound has drawn on different Caribbean cultures and sounds to influence its own, the black British sound in itself is something that cannot be emulated by any other group or community. Phillips and Phillips demonstrate this idea well in reference to Soul II Soul, when they write:
It was the first time that a sound had been born here which was not traceable back to an inferior copy, or a copy at any rate, of something that black Americans had done. That’s the first thing. The second thing was that by trying to combine elements of soul and Reggae and do that in a way that didn’t damage either and yet remained faithful to both, Soul II Soul gave us a kind of example of how contamination between different cultures was something that was enriched, something that was positive. (Phillips and Phillips 385)
In more recent times, we have been able to see the direct influence that groups such as Soul II Soul have had on youth culture within the black British diaspora. Soul II Soul sought to carve out a black British identity by turning to their mother country for inspiration. Their use of sound-systems connected them to the sounds they sorely missed in the Caribbean, as well as to their fellow Caribbean migrants that they had come to know on this side of the Atlantic. Storytelling through their song lyrics also became a fundamental part of writing themselves into British culture and showcasing their diasporic identity. Whilst the sounds of black Britain have evolved, moving from Reggae to Jungle, and from UK Garage to Funky House and Grime, the aim remains the same. The aim has always been to use our creativity and style to ask the questions that British society are too afraid to explore, and to connect with fellow migrants of the black British diaspora.
The late 1990s to the early 2000s saw a rise in the popularity of UK Garage and Grime music. Lloyd Bradley’s Sounds Like London documents the story of black music in the capital and illustrates how music has shaped not only the city of London, but also the nation as a whole, through the migration of Caribbean migrants and their music. In the chapter ‘Who Needs a Record Company?” he interviews UK
Garage artist Wookie and sheds light on the origins of this ground-breaking genre of music. In regards to the birth of UK Garage, Wookie says:
As far as I know, our UK Garage was born out of the B-Sides of house records, the dubs. Where they’d be all musical, house music or whatever, on the A- side, the B-side was a stripped-down dub, which might have had a heavier bassline – or just had a bassline. We took that, with our West Indian backgrounds, and out of that UK garage was born. (Bradley 362)
From Wookie’s speculation on the origins of UK Garage, one can see the influence that West Indian culture has had on this genre of music. Subsequent genres such as Grime and Funky House, therefore, have their roots in West Indian culture, too, as these particular genres are a direct evolution of UK Garage. It is also important to note Wookie’s use of the word “we” in his description of UK Garage. From this, we can see the importance of togetherness and shared knowledge when it comes to creating black music. The late 1990s to the early 2000s saw the birth of collectives or ‘crews’ within the UK Garage scene, such as So Solid Crew, More Fire Crew and Roll Deep, to name a few. UK Garage very much became a home and a safe space for those youths participating in the movement. Wherever your parents may have originated from in the Caribbean, as marginalised black youths in Britain, you would have experienced very similar struggles. In this sense, UK Garage became more than just another genre of black British music; it was created in order to give a sense of home and belonging to all youths of the black British diaspora.
As UK Garage began to lose its popularity in the mid-2000s, a space opened up on the music scene for the birth of a new genre. The evolution of UK Garage to Grime echoed the decentring of West Indian migrants within the black British diaspora. What was now in development was a genre of black British music that was more inclusive of the wider black British diaspora, as well as being more reflective of black British society as a whole.
So pan-racial were these tones that two generations on from the Windrush arrivals, it was now not only impossible to tell what a person’s roots might be, but whether, unless you could actually see them, they were black or white. This really was the capital’s first truly indigenous black population, a melting pot that was given a further stir when the Home Office did its best to shut the doors on arrivals from Jamaica, while economic immigrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa increased proportionately. One of the most notable aspects of the Grime wave was the number of participants who had African names. (Bradley 383)
“Two generations on from the Windrush arrivals,” the make up of the black British diaspora has changed dramatically. As mentioned before, black British music has always reflected the time in which it was composed, therefore, with change in society comes a change in music. One can see the way in which the black British diaspora has widened and developed, simply by looking at who is producing the influential black music of the moment. With Grime music being made by both Caribbean and African subjects of the black British diaspora, there is no better genre
of music that displays “the playful diasporic intimacy that has been a marked feature of transnational black Atlantic creativity” (Gilroy 16). Not only has the genre of Grime become an ingenious way of representing the black youth who listen to it, it has become iconic in the exact way that London’s Notting Hill Carnival is. Grime’s purpose is to bring together members of the black British diaspora through music, and thus, rally against the cultural colonisation they face on a daily basis. This is no different to the driving force behind Notting Hill Carnival. When you listen to the sounds of Grime, you know that you are in the presence of a black British diaspora, just like you are aware of this in the vibrant streets of Notting Hill Carnival.
(c) Lydia Naomi Rose, 2015