This Exhibition Is Exploring 100 Years Of Black Sounds In Britain

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 22 months ago

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This Exhibition Is Exploring 100 Years Of Black Sounds In Britain
Smiley Culture, c.1980s. © Ian Watts. Courtesy of Black Cultural Archives

When the Southern Syncopated Orchestra arrived in London in 1919, so too did what we know today as black British music. Such was the impact of the group — who hailed from New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Guyana, Barbados, Antigua and Ghana — that in August of the same, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) invited them to perform at Buckingham Palace.

An advert for the Southern Syncopated Orchestra

Black Sound is an exhibition from the Black Cultural Archives, which remembers the players, the promoters, the producers and the punters who helped propel black music in the UK. London, it is soon clear, played a leading role.

By the late 1920s, jazz and calypso was on the BBC, and black-run nightclubs had set up in the West End. Black Sound revisits Amy Ashwood Garvey and Sam Mannings's 1930s Florence Mills Social Parlour on 50 Carnaby Street, and a time when activists and musicians brought music, art, and politics together to foster a movement of self-reliance and self-belief.

Front cover of Weekly illustrated featuring Paul Robeson, vol. 11, no. 32. February 1936 Weekly Illustrated. Courtesy of Black Cultural Archives

Indeed, many seminal moments in black music happened in London; who could forget the showboating entrance of Calypsonian Lord Kitchener, as he stepped off the SS Windrush in 1948:

Kitchener and others like him paved the way for the likes of Desmond Dekker, Eddy Grant, Janet Kay and Smiley Culture from the 1960s onwards. Like the Calypsonians who went before them, their songs referenced the London they lived in:

It wasn't all about the people making the records, but those spinning them too. Black Sound remembers the likes of Duke Vin — who had the first sound system in the country, and co-founded the Notting Hill Carnival — and Dread Broadcast Corporation. This pirate radio station broadcast from west London, and featured DJs including Neneh Cherry and Joe Strummer, until the 1984 Telecommunications Act reined it in.  


But black music could not be silenced. Hip hop, jungle and UK garage exploded in the 1990s; Black Sound retraces the musical hotspots, record stores, and soundtracks of this period, name-checking greats from Roll Deep and Boy Better Know, to the launch of Kiss FM and SBTV, to Skepta's Mercury Music Prize win and Ray BLK's BBC Sound of 2017 award.

Black Sound runs from 7 April-4 November 2017 at Black Cultural Archives, 1 Windrush Square, Brixton, SW2 1EF. Free admission. Audio-guided tours £3.

The exhibition is accompanied by a programme of events, workshops and learning activities designed to engage with audiences and provide a space to collect undiscovered music heritage.

Last Updated 31 March 2017