Black Music in Britain in the 21st Century

Liverpool University Press has just published Black Music in Britain in the 21st Century, a series of essays chronicling the birth and development of pivotal Black British genres like dub, jungle, UK garage and grime. Edited and curated by Dr Monique Charles with Dr Mary Gani, the book on contemporary Black British music is the first of its kind. Emily Thomas chatted with Dr Monique about her background, the book’s contents and her current favourite records.

To kick things off, hearing more about your background would be great.

I am a Black British academic currently located in the USA. Technically, I am a cultural sociologist, theorist and methodologist. I am also a sound therapist and cardologer. My background and connection to my research is rooted in my desire to sing as a child. I used to sing and write songs and poetry and have always been passionate about studying.

Growing up in London, I was very aware of the music that I liked and the music I listened to at home and with family was very different to the music on mainstream television and radio stations. As someone who loves to study and learn, I found my interest in music was not reflected back at me at school.

These continuous feelings of difference sparked my interest around race and ethnicity – from a very young age, alongside my passion for music. Intellectually, I pursued both these interests from undergraduate level onwards.

On the journey, I became motivated to begin the process of inserting Black British music into the academic conversation and ultimately into building a discipline around Black British music for it to be considered as something of serious intellectual inquiry.

How and when was Black Music in Britain in the 21st Century first conceived?

The earliest iterations are found in my PhD. I outline the chasm that Black British music fell within in the British academy in the field of music. Music was often structured in classical or ethnomusicological terms. Any popular Black music forms were often positioned as being outside of Britain, despite Britain having thriving underground music scenes and crossing over into the mainstream in the noughties.

This was one of the reasons why I did my PhD on grime music. It has clear sociological and cultural value. The government was vilifying grime; at the same time, it was current. It was happening. It was thriving. I could research in real-time and gather stories, narratives and insights that were not altered by hindsight or deteriorating memory. The views around Black British music at the time meant that some people I spoke to did not realise they were making history. They were creating culture, but collective consciousness had not caught up to understand it in the way we understand it now.

Grime was just the start and was the impetus for my PhD. The book is a direct offshoot of my PhD study, positioning it as a serious mode of intellectual inquiry. Sociology and cultural studies applied to Black British music forms are essential and I wanted to apply my years of training, life experience and expertise in this area. This is what the book is about.

For the book specifically, I had this idea in the winter of 2018. Although her area is law, I invited Mary Gani on to the project. She co-edited one chapter.

Shockingly, this is the first academic collection dedicated to contemporary Black British music, considering the number of innovations that have occurred in the 21st century. Do you think that it’s finally starting to be treated with the intellectual rigour it deserves?

There’s still a long way to go. However, the academic process, and the influence of the work that I have done so far, have contributed towards shifting the consciousness around Black British music and the ways in which it can be viewed and understood – politically, culturally and sociologically.

I feel my contributions or intentions have been somewhat misunderstood in the past – after all, the collective consciousness was not there. Some of the hardest work to facilitate any movement is to win hearts and minds with regard to how Black British music is viewed and can be interrogated. This is/was the hard groundwork that I am dealing with. Compounding this, because I am a Black woman, in addition to some scepticism around the academy more generally, I feel this has slowed things. Things will only get faster as time progresses.

Academia is a slow process, but aside from this, people are innovating and finding new ways to interrogate Black British music. And, with a shift in consciousness, other people will be more likely to begin to add to this emerging discipline.

Did you uncover anything unexpected working on the book?

Growing up in London and having connection and engagement with Black British music and underground scenes, I feel I have a level of cultural capital I can draw upon. As a result, I didn’t find anything unexpected. I learned a lot from the contributors, however. There is always room to learn and grow.

As someone who has lived in the cultures to varying degrees, some of the issues and arguments posed brought new insights and nuance to my understanding. Another thing I think is very important is that the contributors have some connection to the music scenes that they write about. One of the things the reviewers of the book stated was that this volume has a significant number of Black British writers.

Every person invited has a connection to the scenes they write about. This is important in terms of scene connection, cultural capital and the knowledge that they are now able to disseminate through this book.

Could you tell us a little bit about how the book is structured…

So the book is largely organised over three overarching sections. The first section is Diaspora music and the Black Atlantic, which looks at how Black music is connected, primarily between Britain, the US, the Caribbean, and the African continent, particularly West Africa.

The second section, 21st-century Black British music, explores different genres of music. These chapters tend to be more genre-focused, exploring things such as lovers rock, jungle, gospel, jazz, Afrobeats and steel pan/ carnival music. The last section of the book is structured around socio-political and economic issues. The book contributes to building a discipline, so it is for undergraduate and graduate study. I hope it will be incorporated into many courses for years to come.

However, it is also for those who I would consider musical ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’ that are curious about the area in terms of subject, time period or geographical area and want to explore how to interrogate it. The chapters vary in accessibility; therefore, many people can engage with them. That was important to me.

What kinds of music are you into? Do you have any songs on rotation you feel like sharing?

I like all sorts of music but I have had Beyonce’s Renaissance on rotation quite heavily, however. The funny thing is, now that I write about music and sound, I don’t have favourites in the same way that I used to before. I love jungle. I love soca – especially power soca. I love amapiano. There are so many different genres that I like. Generally, I like music that has a heavy bassline. That also includes a lot of polyrhythm and percussion.

Do you have any book recommendations, music-related or otherwise, for our readers to dig into?

One of the books that helped me to explore and consider music differently is Jennifer Lena’s book Banding Together, which really unlocked some key ideas that helped me to develop my own methodological framework (MDA) as well as a more in-depth understanding and connection to music.

There are also classics like Tricia Rosa’s Black Noise, which is a good introduction to anybody who wants to read about hip hop. I also think it’s a good idea to read autobiographical books – particularly from those central to their respective scenes who may have been marginalised. So the accounts of people such as DJ Target, Stormzy, Wiley and General Levy are also very important.

Is there any other work of yours that we can look forward to in the near future?

At the moment, I am just settling into life in the US and becoming a ‘Californian girl’! A lot of my energy in the near future will involve the adjustment and promotion of the book. I am an ideas person and I am legacy minded. Any impetus that drives my work and guides my principles are filtered through inspiration, love and a sense of social justice, so it won’t be too long before something else propels me forward!

Photo credit: Mars Meddo, Making Beats photographed by Nathaniel Télémaque