First exhibition to document 500 years of Black music in Britain opens at the British Library this spring

First exhibition to document 500 years of Black music in Britain opens at the British Library this spring

Beyond the Bassline (26 April – 26 August 2024) at the British Library is the first major exhibition to document the 500-year musical journey of African and Caribbean people in Britain. Inspired by the British Library’s sound archive, the exhibition explores the people, spaces and genres that have transformed the landscape of British music.

Traversing musical genres, from classical, gospel and jazz through to reggae, jungle and afroswing, Beyond the Bassline charts the influence of Black British musicians, creatives and entrepreneurs on popular music since the 16th-century. It also considers the role emerging technologies and the internet have played in creating, listening to and sharing music.

The exhibition spotlights the spaces – physical, digital and symbolic – that have cultivated creative expression and inspired a number of Black British music genres, from The Reno in Manchester, Bristol’s Bamboo Club, Scottish club night The Reggae Klub and The Four Aces in London, to carnivals, community centres and record shops across the country.

Encompassing more than 200 exhibits, Beyond the Bassline features:

  • Audiovisual material, from interviews with activist Amy Ashwood Garvey, calypsonian Lord Kitchener and musician Fela Kuti to performances by singer Shirley Bassey, pianist Winifred Atwell and saxophonist Joe Harriott, and footage from the MOBO Awards and BBC One’s Top of the Pops
  • Ephemera and memorabilia including a t-shirt from the Reggae Klub, one of the earliest reggae nights in Scotland, posters, signs and photographs from the Bamboo club in Bristol and The Four Aces in London, and objects retrieved from the demolished basement of The Reno in Manchester
  • Costumes, including a dress worn by Patti Flynn, co-founder of the Butetown Bay Jazz Heritage Festival and the Black History Month movement in Wales, on her 1970s tour
    Visual art including The Lion of Judah Roars in his Head (1977) by Errol Lloyd, Night Owls (1995) by Denzil Forrester, Sounds Yellow (2009) by Sir Frank Bowling and imagery documenting the evolution of grime by acclaimed photographer Simon Wheatley
  • Musical instruments including a double bass belonging to Gary Crosby, founding member of Jazz Warriors and a 1950s steelpan on loan from the Horniman Museum
  • Equipment including Ludwig van Beethoven’s tuning fork, which he presented to violinist George Bridgetower in 1803, sound engineer King Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Found and Mighty Ruler’s 1960s sound systems, plus a Sony Walkman WM B-10, Telepathy Tape Pack and Nokia 3310
  • Manuscripts and books including a handwritten letter by 19th century opera singer Amanda Aldridge, also known as Montague Ring and published letters by 18th century composer Ignatius Sancho

To accompany Beyond the Bassline there will be a rich programme of public events, including live performances, club takeovers by No Signal (26 April), Touching Bass (3 May and 12 July) and Queer Bruk (21 June), as well as in conversation events with eminent singer-songwriters Eddy Grant (26 April) and Joan Armatrading (18 June), with more to be revealed.

Visitors to Beyond the Bassline will also get to see a new, specially commissioned film. iwoyi: within the echo (2024) is a five-channel 10-minute film and sound installation exploring the radical potential of Black British music to manifest reparative futures. Directed by Tayo Rapoport and Rohan Ayinde in collaboration with the South London-based musical movement and curatorial platform Touching Bass, the film is produced by NOIR and has an original score made by Melo-Zed.

New soundscapes, artworks and films exploring Black British identity through the medium of music feature throughout the exhibition and have been created by community-rooted, youth-led group Jukebox Collective, charitable enterprise and network Rastafari Movement UK Wellbeing, bespoke loudspeaker system Friendly Pressure and literary activist, theatre maker and published writer, Khadijah Ibrahiim.

Curated by Dr Aleema Gray at the British Library in collaboration with Mykaell Riley at the University of Westminster, Beyond the Bassline follows a three-year partnership to research, foreground and reposition six centuries of African musical contributions to the UK.

Dr Aleema Gray, lead curator of Beyond the Bassline at the British Library, said: ‘The exhibition represents a timely opportunity to broaden our understanding of Black British music and situate it within a historical conversation. 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, said: ‘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.’

There will be panel displays and events at public libraries across the UK, arranged through the Living Knowledge Network, with each library’s collection, regional connections and local music scene at the core, to help tell a national story about Black music in Britain.

Beyond the Bassline tickets are on general sale from today ( and cost £15 with concessions available. There will be Pay What You Can days on the first Wednesday of every month.

About the British Library

We are the national library of the UK and we are here for everyone. Our shelves hold over 170 million items – a living collection that gets bigger every day. Although our roots extend back centuries, we aim to collect everything published in the UK today, tomorrow and far into the future. Our trusted experts care for this collection and open it up for everyone to spark new discoveries, ideas and to help people do incredible things.

We have millions of books, and much more besides. Our London and Yorkshire sites hold collections ranging from newspapers and maps to sound recordings, patents, academic journals, as well as a copy of every UK domain website and blog. Our public spaces provide a place to research, to meet friends, to start up a new business or simply to get inspired by visiting our galleries and events. We work with partners and libraries across the UK and the world to make sure that as many people as possible have the chance to use and explore our collections, events and expertise. And we’re always open online.

About the University of Westminster

The University of Westminster offers a vibrant learning environment attracting more than 21,000 students from nearly 170 nations and we continue to invest in our future with new developments, research projects and new ideas. The University ranked in the top 20 in the UK and in the top 30 in the world for international students, according to the Times Higher World University Ranking 2024.

The University has also been recognised as one of the top 15% out of over 1,400 universities globally for its work on contributing to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). We also rank 2nd for social mobility among English universities, according to a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and educational charity the Sutton Trust.

Established as London’s first polytechnic in 1838, we have, from our earliest days, opened our doors to provide educational opportunities to people regardless of their background and supported them on their journey to develop their skills, knowledge and expertise.

We offer highly attractive practice-based courses which are independently rated as excellent, many with international recognition. Our distinguished 186-year history has meant we lead the way in many areas of research, particularly Politics, Media, Art and Design, Architecture and Biomedical Sciences, and our position in the city of London allows us to continue to build on our close connections with leading figures and organisations in these areas as well as in the worlds of business, information technology, politics and law. Our commitment to educating graduates for the needs of professional life attracts high quality students from within the UK and around the globe.

Global engagement, employability and sustainability are key elements in the University of Westminster’s vision for the future and we strive to ensure the very highest standards are met and maintained.

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