skip to main content

Black History Month: The Playlist (Part One)

In this blog, Saxophonist, Author and Music Education Consultant Nathan Holder highlights tracks by Black British musicians and how they can be incorporated into comprehensive lesson plans.

Published: 01 October 2020 | 12:00 AM
Photograph of a Black man conducting - holding a raised conductors batton, with the photograph focusing on his hands.
Playlists like this aren't fully comprehensive or absolute – they are points of reference, sources of discovery, and even reminders of the talent which is all around us. Photo credit: Shutterstock

In the wake of George Floyd's death and the Black Lives Matter protests (specifically the slogan not the organisation) earlier this year – many organisations, hubs and schools have expressed the need to diversify their musical offerings, in order to connect in various ways with teachers and students.

Since we have issues around race and identity which are specific to Britain, it makes sense this month, to focus on the music made on these shores by those who have first-hand experience of what it is like to be Black, and what it is like to be British.

The meeting of these identities has produced an array of music which highlights, reflects, and celebrates life through the eyes of these Black British musicians. Playlists like this aren't fully comprehensive or absolute – they are points of reference, sources of discovery, and even reminders of the talent which is all around us.

We're stepping up this year to bring you a song a day for the whole Black History Month. Enjoy, discover and share your thoughts and ideas with others, and let this music help to bridge the difficulties that have challenged us in unprecedented ways in 2020.

50/50 – Lemar (2003)

Lemar became a national star after he placed third in the reality show Fame Academy in 2002. 50/50 was the second single from his first album Dedicated, which sampled Marcus Miller’s Much Too Much, from Miller’s first album Suddenly.

Interestingly enough, the tempo and drum loop more closely resemble Can’t Knock The Hustle by Jay-Z than Millers original, which was the third single from J’s first album Reasonable Doubt. Lemar has sold over 2 million albums worldwide to date, and won 3 MOBO awards in 2005 and 2006.

This is a great song for secondary school age children to:

  • Learn about the structure of a pop song
  • Compare and contrast Marcus Miller's original and Jay-Z's versions

The People Could Fly – Camilla George (2018)

Over the past few years, George has established herself as a leading figure in London’s Jazz scene, with two albums to her name and regular appearances with Jazz Jamaica, alongside musicains such as Gary Crosby, Denys Baptiste and Rod Youngs.

This track features a guitar solo by Shirley Tettah, another key figure in the recent wave of young black female musicians to emerge on the scene, and Femi Koleoso, founder of the Ezra Collective and longtime drummer for Jorja Smith.

To learn more about George's inspiration for her second album, have a listen to an interview I did with her in 2019.

This can be used as an alternative any jazz standard. It's also a great tune for secondary school aged students to:

  • Understand syncopation between the bass, guitar and drums
  • Different scales used for improvisation

96 of My Life – JME [Explicit Lyrics]

When you see a grime artist, do you usually think of them earning a degree, being entrepreneurial, married and vegan? JME gives us a brief outline about his life and how he was able to work on his music career while going to university and supporting his mother with the rent.

JME founded the label Boy Better Know with his older brother Skepta, and collaborated on the platinum-selling tune ‘That’s Not Me’ in 2014. JME is one of the most influential grime artists of all time and his 2015 album Integrity> is a classic.

Due to the language used, this tune can be used for GCSE/A Level students to discover:

  • Using grime to tell open, honest and personal stories
  • Construction of a beat
  • How JME uses slang and other colloqualisms

I’m Still in Love – Alton Ellis (1977)

Many of you may recognise the hook from Sean Paul and Sasha’s 2002 hit of the same name. Ellis’ version feels more honest, rougher and captures the spirit of rocksteady that he was known and respected for.

Not only did he write songs about love, but reflecting sentiments shared across the African diaspora in the 70's, Ellis writes about his personal identity as a Black man and wider social issues. His song Blackman’s Word is a lamentation about the struggles of Black people across the diaspora, while I'm A True Born African (1971) speaks of his yearning for his true homeland.

"I was living in my own land
I was moved because of white man's plan
And now I am living in a white man's land" (Blackman's Word)

This tune is great for children of all ages to:

  • Dance to
  • Learn about other sub genres of reggae
  • Learn about other reggae musicians apart from Bob Marley
  • Compare and contrast Alton Ellis' version to Sean Paul and Sasha's

The Spark Catchers (Live) – Hannah Kendall (2020)

Taken from the album of the same name, this performance was recorded by the Chineke! Orchestra, the first majority non-white orchestra in Europe. Kendall herself is a highly regarded as one of the most important British composers of her generation, having won the Woman of the Future Award in 2005.

This piece was written for Chineke! but was inspired by a poem of the same name by the author Lemn Sissay. The poem itself is a reference to the 1888 strike organised by matchgirls in Easy London, brought about by the dangerous and occasionally lethal working conditions in an East End match factory.

This piece can teach about:

  • Contemporary composition
  • Instrumentation
  • How the words of Sissay's poem have been interpreted by Kendall

Rise Up ft. Akala – Ayanna Witter-Johnson (2019)

Witter-Johnson is a composer, cellist and vocalist who has collaborated with ensembles such as the London Symphony and BBC Symphony Orchestras, as well as artists such as Anoushka Shankar, Robert Mitchell and Nitin Sawhney.

Her innovative application of cello technique can be heard on tunes such as Unconditionally and her cover of The Police’s 1978 hit Roxanne. These tunes all feature on her 2019 album Road Runner, which is well worth a listen. She also played on Akala’s tune Our Way, the Way from his album The Thieves Banquet (2013).

It's appropriate for older primary children and older to:

  • Understand the use of modes
  • Uncover what Akala is rapping about
  • See a Black woman playing the cello in an unconventional way

Oh Danny Boy - Mark Bunney (2019)

(Oh) Danny Boy is a ballad thought to have been written in the 17th century by an Irish harpist. Today, the melody goes by many names including Londonderry Air and I Cannot Tell (in certain Christian circles).

Bunney is a British saxophonist who studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, before embarking on a career recording and performing original and traditional gospel tunes around the world.

If you’re a fan of gospel, jazz and the saxophone, have a listen to the rest of his 2019 album entitled Forhym. Instead of using traditional folk arrangements of this song, children and young people of all ages can learn about elements such as:

  • Reharmonisation
  • Use of repetition and sequence
  • Blues and improvisation
  • How context can change the meaning of a song

BAME Members Network

This blog was commissioned as a direct outcome of our last BAME Members Network meeting, chaired by Chardine Taylor Stone.

BAME members are invited to join our BAME Members Network for regular opportunities to get involved, have your say on what we do, contribute to consultation responses, and help make policy that reflects the truth.

Read more