In my work on decolonising music education, I'm constantly looking for ways to not only increase the focus on non-Western Classical music, but to make music education more socially and culturally relevant.
If music is a way that people have been expressing themselves for thousands of years, why the persistent focus on just a few genres? Why does music education centre around West European Classical music? Why when we think of Black History Month, do American music and artists come to mind?
While there are great traditions and musicians across the world from the African diaspora, there is an abundance of music in Britain which deserves to be recognised.
If the essence of knowledge is self-knowledge, how much do we Brits know about the music made by black Britons in the last 250 years? Let's take a look at ten tunes that show the diversity of black British music.
Nate Holder’s top choices for Black History Month
This list is comprised of black British musicians, some of whom were born abroad but spent time in England writing, performing and recording. There’s more than enough black British talent past and present to not have to include any music from our American cousins, especially during Black History month.
Scenes from The Song of Hiawatha, Op 30: Hiawatha Overture – Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Nicknamed the ‘African Mahler’, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor remains one of the few black composers of the late nineteenth century. Born in London, his music took him all the way to the White House in 1904, the first of a few trips to the United States.
For someone as well renowned as he was during his lifetime, it makes you question why his music is rarely studied or talked about in UK music education.
Cherish the Day (Live 2011) – Sade
Sade was born in Nigeria but moved to England at the age of four. One of the most popular artists in the ’80s and early ’90s, Sade has influenced many musicians including Beyoncé, Rakim and Brandy due to her unique vocal style and captivating melodies.
This live version of one of her most popular songs is taken from the album Love Deluxe which was released in 1992. Wait for the bass to kick in at 2:19.
Fire in the Booth Pt.1 – Akala
Akala has gained a reputation in recent years of being not only a musician and lyricist, but a lecturer, author and political commentator. This is the first of his appearances on the Fire in the Booth, and not only showcases his lyrical prowess, but his ability to educate and inform. It’s a nine minute history lesson.
My Queen Is Harriet Tubman - Sons Of Kemet
Who would have thought a tenor saxophone, tuba and two drum kits could produce some of the most energetic and rhythmically complex music of the past few years?
Coupled with the melodic interplay of bandleader and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and innovative tuba playing of Theon Cross, every track on their latest album ‘Your Queen Is A Reptile’ is a dance-inducing event. No wonder Beyoncé included this song in her 2019 movie ‘Homecoming’.
Adwa – KOKOROKO
Led by trumpeter and composer Sheila Maurice-Grey and featuring other rising stars like guitarist Oscar Jerome, saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi and bassist Mutale Chashi, this eight-piece band are attracting admirers and gaining fans all over the world.
Influenced by artists like Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor and rooted in years of jazz studies between them, I dare you to listen to this track and sit still.
Marshes, Hamlets and Roaming Cows – Dr Shirley J Thompson OBE
With ‘New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony’ debuting in 2004, Dr Thompson became the first black British woman ever to have written and conducted a symphony.
Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, this piece leaves you feeling as if you are floating serenely over the English countryside, encountering a bustling city, then relaxing amongst the rolling hills spotting a herd of cows from your lofty vantage point.
Exchange – Brooks and The Company
Gospel music is well known to have originated in the US, but there are many UK artists who have been creating incredible gospel music for decades.
This offering from the band’s 2015 album entitled ‘Inside Out’ features the amazing vocals of Michaela Matthew-Marius and some great string arrangements by musical director Chris Brooks.
If the emotion embedded in the lyrics or the reharmonisation from 4:08 doesn’t give you chills, the overall musicianship will certainly have you playing this track on repeat.
Black – Dave
This song was a part of Dave’s award-winning album ‘Psychodrama’ in 2019 and received mixed responses by many listeners.
The lyrics explore his idea of what it means to be black as well as sharing elements of West African history. His hard hitting lyrics such as, “You don’t know the truth about your race ‘cos they’re erasing it,” will either have you nodding in recognition or racing to Google to fact check some of the knowledge he drops.
If You’re Not White You’re Black – Lord Kitchener
Not only was Lord Kitchener part of the Windrush Generation, but he was also actually on the SS Empire Windrush when it docked in Tilbury on 22nd June 1948.
Some of his catalogue features his experiences as a black man in London – including getting lost on the Underground, encountering racism and his love for bebop. His music continues to be enjoyed in his native Trinidad and Tobago.
Cut After Cut – Dennis Bovell
Taken from his very first album under his pseudonym Blackbeard, this track is an example of the unique style Barbadian born Dennis Bovell produced from his studio in South London in the late ’70s.
While he is well known for his extensive work with poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, it’s little known that he wrote, produced and played on the 1979 hit Silly Games sung by Janet Kay.
Undoubtedly a huge influence not only on the UK reggae but post-punk scenes, his whole discography is well worth listening to.
Watch a recording of one of Nate Holder’s sessions on Decolonising the Music Curriculum.
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