Libraries are places of quiet, reflective study, but not the British Library at the moment, which thumps to the sound of music in an exhibition that spans 500 years of black music in the UK.

It starts back in Tudor times, but in fact, most of the exhibition is modern, covering the past century or so, as that’s where the main story lies.

Back to the olden times, and the earliest record of a musician of African descent in Britain is John Blanke, a trumpeter in King Henry VII and VIII’s courts – appearing twice in a 1511 document showing a royal joust. He wouldn’t have been the only musician of African descent in England, but he was close enough to the monarch to appear in documents of the time and receive gifts from the King for his wedding.

The exhibition pretty much skips over the next few centuries though – there being limited material to display, and jumps very much into the late 19th century when the combination of increased transatlantic travel and domestic gramaphone record players wildly broadened people’s access to a variety of musical styles. A small, rather shabby box further into the exhibition really highlights this transatlantic trade, the way records were shipped across the ocean to the UK in the days before the mass market took off.

One of the other interesting aspects of the exhibition is the language in the display boards, which is written from the first-person perspective rather than from a curator’s perspective. It’s an unusual approach and quite a welcome one.

The bulk of the exhibition, though, is post-war, from the 1950s onwards, looking at both the music and the culture and how people rebelled against growing racism in the UK. There’s a lot here, which, if you were familiar with the music of the time, would be a nostalgia-fest. If not, the look back at the culture of the time would certainly be either eye-opening or very memorable.

It leaps right up to modern times as well — and even touches on the brief era of the mobile phone ringtone and how musicians could sometimes make more money from ringtones of their songs than the songs themselves.

Although the curator clearly shows their youthful age when they call the fairly modestly sized Nokia 3310 a “brick phone” when it was a fraction of the size of actual brick phones that came before it.

As an exhibition, it’s very unlike what you expect from a library. There is a lot of music playing and even a chill-out zone at the end, and that, along with the history displayed in the glass cases, makes it a very immersive experience.

The exhibition Beyond the Bassline: 500 Years of Black British Music is at the British Library until late August 2024.

You can buy tickets here.


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