A new event aims to get to the heart of music scholarship and how ever-evolving genres of Black music are researched, engaged with, and social significance discussed
We find ourselves in a bizarre cultural moment, again. Black music, and specifically this digitally-mediated, largely homegrown and magnetic form which draws influence from across the diaspora, has reached peak ubiquity. Empires are being built from the production and consumption of Black music. Empires, inevitably, which propagate Black culture without fairly compensating the producers and early adopters of constantly shifting subgenres which emerge almost monthly, it seems – new territories and new sonic landscapes being created at a bewildering rate.
I once sat down with a prominent British cultural critic in the height of the moral panic emerging from sensationalist (and largely inaccurate) reporting on the inherently “violent” characteristic and register of drill music. He said, without flinching and with no detectable irony, that “Black music needs to get its house in order.” This theme, of white audiences requiring Black music to “to get its house in order” is precisely the tension at the core of this bizarre cultural moment we find ourselves in. Or rather, it is one of many tensions. Tensions that create challenges for anyone thinking and writing about culture.
“Long before mainstream press began circling around the drill music scene, White was asking “How do youth culture, crime, commerce and education come together in the everyday lives of young people in inner city areas?”
How do we keep track of the social, political, economic, racial, gendered geohistories being created (and consumed) at the speed of light? How do we listen to the beat and pay attention of the rhythm of cultural discourse as it presents itself through music industries?
Dr Joy White, in the view of many, has kept her fingers on the pulse of urban music (grime and drill) and reported findings with nothing short of prophetic accuracy. Long before mainstream press began circling around the drill music scene, White was asking “How do youth culture, crime, commerce and education come together in the everyday lives of young people in inner city areas?” Crucial considerations which were ignored by reporters insisting that “Black music needs to get its house in order”.
Before Drake met Skepta, White offered a grounding definition of Grime as “a predominantly male, black Atlantic creative expression that has broken free of its east London origins to have a global socio-economic significance”. This definition, one which mainstream press has largely failed to grasp or engage with, offers layers of meaning which aid any cultural criticism invested in diving beyond the paddling pool of shallow commentary informed by a fast and often careless newscycle.
In her pioneering ethnographic fieldwork between London and Ayia Napa, White traces the economic potential and social impact of urban music entrepreneurship via interviews and participant observations across several sites including pirate radio stations, nightclubs and music video shoots. White makes the argument that “Grime music and its related enterprise culture is a mechanism for social and economic mobility particularly for those from ethnically stigmatised communities”. Grime music, contrary to prevailing and skewed narratives, is Black music getting its house in order.
Speaking to White a few months ago, the transatlantic connection between Drake, Skepta and the broader grime scene is not as novel as it appears. “If you consider the Jamaican population in Toronto and their role in urban music production, in many ways, it was inevitable.” Enter, Dr Carolyn Cooper. Cooper is Professor Emerita of Literary and Cultural Studies at University of the West Indies. A writer and independent scholar, she is the author of Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large (2004), and of Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture (1993).
Cooper’s exploration of Jamaican popular culture covers a wide range of topics, including Bob Marley’s lyrics, the performance poetry of Louise Bennett, Mikey Smith, and Jean Binta Breeze, Michael Thelwell’s novelization of The Harder They Come, the Sistren Theater Collective’s Lionheart Gal, and the vitality of the Jamaican DJ culture. The global soft power of Reggae, other genres of Jamaican music (including but not limited to Dancehall) and West Indian culture at large is undeniable.
In Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large (2004), Cooper offers, “This reggae business is also a magical enterprise in which poor ghetto youths, identifying with the heroes of Hollywood fantasy, can rise to international fame and fortune… The persistence of this tradition of role-play in contemporary Jamaican dancehall culture makes it dificult sometimes for outsiders to accurately decode local cultural signs.”
“Despite continuous attempts by music executives, media outlets and reporters invested in the narrowing of Black culture into its component (exportable and profitable) parts, Black music is inextricably linked to the socio-economic, political and global currents of Black life in modernity”
Reggae, Dancehall and Grime create both the imaginative space via successful precedents (offered by artists such as Skepta, Chronixx, Vybz Kartel, Stormzy and many others) and mechanisms (once via pirate radio and now via SoundCloud, YouTube and other digital channels) for young Black people across diaspora to engage in the entrepreneurial enterprise of leveraging musical talent and chutzpah into socially mobilising careers. If that isn’t “getting a house in order”, what is?
Trinidadian-born Claudia Jones, critical in the foundation of Notting Hill Carnival, (itself a seminal event in the West Indian cultural calendar in Britain), hoped to establish an event which would “wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths.” Referring here to the four months in 1958 when race riots in Notting Hill and Nottingham demoralised and crimalised Black people, Jones hoped to establish an event which would cleanse the bloodied palette of the community and unite folks. Despite continuous attempts by music executives, media outlets and reporters invested in the narrowing of Black culture into its component (exportable and profitable) parts, Black music is inextricably linked to the socio-economic, political and global currents of Black life in modernity.
Today (Monday 11 March), in a conversation between Dr Joy White and Dr Carolyn Cooper, we hope to unpack what it means to write these moving cultures; how do we research, connect and engage with digital and analogue archives as they are being created. Using music scholarship as a starting point for what promises to be an engaging and dynamic discussion, we also explore how we have navigated writing and sharing our work in academic and mainstream publishing outlets.
Finally, we’ll touch on our experiences as Black women in the academy and how these experiences have informed the decisions we have made with our work. If you are interested in how these formidable and incisive cultural researchers keep their fingers on the pulse, we would love to see you there! Grab a ticket here
Natalie is a writer and researcher based in London.Follow @natalieisonline