An adult and two young people sat on a wall next to a speaker stack in the street

Journeying through 500 years of Black music in Britain

An expansive exhibition at London’s British Library unpacks Black British music history through archival materials and new commissions, including a five-channel film installation in collaboration with Touching Bass

The British Library’s new show, Beyond the Bassline: 500 Years of Black British Music, is the first major exhibition of its kind to be held in the UK.

Organised thematically as well as chronologically, the exhibition weaves together five centuries of wide-ranging genres and movements along a continuum – from classical music and centuries-old instruments to the birth of grime and jungle, as well as new music media like pirate radio and SBTV.

People standing in front of ceiling height installations covered in record sleeves
Top: Notting Hill Carnival. Image © Adrian Boot, all rights reserved; Above: Beyond the Bassline at the British Library © Terna Jogo
A large peacock inspired Carnival costume installed in an exhibition space
Beyond the Bassline at the British Library © Terna Jogo

Curators Aleema Gray and Mykaell Riley have managed to find an entry point for everyone, whether in the towering displays of record sleeves, or the fragile written materials. At the beginning of the show is an account from 1512 about John Blanke, a trumpeter of African descent who performed in the royal courts in Tudor times. This is followed by various written ephemera like postcards, sheet music, diaries, and letters, which reflect the arrival and transformation of Black British music over the course of the exhibition.

These artefacts are enlivened with all kinds of materials that illustrate the dialogue that music has with so many other disciplines – fashion, art, graphic design, industrial design, textiles – and functions, from politics to partying, escapism to rootedness.

Black and white photo of a person looking at a vinyl record in a store standing beneath a poster of Jimmy Cliff
Girl selecting a record, beneath Jimmy Cliff poster, in record shop by Richard Saunders, 1983. Image © Richard Saunders /
Yellow facade of a recording studio in the 1970s
Exterior of the Four Aces, London by Alan Denney

The exhibition is interspersed with newly commissioned works that bring us to the present and look to the future. These include a film piece by Roundhouse Young Filmmakers encased in a bespoke soundsystem built by Friendly Pressure; a series of mosaics channelling Rastafari culture; a textile work showcasing the spirit of resistance in Leeds; and a piece by Jukebox Collective that blends moving image and dance along the south Wales coast.

The latter is beautifully displayed on fabrics suspended from the ceiling, just one example of the many textural interventions that add intrigue to the show.

Motion blurred photo of people in a club
Sunday night at the Blue Note in Hoxton, London by Eddie Otchere, c. 1995
Black and white photo of two young people sat next to a large container filled with vinyl records
Record store during Notting Hill Carnival. Image © Adrian Boot /, all rights reserved

The exhibition wraps up with one last commission, a film installation called iwoyi: within the echo, which fully envelops the low-lit final room. Directed by Rohan Ayinde and Tayo Rapoport in collaboration with London-based music label and community cornerstone Touching Bass, the film goes on a non-linear journey, where the tactile forms of concrete and hardware give way to a higher plane of cosmology and spirituality.

“Aleema gave us a behemoth of a brief!” explain the directors. “It was beautiful and sprawling and held so many of the ideas she had been working through to make the whole exhibition. However, we pretty quickly decided to zero in on one part of what she’d offered up, which was the question: what does a radical and reparative future look like for the making of Black British music?”

Key to their interpretation is the idea of “the reclamation of spaces for rest”, which is embodied by the design of the room itself.

People sat in a living space with instruments
Still from iwoyi: within the echo directed by Tayo Rapoport and Rohan Ayinde in collaboration with Touching Bass
Close-up of people's hands as they play dominoes which are levitating above the tabletop
iwoyi: within the echo

Developed over the course of voice notes, notebooks, drafts and conversations, the film was a mutual collaboration between Rapoport and Ayinde, who each brought their respective specialisms in editing and poetry to the project.

The piece references everything from Robin DG Kelley’s book Freedom Dreams to the work of trauma therapist Resma Menakem to Ayinde’s own thesis, which was “organised around a conversation between the black hole and the Black radical imagination”, according to the directors. “One of the key ideas that came out of this work is the refusal of a singular perspective and the necessity to embrace the unknown/opaque as a form of resistance to the persistent oppression of racial capitalism.”

A person wearing a jewelled head covering dancing in a dimly lit room with other people in the background
iwoyi: within the echo
A red spherical orb against a black background
iwoyi: within the echo

“Creating an installation that cannot be comprehended from any singular position felt like it spoke to this,” explain the directors, who went with a five-channel setup to get across this idea.

“We also chose the installation format because we wanted you to really feel like you were inside the echo, tethered to the past, future and present through multiple points of sound and image. We wanted to work in a form that really made people need to sit and listen, feel and engage in order to access the breadth of the work’s ideas.”

Beyond the Bassline: 500 Years of Black British Music is at the British Library, London until August 26;