As a black-British son born in the UK and raised in London to Ghanaian immigrants, music was always going to be a big part of my story.
It has been a way to make sense of the world, to connect with legacies that came before me, and to access cultures that I couldn’t really encounter otherwise.
I love the ancient art of creating music playlists. “Add to playlist.” As for the sentences, it’s good. Three simple words, chained together with enough economy to make everything clear, but enough puzzles to intrigue you. It’s also three very different things.
First, Add to playlist is the title of a new arts program on BBC Radio 4. This is where two exciting music enthusiasts, Cerys Matthews and Jeffrey Boakye (me), can string together a weekly playlist that explores all kinds of connections and connections between songs that are otherwise unconnected.
I will be joined by all kinds of musicians and music experts to illuminate the finer details and help explore the hard wiring, explaining the theory and technicalities behind musical magic. It’s a show that builds, track by track, to build a playlist in real time.
This is the second thing: “add to playlist” is an instruction. It’s something to do. An action. Perhaps an imperative. This is what should happen when you create a compilation of songs to enjoy later, or to give as a gift, or to capture and hold a particular mood or theme. You choose a track and then add it to the playlist.
And that’s where the third definition of adding to playlist flourishes. Not to overemphasize it, it’s a way of life. Ethics. For me, like many of us who live on a soundtrack, the playlist is part of the biography.
It is a living thing that grows and develops with our view of the world also expanding. You start out young, oblivious to the worlds music can hold, but you seek and grow, adding to life’s playlist until there is a song for every memory, every capital E event, every person. important.
Black History Month marks a time of year when we are all invited to celebrate black culture and recognize the trauma suffered by black communities – in a world that continues to struggle against the insidious and explicit realities of the world. racism and racial oppression.
Music is a powerful way to do all of these things. It can be both a celebration, a resistance, and a way to talk about oppression.
So when I sat down to trace the modern history of British black communities, I decided to make a reading list. I called it Musical Truth, and it’s a book that takes you through a timeline of Black Britain through 28 songs. In the spirit of adding to a playlist, I’ve picked here a selection of songs that can illuminate the black British experience.
‘1980’ Estelle (2004)
If you’re looking for a love letter about what it was like to grow up black and British in the ’80s and’ 90s, you can’t get better than this song. It’s a hip-hop ode to the British black experience, Estelle detailing the joys of growing up as part of the second generation of the British-born black diaspora.
It is also poignant to recognize the pain of deprivation without losing any of the joy that binds the black community. As an ’80s kid myself, “1980” is a warm reminder of where we came from – nostalgia in the best sense of the word.
“Cockney Translation” Smiley Culture (1985)
In the UK, black identity is a multi-faceted thing. In a way, it’s an immigrant story, the home-away-from-home policy of feeling unwelcome in the place you call home. But also, black communities have an enduring connection to Britain that dates back to the British Empire and earlier, to such an extent that some generations would have viewed Britain as a “mother” country. In “Cockney Translation”, we find a song hyper conscious of a very British double identity: the Londoner of the Cockney language and the West Indian of the patois language. It’s playful and provocative and, ultimately, a lesson in how black culture can comfortably straddle different identities.
“Immigrant” Sade (2000)
Helen Folasade Adu is the lesser-known full name of the artist known as Sade, one of the most iconic British singers of all time.
“Immigrant” is a quietly powerful song about the experiences of marginalization, prejudice and discrimination faced by blacks in majority white countries. It draws on the real-life experiences of Sade’s own father. This is a heart-warming song that asks you to pause and reflect on what so-called immigrants have faced and continue to face in a world struggling with racism.
“No Carnival in Britain” Mighty Terror (1954)
In the 1950s, black communities recently settled in British cities were faced with the realities of racism and prejudice in the country they inhabited. The optimism encapsulated by Lord Kitchener’s 1948 calypso classic “London is the Place for Me” was beginning to fade.
“No Carnival in Britain” sums up that sentiment, a calypso lament against life’s gross injustices that also (inadvertently) nods to the joy that would come with the Notting Hill Fayre, a community event that would become Notting Hill Carnival, one of the most famous street parties around the world.
Jords ‘Black and Ready’ (2020)
As much as the streets are for dancing, they are also for protesting or gathering to make a point. 2020 saw the resurgence of a long-standing global conversation about racism and equality, marked by the rise of Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd.
“Black and Ready” is a resolute and sensitive soundtrack at this time. It even features Black Lives Matter repeat vocals in the background, an audio timestamp. The problems of the past are far from over, but here we have a generation that is ready to face them. It is truly inspiring.
Add to Playlist starts Friday at 7.15pm on Radio 4 and BBC Sounds