Mykaell Riley, director of the Black Music Research Unit at the University of Westminster, talks about his Bass Culture project which aims to deliver a better understanding of the impact and legacy of Jamaican music on British culture and heritage over the last half century.
There are many voices and sounds in popular music and the British have been successful in introducing some of the best known. Underpinning this achievement is a history of great song writing and innovation in music production, the impact of which is familiar to generations of music listeners the world over
In the arena of pop music, Britain has established itself as a world leader since the early 60s, so credit should be given to both the British music industry and to the generations of musicians who have, and continue to add new music to the soundtrack of our lives.
While the monetary value of British pop music over this period is estimated to be in the billions, the cultural impact remains more complex to calculate. According to the British Phonographic Industries in 2015, figures showed clear evidence Britain was still punching well above its weight in the global pop scene. That year artists such as One Direction, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Coldplay and others contributed to a five year high in sales – claiming five out of 10 best-selling albums in the world that year. This is a phenomenal story of British success and something to be celebrated.
But behind these and many other achievements lies another story. One which I believe to be much more reflective of the reality for most musicians. British or otherwise, it’s a narrative that focuses on the pursuit of a career in music that too often never materialises. Having been a professional musician for more than three decades I know that, at best, success is fleeting, at worst, perpetually elusive. But to what extent is my experience typical of the industry?
My current role is that of senior lecturer and principal investigator, on the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project entitled Bass Culture. Broadly speaking, the project aims to deliver a better understanding of the impact and legacy of Jamaican music, on British culture and music, over the last half century. Outputs include up to 60 interviews with key musicians, industry professionals and the public. Other outputs include community workshops, the making of a full-length film, the delivery of a report, an exhibition and a couple of books. There remains a lot to get done but we’re making good headway.
Our first completed output was delivered last October as part of a collaborative report with partners Ticketmaster and Disrupt. It’s the first comprehensive use of ‘big data’ to reveal new patterns, trends, and associations, within a black British music genre.
Entitled the ‘State of Play Grime Report’, it provided the stats and figures from multiple industry sectors, enabling a reappraisal of the achievements of the genre. Importantly the report played a part in the removal of risk assessment form 696.
Originally introduced in 2005, this piece of legislation was used by the Metropolitan police to stop concerts or events thought to present a risk to public safety. While in principle the premise of the policy was acceptable, key industry sectors and audience members thought it was disproportionately applied to artists from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.
The timing of the report couldn’t have been better as last September Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, called for a review because of concerns that it was unfairly affecting specific communities and genres of music. Our report was published in October, and by 10 November 2017 the policy was scrapped.
By all accounts this was a collaborative effort that underscores the potential for research to embrace new technology; reflect community concerns; and to positively effect change. The Bass Culture research project has another year to run and hopefully there will be many more successful outcomes along the way.
Mykaell S. Riley is the founding member of Birmingham’s pioneering reggae band Steel Pulse and founder of the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra, the most visibly black/multicultural collection of classically trained musicians in the UK. He has worked with several successful UK pot parts as a writer, producer and arranger, and now directs the Black Music Research Unit at the University of Westminster. He is also a content developer for music related educational programmes, and a subject specialist for the Open University’s validation panel.