So, how did you respond to Miley Cyrus’ ‘twerking’ at the VMAs last month? Was it a mixture of disgust and outrage? Did you look at the erstwhile Disney star gyrating in a flesh-coloured bikini and think that what the girl needs is a short stay in a race studies class? Were you rubbing your eyes, smacking your lips and gnashing your teeth at this modern-day ‘minstrel show’? As the former Hannah Montana stuck her tongue out and rubbed herself up against singer Robin Thicke, could you see nothing but ‘the annexing (of) the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies’?
No? Me neither. Assuming you paid any attention to it at all, you may have felt a degree of awkwardness over a tween icon suddenly launching into such a sexualised display and perhaps surprise that this controversial thing called twerking was what you’ve seen people do in clubs for at least a couple of decades. Yet chances are, if you’re from the UK, the nature of the controversy would have left you a bit baffled.
While he might caution against the smugness, music writer Lloyd Bradley certainly would agree that the UK has a very different relationship to black culture – or at least its music. His new book, Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital takes as its starting point the seeming cultural triumph of urban music in Britain, pointing towards its ubiquity in last year’s Olympics celebration and the global success of young black musicians such as Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah in the ethnically diverse, but London-derived, grime and dubstep scenes. As the book title implies, a significant part of the world’s most popular music can trace its roots back to London, and the huge diversity of subcultures it is home to.
Also mindful of the way ‘black’ music has, until recently, eluded mainstream acclaim, his history here focuses exclusively on musical styles created by London-based black artists for London’s predominantly black audiences. While there are some surprising omissions (no two-tone and only brief mentions of British soul/R&B), Bradley’s book is an absorbing history of some of the more overlooked genres, such as lover’s rock. More importantly, it presents us with a rich cast of characters ‘most of whom refused to play by the rules’ to make an impact on musical culture, often in spite of indifference from the music industry or wider institutions.
They range from classically trained Guyanese clarinettist Rudolph Dunbar, who went from the Harlem jazz scene to becoming the first black conductor of the London Philharmonic in 1942; showboating calypso singer Lord Kitchener, who came to England on the Empire Windrush in 1948 and, not missing a beat, sang ‘London is the place for me’ to the Pathé News cameras that documented the ship’s arrival; Cy Grant, a former RAF bomber and German POW who made his way, via a successful calypso career, to being the voice of Lieutenant Green on Captain Scarlet; and Claudia Jones, the Communist activist who founded the forerunner to the Notting Hill Carnival to raise local community spirits following racist attacks.