Where does Black British Music belong and who gets to decide?
2022 Clore Fellow Adem Holness discusses the place of Black British music through ‘Form 696‘.
For many generations, discrimination through legislation has been a daily reality for the Black community worldwide. So, of course, the UK’s history with such legislation is no exception. For me, one of the most personal recent examples is ‘Form 696.’
Between 2006 and 2017, to put on live music in London, you had to fill out the now controversial Metropolitan Police risk assessment form 696. The form was controversial because non-compliance with the form, or if your submission contained anything deemed too risky, you could experience police opposition to event licences being granted.
As a result of Form 696, pioneers and legends of the UK rap scene, such as Giggs and J Hus, have had their shows cancelled on numerous occasions, with the former resorting to secret shows to avoid the law. So, for more than a decade, some Black music artists were barred from performing live. Promoters (including myself) were barred from putting on shows. Audiences could not jump around and dance to their favourite music. A reality utterly inconsistent with other types of music.
Flash forward to 2021, and the form is no longer in use, which is a good thing. But there has never been any kind of deliberate intervention to address it artistically or economically.
So, while working as Music Curator at the Horniman Museum and undergoing the Clore Fellowship, I’ve been working to respond.
Jobs like mine, in my opinion, are more akin to being a caretaker than a gatekeeper. Of course, we must care for our buildings and collections to guarantee they remain much beyond our lifetimes. But for the time being, that means also assisting people in gaining access to and using them in a way relevant to their experience. Broadly speaking, I see my job as connecting the Museum’s spaces and collection of musical instruments to the local music community.
here’s a beautiful Black music scene right on our doorstep, and despite having a long history of music as an organisation, we’ve not recently been connected to it.
So, I created a cross-cutting project called 696, which brought together colleagues from curatorial, learning, public programmes, and exhibitions.
For me, 696 at the Horniman is an opportunity to explore the relationship between public space and Black live music with the support of a major public institution. 696 is my way of building those links in a way that considers the relationship between organisations like ours and the Black music scene.
Many cultural organisations are focused on diversifying their audiences or wider organisations. However, to do it successfully, you have to be clear about your intentions.
For me, in doing this, I’ve felt it imperative to acknowledge how Black British music has historically been pushed out of public spaces. So I wanted to make sure that if we’re going to welcome it in, we’re not doing it in a way that feels appropriative or tokenistic. So instead, I want my work to say, ‘this is how Museums can be a resource. Our collections can be a source of inspiration. They can be tools to make music. These spaces belong to you.’
But for an organisation with a limited track record in engaging local Black audiences, how can you authentically build those connections?
It’s very simple to think of Black culture and Black art in terms of racism and pain. And, clearly, form 696 is terrible and devastating, so I wanted to highlight that, but I also didn’t want it to seem heavy. While it is essential to acknowledge our shared and challenging history, I don’t feel the pain has to be the main focus. I wanted my version of 696 to have a joyous sense to it.
I also knew that the Horniman couldn’t be the sole voice in this work despite being curated by a Black leader. Therefore, it was crucial to connect with local artists and creatives and collaborate to create these celebrations.
So, the 696 festival celebrated the South London music scene. For the summer of 2021, the Black British sounds of south London took centre stage at the Horniman Museum and Gardens for 696. I couldn’t be more proud. We saw the return of The Original Jerk Cookout, an event banned 10 years prior. We showcased some of South London’s cuttingedge live music scene in partnership with creatives and promoters working across Afrofuturist hip-hop to reggae, jazz and soul.
For 696’s exhibition: Dance Can’t Nice, I wanted to celebrate the private spaces in which Black British Music thrived, despite things like form 696. was really keen to work with Naeem Dxvis because I think that they’re amazing. Their work is really visceral, but it’s got such self-awareness and a sense of humour about it. So I’m really proud that we got to honour and commemorate these spaces together.
I was also hugely aware that as form696 stopped promoters from putting Black live music for over 10 years, the barrier to entry for our younger generation was huge. So I developed the 696 Promoters programme. We equipped local 16-25-year-olds with the skills to put live music on, the skills that might have been lost in the challenges that form 696 presented.
Not only are we developing skills and opportunities for the 696 Promoters, but we’re also recognising the importance of it and ensuring that it features as part of the main artistic programme. So it’s not like this little thing we’re doing with young people, here’s some graffiti poster. They’re doing a main gig. It’s as significant as Steam Down on the Bandstand or Balimaya Project in the Sunken Gardens or Shabaka Hutchings in the Conservatory. What they’re doing is of the same value to us as an organisation, even though they get some extra support to shape and develop their ideas.
Anyone who has visited The Horniman knows it is a stunning venue for live music, inside and out, in the award-winning grounds. But as a Black person, despite the beauty, I’m always aware of its colonial history. The Horniman was given to the citizens of London by its creator and is now sponsored by the government. So to engage our local Black music community. So it was critical to recast this mission in a modern framework to reconcile this history and its present. The population of London have changed a lot since 1901, and my intention was that 696 would show the residents of London today that the Horniman is entirely for them. Because Black British music, creativity, and culture are vital to our city.
My hope is that by opening up the Horniman’s spaces to celebrate Black British Music and proudly say that Black Live Music Matters, other organisations will do the same.