The History and Development of British Urban Music – Introduction

The following text is a draft introduction to a research document about the History and Development of British Urban Music by Neil March. It is hoped that the finished document will be ready for publication in Spring 2020.

INTRODUCTION

I have undertaken this research project as we enter the third decade of the new millennium, at least according to the recognised calendar in Western Europe and most of the world. It is a period in which what we broadly understand to constitute British ‘Urban’ music and its closely associated cultures have never seemed healthier nor more diverse. Of course generic terms like Urban Music will always be open to interpretation. It is arguably not enough, in 2020, to categorise urban music as being that of ‘black origin’. After all, what exactly does that mean? 

The issue of race in relation to the origins and cultural implications of musical genres continues to be a controversial one. The term cultural appropriation has, for example, acquired frequent use as an accusation aimed at any group or individual deemed guilty of stealing or exploiting another group’s cultural experience. It is an extremely dubious term. Most musicians, in my experience, object to the notion that any area of their art belongs to one or other group be that based on race, class, nationality, religion or some other category of claim. 

Music is music and, unless one can trace every vestige of its evolution back to its absolute origins, none of us can say with absolute conviction that it has avoided any contamination by other sources they would prefer not to acknowledge. Indeed, anyone who does make such a statement with absolute conviction is a fool or perhaps simply a bigot. 

The reality is that we all hear a vast amount of music every day of our lives in a host of scenarios – on the radio, in cafes, in shopping centres, from passing cars, from distant events and so the list continues. We may think we understand the origins of all our ideas. Yet every time we invent a melody, a chord pattern, a rhythmic configuration, a period of fluid counterpoint etc, we cannot truly know where the inspiration has arisen from (unless of course we are knowingly plagiarsing another’s work and even then there may be elements that cannot be fully accounted for). We may unknowingly take inspiration from music we perceive as being that which we dislike. We may draw on music from genres we consider that we have little or no interest in. These are among the great mysteries governing all creative arts. 

With all the above points in mind then, how do I propose to provide a watertight definition of British Urban Music. The answer is I don’t. Even if I considered myself to be markedly more qualified than I actually am to pursue such a goal, I still would not attempt to do so. Quite simply this is because there is no definition; at least not one which will satisfy everyone with an opinion about the matter. So the breadth of the British Urban music spectrum is for each individual to take a view about. In essence, in using such a term to describe current music, the best I can offer is music that bears the influence of any one or more of Soul, R’n’B, Funk, Hip Hop, Grime and associated genres. Even then what are associated genres? The answer, once again, is I cannot satisfactorily say. Do they include music influenced by Reggae and the vast canon of music whose roots can be traced, in the relatively short term at least, to the Caribbean? Do they include music influenced by Jazz which, after all, can be traced back to the music of Africa but is also seen as a genre that developed most significantly within the Americas in the early part of the twentieth century? Where do we draw the lines? Is it better that we simply do not try?

What is certainly true is that, even taking that broad and ambiguous selection as a means of trying to define British Urban music, it is clear that it makes room for a diverse spectrum of people from different ethnic, social and cultural backgrounds. Yet it is equally the case that, within parts of that heterogenous group, there will be strong cultural identities that do link to ethnic [in particular] and other backgrounds and histories. Recognising and acknowledging the importance of that is essential for any serious study of the music’s origins.

It is also essential to our understanding of the combination of elements – historic, cultural, socio-political etc. – which have contributed to the evolution of British Urban music. That then is the real starting point for my study. I want to get to the bottom of how a series of events and developments have played their part in the evolution of British Urban music. Not just access to ‘black’ music styles through the advent of radio, movies, television and other such media but also the arrival of immigrants aboard the Windrush and other vessels, the influence of Rock and Roll and the Blues on popular music in the UK, the role of dancehalls and discotheques, the influence of different ethnicities and cultures on British society and the impact of specific events and histories including how far back they go. How has Britain’s imperialist past, including the enslavement of many black people, impacted its musical culture?

I will look too at both the role played by musicians in, and the impact on their music by, the rise of the National Front and other racist organisations in the nineteen seventies and the response from the anti-racist movement. I will also consider other historic socio-political events and their impact on the direction of urban music.

I will look at how Asian music and culture has shaped the contemporary urban experience? One can point to the incorporation of genres such as Bhangra and Indian meditative music into Drum’n’Bass which, in turn, relates closely to Hip Hop, Grime and Dubstep. One can also point to the influence of British and American popular urban music on contemporary British Asian music artists. 

I will consider how the success of black and Asian sportspeople has both changed attitudes and helped the confidence of people from those communities and whether they have been more impactful in this respect than music artists, particularly in the sense of both galvinising and unifying the country in support of their achievements and providing a positive image for others of similar ethnic and cultural background and heritage. Has that played any part in enabling music and musicians of similar background to be taken more seriously?

In the interests of keeping this work within realistic parameters, I am focusing on events since the advent of Rock and Roll and thus the emergence of what we have come to know as popular music. I will consider the influence and significance of black icons in paving the way for a multi-ethnic scene such as we take for granted in the modern era. This will not be limited to artists whose musical background fits the notion of urban. At the same time I will consider the role played by white musicians in popularising styles associated with black music culture such as Blues, Soul and Rock and Roll and how that has impacted the development of urban music and where it has had a positive or negative impact on opportunities for black musicians.

As far as it is possible to do so I will conclude by demonstrating how this fascinating, sometimes volatile and frequently unpredictable evolutionary journey has led to what British Urban music looks and sounds like in 2020 and what marks it out from other broad musical alliances and genres. In so doing it is my hope that my work will shed light on the many component parts of this vast development and expansion of ideas, cultures and attitudes and how they might continue to evolve in the foreseeable future.

 

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