Thirty Faces who Shaped the Sound of Black Britain

The people behind the music that lifted black Britons to new heights of influence and immersion.

By Museum of Youth Culture

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Black Britons have made an indelible mark on British music and culture, certainly in the 70 years since the end of the second world war. 

Popular music as we know it evolved from the earliest creativity of black and brown people the world over, and the debt owed has often long gone unacknowledged.

The borrowing and lending of ideas between America and Britain has been a constant for decades, and Black Britons have never been shy about closely studying their American counterparts, first on radios and grainy television broadcasts, later in the flesh, and then cleverly twisting the American sounds into something distinctively British which would go on to be world changing in it’s own way.

This essay lists 30 significant black British musicians and singers who contributed to the glorious and proud mountain we can call The British Music Scene.

LIFE Photo Collection

1. Shirley Bassey. Born Tiger Bay, Wales. 1937

Dame Shirley Veronica Bassey was the first ever Welsh person to have a UK number one, and has the longest span of hit records in UK chart history - over 40 years and counting.

At school her powerful voice was coldly observed, but she was given little encouragement: "Everyone told me to shut up. Even in the school choir the teacher kept telling me to back off till I was singing in the corridor!".

Her most successful period was in the 1970s, during which she bulldozed through the staid gardens of TV light entertainment with astonishingly powerful and dramatic interpretations of pop standards, but since then she has straddled many different musical arenas, even dabbling with electronic dance music in the 1990s.

She is the only person to have sung more than one James Bond theme - she's actually sang three - and in 1978 she pleaded guilty to being drunk and disorderly, after assaulting a policeman who was trying to stop Dame Bassey shouting abuse at passers by in the street.

A portrait of Pauline Black by Toni TyeMuseum of Youth Culture

2. Pauline Black. Born Romford, 1953

Born Belinda Magnus to a NIgerian father and a Anglo-Jewish mother, and subsequently adopted by a middle-aged white couple, Pauline Black studied science at Coventry Polytechnic, trained as a radiographer, and worked as an NHS nurse for 5 years before becoming a musician.

She joined 2-tone ska band, The Selector, as lead singer.

She chose the stage name Pauline Black as a reaction to her upbringing - her adoptive family had always referred to her as "coloured" rather than black.

B.A.D. Big Audio Dynamite. Mick Jones and Don Letts (1990s) by Laurence WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

3. Don Letts. Born, London, 1956

Don Letts is a DJ, musician and film director, and is instrumental in introducing reggae and dub music into the London punk scene, a fusion that helped shape the landscape of British new wave music in the late 1970s.

As a teenager he snuck into Bob Marley's London hotel room, and the two men ended up talking throughout the night.

He has directed hundreds of pop videos, and has also directed films and documentaries, the first of which The Punk Rock Movie, he funded from Dj'ing and selling clothes.

He was co founder of 1980s hit makers Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones, formerly of iconic new wave group The Clash.

Letts had been chief videographer of The Clash.

Norman Jay (2004) by Tom OldhamMuseum of Youth Culture

4. Norman Jay, Notting Hill, London, 1957

Norman Jay is a DJ who started playing parties in the mid 1960s at the age of 8, influenced by his dad’s blue beat, ska and jazz record collection. A visit to New York as a teenager was a huge inspiration to the young Norman; on returning to London he introduced the pioneering Good Times sound system to the Noting Hill Carnival, in 1979.

This saw soul and disco music heard at the Carnival for the first time, and met with some opposition from those Carnival goers who saw the event as purely about roots reggae and dub music. 

Nevertheless, the sound system quickly became a smash hit, a cornerstone of the carnival until 2014, when, due to regeneration in the area, Good Times lost it’s original spot and left the carnival for good. 

Norman Jay DJing at the Good Times sound system (2006) by Giles MoberlyMuseum of Youth Culture

Norman was also a founder member of one of the most successful London pirate radio stations, Kiss FM, which launched in 1985 and was given a legal broadcast license in 1990. His show The Original Rare Groove Show introduced the phrase rare groove into the musical lexicon.

As well as his radio shows, Norman was involved in illegal warehouse parties across London, and he co founded the club night High on Hope, the first club night in London mixing house, soul and disco music, in the eclectic style of New York’s Paradise Garage club. 

Norman Jay (2005) by Tom OldhamMuseum of Youth Culture

And then there’s the record label, Talkin’ Loud he co founded with fellow DJ Gilles Peterson in 1990, which led the Acid Jazz music scene.

Having basically invented the 1990s, Norman Jay was given an MBE for services to music, in 2002.

Rastafarian poet (1980s) by Peter AndersonMuseum of Youth Culture

5. Benjamin Zephaniah. Born, Handsworth, 1958

A dyslexic, vegan, rastafari, self described anarchist, Benjamin Zephaniah is strictly speaking, more a poet than a musician, but he has recorded many albums., His first, released in 1982, Rasta, featured Bob Marley's backing band The Wailers and reached number 1 in Yugoslavia.

Zepheniah's achievements and creative output iare considerable. Apart from records, he's published novels and books of poetry such as Too Black, Too Strong and his 2002 volume We Are British! which celebrated diversity in Britain.

He has passionately spoken against homophobia in Jamaican culture, and gave up smoking cannabis in his 30s.

Rastafarian poet (1980s) by Peter AndersonMuseum of Youth Culture

Since 2013 Zephaniah has appeared in the massively popular TV show, Peaky Blinders.

Daddy G (2008) by Laurence WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

6. Daddy G, Bristol, 1959

Daddy G - born Grantley Marshall - was originally a member of the innovative Bristol based sound system The Wild Bunch. Daddy G was one of the youngest DJs in the city and went on to co found Massive Attack, the beautifully bleak yet globally successful ‘trip hop’ group, who are mischievously rumoured to include Banksy in their line up. And they invented the mid 1990s phenomenon of dance music you can’t dance to. 

Their most famous song Teardrop, is still frequently used in day time property viewing shows, usually to soundtrack the ‘after’ montage of a impressively refurbished walk in shower/utility room.

Carl McIntosh of Loose Ends with Dog (1990s) by Adam FriedmanMuseum of Youth Culture

7. Carl McIntosh, London, 1962

Carl McIntosh was part of British R&B group Loose Ends. In 1985, Loose Ends became the first black British band to reach number 1 in the US Billboard R&B chart with their anthemic single Hangin' On A String (Contemplatin'); in the 1980s R&B was a genre dominated almost purely by American acts.

McIntosh wrote songs for the Romford based siblings Five Star, who were dubbed Britain's answer to The Jacksons.

DJ Carl Cox sipping champagne (1998) by Guy BakerMuseum of Youth Culture

8. Carl Cox, Carshalton, 1962

A rare thing among DJ's, Carl Cox has kept the name he was born with throughout his 42 year long career.

Cox started DJ ing disco music in 1977, and like so many on this list, moved to the front of the House Music bus and never looked back. He was the first DJ to use three decks, rather than the usual two.

Cox certainly partied like it was 1999 on December 31 that year; he played in Sydney, Australia and then again in Hawaii after flying back over the International Date Line.

He moved from house into techno music, and held down a residency at Space in Ibiza for 15 years.

Jazzie B Soul II Soul and Chuck D Public Enemy meet in New York (1990) by NormskiMuseum of Youth Culture

9. Jazzie B, Hornsey, London, 1963

Jazzie B founded the hugely significant Soul II Soul collective in the 1980s; his four older brothers got him into a variety of black music genres and he built his first DJ equipment himself as part of his woodwork class at his North London school.

As a teenager in the 1970s, with his Hornsey schoolmates, he frequented a now overlooked, but once essential lunchtime gay disco on Oxford Street called Crackers.

Here, he observed the skilled dancers responding to the newly emerging disco and soul records, on a dance floor strangely littered with discarded slices of bread and processed meat. The bread and meat was actually essential, there to comply with the arcane licensing laws of the day, which insisted clubs at the time had to provide food, so everyone entering the club was handed a slice of bread and meat, regardless of whether they wanted it or not.

Jazzie B of Soul II Soul, Adam Friedman, 1990s, From the collection of: Museum of Youth Culture
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British black music in the 1970s was still dominated by Jamaican reggae, but, filtered through Black British youth, it mutated into Lovers Rock, a softer more romantic form of reggae, almost uniquely British.

Here’s Jazzie speaking in 2005, to the authors of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life:

(The girls in the reggae scene), you wouldn’t bring em home, d’you know what I mean! These girls were as hard as nails, I’m tellin’ you. Stand on their foot and you’d be....stabbed up... And that was by them, not their boyfriends. But the lovers rock scene, it brought that calmness and lovingness back into it again. Plus it was an English style of music, and the reggae boys, the real hard reggae boys couldn’t stand it, because it wasn’t Jamaican. But then we were just about coming up with our own identity, which was the interesting thing.

Jazzie B Soul II Soul name belt (1988) by NormskiMuseum of Youth Culture

Jazzie B grew up as a second generation Black Briton. He sublimely describes the difference between the first and second generation British blacks here:

It’s the difference between growing up in the 60s, like say Norman Jay, to growing up in the 70s. You’ve got to go way back to that whole northern soul, Lulu thing to understand. I’m talking black and white tellies. So you go from that era to to where we come in, Granada (TV) was born, it was colour. It’s like, fuck me, here we are... And it really was like that, because we’re coming from the times when there was one phone on the street, or one person had a telly, that was Norman’s day, to our bit, where it was this whole GLC, / ska / 2-Tone thing... (we) had the relief teachers in school that everyone was shagging cos they was the same age as you, everyone was wearing Kickers, it was all about that branding. We’d just come out of Ben Sherman, now we were (a) bit more smarter……

In the 80s Jazzie B and Soul II Soul took the warehouse sound system thing into London’s West End, holding blockbusting events at The Africa Centre in Covent Garden, and eventually Soul II Soul made their own records, resulting in a series of worldwide smash hit singles in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Caron Wheeler of Soul II Soul (1990s) by Laurence WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

10. Caron Wheeler, Acton, London, 1963

Watching old episodes of the British music show Top of the Pops from the early 1980s, it would seem that every major successful British music artist had to have black women backing singers, as if by law.

Caron Wheeler, and her vocal harmony group Afrodiziak would have, most probably, been those backing singers. And like so many before her, and since, Wheeler eventually emerged from the back of the stage to enjoy a solo career of her own.

In between being a back up singer and a solo singer in her own right she was vocalist with the world conquering Soul ll Soul.

(Ironically, Mariah Carey was originally one of backing singers on the first Soul ll Soul album, a 'ghost vocalist' brought in to strengthen Caron Wheeler's lead vocals.)

Neneh Cherry (1980s) by Laurence WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

11. Neneh Cherry, Sweden, 1964

Cherry is the only musician list on this list not born in the United Kingdom; she was born in Sweden and moved to London when she was 14.

In London, Cherry says she found 'her people' after meeting 1970s feminist new wavers The Slits via her jazz musician stepfather.

Like so many others on this list she worked with Massive Attack and later joined the influential Buffalo Posse, a fashion collective formed in the late 1980s by fashion influencer Ray Petri, and promoted heavily by The Face magazine.

She met her future husband Cameron McVey who was also part of this group, and together they made Cherry's first solo single, the iconic Buffalo Stance. Cherry shocked 1989 TV audiences by performing the single on Top of the Pops, whilst heavily pregnant.

Shara Nelson in Recording Booth (1990s) by Adam FriedmanMuseum of Youth Culture

12. Shara Nelson, London, 1965

Another black Briton, who found fame after working with the Bristol based collective The Wild Bunch, Shara Nelson sung on one of the most revered British songs of the 1990s, Unfinished Sympathy by Massive Attack. (At the time of the single’s release in 1991, the group had to shorten their name to just ‘Massive’ as the BBC couldn’t say ‘Massive Attack’ on the radio during the Gulf War).

In the mid 1990s Nelson resumed her solo career with the album What Silence Knows. She experienced severe mental health issues in the 2010s, which culminated with the DJ Pete Tong obtaining a restraining order against her.

She recovered and contributed to a single supporting Team Badger's petition to stop badger culls.

Goldie with cans of beer (2006) by Suzy Del CampoMuseum of Youth Culture

13. Goldie, Wolverhampton, 1965

Goldie was born Clifford Price, of Jamaican and Scottish heritage. He was fostered and raised in childcare. He was a breakdancer, a prominent graffiti artist and sold gold teeth jewellery in New York.

In 1991 his girlfriend DJ Kemistry introduced him to pioneering drum and bass producers 4Hero which led him to recording his own music, culminating in the 1995 album Timeless and the founding of his record label Metalheadz. Timeless was followed by Saturn Returns in 1998 which opened with an 60 minute orchestral drum and bass piece, inspired by his mother.

Alongside his music and art, Goldie's career on reality television is remarkable. He was evicted first in Celebrity Big Brother in 2002, 4th in Celebrity Mastermind in 2007 and lasted 2 weeks on Strictly Come Dancing. He has also appeared on the Come Dine With Me Christmas Special in 2010 and All Star Mr and Mrs as well as Eastenders and the films Snatch and The World Is Not Enough among others.

He is a lauded artist who has exhibited in Shoreditch and Berlin, and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2016, for his services to music and young people, and received an honorary degree of Doctor of Design from the University of Wolverhampton.

Fabio (1996) by Rob WatkinsMuseum of Youth Culture

14. Fabio & Grooverider, London, 1965 / 1967

Fitzroy Heslop and Raymond Bingham - who as DJs go perform as Fabio & Grooverider - are pivotal names in the rise of drum and bass music.

Riding the wave of the London acid house explosion, Fabio & Grooverider took the house music sound and made it darker and heavier, turning up the bass EQ to 11 and taking it from there. 

Invading mainstream radio, the pair went from Kiss FM to Radio 1, with the weekly One In The Jungle show, bringing the new drum and bass sound to music lovers across the nation.

DJ Grooverider UK 1998 (1998) by Tom OldhamMuseum of Youth Culture

Normski portrait London by Tom OldhamMuseum of Youth Culture

15. Normski, London, 1966

Norman Anderson - 'Normski' - is a rapper, dj, photographer and television producer.

He presented the BBC2 teatime youth tv show Def II which heavenly featured rap music, at a time when rap music was still difficult to access on mainstream radio and tv.

Def II ran from 1988 to 1994 and was a strand of loosely themed programmed collected together under one banner. Among these programmes were The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (screened for the first time in the UK) and The Real McCoy, a sketch show with a British all black cast.

Normski also introduced a Def II show called Dance Energy which showcased the dance music revolution in the UK in the early 1990s.

His photographs of young black artists from the early 1980s onwards form a major part of the Youth Club archives.

A Guy Called Gerald (1989) by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture

16. A Guy Called Gerald, Manchester, 1967

Gerald Simpson - A Guy Called Gerald - played a vital part in the Manchester Acid House scene, which in turn transformed music, clubbing and Youth Culture in Britain from the late 1980s onwards. 

He was influenced by his Jamaican roots; his father's blue beat, ska and Trojan reggae record collection, his mother's Pentecostal church sessions and the Jamaican sound system parties in Manchester's Moss Side area where he grew up.

Watching the dancers dance to  jazz fusion and electro funk at Manchester youth clubs and shebeens, he was inspired to study contemporary dance, but early hip hop and b-boy culture inspired him to change direction. He wanted to actually make the music that people danced to so he immersed himself in electronic music production.

A Guy Called Gerald (1989) by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture

Working from the attic of his mum’s house, on basic equipment, he created the anthemic track Voodoo Ray, and has been making groundbreaking music ever since.

I used to spend all my weekends at….the synth shop. I'd play around with these synths. I realised, at some point, that I could afford this 808 drum machine. I think it was like 180 quid. I got this job at McDonalds, and I worked out that if I did this many shifts, I could get it eventually. So I put some money down on it, not realising that it was the end of everything for me - because once you had the drum machine, you needed the keyboard; once you got the keyboard, you needed this bass machine - then a mixer, then effects. I had to keep working at McDonalds for a couple of years! Actually, I remember when I was leaving there, I wrote them a letter saying 'They played my music on the radio so I must leave….’.

LTJ Bukem (1998) by Rob WatkinsMuseum of Youth Culture

17. LTJ Bukem, Watford, London, 1967

LTJ Bukem - born Daniel Williamson - originally trained as a classical pianist, but pursued DJing in the early 90s UK rave scene.

He is credited with inventing a music genre called Intelligent Drum and Bass, by combining mellow 70s jazz arrangements with the drum and bass rhythms.

In doing so, he created a divide between those who liked their drum and bass music with a softer edge, and those who favoured speed and aggression.

David McAlmont ThePopFactory TV Show by Rob WatkinsMuseum of Youth Culture

18. David McAlmont, Croydon, 1967

David McAlmont was born to Guyanese and Nigerian parents, and was first heard as the lead singer of London group Thieves.

He left Thieves for a solo career, and toured supporting Morrissey in the mid 1990s. He was approached by Bernard Butler, formerly of indie guitar group Suede and the collaboration resulted in a hit album and the single, Yes.

He has also collaborated with James Bond soundtrack composer David Arnold on a cover of Shirley Bassey's belting Bond banger Diamonds Are Forever and collaborated with the classical pianist Michael Nyman on the superb 2009 album The Glare.

McAlmont wrote the title track about Britain's Got Talent winner Susan Boyle, and the loneliness and isolation he believed she must be feeling.

McAlmont & Butler ThePopFactory TV Show by Rob WatkinsMuseum of Youth Culture

McAlmont is openly gay. Here he speaks about his teenage school years:

We were doing a 13-year-old kids version of 'Close To You'. All the boys were growling and all the girls were singing very sweetly and I was singing very sweetly too. The music teacher knew something was up - she got the boys to start on their own. I thought: 'If anyone's doing anything wrong I don't want to be found out' and I joined in with the growling. But teach knew the difference. She said, 'McAlmont, you've got a lovely voice and you shouldn't be ashamed of it'......

Tricky (2008) by Laurence WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

19. Tricky, Bristol, 1968

The fourth musician on this list to have emerged from the 80s Bristol scene, Tricky was born Adrian Thaws and worked with Massive Attack, before falling out with them.

He was one of his father's Roy's 15 children and was raised by his grandmother who let him stay at home watching horror films instead of going to school.

His breakthough album, Maxinquaye - named after his mother who died from epilepsy or possibly suicide, when Tricky was 4 - was released in 1995.

Tricky's music can be described as trip-hop, combining hip hop with rock and reggae, to produce dark, intense music.

His lyrics blur gender definitions - he dressed as a woman on the inner sleeve of Maxinquaye - and he is also vocal about racial stereotyping, complaining about photographers who always want him to look 'angry' in pictures.

Tricky covered Tattoo by new wave icons Siouxsie & The Banshees, citing the song as a major influence on his music.

He appeared with Beyonce at Glastonbury, duetting on Baby Boy, but later said he had never been so embarrassed in his whole life.

Roni Size dj'ing (1990s) by Brian SweeneyMuseum of Youth Culture

20. Roni Size. Bristol, 1969

And yet another star student form the Bristol music scene, Roni Size - born Ryan Owen Granville Williams -
was expelled from school at 16. He drifted into the now legendary Bristol Wild Bunch house parties and learnt about music production at his local youth club, The Sefton Park Basement Project, creating new music from his brother's huge collection of Studio One reggae records.

His innovative merging of drum 'n'bass with hip hop, funk, soul and house secured regular appearances at major festivals in the fervent late 1990s.

Monie Love (1990s) by NormskiMuseum of Youth Culture

21. Monie Love, Battersea, London, 1970

Monie Love - christened Simone Wilson - was born in London, so qualifies for this list, but moved to Philadelphia when she was 17.

She has worked with Whitney Houston, Prince, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Tupac Shakur and many more.

She works as a radio broadcaster in the US, and is a single mother of four children.

UK rapper Silver Bullet (1988) by NormskiMuseum of Youth Culture

22. Silver Bullet, London, 1972

Silver Bullet - born Richard Brown - had two hit singles in 1989. By this time, rap and hip hop records were no longer just made by American artists.

British performers were now making some incredible, distinctively British hip hop records, and Silver Bullets scary singles Bring Forth The Guillotine and 20 Seconds To Comply were impossible to ignore.

After these hits Silver Bullet moved to America and toured with Public Enemy, but he never really replicated the success of those two astonishing hit records.

Ray Mighty (1985) by BeezerMuseum of Youth Culture

23. Ray Mighty was one half of the Bristol based duo Smith & Mighty.

They released two breakbeat cover versions of classic Burt Bacharach standards Walk On By and Anyone Who Had A Heart in the late 1980s, at a time when the juxtaposition between 1960s ballads and hip hop was an outrageous but totally enticing concept.

The records germinated the Bristol sound, which would later be termed trip hop. It was a glorious coming together of mellow, melodic popular arrangements, strings, spy film soundtracks and so on, with very contemporary hip hop and cannabis flavoured electronic sounds. 

This languid, smokey, slightly spooky sound - which totally stemmed from those two 1989 Smith & Mighty singles - dominated British music for most of the 1990s, before suffering middle class dinner party overload around the turn of the century.

BEVERLY KNIGHT @ SHEPERDS BUSH EMPIRE by Tristan FewingsMuseum of Youth Culture

24. Beverley Knight, Wolverhampton, 1973

Beverley Knight was brought up in a strict Pentecostal environment were secular music - non religious music - was forbidden.

The British black church community is one that - through Gospel music - has a rich history of nurturing musical talent, with Beverley Knight being one of its greatest successes.

Knight has worked with many of the names on this list; Tanners Hill resident Black Twang on her first album in 1994, and Carl McIntosh on her second album, Prodigal Sista - which has been described as the greatest British soul album of all time.

She moved away from recording purely soul music in the 2000s.

Her new pop/rock direction did not impress the Black Press. The Voice and Blues & Soul accused her of 'selling out' and suggested she was being manipulated by her record company.

Her 2011 album featured cover versions of songs by great British soul, funk and rock artists, including Soul ll Soul and Loose Ends.

She won Celebrity Mastermind in 2010, answering questions on her hero Prince, and has appeared on the always lively daytime talk show Loose Women six times.

She has campaigned against the homophobic lyrics in urban music and played The Fairy Godmother in Cinderella at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

BEVERLY KNIGHT @ SHEPERDS BUSH EMPIRE by Tristan FewingsMuseum of Youth Culture

Every young black artist, even Whitney Houston and Prince, is accused of selling out if they veer from the stereotypical black sound. I was like, ‘I’m a musician. Nobody in a minority likes to be stereotyped, so why are we doing it to ourselves?’ I’ve never let my skin colour or gender limit me. Music is good or not. That’s it.

Duke Vin by Giles MoberlyMuseum of Youth Culture

25. Duke Vin, Kingston, 1928

Vincent George Forbes better known as Duke Vin, was a Jamaican-born sound system operator and selector who pioneered the first sound system in the United Kingdom. He began his career as a DJ or 'Selector' on the 'Tom the Great Sebastian sound system in the early 1950. At the time he was known as 'Shine-Shoes Vinny' due to his smart appearance. After travelling to England in 1954 as a stowaway on a boat from Kingston, he found work as an engine cleaner for British Rail, becoming an electrician two years later.

George built his first iconic sound system in 1955 using a second-hand turntable bought from a shop in Edgware Road, a speaker bought for £15 and an amplifier built for £4, soon establishing 'Duke Vin the Tickler's', in Ladbroke Grove, London, the first Jamaican-style sound system in the UK and paving the for soundsystem, carnival and bass music culture in the UK and beyond.

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26. Wiley, Bow, London, 1979

Wiley - born Richard Kylea Cowie - invented grime music.

His dad was a reggae singer who introduced Wiley to hip hop; Wiley became a DJ, then began making his own original music which he called Eskibeat, but became known as the grime music we all now nod our heads along to.

He says he is drawn to the winter and coldness in general.

"Sometimes I just feel cold hearted. I felt cold at that time (when I first started creating music), towards my family, towards everyone. That's why I used those names"

He has been awarded the MBE, and a petition with 2000 signatures has been given to the mayor of Bow, demanding a statue of Wiley be erected in his birthplace, Bow.

He says he has struggled with esteem issues. After been slashed in the face, and scarred across his left cheek, he felt unable to appear in public.

As such, he doesn't actually appear in the video for his biggest hit record, Wearing My Rolex. which instead features six vaguely convincing mutant fox women, scavenging for discarded fried chicken whilst simultaneously attempting to dance erotically on the menacing night time streets of East London.

He recently began a mildly entertaining feud with former friend Ed Sheeran.

V Festival (2006) by Tom OldhamMuseum of Youth Culture

27. Kele Okereke, Liverpool, 1981

Born to Roman Catholic Igbo Nigerian parents, Kele Okereke was lead singer and guitarist with Bloc Party, who were very much part of the overwhelmingly white straight indie music scene of the 2000s.

Okereke launched himself as a solo artist in 2010; his single Everything You Wanted was remixed by South African producers DJ Qness and DJ Mujava, who mixed their traditional South African Kwaito music with Kele's indie electropop style.

Kele is openly gay, and outspoken about the debauched lifestyle he sees being lead by young gay people.

In 2019 Kele co wrote a play entitled Leave To Remain about an interracial gay couple dealing with the fallout of Brexit.

V Festival (2006) by Tom OldhamMuseum of Youth Culture

It seems to me that the dominant mode of gay culture is taking drugs and sleeping around. It's just harmful. I think that sort of life doesn't really make anyone happy. It didn't make me happy, even when I was younger. I know my views might seem quite Victorian but I think there's something to be said for discipline.

Kele Okereke, 2010

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28. Sway, Hornsey, London, 1982

Sway learnt how to produce music during lunch breaks spent in the music room of his North London school.

Of Ghanaian descent, Sway - christened Derek Andrew Safo - fused West African hip-life music with the London grime sound.

His genre-defining song Little Derek helped him to be the first British rapper to be nominated for the American BET hip-hop awards.

Which he won.

His lyrics mischievously puncture the tired black 'gangsta' trope and he frequently celebrates fellow Ghanaian musicians in his songs.

He likes to nurture new artists - we can thank Sway for supporting Ed Sheeran's rise to the top - and he has collaborated with 80s ska stars Madness, baggy figurehead Ian Brown as well as Childish Gambino, Lupa Fiasco, Mark Ronson and The Kaiser Chiefs and others.

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29. Skepta. Tottenham, London, 1982.

In 2017, Debrett's - the professional coaching company, publisher and authority on etiquette and behaviour, founded in 1769 - included Skepta in their annual list of the most influential people in the United Kingdom.

Born Joseph Junior Adenuga Jr, Skepta is perhaps the most successful export of the British born grime movement. He grew up on the Meridian Wall estate in North London, and was encouraged to MC by Wiley after having his record collection confiscated by the police.

He won the MOBO best video award in 2014 for That's Not Me, a video that cost him only £80 to make, but looks like it cost at least £100. He won the Mercury Music Award in 2016 for his album Konnichiwa (the title means hello in Japanese) and toured America with his Banned From America tour, having previously had his American Visa application turned down.

In 2018, he was installed as a chief in his Nigerian hometown in Ogun State, receiving the chieftaincy title of the Amuludun of Odo-Aje.

DIZZEE RASCAL LIVE IN CONCERT by Tristan FewingsMuseum of Youth Culture

30. Dizzee Rascal, Bow, London, 1984

Dizzee Rascal, born Dylan Kwabena Mills to Nigerian and Ghanaian parents, was nicknamed Rascal by a a teacher from one of the four schools he was expelled from.

At 14, He became a drum and bass DJ, broadcasting on pirate radio, and as a rapper, released his first single at 16.

At 18 he formed a garage collective with school friends called the Roll Deep Crew.

At 19, he released his acclaimed debut album Boy In The Corner. Shortly after the album's release he was stabbed six times, possibly as a result of groping the buttocks of a member of rival garage chart toppers So Solid Crew.

He designed his own trainers for Nike, and became the only person in the history of pop music to add new lyrics to the holiday dirge Do They Know It's Christmas?. (Spare a thought this yuletide for the deprived, if the table was turned would you survive?//You ain't gotta feel guilt just selfless, give a little help to the helpless)

He has collaborated with a vast array of happening musicians including Beck, Arctic Monkeys, Florence + The Machine, Calvin Harris and Robbie Williams.

He recently featured in an advertising campaign for the Ladbrokes betting shop chain.

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Thirty stories then, of talented and driven young black Britons who were galvanised by music, and became original and inspiring world renowned figures.

The stories are all different, but connected perhaps by a dogged determination and an absolute love of, and belief in music as the single greatest thing invented.

Music can transform and carry feelings and beliefs in a way no other vessel can emulate.

Birds and whales sing, but human beings are privileged in being able to create something you can't necessarily touch or see, but lasts forever and elevates us higher than we can imagine.

Credits: Story

Joe Egg is a filmmaker, writer and DJ who has played records in some of the most iconic venues in London. He is a keen amateur freestyle dancer,   and has one of the biggest record collections in Deptford Bridge. 

The Museum of Youth Culture is a new destination dedicated to celebrating 100 years of youth culture history through photographs, ephemera and stories. Launching in 2019, the Online Museum of Youth Culture has been developed by YOUTH CLUB, with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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