Black Sound (1930-1990)

An introduction to Black British music’s journey of creative independence

Black Cultural Archives

Image by Peter Anderson (1983)

Aswad (1970) by UnknownBlack Cultural Archives

This exhibit covers a key 60-year period of musical creativity and DIY ingenuity for Black music in Britain: migrating from the margins to 're-master the mainstream'. This exhibition celebrates the pioneers that made it happen, changing the course of Britain's cultural history.

Florence Mills (circa.1920s)Black Cultural Archives

1930s - Original Imports

 Founded by Amy Ashwood Garvey and Sam Manning (Calypso’s first international superstar), in the mid-1930s, the Florence Mills Social Parlour (named after the American dancer and cabaret singer) was a jazz club where West Africa met the West Indies in the West End of London.

Amy Ashwood Garvey by UnknownBlack Cultural Archives

In many ways, the Parlour began the journey to creative independence. To a soundtrack of calypso-flavoured jazz, Black people from all walks of life (and across the Commonwealth) exchanged arts and ideas with each other. London’s first steel band debuted there in 1952.

Empire Windrush (1990) by UnknownBlack Cultural Archives

1940s - Trinidadian Calypso

Trinidadian calypso became popular in Britain from the late 1940's, led by singers such as Lord Kitchener, born ‘Aldwyn Roberts’ in the borough of Arima in Trinidad and Tobago. This reflected the new Black settlements to the UK in the post-war period.

 Purely by chance a local newsreel company filmed Kitchener singing his most well-known song "London is the Place for me" as he arrived to Britain from the Empire Windrush ship in 1948. 

Sterling Betancourt (2004) by Pepe FrancisBlack Cultural Archives

1950s - Increasing Influence

Steel pan had been popular during the 1930s but reached its zenith in the 1950s with the likes of Sterling Betancourt, Boscoe Holder and Russ Henderson. The performance of the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra at the 1951 Festival of Britain brought it to new audiences.

Ink Drawings No.2 (1978) by Ras Daniel Heartman & Everton GordonBlack Cultural Archives

1960s - DIY Culture

Black artists founded their own record labels to support Black British talent as well as bring talent and music from the Caribbean to Britain. Trojan Records was founded in 1967, named after producer Duke Reid, known as The Trojan. 

Eddy Grant by Dennis MorrisBlack Cultural Archives

Conventional record industries either excluded domestic Black talent or drastically modified the output to suit imagined mainstream tastes. In the face of such frustration, DIY was the only way forward. With that came creative control, fiscal responsibility and artistic freedom.

Coxone Sound SystemBlack Cultural Archives

1970s - Reggae in the UK

Jamaicans who had settled in the UK (and their children who had been born here) were instrumental in setting up a network of reggae sound systems. The most popular sound systems included Jah Shaka, Coxsone Outernational, Fatman, Jah Tubbys and Quaker City.

Black Echoes (1984)Black Cultural Archives

'Black Echoes', the first Black music newspaper in Britain, started in 1976. Featured music genres were soul, reggae, RnB, jazz, gospel, funk and northern soul. The paper became a gateway for the distribution of information and news on reggae music in the UK and Jamaica.

Black Youth Rastafarianism and the Identity crisis in Britain (1978) by Len GarrisonBlack Cultural Archives

Roots reggae became increasingly popular with Britain’s Black working-class youth from the 1970s onwards, its message of Rastafari and overcoming injustice striking a chord with those on the receiving end of racism and poverty. 

Dennis Brown (1980) by Lionel DecosterBlack Cultural Archives

Lover's rock, developed in the 1970s, was a smooth, soulful version of reggae, spearheaded by Dennis Brown. The early years of "lover’s rock" have two main resonances: London "blues parties" and discs by girl singers. 

The record that kick-started the phenomenon was the 14-year old Louisa Mark's plaintive reading of Robert Parker's soul hit, "Caught You In A Lie", with Matumbi as backing group and production by sound-system man Lloyd Coxsone; this appeared on Coxsone's Safari imprint in 1975.

Black Music & Jazz Review (1982)Black Cultural Archives

1980s - Remastering

In the 1980s bands such as Aswad, Steel Pulse and Misty in Roots released records and played gigs throughout Britain. As roots music's popularity waned in Jamaica, sound systems such as Jah Shaka kept the faith in the UK, known as UK DUB. 

Straight No Chaser, multiple coversBlack Cultural Archives

The magazine 'Straight No Chaser' was started by music lover and journalist, Paul Bradshaw in 1988 to cover the emerging Black music scene that he saw expanding across Britain. That year, the 'second summer of love' solidified the influence of house music on British shores.

Straight No Chaser, multiple coversBlack Cultural Archives


The music styles and communities which were previously held in contempt by the wider record business became irrepressible, forcing the industry to try and keep up. Subsequent generations built upon this work, continuing to ‘remaster the mainstream’.

Derek B Slide Photographs Derek B Slide Photographs (1980s-1990s)Black Cultural Archives

Later, commercially successful propositions such as Jammer’s Lords of the Mic DVD series (2004) and Janet Kay, Victor Romero Evans and Carroll Thompsons music’n’drama touring stage show: The Lovers Rock Monologues reflected the achievements of these pioneering generations.

Derek B PolaroidBlack Cultural Archives

This is a snapshot into the stories of the players, promoters, producers and punters that changed Britain’s cultural history. To find out more, the following exhibits and resources may also be useful: A History of Notting Hill Carnival
and Black Sound Subject Guide.

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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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