Black Music in Britain in the 21st Century

As a child, Professor Monique Charles (Sociology) loved to sing, write songs, and perform with her cousins. Her latest book, Black Music in Britain in the 21st Century is a combination of her lived experiences when she was young and her passion for studying intellectual pursuits … and of course her love of Black music forms.

Dr. Charles headed to the UK during Chapman’s spring break (March 20-24) for the book launch at SOAS University in London and a book discussion at the University of Bristol.

“As this is the first book of its kind addressing 21st century Black British music I am hopeful that there may be many more opportunities to discuss the book and its contents,” she said.

The Voice of Wilkinson spoke with Dr. Charles about her book and what she learned early on in her life that led her to conceptualize, create and curate Black Music in Britain in the 21st Century. Dr. Charles edited the project and also wrote the volume introduction and contributed a chapter entitled “RWD Selecta!”

Voice of Wilkinson: Dr. Charles, congratulations on your latest publication. For those that haven’t read it yet, tell us a little about Black Music in Britain in the 21st Century and why you wrote it.

Dr. Monique Charles: This book is a result of the combination of things that interest me. It is a result of the awareness that the music I listen to at home with friends and family was very different to the music in the mainstream media. As I was going through formal education in primary/elementary school and secondary/high school in the UK I realized that there were no scholarly works or at least very limited scholarly works on Black British music. I really wanted to learn and read about flat British music and Black music more broadly in the formal education system but there was nothing there.

VoW: I understand you’ve been studying the subject for some time now. Tell me how that all came to be.

MC: My Ph.D. was on grime [a genre of popular music influenced by UK garage typically characterized by a minimal, prominent rhythm] music, the first such study to explore the scene holistically. The Ph.D. allowed me to develop language concepts and frameworks to articulate aspects of the Black British music experience. From the Ph.D., I developed a methodological framework musicological discourse analysis (MDA) which enables analysis of music in the social sciences and cultural studies fields. I also developed a theory to explain what happens in life performance settings.

However, Black British music is so much more than grime and since the turn of the 21st century there have been so many new genres that have been birthed. This book just scratches the surface! As a result, I wanted to do my part to contribute to knowledge and help create the intellectual space where these different genres of music could be foregrounded and in some ways put into conversation with each other in the academy itself.

VoW: What do you hope your book will accomplish and readers will gain?

MC: I think readers will gain new insights with regard to Black British music. Unlike here [in the US] in Europe there are few scholarly works that interrogate the intellectual, sociological, cultural or political value of Black British music. A lot of the work being done or has been done around music in Britain often excludes Black British music forms, and where it does it tends to look at music in the 20th century. I think this book is pivotal in shifting the collective consciousness to understand the ways in which music can be engaged with and explored beyond the vocational all business-related practices. It is my hope that this book will give new insights and therefore new language and tools, through which to make sense of, the ways in which race informs and shapes the scenes connected to Black British music, as well as platforming Black and British music placing it in its rightful place in British. As well as world history.

VoW: Liverpool University Press states that Black Music in Britain in the 21st Century is the “first book to address the notable absence of material relating to 21st century Black British music” … seems hard to believe. Why do you think this is?

MC: It should not be the case however it is the first book to do this. This is partly because of the ways in which academia in the UK views Black British music. Our intellectual traditions in the UK are very different. The history of Black people in Britain is also very different to the US, this means that there is a lot of work to be done. I don’t think many people realize that this was or is a possibility as I have continually encountered confusion as to why I did my Ph.D. on grime. Black British music in the British context is usually mainly addressed through journalism. However, the intellectual value that academia can bring in terms of curation, intellectual, canonizing, challenging and informing policy are important features that are often overlooked and undervalued. Although it moves at a slower pace, academia has a significant role in facilitating the longevity of knowledge beyond the life of any generation.