The first exhibition at the new V&A location in east London will showcase the diverse and exceptional Black British music scene, highlighting genres such as jazz, calypso, dub poetry, UK drill lyrics, drum’n’bass raves, and grime freestyles.
In 2025, The Music Is Black: A British Story will debut, covering a time period from 1900 to the present. It will honor trailblazers like Winifred Atwell and Janet Kay, as well as current artists like Stormzy and Little Simz. The exhibition will delve into how popular bands like Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles incorporated elements of music originating from the UK’s Black community.
Using resources from the BBC, such as archives, photos, objects, decorations, artwork, and documents, the organizers of the exhibition guarantee a fully engaging experience with audiovisual elements and expansive displays. Attendees will have the opportunity to journey through various time periods and engage with storytelling through multiple senses. The V&A has received praise for previous immersive music exhibits, including Their Mortal Remains in 2017 which was described as “breathtaking” in a five-star review by The Guardian. The new location in east London will also feature an archive of 80,000 items belonging to David Bowie.
The Music is Black: A British Story will look into how migration has influenced music, including how the Windrush movement brought a wave of new sounds from the Caribbean to the UK, birthing the sound system culture which informed the massively successful British clubbing scene and beyond. It will also look at how influences from Black communities in the global south are being heavily featured in today’s chart toppers – such as west African highlife in pop songs, and drum patterns stemming from Caribbean reggae in dance music.
V&A East is a recently established division of the V&A organization, consisting of two locations: the V&A East Museum, where this display will take place, and the V&A East Storehouse, which is a 10-minute stroll away and will showcase the V&A’s archive and notable pieces from its collection in its exhibition area.
The recently constructed structure draws inspiration from a Johannes Vermeer masterpiece and X-ray images of a Balenciaga dress. It is located in the East Bank cultural district in Stratford, east London, adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The project will also include Sadler’s Wells East, campuses for London College of Fashion and UCL, and BBC Music studios. These institutions will work together to organize events and exhibits for The Music is Black: A British Story.
Gus Casely-Hayford, the director of V&A East, expressed his desire to create a welcoming environment at the new site for individuals who are typically marginalized in museum settings, such as young people from minority backgrounds. He also aims to represent the diversity of the surrounding community. As part of this effort, he has committed to cycling to 250 schools in east London, specifically in the boroughs of Waltham Forest, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and Newham, to raise awareness about V&A East.
He referred to The Music Is Black: A British Story as a significant production that will highlight various viewpoints and narrate a much-needed tale about the formation of our national music and its influence on global culture.
The display will additionally recognize the impact of east London on Black British music, particularly as the birthplace of grime. It will showcase the history of notable venues in the area, including the basement where grime artist Jammer hosted the Lord of the Mics freestyle series, the Blue Note in Hackney where Goldie’s Metalheadz club night was held, and the record store Rhythm Division.
The upcoming exhibit appears to be the most extensive exploration of Black British music to date, although other organizations have also presented their own retrospectives in recent times. In 2022, the Museum of London featured a display on the grime scene, while the British Library is teaming up with the University of Westminster’s Black Music Research Unit for a 2024 exhibition that aims to highlight and reframe six centuries of African musical influences in the UK.
In September, Google Arts and Culture launched an interactive website that explores the impact of Black culture in the modern-day arts scene and delves into the rich history of genres and adjacent subcultures. Named Union Black: Sounds of a Nation, it is a free online accessible multimedia platform that guides readers and listeners through videos, photographs, documentaries, and podcasts. It was co-created by BBC radio DJ Trevor Nelson, who has also hailed the arrival of the V&A exhibition, saying: “The fact that we haven’t had a national exhibition on Black British music is quite surprising to me. I feel it needs to be documented. But more importantly, to tell the stories that are untold.”
Jacqueline Springer, the curator, aims to bring more attention and acknowledgement to Black British musicians for their impact. In the announcement of the exhibition, she expressed her desire to highlight the significance of Black and Black British music in the face of British colonialism and changing societal, political, and cultural environments. The exhibition will showcase the diversity and power of Black music as a means of protest, affirmation, and artistic expression, shedding light on lesser-known narratives behind some of the most beloved music in the world.