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Musical Truth

Jeffrey Boakye

Faber, 2021

Review by Nusrat Haider

In Musical Truth: A Musical History of Modern Black Britain in 28 Songs, Jeffrey Boakye takes his readers on a jukebox ride across the decades, from the 1950s, when pioneers from the so-called Windrush generation came to Britain, to the present day with the rapper, Stormzy and the ascendency of grime.  His song selection is a getaway tour into stories of Black Britain by black people, migrants and some white artists who all reflect on the struggles black people face, the colour bar, race riots, education, housing and the healthcare system. The book also charts critical junctures such as the murders of Stephen Lawrence and George Floyd.

Black British culture is shaped by the legacy of the British Empire. The Trinidad-born calypsonian, Lord Kitchener, an Empire Windrush passenger, excitedly sang, ‘London is the place for me,’ on arrival in 1948. Many enthusiastic migrants were met with hostility in England; an attitude captured by the calypsonian, Mighty Terror, in ‘No carnival in Britain.’ Increasing racism was fuelled by prejudicial beliefs that somehow the new and stylish arrivals in Britain posed a threat, and culminated in the Notting Hill and Nottingham race riots of 1958.

Boakye demonstrates that music is a combination of celebration and resistance to oppression. Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘Sonny’s Lettah (Anti-sus Poem)’, written and performed in Jamaican patois, gives an insight into the tensions between black people and the police.

In 2018, the singer, Miss Dynamite, a grandchild of Jamaican pioneers, accepted a MBE in honour of their sacrifices, struggles and ordeals. She renamed the MBE honour, changing ‘Member of the British Empire’ to ‘My Beloved Elders’. Her music captures the struggles young people faced under the shadows of the empire in a hostile land.

Boakye fast forwards to the present day to reflect on how Stormzy has captured the imagination of the British public both with his grime, notably in his break-out single, ‘Vossi Bop’ and with his fearless criticism of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Stormzy, who does not disguise his national pride, once celebrated and critiqued it wearing a stab-proof vest emblazoned with a version of the Union Jack.

In his magical and nostalgic song selection, Boakye shows how being black and British can be complex, difficult, multi-dimensional and yet prideful, too.  The songs carry stories of oppression, resistance, and tears of happiness. Fundamentally, black British music is global; there‘s no colour bar. Boakye’s book is a paean to the notion that racial harmony, bringing people together in multi-cultural Britain, celebrates diversity through music.

Jeffrey Boakye talks to a wide audience but primarily targets younger generations in a musically lyrical manner, giving conversational snippets of history along the way. Boakye himself says his ‘whole life has beaten to the pulse of black music.’ His conversation style flows musically; his 28 song selection is accompanied by visual illustrations by Ngadi Smart; these black and white catchy portraits ably and stylishly conjure imagined performances. Musical Truth is a fitting musical tribute to Black and British history.