From jazz to calypso, dub poetry to British workout lyrics, drum’n’bass raves to grime freestyle, the brilliance and cross-cultural richness of black British music will be the focus of the inaugural exhibition at the V&A’s new east London outpost.
Opening in 2025, The Music Is Black: A British Story will span from 1900 to the present day, celebrating everyone from pioneers such as Winifred Atwell and Janet Kay to today’s generation, including Stormzy and Little Simz, and will explore how artists from Fleetwood Mac to the Beatles adopted elements of the music created by the black community in the United Kingdom.
Drawing on BBC archives, photographs, artefacts, ornaments, paintings, prints, posters, films and more, the curators promise “immersive AV and large-scale installations” where visitors can step through different eras and experience multi-sensory modes of storytelling . The V&A has been praised for earlier compelling music exhibitions such as Pink Floyd’s 2017 retrospective Their Mortal Remains, described as “stunning” in a five-star Guardian review; the new location in east London will also house 80,000 David Bowie archives.
Music Is Black: A British History will look at how migration has affected music, including how the Windrush movement brought a wave of new sounds from the Caribbean to the UK, giving birth to the sound system culture that informed the massively successful British club scene and beyond. We’ll also look at how the influence of black communities in the Global South is heavily represented 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 new branch of the V&A, made up of two locations: the V&A East Museum, where this exhibition will take place, and the V&A East Storehouse, a 10-minute walk away, which will house the V&A’s archive and exhibits from its hall space collection.
The new building, whose design was partly inspired by a Johannes Vermeer painting and X-rays of a Balenciaga dress, is part of the £1.1bn East Bank cultural precinct in Stratford, east London, on the edge of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park The development will also include Sadler’s Wells East, London College of Fashion and UCL campuses and BBC Music studios – each of these institutions will collaborate on events and displays for The Music is Black: A British Story.
Gus Keisley-Hayford, director of the V&A East, said he wanted to make the new site welcoming to those often left out of museum spaces, including young people from minority backgrounds, and to reflect the diversity of the surrounding area. In 2021, he has pledged to cycle to 250 schools in the East London boroughs of Waltham Forest, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham to spread the word about V&A East.
He describes The Music Is Black: A British Story as “a remarkable show that will bring multiple perspectives to the fore and tell a long-awaited story about the creation of our national sound and its impact on culture around the world.”
The exhibition will also pay tribute to East London’s influence on black British music – specifically as the birthplace of grime – and tell the story of the venues that made the area famous, such as grime basement MC Jammer, where Lord of Mics freestyle series held; The Blue Note in Hackney, home of Goldie’s Metalheadz club night and more; and the Rhythm Division record store.