The first exhibition at the new V&A location in east London will highlight the diversity and excellence of Black British music, featuring genres such as jazz, calypso, dub poetry, UK drill, drum’n’bass, and grime.
In 2025, The Music Is Black: A British Story will commence, covering the years 1900 to the present. It will honor pioneers like Winifred Atwell and Janet Kay, as well as contemporary artists like Stormzy and Little Simz. The exhibit will also delve into how popular bands like Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles incorporated elements of music from the UK’s Black community.
Using materials from BBC archives, photographs, objects, decorations, paintings, prints, playbills, and film, the curators guarantee a fully immersive experience with large-scale installations. Attendees will be able to walk through various time periods and engage in multi-sensory forms of storytelling. The V&A has received praise for previous immersive music exhibitions like the 2017 retrospective of Pink Floyd titled Their Mortal Remains, which was described as “stunning” 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 documentary “The Music is Black: A British Story” delves into the impact of migration on music. It explores how the Windrush movement brought a variety of Caribbean sounds to the UK, leading to the development of the sound system culture and shaping the popular British clubbing scene. The film also examines how influences from Black communities in the global south are prominent in current chart-topping hits, such as the use of west African highlife in pop music and Caribbean reggae drum patterns in dance music.
V&A East is an additional division of the V&A 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 walk away and will showcase the V&A’s archive and notable pieces in its collection hall area.
The recently constructed structure drew inspiration from a Johannes Vermeer artwork and X-ray images of a Balenciaga dress. It is located in the East Bank cultural district in Stratford, east London, near the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The complex will house Sadler’s Wells East, London College of Fashion and UCL campuses, and BBC Music studios. These organizations will work together to create exhibitions and performances for The Music is Black: A British Story.
Gus Casely-Hayford, the director of V&A East, expressed his desire to create an inclusive atmosphere at the new site for those who are typically underrepresented in museums. This includes young individuals from minority backgrounds and also aims to represent the diversity of the surrounding community. In 2021, he committed to biking to 250 schools in east London’s boroughs of Waltham Forest, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and Newham to promote awareness about V&A East.
He referred to The Music Is Black: A British Story as a groundbreaking production that will showcase various viewpoints and narrate a long-awaited tale about the emergence of our country’s sound and its influence on global culture.
The display will also celebrate the impact of east London on Black British music, particularly as the birthplace of grime. It will showcase the history of popular venues in the area, including the basement where grime MC 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 is expected to be the largest and most comprehensive examination of Black British music to date. Other organizations have also been showcasing their own historical reviews, such as the Museum of London’s focus on grime in 2022 and the British Library’s collaboration with the University of Westminster’s Black Music Research Unit for a 2024 exhibit that aims to highlight and reframe six centuries of African musical influences in the UK.
In September, Google Arts and Culture launched a new interactive website that explores the impact of Black culture on the modern arts scene. The site, called Union Black: Sounds of a Nation, offers a free multimedia platform that includes videos, photos, documentaries, and podcasts. It was created by BBC radio DJ Trevor Nelson, who also expressed excitement about the V&A exhibition, stating that it is surprising that there has not been a national exhibition on Black British music before. He believes that it is important to document and share the untold stories of this genre.
Jacqueline Springer, the curator, is advocating for increased recognition of Black British musicians and their contributions. In her announcement of the exhibition, she expressed a desire to highlight the significance of Black and Black British music in the context of British colonialism and changing social, political, and cultural landscapes. The exhibition will celebrate the diversity and adaptability of these genres as forms of protest, affirmation, and creativity, while also shedding light on the untold narratives behind some of the most renowned music in the world.