Bass Culture

Lead Research Organisation: University of Westminster
Department Name: Faculty of Media Arts and Design


Bass Culture is a response to the disengagement and lack of education surrounding the heritage of Jamaican and Jamaican-influenced music in Britain over the last six decades. A direct line can be traced from pioneering British sound systems in the 1960s to modern chart-topping artistes such as Soul2Soul, Goldie, and Tiny Tempah. Jamaican music is recognised as a key catalyst in integration and multiculturalism in London and beyond. An understanding of the contribution made by the Jamaican community is also vital for anyone researching and performing popular music production, dance, and fashion.

This heritage is, however, largely a hidden history, and its value and importance is underestimated by both the Jamaican and wider communities in the UK. This history is neither readily available to schools or universities, nor to other cultural institutions such as archives and museums. In addition, in the absence of research and preservation this history is being lost. First generation pioneers are now in their 80s, making the capture of their experiences urgent. Many physical objects were not created with a view to longevity, and are often valued more as family heirlooms than community heritage.

This project will locate, capture and preserve memories, experiences and ephemera from three generations of musicians, music industry participants, and audience members. The term 'Bass Culture' has been adopted to identify the British experience, as separate to the Jamaican. Bass Culture will be the first in-depth retrospective of Jamaican music in the UK. The University of Westminster's Black Music Research Unit (BMRU) will operate as a central hub for research and link to the community, working with School of Oriental and African Studies, and Black Cultural Archives (BCA).

The research will be conducted through oral history and archival work, led by professional researchers but involving community volunteers at every stage who will receive training. Researchers will conduct 100+ interviews, with additional material solicited from the community directly. Archival research will be conducted primarily at BCA and British Library-Popular Music section.

Community volunteers will also work with Fully Focused Community, a youth media organisation, to create their own oral history-based 60-90 minute film, focusing both on key individuals within the history of Jamaican-inspired music in Britain, and also exploring the participants' experience of rediscovering this history.

Four inter-generational workshops will allow community members from three generations to share and discuss their memories and feelings as music makers and consumers. Volunteers will perform and talk about their music and what it means to them, and also curate a new soundtrack for the Exhibition.

The research will form the basis for a free landmark Exhibition at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, to be accompanied by a programme of events and publications aimed at both general public and academic communities. Running for 5 months, BCA anticipates 10,000 visitors. The project will have a further legacy when the Exhibition tours.

A Web Portal will provide an ongoing hub for publicising the project and opportunities for community involvement. The Portal will be used to solicit additional interviews or recollections from family, neighbours, etc, using personal equipment such as mobile phones or tablet computers, and will also extend our reach beyond London.

Academic outputs include an edited, contextualised volume of oral histories, and a monograph focussing on the period 1976-81. Two academic conferences will further explore the heritage uncovered before, and after, the Exhibition, and papers presented will be used as the basis for the first two issues of a new scholarly journal on black music research.

Planned Impact

The grandchildren of Jamaicans who arrived in the 1950s no longer cheer for Caribbean football sides: they support the English team. If you ask them about Ska music, they're more likely to mention The Specials (a mixed race band from the 1980s) rather than Millie Small. If you mention the term 'Dub', they'll likely ask if you meant DubStep? Bass Culture will uncover for the community the threads of its shared musical history, and forge points of connection - despite differences in terminology - to facilitate conversation across generations.

The project will;
- Connect memories and experiences of those who were key in creating the community's music history, with those keen to learn more about it,
- Provide an opportunity for first, second and third generation Jamaican families to participate in the creation of a comprehensive record of their musical heritage,
- Involve the Jamaican community, the general public and experts in a collective conversation about preserving and promoting this history,
- Clarify the rolling confusions concerning identity, cultural ownership and heritage, in relation to reggae's history in Britain,
- Provide official recognition of musical contributions made by London's Jamaican community to Britain's cultural heritage.

The community find it increasingly difficult to discuss its history as a continuous thread. This is due to timespan, generational differences, and the absence of links that allow the community to connect its memories and experiences together. 'Bass Culture' focuses on these connections, and aims to empower British Jamaicans to have conversations with each other. The project will uncover new information, but will also directly involve community members in taking charge of rewriting their history, so that it more accurately reflects the contribution of Jamaican music. Such activities and recognition will also instil pride and confidence from the satisfaction that their contributions have been finally recognised, transforming perceptions both inside and outside of the reggae community.

By combining professionals with community-based researchers, and by soliciting free-format contributions from Web Portal visitors, the project maximises the opportunities for the whole community. Community involvement also broadens the community skills base whilst educating members. The possibility of making low-tech contributions, i.e., via their own equipment to capture heritage, will demystify the process of 'research', making participatory involvement instantly rewarding and fun, whilst contributing to their own and other peoples' heritage; feedback loops further enhance community involvement.

We understand that some community members will be hard to reach, and this has informed our approach to developing the project elements. Local radio and community websites will be stakeholders in the research, events, exhibition, and dissemination of the project. For the general public, the project provides additional opportunities to participate in what was always a shared experience, giving opportunities to capture and feature their memories and experiences (particularly in the Exhibition and book).

The community research and resulting Exhibition primarily (but not exclusively) target first, second and third generation individuals of Jamaican heritage, a community which has totally transformed since the 70s, but has maintained cultural links through Jamaican music. The main groups who will benefit are:
- Jamaican elders and first generation individuals who have witnessed history unfold, but have never had a chance to share their experience,
- Second generation British-born Jamaicans and their families,
- London's contemporary Jamaican community, for whom this will often be the first opportunity to work with a major archive or university on a large-scale project where their history and heritage is being made public,
- The wider Caribbean/British community, who continue to support reggae.


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