Musical Truth: A Musical History of Modern Black Britain in 28 Songs by Jeffrey Boakye, illustrated by Ngadi Smart

‘No money man could win my love / It’s sweetness that I’m thinking of’ sang eleven year-old me along with Neneh Cherry as she danced with joyful abandon holding her very pregnant belly on Top of the Pops, way back in 1988.

It was a cultural moment for several reasons. For one, you just didn’t see pregnant women dancing and singing on TV – you didn’t really see pregnant women on TV full stop. Two, Neneh Cherry was and I’d argue still is a very different kind of artist at that time. Bold and sassy, Neneh’s music reflected the energy and excitement of the new Black music that was emerging from the underground into the mainstream in the late 80s. Three, she was a Black woman celebrating her culture and her femininity unapologetically in an industry that was mainly white and male, and I like many others was 100% here for it.

Buffalo Stance was one of the the songs that had everyone singing, even though as pre-teens, my friends and I had no idea what a gigolo was. But it didn’t matter. To hang in a Buffalo Stance meant being cool, vibrant and fashionable, and as a young Black girl growing up in London that’s all I ever wanted. For me Neneh Cherry epitomised all that and then some especially at a time when there were so few Black people, Black women especially in popular culture to look up to.

In Jeffrey Boakye’s new book, Musical Truth: A Musical History of Modern Black Britain in 28 Songs, Buffalo Stance is one of several songs that Boakye examines in the context of Black British history. In this chapter, he reflects on the idea of Blackness itself, and how being Black is not just one thing. Neneh Cherry is of mixed heritage, born Sweden to a Swedish mother and a Sierra Leonean father who was a specialist in traditional African drumming. Her stepfather, Don Cherry was a famous jazz musician. Growing up in the US and moving to London as a teenager, Neneh style and her music reflects the diversity of her upbringing and background, which she celebrates and invites us all to join in.

Boakye reflects how multi-ethnicity is major part of the Black British experience. Around 2.2 percent of the population in England and Wales is of mixed heritage. And though many see the growth in multi-ethnicity as a sign of society now being post-racial, we know this isn’t yet the case. Just look at the treatment of Meghan Markle by the British press if you have any doubt.

Musical Truth is an exciting look at modern Black British history through the lens of popular music. Given how so much of how we access and interrogate key moments in history is through popular culture, this book is an excellent gateway for children, teenagers and adults alike to discussions around race, identity, culture and politics. Complete with some fantastic illustrations by Ngadi Smart, Musical Truth redefines Black British history, the Empire and postcolonialism and invites readers to immerse themselves in the music of artists such as Musical Youth, Craig David, Ms Dynamite, Stormzy, Dave and many more.

I had a fantastic time reading about and listening to the tracks covered in this book, which you can also listen to at musicaltruthplaylist.co.uk. Many of the songs covered took me back to special times in my childhood, like Pass the Dutchie by Musical Youth, Electric Aveune by Eddy Grant and Back to Life by Soul ll Soul. It’s a book that will inform, educate, encourage and remind everybody of the huge and vital contribution that Black people have made and continue to make to British culture. I strongly recommend that you make this one of your summer reads for 2021.

3 thoughts on “Musical Truth: A Musical History of Modern Black Britain in 28 Songs by Jeffrey Boakye, illustrated by Ngadi Smart

  1. This is on my wish list. I read his book about Grime, ‘Hold Tight’, and love how he uses music to discuss wider subjects in that. I have his book ‘Black, Listed’ on my To Read pile, too. He’s a really interesting writer, and I love how he thinks out loud on Twitter, especially his role as an educator.

    Everything you list as being an important part of your musical childhood is the same for me, although I appreciate that mine is an outsider relationship with that same music. I loved that Neneh Cherry was pregnant and proud, a strong woman. And Buffalo Stance still bangs.

    Great review!

    1. I can totally recommend Black, Listed. It’s a very good read. And he is a very engaging writer. I don’t particularly care for grime but really enjoyed Hold Tight for it’s deep dive into the music genealogy of the genre, plus it’s place in the context of modern Black Britain.

      Really glad you enjoyed the review! And totally agree Buffalo Stance still bangs 😊

      1. When I read Hold Tight, I liked some grime artists, but didn’t feel like I understood it as a genre. And yes, the deep dive is the thing I liked best about the book.

        I’ll push Black, Listed up the list!

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