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05 March 2019
Culture

Celebrating the impact of African & Caribbean music in Hackney

Music made by people of African and Caribbean heritage in Hackney has had such a huge impact on popular culture in the UK, that it's difficult to remember a time when this was not the case. However, 150 years ago the situation was quite different.

Roots, Rhymes & Records - B

Exhibition 'Roots, Rhymes & Records: The Sounds and Stories of African & Caribbean Music in Hackney'. Image courtesy of Hackney Archives.

People living in the then separate boroughs of Hackney, Shoreditch and Stoke Newington were much more familiar with the minstrel shows staged in local theatres like the Britannia and Grecian Royal Theatre, than they would have been with any type of music of black origin.

Minstrelsy was a form of American entertainment mainly performed by white actors in blackface makeup. Minstrel acts portrayed what are now considered highly offensive tropes of black people as buffoon-like or jolly characters.

It was in this context that the all-black Fisk Jubilee Singers (pictured at the top of page) paid their first visit to Britain in 1873. They were the first group to perform 'spirituals' in large public arenas and present black American music to mass audiences across America and Europe.

Formed in 1871, the group consisted of 11 students from Fisk University, which was established in 1866 in Nashville, Tennessee, to educate former slaves in the South. This was just one year after the abolition of slavery throughout the United States in 1865.

The group of singers was set up to help fundraise for the university. Spirituals are songs that celebrate Christian values while conveying the hardships of slavery.

After their hugely successful tours in America, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were provided with letters of introduction by prominent American figures to the British elite. This brought them great support and patronage from the likes of then Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, and even an audience with Queen Victoria.

In celebration of African and Caribbean heritage and its contribution to music, there are two events running in March:

The exhibition 'Roots, Rhythms & Records: The sounds and stories of African & Caribbean music in Hackney' is on at Hackney Museum until 16 March.

Local composer-librettist duo Harvey Brough and Justin Butcher's 'Freedom Song: When Gospel Came to the Empire', telling the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, will be performed by community choirs from Hackney and Holloway at Hackney Empire on 24 March.

Updated: 12 March 2019

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