Q&A | 'We had to say Black Live Music Matters' - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘We had to say Black Live Music Matters’

Music curator at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, Adem Holness, on how the 696 festival came together
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Eleanor Mills
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Adem Holness, music curator at the Horniman Museum and Gardens
Adem Holness, music curator at the Horniman Museum and Gardens Photo Almass Badat

Adem Holness is the music curator for the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London and has worked to produce an innovative music programme this summer.

Titled 696, the festival aims to bring diverse communities of south London together but also highlight the until-recent exclusion of Black British music in public spaces.

The 696 Festival at the Horniman Museum and Gardens has been developed with funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund (administered by the Museums Association), which has next round of grants available with a deadline of 13 September.

The Horniman was awarded £120,000 to help develop new understandings of the museum's musical instrument collection and South London’s digital and ephemeral music, with a particular focus on genres including Grime, R&B, Afrobeat and Soca, co-produced with Black and Ethnic Minority musicians and communities. The 696 Festival is the result.

To hear Holness speak about partnership work, book your place at the Museums Association's Coronavirus Conversations: Learning and Engagement on 30 September.

Here, Holness talks about the development of the festival.

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Why is the festival called 696?

I wanted to call the festival, and the wider programme it is a part of, 696 to acknowledge how Black British music has been pushed out of public space.

So, yes. The festival absolutely takes its name from the Metropolitan Police Risk Assessment Form 696. From 2006 to 2017, form 696 made it harder for London music venues to put on Black music events. So, I wanted the festival and programme to highlight and respond to this.

696 at the Horniman says not only is now the time that Black British music is welcomed into public spaces, but that organisations like ours have a vital role to play in redressing the imbalance. 

What's the concept behind the festival? 

696 is a celebration of south London's music scene. It champions music genres and the people working in them that have been disproportionately affected by bias in legislation.

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It's about us platforming the phenomenal music on our doorstep and saying our spaces and collections are for you.

How did it develop? 

The programme came from an ambition to improve understanding of the Horniman Museum’s designated musical instrument collection and maximise its potential for local creative people and audiences. Being in south east London, the Horniman is located in the middle of a thriving and internationally-loved Black music scene. 

I quickly realised that to successfully and authentically engage our local music community with our spaces and collections, we needed to address the historic and ongoing challenges. We had to acknowledge the experience of artists and creatives working in Black British music while they're just trying to be creative. We had to say “Black Live Music Matters”.

I felt it was our responsibility to respond to this injustice artistically. But we also had to put structures in place that remove some of the barriers between Black live music and public space.

How has it been working with 696 promoters, your group of 18-25-year-olds working on the programme?

Incredible. They're so talented, skilled and a vital asset to the museum. All of our work is about ensuring the Horniman and its collection is useful for local people. So, this has been an essential part of the programme.

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The 696 promoters planned and developed their own live music event for 10 weeks. This resulted in a sold-out show as part of the main 696 festival.

As things like form 696 made it harder for Black live music to happen, I wanted us to respond to the impact on the next generation of live music promoters. 

I wanted to make sure we had a system in place where young people can develop the skills necessary to put on live music and contribute to our main artistic programme alongside all of our other partners. 

It's been fantastic. We've had Jobcentre Plus on board to ensure we got people involved who will benefit. We also spent time talking to people in advance to ensure we were working with people who had an interest in and knowledge of the local music scene. 

As well as this group, we also recruited five unbelievably good south London musicians as our 696 resident artists. Each of them developed creative projects in response to our collection. Some of them were sampling the instruments to make new music, or making films, or researching the role of instruments in African diasporic music. The resident artists completely took ownership of the collection for their practice. I'm probably (definitely) biased, but the music coming out of this is exceptional.

Any challenges that you didn't foresee?

Well, halfway through planning 696 this thing called a pandemic came along. And yikes. Planning a major festival and exhibition in the midst of a pandemic is no small task. The festival was actually supposed to happen in 2020, and initially, it had a totally different shape. So, it's definitely been challenging, planning and replanning and trying to get it right.

All the pressures and changes meant that we did have to make some sacrifices and concessions. We had to keep reacting to the climate, and all the uncertainties. So, I'm super proud of what we've been able to achieve.

What have been the high points?

Definitely being able to dance to lots of live music! The whole festival is sold out, with more than 8,000 tickets gone. After the year we've all had, it has been unbelievable. 

I feel so humbled and honoured by the artists and creatives who have come through the museum for 696.

For me, a personal highlight was bringing back The Original Jerk Cookout, which last happened at the Horniman in 2009. This event used to be a major event in the local Caribbean calendar. So, it was a massive dream come true for it to happen again. I can't believe we've got people like Caroll Thompson, Becca D, YolanDa Brown and The London Community Gospel Choir playing.

This is special because it's a clear demonstration that with focus, good planning and open collaboration, Black live music is always safe and should happen in our public spaces. 

Are there any learnings from the Black British music sector that you/we can implement into the museum sector?

It's been fascinating for me to see the different lenses through which people have viewed this programme. Some people feel it's a huge artistic project because they see the creativity and ambition of the people involved. On the other hand, some people view it as participation or community outreach because of how targeted we were about the kind of people we wanted to engage. 

For me, I don't think of artistic and curatorial practice as separate from youth engagement or community outreach. What has worked so well in this programme is the balance. It has been brilliant to bring together colleagues from across the museum to collaborate on activity as equally ambitious in its artistic and curatorial goals as it is in participation principles.

What will be the legacy of the event for the museum and its programme?

I hope this will signal us getting things started. Sure, we've been around since 1901, but it’s a new world out there. For our work, spaces and collections to remain relevant, we've got to keep collaborating with the people on our doorstep.

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