Reviews /

Musical World

Authored by Jeffrey Boakye
Illustrated by Ngadi Smart
Published by Faber & Faber

While using The Spice Girl’s ‘Wannabe’ as a doorway into a brief history of feminism, Boakye says,

In a way, I’m breaking the rules of enjoying popular music by writing a book like this. I’m not sure if pop songs are meant to be analysed and turned into clever sounding essays’. 

Boakye’s own back catalogue defuses that particular problem – his book on the Grime music genre, Hold Tight, demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that ideas of real weight could be rested upon a consideration of music that might be considered by some to be obscure or throwaway. Fans of the radio four show Add to Playlist, which Boakye presents with Cerys Matthews, will know how unexpected links between songs can take conversations far from starting points and reveal powerful matter behind ‘lightweight’ songs.  

Musical World takes readers on a journey through time and space looking at this crazy human existence through the lens of popular music. A follow up to the award winning Musical Truth (winner of the UKLA 2023 non-fiction prize) this book keeps to the format but expands the scope to take Jeffrey Boakye’s restless enquiry into new areas. 

While Musical Truth used its playlist to explore race, colonialism and the experience of being Black and British, this new book takes a wider view. It starts with a song you don’t think you know but do – ‘Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman’ through lots of songs you perhaps think you do know but maybe don’t. Have you ever actually stopped to think about Shakira’s world cup song ‘Waka Waka’, Trans Europe Express by Kraftwerk, Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton (or Leiber and Stoller, or Elvis Presley – dependent on how you tell the story). Most of these songs are so much part of our environment that we aren’t really even aware of them. Jeffrey Boakye’s superpower is that he hears them afresh and lets them spark new thoughts on topics which are totally relevant to us today. 

The Spice Girls take us into a brief history of feminism, ‘Old Town Road’ helps us think about the performative aspects of sexuality, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ takes us into post-colonial international relations, ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ takes us into the deep personal power of protest, ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ explores the interaction of art and commerce. There’s a great deal of pleasure to be had in taking a moment at the start of a chapter to wonder where Boakye will go with this one. I guarantee that nine times out of ten, you’ll be wrong. Each chapter explores an aspect of just one song. Each chapter is short – four or five pages at most. With forty different songs to get through, nothing hangs around long enough to be boring so if ‘Nessun Dorma’ doesn’t float your boat, don’t worry, ‘Strange Fruit’ is up next. 

The title Musical World might lead you to expect a WOMAD festival international line up. Such is the weight of the west in popular music that we don’t get as much of that as you might think. World music superstar Youssou N’Dour turns up with Neneh Cherry to sing ‘Seven Seconds’, Nigerian legend Fela Kuti sings ‘Zombie’, Serge Gainsbourg takes a trip to Jamaica to perform ‘Aux Armes et ceatera’, with an all-star reggae backing band, Rihanna brings Dance Hall to the world’s dance floor, but, by and large, the featured musicians are American and European.  

The influences in the music are global and the issues they raise are international but for Boakye who is, I think, assuming a British readership, the ‘world’ in the book’s title is more about what we can learn about global politics of race, politics, gender and sexuality than it is about west African polyrhythms, pentatonic scales or unusual instruments.  

Throughout the book, Jeffery Boakye’s voice is admirably clear. It’s conversational without becoming over familiar or loose. His explanations sound like the voice of an expert teacher – you would love to be in his class. We often ask pupils to write essays but I wonder how often we share examples of this style of writing. Not over formal, not couched in faux academic language. Super clear and super tight, trying out an idea and letting us try it out too. Teachers in Key Stage 3 are going to love sharing chapters from this book and inviting young people to write their own essays in this style. It’s a compliment to Boakye’s prose that it really feels like you could write like this – you’d need his talent and experience to do so but he makes the hard work look easy. 

Just as he does on the radio with Cerys Mathews, Boakye often affects a lack of knowledge about the technical ins and outs of music so that he can move on to matters that he and his audience will be gripped by. The young people that he is writing for may not be interested in the history of keyboards such as the Yamaha DX7 and the Casio MT-40, but anyone with a remote sense of curiosity about the world will be fascinated in the links between a Japanese electronic musician, a factory preset and the history of modern Jamaican popular music. Expanding the focus from the history and experience of Black Britishness to wider topics of race, gender, sexuality and global politics does not, for this reader, weaken the book. Boakye is interested in people and he trusts that his readers are interested in people. And he has faith that young people who are encouraged to be interested in the complex interactions between people will develop a deeper sense of shared humanity. For me that is profoundly moving. 

The book closes with a meditation on the life and impact of Jamal Edwards who died in 2022. Edwards was not a musician himself but his creation of SBTV and his advocacy for emerging musicians had a massive impact on the British music scene – and on the global music scene. Musicians as diverse as Stormzy, Rita Ora, Ed Sheeran, Dave, Emili Sande and many, many more owe Edwards a debt for the exposure and career progression he created. Edwards was taken far too young but created so much in a short time through his resilience, perseverance, belief in people and hard work. This chapter is moving, Boakye clearly cares very deeply about Edwards and his legacy, and it serves to sum up and bring together the deeper themes of the book. 

Humans have done terrible things to each other. Humans are imperfect and struggle to create systems which are fair and equitable. Humans are capable of amazing things – creativity, art, kindness, lifting each other up. Young people can do better and, educated about the struggles of the past and awake to the structural inequities which remain to be dismantled, they WILL do better. For a book which analyses popular songs and ‘turns them into clever sounding essays’ to end up as a call to arms for cultural action for social change is very beautiful, very clever and very Jeffrey Boakye.