Musical Truth

Authored by Jeffrey Boakye
Illustrated by Ngadi Smart
Published by Faber

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Reading David Olusoga’s Black and British last year cemented the personal recognition that my education and knowledge of this country’s history was severely lacking. In fact, it made me reconsider so much about what I understood of history, it started me off proper on a journey that continues to inform my own teaching and discussions with the young people I work with today.

One of the best things about Olusoga’s book is its cool clarity – it takes its reader by the hand and in a magnificent feat of storytelling relays an authentic truth to those keen to listen. Now, with a similar virtuosity, Jeffrey Boakye has given us another dimension to that same story, his own Musical Truth and, speaking as a musician myself, it is without a doubt the best non-fiction book about music I’ve ever read.

Boakye’s book has an uncomplicated premise: take twenty-eight songs, weave them together in chronological order and thereby create a narrative fabric that tells the story of Black Britain from the 1950s onwards. But do not be fooled – this simplicity of structure belies incredibly rich depths and, by means of a prose style that is at the same time relaxed but dynamically urgent, Boakye engages and informs, makes us laugh, makes us weep; he clarifies, ironises, questions, inspires…but always holds the eponymous Truth as his beacon. No shadow is cast; here there is only Light.

And Light is exactly what a non-fiction book for children must have. Boakye knows his audience – what he has learned working as a teacher comes through loud and clear – and provides a series of snapshots that mostly take as long to read as to listen to the song on which they focus. He hooks his readers then reels them in with stories, always leaving them wanting more. I’ve not encountered many non-fiction books that I would describe as ‘page-turners’ but this really is one of them.

How does he do it? Well, firstly, Boakye loves and respects music; and he loves and respects Black culture. When reading this book, those passions are quickly absorbed leaving us energised and refreshed. I love that his playlist is personal; I really love that he selected ‘World in Motion’! With its John Barnes rap, it’s ‘cheesy’ (as Boakye says), yes, but the whole zeitgeist of the Nineties is there buoyed up by Boakye’s own enthusiasm. He remembers what it’s like to be young and captures so beautifully his eight-year-old boyish innocence of what makes a song ‘great’ – hey, everything is great when it sounds right and feels right, yes??! Boakye elevates that World Cup anthem to rub shoulders with the sparky inspiration of ‘Electric Avenue’, and mingle with the sunny dance-joy of ‘Sweet Mother’ and the sinister nocturne of ‘Ghost Town’, then to sit quite happily alongside Stormzy’s rapping, raw and urgent. It’s these autobiographical touches both explicit and implicit, that make the whole an outstanding and addictive mix; it’s writing from the heart.

In his introduction, Boakye says that ‘Music is Life’ then mentions three other things that great music does: music can celebrate, it can help us talk about oppression, and it can form a resistance. This is a real musician talking here, this is authentic, this is brilliant – because music is something that connects us all and, no matter what our own musical tastes, if we really listen, then we understand. Music has a power like no other; it goes beyond words. There are things that even Boakye’s superb prose can’t say but ultimately that’s not his point – his book is there to make us feel and for that the music he so expertly describes and explores is what we are left with, ultimately.

But even then, music can sometimes fail to speak. The Interlude has no soundtrack. It is silent. This central ‘movement’ of the book draws us into the darkness that is the murder of Steven Lawrence. It is a bleak moment reading these pages, a bitter, shocking anger. Nothing helps us to understand what happened to the teenager, nor to any of the many, many other victims of racist violence and abuse.

The acknowledgements thank Ngadi Smart for her artwork which ‘bring it all to life’. The portraits of each chapter’s main subjects are rendered with energetic brush strokes and in swirling patterns that capture the vibe of the music and words perfectly. They engage younger readers with a moody cool but also capture perfectly the look of each artist. And while seeming stylistically very similar, the artwork repays closer examination because it’s the tiny details that make these pictures really sing. Linton Kwesi Johnson stares wearily but with a sharpness and clarity from within a confined space that evokes the jail of his ‘letter’; Smiley Culture grins cheekily from a spray-haze, lending an ethereal tone to his tragic part in the story; Steven Lawrence’s body lacks an outline – only his face is clearly defined, a ‘halo’ of tears setting his features in relief.

Apart from being an outstanding guide for any child from Year 7 onwards, I would strongly recommend that this book be placed in the hands of every teacher and used in ITT settings as a superb core text for any course that addresses diversity in education. Its short chapters and engaging playlist would actually make excellent CPD for staff in any school: read one of the chapters and play the song at the beginning of every week’s staff meeting – five minutes a week – and it could seriously support how teachers dedicated to diverse education see their role.

Boakye sends out his address to children everywhere because, as the kid says at the start of ‘Pass the Dutchie’, ‘This generation rules the nation’. The author dedicates the book to his own two sons, his nieces and nephews ‘and every child experiencing the world through music for the first time’. Musical Truth puts the money (Derek B!) on youth; it is today’s children who will inherit our mistakes but from reading and thinking about this book, they will have been expertly guided in putting these mistakes right.

And that will have proved the power of ‘happy listening’ indeed.

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