'I Heard Before I Saw': How Record Collecting Became My Family Tradition

My dad was a reggae head and my mum loved soul, and I inherited their love of Black music.
October 19, 2021, 8:45am
Jesse Bernard sat by his parents' hi-fi equipment
The author sat by his parents' hi-fi equipment. Photo: courtesy of Jesse Bernard

There are moments in the day when I find myself stood in front of my record collection. Just stood there, admiring it all like it was something I’d built with my own two hands. There’s some truth to that: like a tapestry that, over the years, has been continuously reworked, this collection is something my family has been building since before I was born – and it’s one I hope continues to be built long after I’m gone. 


As a young child, the record player and stereo equipment were sacred; a shrine of sorts to the lives my parents had lived before they had me. It possessed a magnetic power that exerted its own unique pull on me. I wouldn’t feel the gravity of that pull until decades later during the moments I find myself staring at it, just sitting there in my living room.

It’s strange to think of a record collection as a living, breathing archive that evolves and takes shape as the years goes by, as though it were an extended member of the family. I started actively adding to it in 2014, leaving my own impressions on the archive. It may not be a distinguishable or recognisable act – unlike most family traditions, it’s very much still in its first generation – but for me, it’s becoming a lifelong practice.

My Togolese-Ghanaian dad was the reggae head who grew up in south London before moving to Nigeria for school; my Nigerian mum leaned towards soul, and where they came to meet in the middle was me. Raised on a diet of Patrice Rushen, Black Uhuru, Pablo Gad, Anita Baker, George Benson, Marvin Gaye, Johnny Gill, Sly & Robbie, Natalie Cole, Loose Ends, Sonia Spence – to name a few – my palate was broad and expansive before I’d even reached adolescence. 

It was in 2014 when my parents handed me their collection that had laid dormant for 20 years in the loft, and told me to just enjoy it. In each record, there’s a memory and story that makes each track feel just that bit heavier and denser. Both reggae and soul are the foundational sounds through which most forms of Black music in the UK and US, respectively, are borne from. Thanks to this, I was able to have a foot in both worlds, treading deeper than what was just shown on MTV Base and the odd occasion a Black artist would perform on Top of the Pops. In many ways, I heard before I saw. 


So many of the artists I’ve interviewed over the years come from families like mine, where the act of something as simple as collecting records turns music from a passive presence into an intentional practice. Perhaps even more symbolic is my dad having his own sound system in his south London flat back in the 80s, and my auxiliary role as the organiser of my club night, Home Comforts, which plays sounds rooted in soul and reggae, primarily from our collection, and tries to keep the dance as local and intimate as my family parties.

 For years, we would host these gatherings at our home, the sound of Mac Band pulsating through my young bones in a way that still awakens memories every time I hear a song of theirs. This was when the archive truly came alive; when it was put on display for extended family and friends to experience what we enjoyed intimately and privately. 

This was something I consciously brought forward into my adult life; it was a way for me to draw closer to my parents. ‘Where were they when they first heard this record? How did they feel?’ – questions that arose during my discovery of their collection; one that only affirmed we were more alike than different, despite my adolescent protestations.

In the age of renting where affordable space is much harder to come by, I’m conscious that the collection may not always be visible or present. But it wasn’t until I spoke to the owner of Zen Records, my local record shop in Tottenham, that I realised what I’d taken on. He said that his son had no desire to make use of his dad’s record collection. What happens to my family’s collection if there’s no one among the next generation who wants to take on the mantle? 

Granted, records are just circular pieces of polyvinyl chloride. When I’m gone, I won’t be here to protest how they’re being put to use. But my family’s history is inextricably linked to them, and as they once taught me – and still do – they’ll teach the next generation after me. 

Home Comforts is the name I chose for my night, and it reinforces my belief in the tradition of bringing people together through sound. It’s also the realisation of a family tradition that reemerged from the dust more than 30 years later. So when I stand in front of the collection, with decades’ worth of stories, memories and histories on display, I wouldn’t be where I am today knowing what I know: that the dance begins at home.