It’s a rainy Thursday evening, and the floor vibrates in a normally quiet room in London’s historic Somerset House. Public records, from wills to birth certificates, used to fill this space, but right now it's heaving with people dancing. The floor-shaking reggae comes courtesy of acclaimed dub producer Aba Shanti-I, who's playing an event co-organised with Boiler Room as part of a month-long series celebrating migration’s impact on music. But Notting Hill Carnival veterans will already know that his music has boomed out of a sound system at the annual street event since 1993.
The Somerset House show he’s playing straddles both the interactive nature of Carnival and a more typically ‘gallery-style’ exploration of its significance. In one part of the series you’ll find Warp-signed artist GAIKA’s SYSTEM installation, inspired by the Jamaican sound system tradition, dating back to 1940s Kingston, where stacks of custom-made speakers blast out music in public space. GAIKA’s installation splices personal artefacts – he’s of Jamaican and Grenadian heritage – with archival footage of Notting Hill Carnival, and in turn reworks the traditional sound system setup. “For me,” he says, “sound system is allegorical. It represents the holding onto space – ‘I’m gonna make this much noise until you try and shut me off, I’m going to affect everything around me’.” And so SYSTEM uses music, spoken word and thermal imaging to question what it means to be black and part of a Caribbean community.
This is an especially prescient time for the exhibit. Just as gentrification has transformed the area through which Notting Hill Carnival strides, Dominican Republic-derived sound system culture in New York City has also been shaken by changing demographics. As GAIKA does with SYSTEM, director Sean Frank’s film Más Fuerte , released in June, explores how policing and gentrification are significantly affecting the future of sound systems. In turn, both artists examine how immigrant communities on both sides of the Atlantic are starting to interrogate what it means to have their traditions squeezed into the mainstream. But, more than that, how such exposure may have had a negative effect on the black communities it was designed to serve and represent – not least at Notting Hill Carnival, which started in 1966 as a response to poor race relations and is now an annual event attended by close to one million people. After a year in which governments both here and in the US have shown either disdain or outright hostility towards migrant communities, there’s no better time to be thinking of how Carnival culture will evolve.
“Notting Hill Carnival hasn’t been a home for reggae sound systems in the same way for a long time,” says reggae historian John Masouri, who feels commercialisation has made the annual event unaffordable for some traditional sound systems. On top of that, the way police handle the event feels starkly different to similarly sized festivals that attract a predominantly white audience, as pointed out by Stormzy last year. “We all see these photos of police dancing away to some reggae track looking all happy, and that’s real. But what’s also been real is very heavy-handed and antagonistic treatment of black people in particular. For the Windrush generation, a sound system is where they met their wives and their husbands, it’s where they celebrated events, it’s where they had adventures that would stay with them. Sound system was representative of far more than just a group of people playing music – it carried with it a community.”
Indeed, in Britain sound systems were a place for West Indians to congregate away from the racism and exclusion they experienced in pubs and nightclubs, which culminated in the race riots of the 1980s. Both rave culture and music festivals can be traced back to sound systems. “It’s had such a massive impact on popular music and culture in terms of language, clothes, attitude,” Masouri says, while GAIKA adds, “putting Wiley in SYSTEM, it’s showing people where grime comes from.” Beyond the annual bashing Carnival receives at the hands of the popular press, black music genres born from sound system culture have also suffered from its only partial adoption by mainstream music and club culture. “Say in London, the areas where the most activity is in terms of sound systems are the gentrified areas and there’s a lot of white people playing the music,” says Masouri, “but if young black people wanting to play grime and drill music turned up and said, ‘can we hire your club every week?’ they’d probably get a fight.”
In his film Más Fuerte, Sean Frank similarly shows the heritage of sound systems by depicting how music obsessives within Dominican Republic immigrant communities in Queens and the Bronx are customising cars and vans, inspired by the craftsmanship of the culture in their home country. Their cars are specially selected to house powerful speakers, which are custom built into the vehicles’ interiors and doors by teams of mechanics, often passing their skills on from generation to generation. “What I thought was interesting was how the cars are extensions of the van owners’ personalities – through their design, what colours they are, how big they’re going with it, is how they express themselves,” Frank says. Having spent six months on the project, he explains he’s sure that “they’re not trying to disturb anyone and they’re really going to these very remote locations to play their music. But as soon as that location gets found out, they’re having to move again because they’re being shut down or their cars are being taken away by police.”
As in the UK, gentrification has had a major impact on the culture over there: “There was a much larger scene ten to 15 years ago and they used to all play around Rhode Island, before Rhode Island started getting really built out. There were a lot more bigger vehicles but as a result of the very real frustrations with the restrictions a lot of people just got tired of always being shut down.”
GAIKA is all too aware of these kinds of problems and uses footage of heavy-handed policing at Notting Hill Carnival as a call to arms in SYSTEM. With the installation, he’s also pointing out the wider growing hostility towards immigrants and ethnic minorities. “This work is not really about history at all – it’s about what we do now, how we deal with the rise of right-wing politics, which is always talking about freedom but actually does things that curtail people’s freedoms to maintain this ability to divide us. So my counter is, let’s try and make everyone come together. How do you combat the politics of selfishness? With the politics of togetherness. That’s why the SYSTEM film is called Congregation. What joins people is music and culture.” Frank’s film also explores the sound system as a tool of political protest. “There’s a history of these speaker vans being used in political rallies, especially in countries like the Dominican Republic,” he says.
That crossover, towards political action, fires GAIKA up, too. “All I wanna do over the next few months is stimulate activity like that,” he says. “As we hurtle towards Brexit, what do you think is going to happen? Boris [Johnson] is out here stoking up all the maniacs. They’re telling us we’re never going to be British, we’re never going to be American, so with all this, I’m investing money. But I also want to make [sound system culture] cool for black people again; the white man reggae club are not invited.”
In answer to whether Somerset House is an apt location for re-engaging black communities in sound system culture, GAIKA replies that SYSTEM’s positioning is serving a double purpose. In a way, it shows young black people that they are not only the rightful heirs of this tradition, but also that it is possible to break the glass ceiling and tap into resources traditionally cut off from them: “They might just come here and realise, ‘this space is just as much for me as for anyone else.’” Meanwhile, Frank says he hopes that more people understanding what New York’s Dominican Republic deriving sound system culture is all about will “show that the van owners are not there to cause trouble, they are literally just passionate about their music and they want a space where they can play legally.”
As the evening of reggae and dub draws to a close in Somerset House’s Lancaster Rooms a piece of plaster falls off the wall. A bartender looks at the mess with alarm but GAIKA is unperturbed. In a way, he has achieved what he set out to do – reminding the predominantly black audience about the heritage of sound system culture, but also about its continuing ability to unsettle the status quo. “I’m going to the heart of London establishment and playing music really loudly to show that if you make enough sound in a place, it will start to affect it.”
SYSTEM runs in Somerset House until Sunday 26 August.
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