Using popular music for learning and teaching about Black lives in modern Britain

David Ingledew, Principal Lecturer in Education (History), University of Hertfordshire, follows up on his previous blogpost to suggest music that can be used as part of your teaching about Black people in modern Britain. 

Popular music can be an invaluable resource for learning and teaching about Black lives in Britain from the 1960s to the present day. It can act as an initial stimulus at the start of lessons, be used as a source as well as the focus for historical interpretations as well as to set the mood or tone of a lesson for pupils. Using music in this way has been influenced by Simon Butler’s article ‘What’s that stuff you’re listening to Sir?’ in TH111, Robert Phillips article on Initial Stimulus Material (ISM) in TH105 and Andrew Wrenn’s little stories/big picture approach in TH107.

Below is a list of ten songs that I think are particularly useful in helping pupils learn about black lives in Britain since the 1960s. Some of the songs contain social commentary or make a political protest, reflecting views at the time, others do not but are representative of the ‘little stories’ behind key historical developments. Using songs this way in history can easily be adapted to online learning and teaching and all of these songs are readily available on YouTube and streaming services.

The Equals – Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys (1970)

The third and last major hit record for this North London band, led by Guyanan-born Eddy Grant, Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys (1970) combined anti-Vietnam war sentiments with demands for racial equality. The Equals are widely regarded as Britain’s first multi-racial pop/rock band and Lynval Golding of the Specials has described them as the ‘spiritual ancestors’ of the late 1970s Two-Tone label and sound. Eddy Grant left the group soon after this hit following a serious car accident and subsequently went on to have a very successful solo career in the 1980s. Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys (1970) and story of The Equals can be used to illustrate the impact of the Windrush generation on mainstream British culture during this period.

Steel Pulse – Ku Klux Klan (1978)

Ku Klux Klan (1978) is a powerful attack against racism which perfectly captures the pivotal period of the late 1970s. Steel Pulse were formed in the Handsworth area of Birmingham in 1975 and were the first non-Jamaican act to win a Grammy Award for Best Reggae album – Handsworth Revolution – which in my view is one of the best albums of all time. The band worked were closely linked with the Rock Against Racism (RAR) organisation created in response to the growing threat of racism and the fascist National Front party in the 1970s. RAR organised gigs and festivals which were co-headlined by Reggae and punk/new wave acts, for example Steel Pulse performed alongside the Stranglers and XTC (which would have been some gig). RAR and bands such as Steel Pulse are widely considered to have had a significant impact not only on social attitudes on race but also on the development of popular music in the UK.

The Real Thing – Can You Feel the Force? (1979)

The Real Thing formed in Liverpool in 1970 and were one of the most successful British black soul bands of the period at a time when soul/RnB music was dominated by American acts. Can you feel the force is an uplifting and optimistic song calling for peace and justice which is really useful to illustrate some of the improvements in race relations in the 1970s contrasted against continuing problems. It is a great song to dance to and band often used it to close their shows.

The Specials – Ghost Town (1981)

The release of Ghost Town in June 1981 coincided with the outbreak of riots in 35 towns and cities across the UK, most notably in Toxteth and Brixton.  The song remains a powerful indictment of mass unemployment and urban decay arising from the recession of the early 1980s. The Specials were formed in Coventry in 1977 and fused ska/rocksteady with punk to form their distinct sound, full of political and social commentary, and were the leading band for the Two-Tone label. The band split soon after the release of Ghost Town but most members reformed in 2009, continue to tour and last year released the excellent Encore album.

Sade – Smooth Operator (1984)

Sade Adu is a Nigerian-British singer who achieved huge international success with the release of her album Diamond Life. By no means a song of political or social commentary, Smooth Operator, is useful to reflect the shift in popular music and social attitudes of the mid-1980s. The rich, lush sounds of the song captures a move away from the more confrontational music of the punk and new wave era and also the recovery of the British economy (at least for some), Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983 and the era of the ‘yuppie’.

Cornershop – In The Days of Ford Cortina EP (1993)

Cornershop were formed in Leicester in 1991 by brothers Avtar and Tjinder Singh. The band fused traditional Indian music with indie pop and electronica full of social commentary. They were ahead of their time in terms of the Britpop sound and subsequent fashion for fusing different sounds as well as being outspoken critics of Morrissey who had made dubious racist references in the early 90s (compared to the blatant racist remarks that he has made in more recent times). The In The Days of Ford Cortina EP was their first release and perfectly captures the bands’ blended sound which was repeated with great commercial success with the number 1 hit Brimful of Asha in 1997. Cornershop are still making music and earlier this year released the excellent England Is a Garden.

Goldie – Inner City Life (1994)

Not a huge popular hit at the time, Inner City Life is widely considered to be one of the best drum and bass tracks of its time, perfectly capturing the dance electronica sound of the time while retaining a social commentary focus. It is a great track for setting a mood or tone in a lesson as well as reflecting on the changing experiences of black people in Britain at the start of the millennium. Clifford Price, aka Goldie, grew up in Wolverhampton has had a hugely successful career as a DJ, graffiti artist, actor as well as recording artist.

So Solid Crew – Broken Silence (2003)

Formed in the Battersea area of South London, So Solid Crew were a garage and hip-hop collective – multiple changing and overlapping members – who are widely regarded as pioneers for the sound that later became known as grime music. The collective had a large underground following, were linked to numerous London pirate radio stations, and courted a lot of controversy at the time. Broken Silence is the band’s riposte to the way in which they were treated by newspapers and politicians at the time of their success which they felt reflected underlying institutionalised racism. The song, and controversy surrounding So Solid Crew, could be linked to the mishandling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1994 and subsequent inquiries, to highlight the ongoing issues of racism during the period.

Stormzy – Shut up (2015)

Michael Owuo Jr. aka Stormzy, is the most successful grime artist of his generation. Shut up was his first major hit released digitally (reflecting the change in how we listen to music) and eventually reached No. 8 in December 2015. Outspoken on a wide range of political and social issues Stormzy has sponsored black students taking degrees at Cambridge University and recently announced plans to donate £1m a year for 10 years to charities and organisations campaigning for racial equality, justice reform and black empowerment.

Dave – Question Time (2017)

Rapper David Omoregie, aka Dave, is from South London, won the Mercury Prize for music and achieved considerable commercial success in 2019 for his debut album Psychodrama. Described as a scathing seven-minute-long breakdown of everything wrong with British politics, Question Time was one of his early releases. The song continues and develops the politically charged music of Stormzy, focusing on Grenfell Tower and the NHS,  anticipating the issues highlighted in protests across the UK following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota in May 2020.


Simon Butler ‘What’s that stuff you’re listening to Sir?’ Rock and pop music as a rich source for historical enquiry TH111

Robert Philips Making history curious: using Initial Stimulus Material [ISM] to promote enquiry, thinking and literacy, TH105

Andrew Wrenn Equiano – voice of silent slaves? TH107

Spotify public playlist of some of the songs referred to here.


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