Music as Memory How the music we hear as children shapes us as adults

Cover Image - Music as Memory
WordsJesse Bernard

Ask anyone what their first musical memory is and nine times out of 10 they’ll refer back to an experience they had in their family home. Older siblings’ CDs, mum singing in the car or the soundtrack to the whole gang getting loose after Sunday lunch. In this piece, writer Jesse Bernard reflects on how our relationship with music is born and bred in the home, particularly in the Black community, and how that relationship can open doors and lead the way in someone’s future.

Artworks by Nicole Chui.

For Black people in Britain, it’s in the family home where many musicians lay the groundwork for their careers. Formal musical education is often out of the question or inaccessible, especially when it pertains to Black underground cultures. There have been countless artists across garage, grime, R&B and rap in the UK whom, over the years, have all told me much of their early education came via their elders’ sound systems, within the church choir or alone at home. Recording artist and rapper Mikill Pane points to the records he listened to as a child of the ‘80s informing much of his sound today. “I’d say a lot of it has , especially the synth-led music of the ‘80s, which is the sound I very deliberately chose for my sophomore album, The Night Elm on Mare Street,” he says. “My dad has this hi-fi system with a turntable on top that’s older than me and all my siblings. I can remember them playing Nigerian artists like Oliver de Coque and Voice of the Cross, but also acts like Neneh Cherry, Alexander O’Neal, Phil Collins, Lisa Stansfield, Musical Youth and The Jackson 5.”

The records Mikill Pane inherited from his parents
The records Mikill Pane inherited from his parents

For many of us, the dance begins at home. It’s here where our musical identities are formed, each family holding its own legacy which will inevitably be passed down from generation to generation via records, cassettes and CDs. Whether it’s born in the living room, kitchen, garden or bedroom, the family home is the first sacred dance floor for many of us. It’s here that we learn to move our bodies before the world teaches us to become self-conscious. In some homes, the Sugar Shack painting hangs not just as a perennial representation of Black cool, but an invitation to dance. “I was close with my mum when I was very young, so when she was in a good mood and listening to something upbeat, she would grab my hand and dance with me, or I would just hold on to her skirt or wrapper and let her rhythm move me. Looking back, I guess it made me feel safe, but it also instilled in me the knowledge that there’s a song for every emotion,” Mikill adds.

And that influence is not solely unique to him. Listen to music by Murkage Dave, Manga Saint Hilare, CASisDEAD, Lynda Dawn and Amber-Simone and each too has nods to this similar synth-led production that was popular when they were growing up. “My mum had an almost exclusive control over the radio at home and so I was raised on Lovers Rock and Soul music,” says writer and curator Rianna Jade Parker. “My uncles would further extend that musical scholarship to dub, roots and house – I would be tested on it and kept on my toes.”

This musical education evolves in so many different ways, from running downstairs at 7am on a Saturday morning to catch the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers theme tune, to practicing moves and air guitar riffs on your bed. Then there’s your mum casually swaying in the kitchen to Shalamar and Anita Baker, unaware that her movement is subconsciously inviting us to learn these actions too. Or the family parties where children and adults shared the dancefloor, not before the young ones were often herded into another room as the grown-ups cracked open the “adult drinks.” Presenter and broadcaster Richie Brave recalls those moments in the living room, which is still to this day, a necessary communal space: “The living room has always been the hub of music. Me and my friends used to congregate there, even now as a grown man I still do. It’s where we share, exchange and learn to love each other.”

The radio blasting music in Rianna Jade Parker's childhood home

Since inheriting my parents’ record collection in 2014, the following years have seen me slowly but gradually return to that foundation where my own journey into music began. I have some recollection of what was played, such as Kashif, Teddy Pendergrass, Pablo Gad and Black Uhuru but with the advent of the CD, those records hadn’t been touched for nearly 20 years. In our family, mum was the R&B and soul head and dad was the reggae don. At 30, I’ve found myself leaning further and further into the sounds that defined my parents. For myself and for my peers, it’s important that we recognize the ways in which our parents have shaped us. The cultural tropes they pass down are also important and formative parts of that legacy. What I choose to listen to now will eventually be inherited as well.

Seeing our parents gather with their friends to drink and dance not only allowed us to see them as people, but those kind of intergenerational spaces allow young people to witness the context of their lives, see who they’d later become and learn cultural practices that would invite them to later imitate creating those spaces within their own homes. “With the living room packed out and Shina Peters and King Sunny Ade blasting out of the speakers...I had the sense that these artists were offering commentary and projecting their hopes, they were talking about the seismic changes sweeping Nigeria in the ‘90s,” producer and DJ Teju Adeleye says. “My parents always spoke about the music they mum bought me Black music magazines like Right On and Word Up; she used to read them in Nigeria when she was young.”

Jesse Bernard's aunts dancing at a house party
Jesse Bernard's aunts dancing at a house party

For Teju, who now works in music spaces and hosts a jazz show on NTS Floating Roofs, it’s clear to see the impact of her parents’ own musical legacy on her life today. “Radio was the most important to me. It was a fixed part of weekend shopping, cooking or chores. I learned my parent’s old dance moves, and on the way to Costco’s we’d listen to DJs on Choice FM debating culture. We’d have creative debates in the car, too. I learned to groove, question and vibe,” she adds. For many West Africans, cultural exploration isn’t seen as a viable career path but for those who now find themselves occupying those roles, more often than not, it’s their parents and elders who indoctrinate them into the music that will eventually shape their identities.

“Looking back, those early moments in the home and at family gatherings made it clear that food, people and music work in harmony,” Errol Anderson co-founder of Touching Bass says, a south London-based musical movement and curatorial platform including monthly dances. “My most vivid memories of being at a ‘big people dance’ go back to being at my aunt's house in Homerton. One blue or red light, one deck and the smell of marijuana in the air. Even though it was loud, the sound had such warmth to it. Probably as a result of the music itself, the medium and my dad constantly tweaking it. I didn’t really think of those tweaks as special, because I just saw it as normal. But I can see how those early times have made me more sensitive to the harsh sounds within certain clubs.”

Errol Anderson at his parents' wedding

Given the cost of childcare, families often did – and still do – rely on extended relatives to look after children on the weekends and holidays, subsequently leading to living dual lives. For me, it would be weekends at my nan’s where, as an eight-year-old, I’d hear garage music bleeding out from cars and in between walls on the estate in Hackney where she lived. There was no Spotify, only the hope that someday soon you may hear that one banger again. This was 1999 and the promise of the future was wrapped in a white dome south of the river, but I yearned to rave with my older cousins who were, by that point, established citizens of the garage nation.

Older siblings played an important role in bridging the gap between generations, acting as a conduit and contextualizing to us youngers why these cultural rituals exist and remain with us today. “The desire to collect was passed on to me from my uncle but I most certainly absorbed my early music tastes from my brother,” says Nathaniel Cole, co-founder of SWIM DEM, a grassroots community of swimming enthusiasts. “‘90s gangsta rap, g-funk, reggae, dancehall, drum and bass, garage, grime, hip-hop, and R&B is what filled his CD boxes growing up and I inherited them after he spent weeks importing them into iTunes. The library grew from 7,000 songs to about 14,000 before streaming came into our lives.” Rianna also has a similar story of gaining her musical education through her siblings: “One early memory is rummaging through my older brothers’ music collection when they weren't home. There was no one cooler or more influential in my life at the time. I would learn a verse or two from a track – which was much more impressive than rehearsing just a chorus – as well as the appropriate dance. So at the next given opportunity I would be able to impress them to no end.”

Nathaniel Cole as a kid at a party
Nathaniel Cole as a kid at a party

And for many, it’s somewhat of an obligation to continue the musical legacy our families carry. The home is a sacred dance space that not only helps our early development as children but it’s those emotional bonds and the idea of performance that we carry into adulthood. Music is cyclical in different generations, the very nature of sampling allows a reimagining of sounds that came before. When Kano samples Junior Murvin’s Police & Thieves on Fightin’ The Nation, not only does he tells us that little has changed since 1977 when the song was released regarding the police’s attitude towards Black people, but Kano also contextualises the sounds he grew up with in a way that he and his peers could articulate and understand. In many Jamaican households, like Rianna’s, “Sundays are still strictly reserved for reggae.”

“Our musical legacy is unique to me, my parents and my younger brother because of the experiences we had together,” Errol says. “But it’s also the shared experience of second and third-generation Caribbean people here in the UK; one which remains a source of solitude considering how tough Babylon has made it for us to just be. My dad passed away a few years ago and even though I know he’s skanking in space, I know he would have loved to see me doing what I’m doing now as a DJ. Every time I play his music, I feel that much closer to him and I want that feeling often.”

In Britain, dance spaces have always been under threat, even more so when they’re Black-led. House parties, family gatherings or shebeens provided a ritualistic and safe space for dance to take place and for people to begin their musical journeys. As we grow up and seek our own identity away from our families, eventually we will find ourselves arriving back home, returning to the music that shaped us.