On 09 March 2015, the ‘Down with Rhodes’ movement began in the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Its aim? To tear down a statue commemorating Cecil Rhodes – a British politician, colonialist and diamond magnate who believed that Anglo-Saxons were inherently superior to those of different colour.
The statue was torn down a month later, prompting similar protest movements across various universities, including Oxford, over a statue of Rhodes in Oriel College.
And while it may be an uncomfortable fact to admit, Bristol too has benefited from colonialism and slavery. It was itself once at the centre of the British slave trade – over 500,000 slaves were transported on Bristolian ships. But how has this impacted the vibrant artistic culture which has been such an integral part of Bristol for centuries?
Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade and its artistry are linked in physical form by Colston Hall – the largest music venue in Bristol. Edward Colston, after whom Colston hall is named, was an altruistic merchant, a politician and Bristol’s most prolific slave-trader.
He was a high-ranking member of the Royal Africa Company, owned 40 slave ships and over the course of the late 17th and early 18th century traded tens of thousands of slaves. It is with these profits that Colston funded Colston Boy’s School on the site which now houses Colston Hall.
This link between Bristolian music and the slave trade is acknowledged by numerous artists, including perhaps Bristol’s most famous musical export – trip-hop duo Massive Attack. In 2010, the group publically announced that they would not play at Colston Hall until its ties with Edward Colston had been cut.
A similar opinion was articulated by Ros Martin, a black Bristol-based poet and playwright, who said in an interview with The Guardian ‘There are those of us who wish to create or experience art in this city but who find ourselves excluded. We do not feel able to enjoy or contribute to Bristol’s biggest venue while it continues to trade under the Colston name.’
Regardless of how valid this statement may be today, these ties to the slave trade are part of what created such an eclectic and powerful artistic movement in Bristol. The ‘Bristol Sound’ – the dark, melancholic style of sample-based, downtempo music started by Roni Size, Portishead and Massive Attack in the 90s, and which is still being developed upon today by artists including Young Echo, Ishan Sound and Dubkasm – gives an indication of how the slave trade has influenced Bristol’s artistic scene.
The darkness of the music reflects dissatisfaction. A dissatisfaction with the way in which Bristol found its wealth.
Its origin as a slave trading city was a catalyst for the revolutionary, anti-establishment work of many of Bristol’s greatest artists. Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja has a history of openly opposing British governmental policies from the Iraq war to the renewal of the Trident Programme in 2007.
A brief walk through Stokes Croft reveals examples of anti-establishment graffiti by Banksy – including the famous ‘Mild Mild West…’ which depicts a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at three policemen in riot gear – Inkie and dozens of other, lesser-known street artists.
To look back further, as early as 1877 (and again in 1888 and 1898), The Jubilee Singers, a then world famous group of gospel singers who were all born into slavery and later freed, performed in Colston Hall to great critical acclaim; an act of defiance against the late slave trader.
For over a hundred years now, the dissatisfaction with and attempt to fight against Bristol’s cultural ties to slavery has encouraged some of the city’s greatest artistic achievements. It is a uniting factor between its artists, no matter how diverse their art may be.
Charlie Rees in his short documentary The Sound of Bristol picks up on this sense of unity, stating that ‘Bristol’s consistent reliance on community and the cross-pollination between its artists is what sets it apart from other cities in the UK’.
Bristol’s ties to the slave trade may be an uncomfortable truth, but this has encouraged the development of an artistic community which is far more powerful and relevant than it may have been otherwise. Great art provokes, challenges, expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo. And through uniting against its history of slavery, Bristol’s artistic scene has been able to create what can only be labelled as truly great art.