Adem Holness & 696 Festival

Discrimination through legislation has been an everyday reality for the Black community over many generations. Whether it was redlining in the United States or apartheid law in South Africa, such policies have inflicted deep wounds, whereby the resulting scars still serve as dividing borders along racial lines. The UK’s history with such legislation, whilst less blatant, is pernicious, with one of the most contentious examples being the contemporary ‘Form 696’. A risk assessment form which the London Met Police requested promoters to fill out in advance of events, the wording would target genres which were perceived to be performed, and enjoyed, primarily by minority ethnic groups. As a result of Form 696, pioneers and legends of the UK Rap scene, including Giggs and J Hus, have had their shows cancelled on numerous occasions, the former reduced to putting on secret shows to circumvent the law. 

Live music has always been crucial for the artist, whether it was bearing fruit in the form of a healthy stream of income or increasing awareness of the artist’s brand. To take this away based on someone’s ethnicity, preventing them earning a living, excluding them from public spaces where they can perform, underpins what racism is. It is for this reason that Adem Holness, a cultural strategist and senior artistic programmer, decided to create the 696 Festival, partnering with the Horniman Museum in South London, to celebrate Black British music that has been disproportionately affected by bias in this legislation. Being of mixed heritage, Jamaican/Turkish Cypriot, and LGBTQ+, Adem is well aware of the importance of inclusivity. This shines through in the line-up for the festival. Whether it’s Eerf Evil’s mellow, Jazz interpretation of Rap/Grime, or the eclectic, West African folklore inspired Balimaya Project, the brainchild of mastermind percussionist Yahael Camara Onono, the art on display paints a diverse and broad picture of what Black British music is. Noone is able to put into better words what the festival is about than the founder himself, who has worked for two years on the event, and has seen the fruits of his labour take place, given its success over the last few months. Below, Adem gives us his words on the inspiration behind the festival, what it means to him, and highlights from 696:  

The Inspiration

“Putting together the 696 Festival and the exhibition Dance Can’t Nice at the Horniman Museum was the culmination of about 2 years work. My job at the Horniman is essentially to connect the museum, and its collections, with local people. Having this award-winning collection of musical instruments and one of the world’s greatest music scenes on our doorstep felt like an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. You know, museums are known for going around the world to collect culture. It’s super rare to be a museum plopped right in the middle of a massive cultural explosion. So, 696 was about connecting to that, to the south London music scene, but absolutely not cherry picking it for display. It was about saying to our local music community, we’re here for you. To celebrate, platform and inspire all the incredible stuff that is already happening, and try to help make stuff happen that couldn’t otherwise.

“The name, 696, is a direct reference to the Met Police risk assessment form 696. From 2006 to 2017, form 696 made it harder for Black live music to be put on in London. I felt like, if the Horniman was going to start a dialogue with the Black music community, it was vital to acknowledge the longstanding relationship between Black live music and public space. I’ve always been massively aware of the ways in which Black live music has been pushed out of public space, and I thought it was important to be clear that public organisations, like museums, need to have an active role in redressing the imbalance.It’s all come together at a really strange time, coming out of lockdown and the most recent wave of Black Lives Matter campaigning. 696 has been in development for 2-3 years, the festival was originally due to happen in 2020. In lots of ways, it’s felt much more focused as a result of the previous year. It feels like now, more than ever, with artists, promoters and other creative people being so adversely impacted by the pandemic, that our public organisations need to do what we can to support.”

Photography: Nicholas Taghavi

Resident Artists Programme

As well as all the gigs and the exhibition, 696 and the Horniman have been home to 5 incredible south London artists through our resident artist programme. This has been about opening up our collections and offering hand-on access to use them to create new music and explore new ideas. 696 really has been about asking where Black British Music belongs, and who gets to decide. So, working with artists to decide the value and possibilities with our collection has been super inspiring. I wanted to work with artists that feel reflective of the local music scene, and we’ve definitely managed to do that.

Dance Can’t Nice Exhibition

“We also worked with artists Naeem Dxvis and Sign Kid on developing content for the exhibition Dance Can’t Nice. 696 is a celebration as well as an artistic integration into the relationship between Black live music and public space, I wanted to use the exhibition to pay homage to ways in which Black music has thrived. So often Black creativity is only viewed through the lens of trauma. While things like form 696, or no Blacks no dogs no Irish, are certainly traumatic, our music has still continued to thrive. Dance Can’t Nice is a celebration of private DIY spaces and language we’ve built to enable our music to impact the world. It looks at a period of the last 50 years, and offers audience a personal peak behind the scenes.

Working with Naeem specifically has been so fun. We’ve definitely put our personalities into the whole show. I see myself and my family spread across the installations, but I think that’s a huge credit to Naeem’s ability to be so detailed in reflecting our culture. It’s been incredible to see so many people see themselves in Naeem’s work. That’s why I think it’s been so powerful to have this particular show at the Horniman.

The main message I hope people would take away after seeing Dance Can’t Nice, is how important these spaces are. How vital it is that Black music creatives get space to do their stuff. That there is appropriate support. Yes, we’ve made it happen in bedrooms, church halls and barbershops, so imagine what we can do if we get the same support as other genres of music. It’s all bout saying that Black Live Music Matters. By opening the Horniman’s spaces to support and enable Black live music, I hope others will do the same.

Photography by: Ray Amoah

Past To Present

“The Horniman is obviously a beautiful setting for live music, both inside the museum and across the award-winning gardens. But I always had in my mind the colonial legacy of its foundations. The Horniman was originally gifted to the people of London by its founder, and continues to be supported through public funding. So to reconcile this history and its present, it was really important to be to reinterpret this mission within a contemporary context. The people of London have changed a lot since 1901, so my hope was 696 would demonstrate to the people of London today, that the Horniman is absolutely for them. For their music, creativity and ideas.

Adem Holness