With songs that reflect the everyday hustle of life in the inner city, Manchester-born duo Space Afrika’s Joshua Inyang and Joshua Reid are ‘trying to push Black music and experiences into spaces they’re not supposed to be in’
Taken from the summer 2023 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.
The siren is a sound that pollutes the surrounding environment. It’s an unwanted noise designed to distress and put you on high alert. But when deployed in the right hands, it becomes a cultural weapon to shock and disrupt the status quo. For Manchester-born duo Space Afrika’s Joshua Inyang and Joshua Reid, sounds culled from sirens, static and even riots carry an unmistakable charge. Recontextualised, they create an affective dimension where tense and concrete forms morph and mutate freely through murky clublands, creating a strange and beautiful environment that embodies the lived experience of the city.
Inspired by the visual and sonic aspects of industrialism, the duo makes music that alludes to these surroundings. “Ambient music can be a form of escapism that people listen to take themselves away from the everyday,” says Reid, “but for us, it’s not necessarily escaping struggles but understanding and recontextualising them.” This extends across album names – for example, their 2014 debut Above the Concrete / Below the Concrete and 2021’s Honest Labour – and also the duo’s visuals, which feature monochrome architectural photographs of Inyang and Reid’s surroundings, with Inyang in their native Manchester and Reid in Berlin. “We’re paying homage to these suburban environments,” Reid explains. “We’re showing the limits of those structures and trying to break them down at the same time.”
Whereas a majority of ambient music calls on nature to convey a sense of beauty, Space Afrika homes in on the human spirit, mapping out a genre-spanning style that pulls on samples and complex instrumentation to conjure a rich emotional landscape. Abstract soundscapes pulse like faraway transmissions, evoking hazy projections of cold and rainy urban environments, the amber glow of streetlamps against cold concrete pavements. “If you’re going to a Space Afrika show, what are you expecting to see when you have two Black boys who are into kind of everything, have been patrolling city environments for most of their life, working class and growing up in the bits?” Inyang asks. “If you’re really going to walk into our minds, into our environment, this is what’s happening. It’s boisterous, it’s busy, with a lot of pressure going on to try to see the light in a lot of situations, trying to balance having to make money and have a better life for ourselves.”
In reflecting their lived environment, Space Afrika subverts the idea of avant-classical music, a genre that’s historically been made primarily by white men, as primarily apolitical. They reject the term ‘ambient’ music, instead opting for ‘synth-driven’, which better encompasses their diverse output, which spans modern classical, grime, pop, trip hop and beyond. “All the experiences we’ve had as Black individuals feed into this,” Inyang expands. “I think right now one of the main things for us is completely breaking down all the barriers that you would expect Black people to sit in. We’re really trying to create our own path, and push Black music and Black experiences into spaces they are not supposed to be in or where they are not commonly understood.” This extends to their monthly NTS show, which gives a glimpse into the pair’s listening habits, while shining a light on some of their favourite emerging talent. There’s going to be trap, hip hop, rap, dub and techno,” says Inyang, “but peel away the 808s or the hi-hats, and it’s the most gorgeous ambient music.”
The story of Space Afrika dates back two decades when the pair met in primary school, a friendship that extended over time to their families too. “It’s a weird unspoken connection,” says Inyang. “We have ideas simultaneously although we’re in completely different countries.” Reid agrees, “The backgrounds that we both have allowed us to be rooted in something, which means that the common thread of the partnership works, because we’re both telling the same stories.”
The underground scene surrounding Manchester has risen to media attention in recent years, with other local talent such as Blackhaine, Iceboy Violet and Rainy Miller reaching a global audience (the former recently did choreography for Playboi Carti). Venues such as the White Hotel in Salford are at the centre of this experimental scene, while NTS Manchester is a vital hub for nurturing local talent. But Reid maintains that the community has always come first. “Before the music, the community was strong anyway,” he explains. “An average day in Manchester is a collaboration. Everybody from different genres, different backgrounds at the same clubs, same bars, same flats. We’ve known each other for time, before everyone’s popping off, and everyone decides to put the spotlight on Manchester. The music that’s happening now, we’ve known each other for five, ten years. We’ve been hanging out in the same places whether that’s [nightclub] SOUP or NTS or the White Hotel.”
“We’re trying to push Black music and experiences into spaces they’re not supposed to be in or not commonly understood” – Joshua Inyang
But the history of music from the north-west has always been shrouded in global interest, from the dark mystique of bands such as Joy Division and The Smiths to the ravey antics of Factory Records and The Haçienda. “There’s always been this mutual interest at some point in the north,” explains Reid. “It’s always looked at as the term ‘real’, which I don’t like using. Like, there’s a true sense of pain and dread from the artists that die for their art.” But the cultural tides surrounding the north-west are turning. The old gatekeepers no longer have the power they used to, and the institutions that fixed the city’s musical identity are changing guard. This is partially down to the DIY scene, which has built a self-sustaining community of artists who, through collaboration and family ties, support each other’s individual growth. At the same time, social media has opened the door for collaborations with like-minded artists across city (and country) lines. For example, a recent remix edition of artist Richie Culver’s debut album I was born by the sea features tracks by Space Afrika as well as Paris-based producer Aho Ssan and Leeds-based musician Teresa Winter, among others. “We’ve been able to break the shackles of prior discussions around Manchester music,” says Reid. “We can take the reins and make the city our own.”
The duo are currently working on an EP for Rainy Miller’s Fixed Abode label which they describe as a move into contemporary pop. As the conversation winds down, there’s the impression that there are no limits to how they see the project developing – it’s as undefinable and boundless as their sound. They confide in plans to move further into the art world, an avenue they’ve already begun to explore with their score for Valentin Noujaïm’s short film “Pacific Club”, set in the industrial outskirts of 1970s Paris, which screened at P21 Gallery in London this year. “Now we have a very clear goal of what we want with our lives,” concludes Inyang. “We have loads of stories that we feel are uncovered, whether that’s looking at our own history, Manchester’s history and culture, or even UK culture and how it’s moving away from its roots and the pivotal sounds and artists which have contributed to that. We’re very much part of this Manchester and UK story.”
Sittings editor LUC JONES