Black musical creativity has bled like dye through the fabric of the UK, painting it in colors it never knew before. It has reverberated through jungle raves in the 90s, draped itself in designer prints and champagne at garage dances, partied hard to funky house in the mid-00s and weaved English with patois and Yoruba on Afrobeats. Colloquialisms and fragments of Black dialects flow seamlessly out of the mouths of every British teenager, often via music, with phrases like “wagwan” and “peng” peppering British slang, changing the sound of the country without a full understanding of the origins.
Our music has told the story of the times, from Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution to Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner, and Black music can impart the language of resistance, sorrow and joy for others to become fluent in: Lethal B’s Pow! (Forward), released in 2004, became the unofficial anthem as young people took to the streets of Westminster in 2011 to protest tuition fee rises. Black people have become experts at expressing ourselves through a medium that could never be totally stolen from us even if it was later appropriated and monetized by white musicians and corporations.
But despite Black music’s strength in social documentation, as well as dominating the dancefloor, genres such as garage and drill are often vilified, and Black artists see their songs and videos de-platformed and live opportunities blocked by the authorities; our successes can be quietened, despite apparent commercial success. Pow! was banned from numerous clubs, and more recently, drill rapper Digga D was tethered to an oppressive Criminal Behavior Order in an unprecedented way. It was claimed that by limiting his lyrical content, as well as who he associates with and where he can go, the CBO would keep him away from the pull of a criminal lifestyle.
The broader backdrop is that for those of us in the Black diaspora, despite many of our cultures and dialects remaining remarkably intact after centuries of empire, what we have lost is immeasurable. The burning of books and scriptures and the defacing of our civilizations – Britain is still full of artefacts yet to be repatriated to the countries they were taken from – has meant the true scale of our legacy is irreparably warped. Being disconnected from your identity like this allows self-doubt, low self-esteem and displacement to set in, and can restrict how big we dare to dream, and what we believe is rightfully ours.
Black culture is also one of the most imitated, exploited and monetized in the world, and often cloaked in non-Blackness – where the lines are blurred just enough to latch on to the credibility of its originators without having to give them credit, as with the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin modeling themselves on African American blues artists. Lulu’s cover of the Isley Brothers Shout in 1964 is a prime example of how white female artists were able to profit from blue-eyed soul, and the echoes of Motown and Stax can be heard in the catalogs of other British female success stories such as Joss Stone, Duffy, Amy Winehouse and Adele, all of them more commercially successful than their Black British soul peers.
For Black music professionals behind the scenes, too, being able to achieve and maintain an upward career trajectory is still a real challenge compared with their white peers: “Despite ethnic diversity increasing across the industry to 22.3% in 2020, only 6% of executives are Black despite the cultural dominance of various styles rooted in Black culture remaining hugely popular,” found UK Music’s 2020 diversity report.
For those who do rise through the ranks, the Black Music Coalition, which I co-founded in 2020, has heard first-hand accounts of overt racism and microaggressions in the British music industry, and these instances have led to some Black professionals choosing to find success outside the UK. Manager and publisher Tim Blacksmith, who was recognized with an MBE for services to music in the Queen’s jubilee honours, recently spoke about the lack of UK investment into young Black entrepreneurs in music and described it as a “sad indictment” that because of this, he would not have been able to achieve the success he has been able to achieve in the US.
It also isn’t uncommon for Black execs to report being used as bait by record labels to reel in the most exciting Black talent, before being cast aside when high level decisions are made and the glory is claimed. This leaves Black artists at the mercy of teams who have a limited understanding of their culture and identity, often impressing a version of Blackness on to them that was deemed acceptable for the masses.
Despite this still-hostile environment for creatives and executives, Black music continues to thrive in the mainstream. Stormzy’s portrait hanging in the National Portrait Gallery negates the idea that there are spaces we aren’t meant to be in; Dave selling out nights at the O2, seven years on from his introduction on the scene, silences cynical voices that said British rap was a fad. Inflo, who helmed cross-genre albums from Adele to Little Simz, inspirationally became the first Black producer of the year winner at the Brit awards this year, and his commitment to creating positive change is evident in his recent plan to introduce a minimum royalty rate for young Black producers within the major label system.
Black British songwriters are penning hits across genres: Jin Jin for Jess Glynne and David Guetta; Camille Purcell writes Black Magic and Shout Out to My Ex for Little Mix. Talented producers such as Detonate are producing records for pop stars and indie bands alike, including the Snuts’ Zuckerpunch and End of the Road (the latter featuring Rachel Chinouriri, an emerging Black female artist who is making her mark in the alternative world). Black owned British platforms, such as No Signal, are taking our Black music across the diaspora. In the wake of the seismic shift of 2020, and amplified global movements including Black Lives Matter and The Show Must Be Paused, cries against anti-Black racism are loud and clear.
What needs to follow is a proper nurturing of talented Black staff, identifying those that will be a future asset to these companies rather than leaving them at a loose end after a year-long internship or plateauing as consultants. There also needs to be more senior level recruitment and promotions for Black industry professionals, and the industry needs to recognize that these professionals’ skillsets go beyond just working with or understanding Black artists or Black music.
Be it on social media or via traditional publications, we need to publicly celebrate Black diversity of thought, Black variety in career paths, and Black self-determination. The cultural and commercial value Black music, artists and professionals bring to the British industry needs to be documented and acknowledged past the posting of black squares on social media.
As the Black Music Coalition marks its second anniversary, we are as committed as ever to holding the industry to account for fulfilling the pledges many made in June 2020. Our ongoing work will help measure the changes made thus far and how far we have to go to actualize the equality – and equity – that Black artists and executives seek and deserve.