You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
Last week BBC radio station 1Xtra (‘the black music network’) published its UK power list, topped by Ed Sheeran. The list was voted for by a panel of 1Xtra DJs and music industry experts. Writer Courttia Newland gives his response.
The decision to name Ed Sheeran the most influential artist in urban music is the icing on a dry, rotten cake.
Critics of BBC 1Xtra’s recent ‘power list’, based on listener suggestions and compiled by 1Xtra DJs alongside industry experts include producer and MC extraordinaire Wiley. Writing on Twitter he called it ‘the saddest list of all time’, yet he was quick to defend Ed Sheeran as ‘sick’. Ed Sheeran, who is no doubt talented in a Justin Timberlake sound-alike kind of way, responded by tweeting, ‘Listen with ears, not eyes.’
When I read that I wondered who he was talking to. Those angered by the list, black audiences and musicians specifically, or BBC 1Xtra DJ’s and industry experts?
His fans, or even himself? In the inevitable rush to say something which might be deemed ‘deep’ by his Twitter followers, Sheeran worsened the situation for people who care about that very sentiment, while patronising the music he emulates and showing himself either ignorant, or devoid of care about the struggles it has undergone since… Well, since Africans were kidnapped en masse and relocated to the Western world, where they were tortured, raped, branded, and in short, treated worse than animals before creating their cultural response to abject misery, the Blues.
The aforementioned cake has been a long time baking. The ingredients are a substantial mixture of racism, segregation, theft and cultural appropriation, gender imbalance and financial brevity. It has been sliced into tiny pieces and fed in ever diminishing portions to artists of favour, while the less fortunate fight for gritty crumbs. It’s no secret to anyone besides Ed Sheeran fans that every dominant form of African diaspora music has undergone an attempt at infiltration by cultural imperialists in the guise of industry experts and label CEO’S, from Blues, to Jazz, to Rock and Roll, to Reggae, to R&B, Hip Hop and Grime. This infiltration is often not the fault of white artists, who either stumble upon a get-rich/get famous idea of being number one in a field of relatively few, or are actually into the music and want to contribute to its history and growth. No, the problem lies with the industry. The DJ’s, publicity and marketing departments, the managers, agents, press and maybe ultimately the audience. People who refuse to ‘listen with ears and not eyes’, and can only hear music when it is filtered through a conduit which reflects who they are. A conduit that is largely white.
This desire, unconscious or otherwise, has led to a subtle, race based distinction in place since the creation of the modern music industry. The Black List.
In the past there was Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Pat Boone, who re-recorded songs by Fats Domino and more successfully Little Richard. Boone called his process making songs more ‘vanilla’ . In modern times, with the advance of contemporary R&B and Hip Hop, we have Miley Cyrus, Macklemore, Robin Thicke and Australian ‘rapper’ Iggy Azalea, who tweeted a photo of herself alongside Drake, T.I. and B.O.B self-titled, ‘Me and Ma Niggas.’
This year Macklemore won the Grammy for best Hip Hop act, over Drake, Jay Z, Kanye West and most ludicrously Kendrick Lamar. In 2012 British pop artist Adele was nominated for an NAACP Image Award alongside Beyonce, Cee Lo Green, Anthony Hamilton and Common. The NAACP website describes the awards as; ‘the nation’s premier multi-cultural awards show celebrating the outstanding achievements and performances of people of colour in the arts (television, recording, literature, motion picture and writing and directing), as well as those individuals or groups who promote social justice through their creative endeavours.’
Like Jeremy Helligar, writing for the music website Plugged In, I’m not quite sure how Adele fits their criteria either. Helligar wonders if the ruse was an attempt to collect more press attention by inviting the best-selling artist of 2011 to the ceremony as a double nominee, thus eliciting controversy. He tells us Adele might be the key to why ‘the ceremony, which is normally broadcast on the Fox network, found a home this year on the considerably whiter NBC.’
Whenever the subject of white appropriation of black music is broached, there always comes the inevitable argument grasped at, but fumbled and dropped by Ed Sheeran. That music is colourless, and musicians should be judged by the heft of their talent alone. Occasionally, someone will rightly point out that black musicians appropriated Western music and instruments didn’t they? After all, there were no pianos, trumpets or guitars in Africa, right? What’s omitted by these arguments is that never in the history of African music in the West has there been a time when black artists explored the full depth of their creative expression without the hindrance of race. Neither was there a time when the African appropriation of European instruments led to gross imitation, or there was a wholesale attempt to ‘blacken’ white artists who wrote original works. How could they? There was no means of music production for those early Blues and Rock and Roll artists. Even when black labels formed, by and large the producers and label owners, from Berry Gordy in 1950’s Detroit to Dennis ‘Dego’ McFarlene and Mark ‘Marc Mac’ Clair in 1990’s Willesden, created original forms of music, which went on to change the landscape that came afterwards, often forever.
My belief that talent should trump race is not to say I think black artists should negate their inherent African-ness, their blackness. It means that since the dawn of African music created beyond their continent of origin, its creators have found themselves subjected to an industry that defines their output precisely by race.
This truth is most evident in the words of Sam Phillips, owner of Rock and Roll label Sun Records, who is famously quoted as saying “If I could find a white man who had a Negro sound and a Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Phillips later signed Elvis Presley.
Since those bad old days, the ‘Black Listing’ of African Diaspora musicians has had a devastating effect on the creative output and economic growth of generations. The industry at large makes a billion dollar business out of funnelling black musicians through the process of being made ‘vanilla’, by altering the sound of the music itself (Bob Marley and the Wailers), or financing white artists who ‘sound black’, then promoting them over black artists with equal talent (Jamiroquai/Omar). Of course, in an ideal world this pointless nit-picking over colour shouldn’t be necessary. We should be able to recognise a wealth of black and white artists in the UK and worldwide, all making the music they want, and all enjoying adequate marketing and promotion.
And yet, although black artists and organisations seem adept at embracing white artists who contribute to the culture – Amy Winehouse, Eminem, The Streets et al – and white artists generally do the same for their black counterparts, it is the industry that often leaves black musicians out in the cold. In the UK, these artists sometimes find acclaim among their US cousins. Such is the case with Omar, whose Jazz infused R&B/Hip Hop sound pre-dates and also influenced the neo-soul movement of Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq and D’Angleo. Stevie Wonder recorded in the South London studio at the bottom of his garden, yet despite an MBE for services to music, Omar has never enjoyed the rotation on major stations that mark Ed Sheeran’s career. Still, he’s consistent in releasing acclaimed albums and performs worldwide. It’s no wonder talents like his are not as well-known, or haven’t racked up recent sales or chart positions when they receive such a small percentage of airplay.
This (and to be frank, a whole lot more) it’s what’s missing from Ed Sheeran’s less than detailed analysis on the state of Black and Urban music. Going through the 1Xtra Power list, it’s clear to see what criteria the artists are judged by.
Sam Wolfson, a music journalist and one of the panel who created the list, had this to say; ‘Interpretation was left fairly open, but the sheets pinned up on the wall either side of us, with the top track sales of the year, artists with the greatest number of plays on 1Xtra and greatest number of Twitter followers, gave us a pretty good idea of what the station had in mind.’ Wolfson went on to conduct an interview with fellow panellist Twin B, who seemed ecstatic that they had ‘started a race war’, before going on to tell black British musicians; ‘Make better music and send it to me. It’s not cause you’re black bruv, it’s because you’re not as good as you think. Honest. There’s definitely a discussion that needs to be had on the representation of black artists and black music on a bigger scale, and that should be in relation to what 1Xtra does, but for it to be based on this list is ludicrous.’
It’s this highly under-considered and somewhat inconsiderate approach to the issues that affect Black British music that have most incensed the audience and artists who care about such things. Leaving aside the fact that their response is due as much to the fraught history of African diaspora music in the West rather than the list in isolation, the point is also that this power list cannot be read in isolation to that history. Our outrage is partly because of the collective disbelief that Twin B, and the radio station he works for, while claiming dedication to this art form, seem wilfully ignorant of the genealogy of African music; where is has come from and why. Maybe it’s because they don’t care. Maybe it’s because they’re not paid to care.
Twin B’s acknowledgment that a discussion needs to be had, but it should happen aside from a power list purposely created to determine audience perceptions about who influences black music (or as a neat marketing tool – who knows?) is deeply worrying. What it tells us, in the loud berating voice of an abusive step-parent, is that even if the issue matters to us, their black audience and listeners, it doesn’t matter to them as much as appeasing the existing power structure that defines Black music here and now, and has done since its inception in the bayous of the Deep South.
It’s a wake-up call, as if we hadn’t already heard its loud braying voice, or felt the brunt of its emotional violence in our hearts. In the early 1980’s, when Black British music was all but banned on national radio, DJ’s who cared about music, including Trevor Nelson, Jazzie B and Norman Jay MBE, took to the pirate stations in order to play black music people wanted to hear, but could not. Independent stations like Horizon, LWR and Invicta ruled the airways and influenced generations to follow. Successful chart musicians like Eddy Grant set up studios, often giving away free studio time that the majors wouldn’t pay for. There was a reggae sound system culture steeped in Rastafarian beliefs that toured nationwide and formed the genesis of today’s Grime and Dubstep scene. If the 1Xtra power list teaches us anything, it might be that a return to those self-sufficient days could reap greater long term rewards. After all, why become the footnote on another writer’s list when you can be the author of your own?
Litro’s mission is to find the best and most exciting new voices in fiction and non-fiction and give them a platform for their work. To read work from other writers to watch, get our All-Access membership for subscription to our print magazine, membership of our Book Club and unlimited online access.