Although we highlighted racism in our last few press releases, we recognised from the January BMC forum that Africans in the black music sector were determined to move past it. So debilitating, though important, as it is, we’ll put racism to rest after this piece. But not before highlighting a few racism-related items on our website: BMC Response To Guardian Blog On Music & Racism; Feedback To BMC Forum Press Release And Issues Of Racism; African British Artists Are Looking Beyond Racism To Develop Their Careers; Back To Black? An Analysis Of The British Black Music Sector, Comment & Debate: British Black Music And Racism; and picking a few items in the Feb. 18-24 2008 issue of The Voice newspaper.
Following Naomi Campbell accusing the modelling industry of being racist, with African models either shut-out or poorly paid compared to their European peers, comic Lenny Henry accuses the TV industry, particularly BBC and ITV, as racist with poor African and ethnic minority employment of actors and staff (‘Lenny Henry blasts ‘racist’ BBC and ITV’, p. 3).
The young R&B singer Nathan, whose career hopefully should move up a notch or two, following his recent participation in the Big Brother Celebrity Hijack reality TV show on the back of which his impressive but slept-upon R&B album ‘Masterpiece’ (Mona) is re-issued Feb. 18 2008, was the subject of a Gone In 60 Seconds Q&A. Copied below are his telling answers to two questions that had race at the centre.
Asked: “Do you think you would have enjoyed greater success if you were white?” Nathan answered: “Yeah, I do. I think the UK music industry struggles to package and promote black British talent. I really like Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, but it’s unfortunate that the industry seems to know exactly how to make successes out of them, but struggles to do the same with black artists.”
Pushed further as to why this was the case, he said: “It seems that the media is more comfortable with constantly churning out the idea that all black youngsters do is engage in gun and knife crime. So, a guy like me, who’s trying to make good music and create a positive image, struggles to get the exposure. That’s part of the reason why I did Big Brother; so I could showcase myself and l let people see that I’m a decent guy who’s doing positive things.” (p. 2). (Don’t forget to read BBM’s Nathan Q & A).
Tony Sewell’s Live & Kicking column titled ‘England’s Best Singers Know Their Roots’ concentrated on the new white, female British ‘soul’ singers. Notably Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, and Adele. “None of these singers are poor copies of black music,” asserts Sewell. “They are genuine. They have the humility to recognise that their creativity has African roots. This is not racist, it just makes sense.” (p. 11).
Hmm, perhaps Sewell, whom I met recently at Peter Harris’ memorial service and had a brief chat about the state of British as espoused in the BMC ‘Thinking Out Of The Box…’ forum press release, should have said something about talented African artists such as Beverley Knight and Hil St Soul, and the many sisters who do not achieve comparable sales from music more directly linked to their experience. The BMC contends it’s not necessarily about the music, but it’s certainly about the financial recompense.
By now, you’re likely to have watched or heard about this year’s Brits award show televised on Feb. 20 2008. Russell Myrie’s 24 Review had this telling title ‘Not Enough Blacks At The Brits’. He states: “The nominations look like the Radio 1 A-list: a load of indie and pop groups, cushioned by one or two black acts who they feel ‘crossed over’ like Leona Lewis.”
Actually, I know one person who switched off the TV because she said she was bored seeing just white artists, some doing black influenced music without giving props to their roots. Myrie goes on to cite the likes of Wiley, Estelle, Kano, Dizzee, Terri Walker, Jamelia, who have not copped a Brit award, as have Soul II Soul and Craig David, who had won Stateside accolades, respectively Grammies and BET awards.
At the BMC events, the need for music industry education always crops up. At the forum, one of the facilitators and a senior lecturer at University Of Westminster, Mykaell Riley had this to say: “The biggest challenge in black music is education. We know what we are doing when it comes to music, but we lack education of the business.”
Although that’s a bit of a sweeping statement, the underlying truth can not be ignored. It links in to a story I don’t tire of re-telling to underscore the point. When I used to lecture at University Of Westminster, one of my students was a former managing director of a major British music company. He was white, and I doubt how many Africans having reached such a high position would think they needed to go into formal education to learn more about the industry?
The BMC deliberately runs it bi-annual events at City University London as a way of making university seem approachable, especially City, which has numerous accessible evening and weekend courses within the Cultural Industries Unit. BMC runs through its sister organisation accessible music industry courses at grass level. The opportunities for learning about music and the music industry are now almost endless.
However, MTV UK exec and Voice gossip columnist Jasmine Dotiwala had a different take in her Jasmine’s Juice column entitled ‘When will the UK market wake up to British black music?’
“There are barely any record labels wishing to pick up UK black music to nurture and support it,” the youths come off the various courses and workshops, asserts Dotiwala.
“On the top of that, our national radio station (which we pay a license fee for) doesn’t play British black music either. It’s all well and good relegating it to 1Xtra, but not everyone has digital radio. And if we pay the BBC a license fee, they should surely be representing every facet of UK youth culture and diversity on their main playlist.
“Is it a wonder that with situations like this – and some parents not teaching their kids values– that they are turning to a life of crime? (Of course, not all kids are caught up in crime. I witnessed thousands of hip-hop lovers last week at The Jump Off and it was the best representation of how big hip-hop culture is in this country. Big businesses need to remember the value of the black pound!)”
Continues Dotiwala: “I don’t think things here will change on mainstream radio until something major goes down. The French were forced to change their radio policy to include a certain percentage of French urban music, so why haven’t we revolted and protested too?” During the BMC forum, we had a workshop on radio, and the issue of radio quotas, and the positive spin it’s had on French black music, was highlighted.
You may want to read my contribution to an old Billboard end of year round-up, in which I led the international coverage with platinum-selling, French R&B and hip-hop, and the pro- French and new music radio quota in France. “On the flipside, I feel excited about the British talent coming through this year and we at MTV Base are fully dedicated to breeding UK superstars,” enthuses Dotiwala. “First of all, an 18-year-old south Londoner sent me his demo and video and we were genuinely impressed. Going by the name Master Shortie, he has an old skool but very current hip-hop flavour.”
Well, we worked with Master Shortie when he was barely in his teens. He won the Beyond The Will Smith Challenge song category, and has graced a few BTWSC events ever since. You can hear what his co-manager Kwame Kwaten says about his young charge on the Feb. 11 2008 pt. 1 podcast.
Another forum workshop looked at the role of the consumer. Consumer power, be it pro-actively searching for and supporting a particular act, or calling a radio station to ask for a particular artist, were some of the ideas discussed. By the sound of things MTV viewers are well up the envelope. “In the last few weeks, the Base chart, which is voted for by you – and used to be full of mostly American acts – has flipped upside its head, as this past fortnight, eight out of 10 tracks were British,” reveals Dotiwala.
“Until we shout about being proud to be Brits, we can never expect to build our own stars. We need to love ourselves before we can adore our own UK stars and buy their music.” (p. 23)
Finally, the issue of race and the British black music sector in our press release generated some feedback prior to publication, which is posted on the BBM website. There was also some interesting comments on The Guardian blog. And for those interested, we’ve opened the Comment & Debate: British Black Music And Racism discussion board, where you’re welcome to post your comments.
However, our original press releases were meant to highlight the realities of race and racism, but important as they are, not to dwell on them. Most Africans recognise racism as a matter of life, and work around it. We are not against white artists participating in black music. However, as one commentator espoused: "It would be nice if white artists who are engaged in black music and are commercially successful, do not only give props to the originators of the music, but like UB40, also see that the originators are financially rewarded."