One of the critical pieces of this week’s main British music do was by the Independent entitled Not The Brits, The Blands’ (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/not-the-brits-the-blands-783371.html).
Initially, it was going to look a bit deeply into the BRITs’ relevance to the British music sector. But as that didn’t happen, we’ll spin BMC’s response with two artists who received the highest number of nominations, but went home empty-handed – Craig David, who had 6 noms in 2001 and Leona Lewis, who had four in 2008.
The day after this week’s show, the Daily Mirror echoed the sentiments of many when it stated: “Leona Lewis was the big shock of the night failing to win a single one of her four possible Brit nominations.” Whilst some may see Leona more like a pop, rather than an R&B/soul, artist, what happened brings back the usual question of how relevant is the BRITs to the British music sector?
What we have to remember is that the BRITs, like most mainstream British institutions, tend to have a mono-cultural view of what’s British, and usually pay attention to today’s multi-cultural reality only when it seems politically or financially expedient to do so.
Sometime in the 1990s, perhaps paying heed to open up its constituency, the BRIT Academy, the body responsible for majority of the voting, opened up 25% of its voters to outsiders, such as journalists. The Black Music Industry Association was given an allocation to bring in black music representation. Hence people like myself and other colleagues were members for some years, before inexplicably being bumped off!
I'm not too sure what difference it made to British black music, as it seems the BRITs is there mainly to celebrate pop music, and what sells.
Anyway for now, Leona can console herself with the top prize she won in 2005 from the more grass-roots orientated national competition – UK Unsigned. Incidentally, this is a competition where the gong for 2002 went to Katie Melua, long before she became a top-selling artist, and N-Dubz, who back the 2007 MOBO best newcomer gong (UK Unsigned 2008 dates includes Yaa Asantewa Arts Centre, London in London Feb. 29, and the grand final at Hackney Empire, London March 30. For more info, check www.ukunsigned.net).
The only importance of the BRITs within the black music industry is that if we have a breakaway artist that shifts serious units and can’t be ignored, then they will have a look in. But, that’s not totally true, as the case of Leona and Corrine Bailey Rae attest to. Incidentally, Corinne is featured on the title track of Herbie Hancock’s 2008 Grammy-winning Album Of The Year and Best Contemporary Jazz Album - ‘River: The Joni Letters’ (Universal).
Which brings me to Soul II Soul. Here was an African British band, whose first three albums were top 5, two of them chart-toppers. Not to mention the fact that they changed the face of music and the image of African Brits internationally. They bagged Grammies, but no Brits.
I remember at one of the International Association Of African-American Music (IAAAM) seminars in London in the mid-‘90s, a representative of the BPI, who organise the BRITs, came in for an attack by the audience, who wanted to know why Soul II Soul had not been awarded a Brit gong. If my memory serves me right, he seemed to let slip that some sort of move was in the works. I believe his hasty departure from BPI to Billboard, where he was one of my editors, was due to that slip.
As we know, the Best Dance award was inaugurated in 1994. Then there was the short-lived Best Urban category during 2003-2006. The term ‘urban’ was a misnomer. Artists nominated under that category, like Corinne, did not fit in, and even artists that are usually termed ‘urban’, like Lisa Maffia, took issue with it.
It was nevertheless brought in, one hopes as an attempt at leveling the playing field, and perhaps to acknowledge the fact that a good proportion of what’s celebrated as pop or rock, the BRITs’ staple musical diet, is derived from black music.
The Independent article accused the BRITs of being bland. I agree, especially this year’s. However, I understand the remit of the BRITs. It was started by the BPI as a way of celebrating British music (read: a) recorded music and b) pop and rock).
Despite the criticism, the BRITs has an important place within its own context of promoting the best of British rock and pop. That’s what it does. However, it is erroneous to promote it as a THE beacon of the best of British music. Simply because British music is not just about recorded music, pop and rock.
It’s a disgrace when the BPI, with whom I have good relations, have international exhibitions and the British music represented is so monotone. The same applies with Virgin stores in America. I caught its first best of British promotion New York, and it seemed culturally stuck in the 1960s and 1970s. You wouldn’t know that there were African artists in Britain, and that British music included genres such as drum & bass, and not just indie rock!
I’ll end with the case of Craig David, who garnered the highest number of nominations for the 2001 BRITs – six, but did not win anything. The Independent quotes Craig as saying: "The year that I was nominated for six, I couldn't have sold any more records or had any more number ones... To still not pick up one proved to me that, however the voting system is and whatever the excuses were made, it just didn't really represent what was going on."
In answer to the question at the beginning, perhaps The Mercury Prize, may be the closest to perfect, in the sense that it’s not necessarily about sales, so it tends to better represent the mainstream and under-ground. A case in point is Roni Size/Reprazent’s ‘New Forms’ (Universal), which won in 1997. By the way, the 10th anniversary edition of that album, with additional tracks, will be released in April 2008.
Watch this space for an interview with Roni soon. Also, look out for more information on BMC’s upcoming Positive Black Music Awards, which will be focused on African British-led acts, whose material empower the community.