British artists of colour are in crisis. The UK music industry is coming under attack because of what can only be described as institutional racism. There is an encroaching sentiment concerning the whitewashing of British black music whereby executive management is progressively eroding specialist music programming on radio stations fronted by black DJs. Instead, it’s being superseded by commercial club DJs in an effort to target broadest listenership. Urban radio stations like 1Xtra and Capital Xtra (formerly known as Choice FM but re-titled when it was taken over by Britain’s largest radio group) are steadily cutting back on black audience programming under the ruse of budget cuts and cost efficiency strategies; but there seems to be something more insidious at play: The taking over of ethnic minority media outlets and making redundant the very thing that they were designed to do.
But how did this happen? Britain for the last fifty years never particularly cared for urban music, choosing instead to remain faithful to generic pop music and white guys with guitars rock ‘n’ roll. Those growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s will recall a time when radio stations would edit out any cameo rap parts from American pop songs because that kind of stuff didn’t go down well in middle England. As the demographics have shifted in Britain, and the offspring of ethnic minority communities that settled here proliferated, it is only natural that our demands of entertainment will alter too.
Black audiences were traditionally underserved by mainstream media who often didn’t acknowledge their needs and wouldn’t really make the effort to understand them. This meant that black communities in Britain took the initiative to hatch their own media markets. Choice FM was originally a black community radio station in London where black music, religious gospel and minority politics held prime position. Its popularity sustained.
Suddenly the groundswell of support for black music was booming. British school kids wanted to buy into the urban inflicted coolness being broadcast by black radio stations. It became potent enough that the BBC allotted resources into launching 1Xtra during the early noughties, establishing it as Radio 1’s sister station, meaning that the country’s official national youth radio platform will share assets with a station whose identity was “Love Black Music, Love 1Xtra". That was a major accomplishment; at least for a spell.
Black music is neither here nor there in Britain right now. The purpose of these radio stations was all about reinforcing British black identities. As the popularity of these stations burgeoned, the power players realised that their ethnically specific agenda must be supplanted with broader remits, most notably ditching “black” in favour of “urban”, “hip-hop” and “dance”; titles that hold almost no relevance to identity.
One can argue that the whitewashing of black music identity stems from the actuality that mainstream Britain remains fearful of its minority communities. Our mainstay entertainment hubs are governed by white rich men often coming from privileged society. If national tastes are altering then rather than nurturing it they have tried to take control, steering it towards wider commerciality, in the process robbing it of any sense of purpose. It’s an insidious form of ethnic cleansing, a racist agenda that has affected many aspects of British life. There seems to be gross negligence in accepting that by attempting to transform black music identity into a hamburger that everyone in Britain can consume, you’re actually stripping it of its core essence. It becomes arbitrary and worthless, adjectives that British black communities ought never to be subjected to in this day and age.
Institutional racism is affecting many aspects of British ethnic minority cultural expression. City of London Police called off the Jam Jam event at the Barbican because of fear that the appearance of a grime artist may invoke rioting. Black rappers headhunted by the record labels after their music courted grassroots attention have been forced to embrace more poppy productions as is evidenced by the lamentable recent output from grime acts such as Chipmunk, Tinchy Stryder and Dizzee Rascal. Heck, even the godfather of grime, Wiley, conceded that he neutered his black music identity because "if I didn’t have another hit song the label would've probably shelved me."
What then of an alternative black music identity? If the powers that be have problems with negotiating their way around established British black culture then how do they deal with artists that create leftfield identities? MIA is a British woman of colour who sells millions in the US but is viewed awkwardly in the UK as not being street enough for the urban market and not Asian enough for the desi crowd. Yousif Al-Karaghouli of the excellent British shoegaze band Kult Country is no doubt viewed as difficult goods due to the fact that he’s the front man of an alternative guitar group making the kind of music white guys do. Perhaps the biggest headache for the British music industry is someone like Kele Okereke, the black lead singer of Bloc Party, a band whose albums always go Top 20 both here and the States.
Okereke is a man who sports dreads and looks as African as they come, but he’s an openly gay bloke coming from a highly-educated family. He’s an English Literature graduate and sings in a style not dissimilar from Robert Smith of The Cure. Okereke poses a conundrum for the British music industry as he cannot fit into any acceptable form of pigeonholing because he falls between too many stools, yet he remains part of one of the few successful British rock bands of modern times, having sold in excess of two-million albums worldwide.
The British music press has often been mean-spirited to Okereke, painting him as arrogant and publishing reports that his band members dislike him. All bands―especially the good ones―have confrontational relationships, but the music press seemed contemptuous towards Okereke in ways that perhaps a Caucasian lead singer may not endure. It seems that when a rock band like Radiohead are caught in internal disputes then it’s labelled as ‘creative passions’, but if an ethnic minority is part of the equation then words like ‘difficult’ and ‘arrogant’ get bandied about.
The worry is not that Britain has a problem with black music identity; it’s more that Britain has a problem with black culture. We have seen in recent years concerted and very successful attempts by the British music industry to hijack black music through commissioning white artists to essentially do the same job. Adele, Sam Smith, John Newman, Plan B, Jessie J, Olly Murrs, Ed Sheeran and Amy Winehouse are examples of this, and don’t even get me started on the ersatz corporate white rappers signed to British labels because that’ll probably call for a separate post.
All this is shameful, especially in the week that official Government statistics signal just 6.7% of all jobs in the UK's 'Music, Performing and Visual Arts Industries' were held by people who could be categorised as black, Asian and minority ethnic.
The ongoing attempts to ghettoise British black culture remains rampant. The British music industry is a place where nineteen out of twenty job positions is filled by white personnel, and that’s why it’s even more disheartening to realise that British black culture is being actively ousted. It actually reduces this country’s overall culture in every conceivable way and makes for a very unpalatable situation. A rethink is needed.