FEATURE: Colour-Blind: How Race Is Still an Issue in Music – and Why Black Artists Are Producing Some of the Best Music Around






How Race Is Still an Issue in Music – and Why Black Artists Are Producing Some of the Best Music Around


THIS is another topic I have been compelled…


IN THIS PHOTO: The faces that make up the longlist for BBC's Sound of 2018/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

to revisit and explore. There are few black faces on BBC’s annual longlist - of artists to watch for - this year. There were more last year but, this year, there is an embrace of modern Pop - and less of a reliance on genres such as Hip-Hop, Rap and Grime. Last year was a productive and exciting one for young black artists in Britain. A spotlight was provided and, when you look at the Mercury Music Prize nominations, there were some fantastic black artists on the list. Sampha won it but Loyle Carner was nestling near the higher ranks – almost sneaking it from Sampha. The Grammy Awards have shifted so the main categories have more minority artists than ever. This not only extends to race but music – Hip-Hop and Rap taking over from Pop and commercial sounds. Many bemoaned the lack of Lorde, Taylor Swift and Rock acts: those with common sense recognised the evolution and recognition of great new artists like SZA and pioneers like Kendrick Lamar. New artists like Princess Nokia and Cardi B are coming on strong; Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean and Beyoncé have created some of the best albums in the past couple of years. In fact; the last four years, I would say, have been defined by terrific black music.



I will come to an album that is back in my mind – I consider the best of 2014 – but I feel Kendrick Lamar created the best album of 2015 (To Pimp a Butterfly); Beyoncé in 2016 (Lemonade); many feel Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. was the best of last year – others feel records from SZA, JAY-Z; Kelela and Tyler, the Creator were deserving. Throw in British efforts from Sampha and Stormzy; U.S. greats like Thundercat, too. Solange created a year-defining album in 2016 (A Seat at the Table) and this year look set to put a great focus on black artists. I worry, mind you, that there is still a racial bias when it comes to music. Maybe it is not as evident as sexualisation and sexism but it is very much there. Overlooked tracks from Rhiannon Giddens deserved more acclaim but, largely, there was good coverage of black music. Although I have listed some great black albums from the past few years; I am still seeing fewer black faces at festivals and being proffered. There are plenty of geniuses in music but, regardless of talent; there is that leer and lure towards white artists, still. I have mentioned the BBC’s longslist of artists to look out for this year. I am glad good Pop is taking focus but there is that issue of racial-genre bias.


IN THIS PHOTO: The cover to Tyler, the Creator's album, Flower Boy/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Many were excited last year when Grime and Hip-Hop got more attention. The thing is: there are fantastic black artists throughout music. We have mainstream queens like Rihanna and Beyoncé; all genres have great black artists and that is not translating into focus and attention. My headline photo is of JONES: a young British artist who has the promise to make some big strides this year. I put a spotlight on RAYE a while ago; highlighted Eva Lazarus yesterday – have made a special place in my heart for Leon Bridges. Bridges is a stunning Soul voice and someone who puts me in mind of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. I have expounded the virtues of Michael Kiwanuka and the hot underground of Grime. Whilst there are genres with a larger proportion of black artists – Grime, Hip-Hop and Rap – it is the lack of exposure to black artists in other genres that is troubling. The longlists of ones to watch this year is Pop-orientated but there are so many great black artists in popular music. Why, then, are there so many white faces on display?! Jazz, a maligned and underrated genre, has produced stunning music the past few years. Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference is a staggering odyssey and immersive work that should get more exposure. The fact it did not get the push and oxygen it deserves is not a racial thing: it is the fact Jazz is ignored and seen as too experimental and boring.



I have grown a bit tired of the way certain genres have been marginalised – where there is so much great music that warrants more. The mainstream has some great black artists playing but there is still that dominance of white bodies. Festival headliners, in this country at least, ten not to be black. You might have artists lower down the bill but it has been a while since I’ve seen a mainstream festival give props to a black act. Beyoncé took to Glastonbury a while ago – she will play this year’s Coachella festival and, let’s hope, she plays Glastonbury when it returns next year. There are other festivals that will host black acts but how many will headline?! One can flip the argument and say the general population (in this country) is about eight or nine-percent. That would mean music would not have to boast a higher proportion of black faces, no? You look at the festival acts and those proffered for good things – can you say eight percent of them are black? Talent and music do not follow arbitrary rules and should be based on talent. If there were few black artists in music then you could say it is fair mostly white acts are being promoted. I have provided a long list of black artists doing incredible things. A Mercury win from Sampha is a positive sign – even if there were few other black faces alongside him – and the Grammy rundown is shifting away from a white mainstream to the engineers of musical progression and true originality.



One way of recognising the brilliance of black music is to get out of the perception the charts and mainstream is indicative of what quality looks like – and what the public wants. Music should be equal and, with sexism an issue in entertainment; should we really continue down the same lines when it comes to race?! I am not saying we cheapen the issue but playing only black music and reversing what is happening in the industry. We should not put black artists-only headliners in festivals and not offer constructive solutions. I am concerned we associate black artists with certain genres. Folk and Rock have few black artists but, again, why does it have to be that way?! Maybe this goes back to history and tastes – black artists connecting with their roots and music of their peers – but I think there is an institutionalised homogenisation and compartmentalisation. I am seeing great Rock bands led by black artists and those with a more acoustic-minded nature. If they feel they will not be taken seriously if they go into white-heavy genres; that means they will stick to genres that are traditionally more accepting of black artists. Even the genres with a greater number of black artists – Hip-Hop, Rap and Grime – goes through waves and movements. There is a consistent celebration of Pop, Alternative and other mainstream sounds.


IN THIS PHOTO: Rihanna/PHOTO CREDITFentyBeauty.com

Rihanna, in 2015, spoke with the The New York Times - and was asked whether race is still a problem in music.

I have to bear in mind that people are judging you because you’re packaged a certain way – they’ve been programmed to think a black man in a hoodie means grab your purse a little tighter,” said Rihanna. “For me, it comes down to smaller issues, scenarios in which people can assume something of me without knowing me, just by my packaging”.

Nicki Minaj questioned the voting criteria of MTV and whether there is a favouring of white artists. If white artists writhe around in videos and get loads of streams; they get lots of hits and nominations. She, as a black artist, has fewer nominations and is overlooked:

Hey guys @MTV thank you for my nominations. Did Feeling Myself miss the deadline or…?,’ she tweeted, before adding: ‘If I was a different “kind” of artist, Anaconda would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year as well…If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year”.

Some have argued so-called ‘racism’ is a result of less-nefarious factors such as nepotism and cultural shifts. It is clear politics and the way black people are seen in society has an impact on musicians. Everyone from Solange and Chance, the Rapper have spoken out against isolation and the way those in the White House are ignorant of the plight and necessity of black recording artists. Whilst you can quibble over whether there is inherent racism or sheer ignorance – one cannot argue at the strength and power of black music.



I alluded to an album/artist who has come back into my consciousness. I have looked at artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar and how they are changing music. They can, in many ways, thank D’Angelo. He is one of those artists most of us will not recognise my name – his music will strike a chord when we hear it. Many black artists got into music because of seminal records like Voodoo. To me, it is 2014’s Black Messiah that really connects. That album arrived and blew critics away. The experimentation, confidence and audacity that ran throughout took everyone by surprise. The album connects with me because of its richness and depths. It explores genres like Hip-Hop and Rock; it moves into Jazz and takes in Soul and R&B. The lyrics look at political turmoil and the struggle of the black population; social deprivation and personal frustration. There were songs about love but it was those fired-up mandates that really impressed. Listen to the album and realise what a wonderful thing it is. Look back through music and everyone from Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin have investigated social struggle and the realities of black lives – and fusing that with more traditional subjects of love. Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye and the legends of Soul; the incredible Disco artists and R&B pioneers; some of my favourites like En Vogue, Aaliyah and Lauryn Hill; Neneh Cherry and A Tribe Called Quest; Public Enemy and N.W.A. All of these artists have made staggering contributions to the music world. What stands out is the motivation to address issues overlooked by many white artists.



We are at a time when the political machination of Trump and May are causing division; where there is clear inequality and hatred circulating and festooning the lungs. It is not only the black population put-down and ignored. There are deprived and struggling people in all sectors of society. From the mentally ill to the homeless; the poor and those without a voice – music has its role and the power to raise change. I worry whether the new Pop movement has come at a time when we need to promote social change and engineer productive solution. In order for the end of division and the majority coming together; we need to embrace the minority artists who have the authority and passion to make a change. I worry few people are having conversations about race. You cannot write everything off by saying it is nepotism and decades-old problems revolving around ego. If things have not changed since the 1950s and 1960s in regards the make-up and dynamics of the mainstream – how can we claim there is not racism? Maybe it is not overt and profane but there is a severe sense of apathy and unwillingness to bend. Ironically; movements and real change do not happen overnight. We know there are fewer black artists put into the fore; the festivals are not housing them; we still assume there are ‘black genres’ rather than black artists – so many over issues around commercialism, awards and publicity. 2018 is here and, in addition to tackling sexism and addressing wrong; we need to consider areas around race. It should not have to fall to major black artists to highlight the disparity and discrepancies around. The world needs leading and anger articulated and, rather than proffer those artists who can bond the people and properly vocalise what issues are present – we are focusing on artists who do not have the ability to bond the people and shine a light. That is a shame because, in one of the tensest times of modern times; we need these pioneering and strong artists…


IN THIS PHOTO: Leon Bridges/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

TO guide us forward.