IN THIS PHOTO: The Tuts/ALL PHOTOS/IMAGES (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images/Press Association
Tackling the White-Majority Bands and Adding Greater Diversity
IT is always hard…
IN THIS PHOTO: Princess Nokia
concocting titles for features like this through fear of causing offence and saying the wrong thing. I feel, mind, that my reservations and hesitations are the tip of an iceberg that is not succumbing to global warnings. We keep seeing bands proffered before us with the same looks and results. There is a camp, mind, that suggests the band market is suffering in a digital age; that people are more drawn to solo artists and we can never return to an age where groups ruled the market and changed the world – I shall get to that a bit later. I am responding to an article that, in parts, I shall quote from: a piece from The Guardian that looked at the whitewashed band market and how homogenised the scene is. Look at solo artists/duos (etc.) and, whilst there are more white artists than minorities; there are plenty of strong and potent black and minority artists adding their say to the mix. From U.S. stars Beyoncé, Solange Knowles; Nicki Minaj and Drake through to Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z. Even though there are these established stars – and a new crop that is coming on strong – you wonder whether artists like Princess Nokia and Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) pull in the same sort of recognition and dollar as white artists. In many ways, the mainstream charts have been open and never really discriminated.
IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson (photoed in the 1980s)
To me, a lot of our impressions and ethics stem back to a time when black artists struggled to get their music on T.V. Look at the early days of MTV and artists like Michael Jackson: someone whose best songs were denied access because his face ‘didn’t fit’ and wasn’t white enough – that sort of attitude, today, would be met with fierce criticism and outrage. In many ways, we have progressed since the 1980s but, in some, we are still a little ignorance and exclusionary. Look at the strongest and most compelling music from the past few years and so much of it is being produced by minority artists. I have mentioned the likes of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar but, when you look at the freshest and most compelling Soul, Hip-Hop; R&B, Pop and Jazz out there – some serious heavyweights and talent that are not getting the recognition they warrant. From award show fiascos – not enough black artists nominated and winning big prizes – through to the way we still associate ‘perfection’ and idealism with the young, white and beautiful. I refute the call (that) bands are a spent force and the regency of the solo artists is here to say. In many ways, we can never return to those glory days when titanic bands owned music and were the most influential. 1960s’ icons like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles are past their prime (or simply past); The Who, Sex Pistols and The Clash are older and resigned; the likes of Pulp, Blur and Oasis are through – think about modern music and it might be hard to name a lot of great bands we can rely on time and time again.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Who (pictured in 1965)/PHOTO CREDIT: REX
You can hardly deny there is a lack of talent and potential everywhere in music. Look at the unsigned best and there are phenomenal bands in every possible area of intrigue. I get to interview and review so many: look at the mainstream and there are still bands we can get excited about. I will return to the issue of quality/quantity but, in all of this, you cannot deny this: there are very few black faces in bands. We can speculate why this is but, for me, it is down to history and image. All the bands I have mentioned are white and, again, it seems like there is a nervousness promoting black bands. In my journalism travels; I have encountered bands with mixed races and a balance in the ranks. Some have one or two black members whilst others are all-black – never the same genre; mobile, exciting and primed for success. I do wonder whether their route to the banquet table of music will be blocked because, historically, we have not seen many black bands. The article I was alluding to looked at the Decolonise festival – now entering its second year. I have been a little discriminatory (how easily it can happen) when looking at minorities missing from bands and assuming only black artists should be talked about.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
There are, as I know all too well, so many fantastic Asian artists who are part of bands; brilliant mixed-race groups that do not get the respect they deserve. The article picks up a bit on what I was saying regards music’s past and the largely-white bands:
“British guitar music wasn’t always so white. People of colour were vital in founding the UK’s punk and indie scenes. But while everyone knows the Sex Pistols and the Smiths, Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex is hardly a household name, while the contribution of Zeke Manyika to Orange Juice is often overlooked. Decolonise was set up in part to confront this “whitewashing”, says organiser Jon Bellebono. “Bands with people of colour have always existed and lots of them have been successful.” Their legacy, Bellebono argues, is just not celebrated in the same way”.
I have mentioned how there are bands, past and present, where one or two members are black/Asian – the majority may be white. Britpop and its all-white, distinct image did not help matters; most of the best minority artists from previous decades have not been involved in bands; look around music now and, again, most of the fantastic black and Asian artists we are seeing on our screens are solo/duos. One of my favourite musical encounters as a journalist was with the ‘cover stars’ The Tuts.
I have been desperate to feature them again because I think it has been about three years since last I put them on my pages. Nadia, Harriet and Bev are the glorious three-tone band who have been around a while now and continue to strive, grow and strike. One could forgive them for looking at the way the industry still promotes white bands above everything else and feel their time will never come. They continue to play and, I know, are inspiring and influencing other artists. Look at this biographical snatch from The Tuts and you get a sense of how far they have come and what they have achieved:
“In 2014 Billy Bragg invited The Tuts to play his LeftField stage at Glastonbury. The effervescent appeal of Nadia’s irreverent stage persona and, as Billy himself called it, the ‘fabulous cacophony’ these three women conjure up every time they play makes for an unforgettable live experience. Pauline Black was in the crowd and soon after The Tuts joined The Selecter on their 2015 UK tour.
The Tuts’ music owes something to the Libertine’s brash, devil-may-care aesthetic but they are not fashionable, and hopefully never will be. This is not beautifully crafted gloss for the latest hipster market – the tunes are too good for that. Their timeless three and four chord rants sung out in authentic working class accents carry the X-Ray Spex and 70s New Wave mantle onwards. The Tuts are ‘indie’ indeed, but not in some generic introspective sense: here is a band that possess that irrepressible spirit unique to independent DIY bands. There is no escaping it, ready or not, The Tuts are coming…”
They have been playing a lot since they released their album, Update Your Brain, back in 2016. I am excited to see what comes next from them but, as the article continues; they are aware of the realities and how the industry looks at bands with black and Asian members:
“The Tuts have found themselves put on a festival’s “urban” stage alongside MCs and grime artists, while critics describe Big Joanie, an emerging black feminist punk band, as “soulful”. “We’re closer to Nirvana than a soul band,” says singer-guitarist Stephanie Phillips. “The whole idea that you see black women and they should be there warbling out some Beyoncé to you – it’s [about] not being able to critique what’s in front of you because of your own ingrained prejudice.” It was Phillips who thought up Decolonise, having felt a “vacuum” existed since her teenage years in Wolverhampton, “and remembering there was literally nothing, no kind of acceptance for people like me”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Big Joanie/PHOTO CREDIT: Elise Rose
Big Joanie, another band name-checked in the feature, are a feminist Punk band who among the most exciting around. Whilst the Decolonise festival has finished for this year; there are bands like Nova Twins and Girl Diet attracting focus and starting to get their name heard. Whether you perceive the band market as flagging or not, there is an inalienable truth: you cannot ignore bands of colour and minority artists. Orange Juice and Bloc Party – two bands who have black members in their ranks but are, themselves, in the minority - are rare exceptions of bands who feature minority musicians…one wonders whether there will be big changes soon. Whilst a lot of the emerging bands with black and Asian members in their ranks play in the Punk/Alternative realm – The Tuts’ three-tone is an exception – you do not need to look back too far to see a time when there were a lot more black and Asian faces in bands. Look back at female Soul and R&B artists like Sister Sledge (are they more Disco?!) and Diana Ross and the Supremes – a lot of great Motown and Detroit talent ruled and remain in the history books. The 1990s brought us the Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child – one of very few all-black female bands from the past couple of decades – and All Saints...
More-modern examples like Fifth Harmony and Little Mix have kept that alive – the fact the female Pop group as a concept is dwindling means, again, fewer minority artist are being represented in bands. It may sound like I am retreating and submitting to the facts of market forces and facts. That is not true at all. Things are getting harder for musicians in all areas. For women, it is a struggle to get their voices heard on an equal footing – regardless of their race and history. Look at the sexism and un-level playing field and, in many ways, the black/Asian female band has to fight harder than anything. If you consider bands are under solo artists in terms of importance; women are underneath men and black/Asian artists are under white – it is a daunting challenge for bands whose members are not all-white. The scene has changed so that Pop bands/girl bands are not a mainstream draw anymore; there are plenty of black faces in music but, largely they tend to be solo artists. I am not going to accept bands are done for and we are never going to see a wave of great artists create the same sort of impact as Oasis and The Rolling Stones. Pop still holds a huge sway and Punk/Alternative, genres with more minority bands, still have to work on the fringes and have not been granted a passage to the mainstream.
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
Look at this article - it addresses the Pop/Soul market and how black artists are failing to compete with white counterparts:
“…According to Greg Boraman, manager of the Freestyle label to which Omar is signed, the key reason for the artist being sidelined is a myopic conservatism. “It does seem that black soul music artists [as opposed to urban acts] are often engaged in an uphill struggle to compete with the current crop of white major-label soul-influenced, but firmly pop based artists. Whilst I don’t doubt the sincerity of those artists’ love of soul music, the industry, especially mainstream radio, seems institutionally uncomfortable with music that’s more soul than pop”.
Another article, when looking at Rock and Roll music, looks back at artists who addressed civil rights/slavery and asks why these messages, by white artists such as Bob Dylan, replaced the largely-black Blues and Folk scene:
“How did rock-and-roll music—a genre rooted in black traditions, and many of whose earliest stars were black—come to be understood as the natural province of whites? And why did this happen during a decade generally understood to be marked by unprecedented levels of interracial aesthetic exchange, musical collaboration, and commercial crossover more broadly? Many of the most famous moments of 1960s music are marked by interracial fluidity: a young Bob Dylan’s transformation of a 19th-century anti-slavery anthem, “No More Auction Block for Me,” into the basis for “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song that would become one of the most indelible musical works of the American civil rights era; or the revolution of Motown Records, in which a black American entrepreneur bet against the racism of white America and won, and in doing so created the most successful black-owned business in the country”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Bob Dylan
I do not think bands themselves are responsible for the lack of minority representation in music. They (the bands) have to fight against a largely-white market and a current scene that is not only seeing more a largely white mainstream rise; bands as a commodity are less present and visible than ever. Many might pose this at my feet: Why do we need to see bands with black/Asian members if the music itself (by white artists) is good?! That is a point but it is not about a sense of quality over equality. Bands like The Tuts are producing fantastic work and, were they afforded more of a spotlight, would be able to affect change and help create a more balanced band scene. In the way we need to tip the scales regarding gender inequality; open the doors for L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. artists and ensure music is not so homogenised and closed-off – making sure every band we see on music websites, magazines and T.V. screens is not all-white (forgive the poor grammar there) is essential! I am a little tired of the divisions and the discriminatory policies that have been present for some time. As the past day or two has shown; this country is pretty good at protesting and voicing its unease! I wonder whether greater public concern needs to turn the way of music and the largely-white, male-run dogma that has not received a swift and violent boot to the nuts. I am not solely talking about female bands with minority members: I have reviewed and interviews fantastic bands where their male members consist of white and minority faces. In any case; we need to make changes and listen harder to minority artists/bands wanting to step up and get their music heard. Many might think the situation as it is now is okay (they would be wrong) and bands who have struggled to get attention will keep quiet. From Big Joanie and The Tuts to every other mixed-race/black band who have played second-fiddle for; it is very clear they are going to raise their voices…
UNTIL they are heard and understood.