IN THIS PHOTO: Dave is one of the U.K.’s fastest-rising artists and released the sublime PSYCHODRAMA earlier this year/PHOTO CREDIT: Vicky Grout
Thiago Silva and Pockets of Gold: The Problem with the Get-Famous-Quick Artist and How the Music Industry Overlooks Black Artists like Dave and AJ Tracey
CERTAIN fads happen in music…
IN THIS PHOTO: Glastonbury sensation Alex Mann rapped Thiago Silva with Dave last week and gained a lot of attention and praise/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
and you sort of grit your teeth and try and get through it. We had the New Romantics and all of that; there was the Crazy Frog song and Peter Andre…but one thing that is not going away anytime soon is this quick-success story; the ‘viral star’ who is given a booster seat at the table of musical accomplishment without any sense of graft or purpose. I don’t know if anyone saw Dave perform at Glastonbury last week(end) and caught his amazing performance. After the release of his incredible album, PSYCHODRAMA, earlier on this year, critics and fans alike are unified in their praise and respect for the London rapper. One can argue the Streatham artist has seen his Spotify streaming figures rise because of what happened at Glastonbury. During one of his tracks, Thiago Silva, he called out to the crowd and asked if anyone would like to come up to the stage and sing with him. The set-up could have gone drastically wrong and a nervous fan might have been embarrassed in front of thousands of people. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, Alex Mann climbed onto the stage and delivered a knockout performance. To be fair, I do not want to crap over Mann and discourage him from pursuing a career in the music industry. I am sure he has a talent for writing and rapping but he came onto the stage and performed a Dave song that many other people knew.
That would be okay if he got some buzz and then sort of went away. He would have had the confidence to pursue his own path and discover that confidence but, as is the way with modern music and the way record contracts are handed out to those who have hardly worked, the viral star (dubbed ‘Glastonbury Alex’) has got himself signed. One cannot blame Dave for the outcome because he gave this rare opportunity to Mann and is now responsible for this unknown teenager being elevated to rare heights of celebration and fame. I can respect the fact that Mann is perfectly entitled to be an artist but, considering a week ago he was anonymous and has now got a record deal does not send out a good message. I have forgotten to mention the fact that AJ Tracey also appears on Thiago Silva and, as such, should get full props. There is a debate as to whether Alex Mann has actually signed a solid deal but, as this article explores, the boy is not short on offers! Many have taken to social media to laud Mann and underline the fact he stepped onto this huge stage and delivered confidently. That is fine but consider the fact that, essentially what he has done is recited some lyrics on stage…the same way someone would at a talent show or drunkenly at a pub. The fact that record labels are sniffing around Mann after a single, high-profile performance raises interesting questions.
Music scouts are in the world to, one hopes, discover the best artists around; those who have grafted and deserve their big shot. I have attended gigs where labels have been in attendance and there have been scouts looking to get a wet signature from a great new band or solo artist. That is the traditional, correct impression of music and connecting rising talent with labels. Of course, there is inherent issues regarding signing with management and labels so early. One is never sure whether the contract is favourable to the artist or whether the deal will be fair. In any case, talent scouts and those responsible for uniting musicians with labels should be at gigs and on the toilet circuit – seeing the moment when an as-yet-unknown artist gets that rapturous explosion of love from the crowd and seems to tasty to turn down. One question I have is whether, in an age where social media and streaming is dominating, whether it is easier scoring a viral hit and getting a record deal that way – compared to doing things the honest way and grafting your way to that platform. Are those who are responsible for marrying artists to record labels looking for genuine talent and longevity or are factors such as hype, novelty and quick financial turnaround more important? Even if Alex Mann shapes up to be the next best thing (which he won’t be!), he has not put in the requisite hours to warrant a record deal and does not have the experience to navigate pitfalls, hurdles and the demands of the circuit.
Artists who get contracts after years have played the circuits and they have won their stripes. Consider Dave and AJ Tracey and how they would have hustled, slogged and performed all around the place to get their voices heard. Dave was not on that Glastonbury stage because he won a talent contest or became an overnight hit on YouTube – the festival does not operate that way and books artists on the basis of merit and not because of some noxious fad. Now that Mann has got record companies chomping, one feels his resolve with dissipate soon and we will soon see a debut album – one presumes with generic Rap songs written by committee; an album that will be slaughtered by the press and, after that, one assumes natural entropy. Not only is that cruel to a boy who, one feels, is already looking ahead to headline festivals but it sort of send the message that all one needs to get a record deal is to be in the right place at the right time – so long as they can hold their nerve on the stage and, essentially, deliver someone else’s words. That is setting the bar pretty low and it does a disservice to those busking to get heard; bands sweating around the land and artists who have been plying and plugging for years! I do begrudge Mann his time in the sun and respect he is getting because, let’s face it, he got people together and talking – there is a big difference between letting that adulation fade and that experience leading to a record contract!
I came across an excellent article from The Independent that raises another question around music and race. Consider the fact Thiago Silva was performed by two black artists and, between them, they have a respectable and loyal fanbase. Dave and AJ Tracey are fantastic artists to watch and have got to where they are because of their innate talent, steely determination and mettle. Now throw in a third, white name into the pot and Alex Mann – who did not write the song or have any hand in it – is becoming more talked-about than the men who crafted the tune. If a black teenager came to the stage then would record companies be knocking down his door? I doubt it. There is this perception that the nervous white kid who beams cutely is a lot more appealing and marketable than a black artist who is far less sell-able and ‘chart-friendly’. One feels, if Mann does make an album, it will be far less gutsy and authentic than what Dave and AJ Tracey have created. Not too much is known about Mann but he does not strike me as someone who has lived the same reality as Dave and AJ Tracey: his narrative seems far more comfortable and, when you translate that into the studio, will people see right through that?! The Independent’s piece highlights how there is this instant divide between black and white artists: how the white artist is talked about in fond terms and is commercially viable whereas, in the case of black artists like Dave and AJ Tracey, they are seen as a bit dangerous, suspicious and, to be fair, no way as adorable as a teenager like Alex Mann:
“Meanwhile, Alex was invited onto Good Morning Britain, where Piers Morgan – who usually only acknowledges rap during debates on knife crime and gang violence, or else to insist white people should be allowed to use the “n” word – gushed over how Alex had supposedly “slayed” Glastonbury (no mention of Dave’s performance or Stormzy’s explosive headline show).
“That’s what the youth of today should be doing more of,” Morgan proclaimed, fawning so much he turned even redder than usual, “taking their chance and slaying it.”
IN THIS PHOTO: AJ Tracey/PHOTO CREDIT: Mike Prior
It was excruciating, not just for the fact that everyone watching will have known that, until now – and perhaps even after that interview – Morgan had no idea who Dave and AJ Tracey were. The same praise he was lavishing on this white teenager from Somerset would never be applied to the artists who actually put in the work, who made the beats and came up with the flow and the lyrics, and who both achieved top 5 albums this year. Interestingly, Morgan didn’t bring up the lyrics of “Thiago Silva”, which reference gangs and violence, in reference to Alex rapping them.
Dave and AJ Tracey are both independent artists who have capitalised on live performances and streaming, along with raw talent and hard work, to build their own careers with little support from traditional platforms. Just this month, it was revealed that AJ’s music has been streamed more than half a billion times, marking him out as a growing number of artists pursuing commercial success on his own. The only person he splits the profits of his music with is his mother. He’s a talented businessman as well as an artist, but without label support he has to work 10 times as hard as someone signed to a major”.
There is a lot to study and discuss when it comes to the perception of black artists today – and I cannot do it full justice – but I think it is glaring that Mann, without a sufficient backstory and collection of original tracks, is gaining far more traction and less distortion than Dave and AJ Tracey – two artists who have an impressive catalogue and are inspiring youngsters around the country.
PHOTO CREDIT: @dizzyd718/Unsplash
Maybe it is that misguided impression we have of genres like Rap, Hip-Hop and Drill; the assumption that its proponents and supporters are out to conspire and cause trouble; they are promoting bad messages and are morally suspect. It is not a surprise that Piers Morgan did not know who AJ Tracey and Dave were and was fawning over Alex Mann. We know the man (Morgan) is a toad and someone who is completely ignorant and uneducated when it comes to genres like Rap and the black community as a whole. There are artists, sure, who will promulgate negative messages and perpetuate stereotypes; brag about wealth and celebrate violence in the neighbourhoods. That sort of music needs to be addressed and censored at a time when knife violence in London is running high – that is a different argument and, again, is more complex than the black-and-white. Dave and AJ Tracey are delivering the sort of music that Britain needs right now: truthful songs that dig down and expose the truth. The tracks go inside council flats and they walk the streets with caution. Dave, on PSYCHODRAMA, runs a gamut of emotions and shows no fear when it comes to creating these bold and exciting compositions. Critics and fans have lauded his work – quite right! – but he has had to work so hard to get there and, when it comes to publicity, are some press outlets a bit cautious when it comes to spotlighting a young black artist in modern Britain?
I am sure Alex Mann is actually reacting the same way many people are: surprised he is being offered a deal and, if he wants to get into music, step back and respect the fight his heroes have had. He is not the villain in this because he has not asked to be signed and he has not created all the publicity. My problem comes with labels and the media who put people like Mann on a pedestal when genuine artists like Dave and AJ Tracey are afforded less kudos and are producing brilliant original music. I think everything comes down to the fact that we live in a time when the panacea of talent shows provides false idols and one-album-worthy artists who are generic, commercially manipulated and exposed to the gaudy pantomime and excruciating sob stories of talent shows. I admit that some YouTube artists are worthy of greater respect (such as Dodie) but so many are getting famous because of cover versions of viral videos when there are hard-working and years-grafting artists who are getting overlooked. In today’s music scene, is getting a record contract easy when you are on a talent show or Internet but much harder if you go down the conventional routes? I do think we need to do away with talent shows and sending out the message that this is the way to get into the industry.
We still need record label representative and scouts at gigs but they need to follow artists who deserve record deals: this idea of seeing someone do a single turn on T.V. and then send record contracts their way is an insult to every artist who has toiled in anonymity in order to get a deal. I do hope that some of the approbation this Alex Mann story is getting opens eyes and means that, the next time some hopeful gets onto a stage and recites a few bars, record labels calm down and we can contain the brief fire – nip it all in the bud and not give any more thought to something that was good in the moment but has no potential or place in the world beyond that. I do think we also need to ask why genuine, genius black artists are being talked about in minor tones whereas white artists are given a lot more credit and positive attention. From Piers Morgan drooling over Alex Mann to AJ Tracey being given a slightly rough ride on the Victoria Derbyshire show back in February – where she did actually say the following: “Some of your other videos we were playing earlier on, you know, it’s almost like a bit of a shout-out to kind of gangs in London; I’m not suggesting you’re advocating gangs, but there do seem to be a lot of guys hanging out – is that a conscious message, or is that just the scene that you’re in, the music scene that you’re in?” – we need to tackle this discrimination, stereotyping and ignorance. Seeing the furor Alex Mann’s Glastonbury performance has caused has delivered a very bad message into the world and what it takes to get famous and noticed. It has also opened eyes to the fact that the men responsible for launching him to the public (Dave especially) are being comparatively ignored and seen in a very different light. Talent scouts, record labels and the media need to be aware of how they book talent and who they promote. Let’s hope Alex Mann is not given a deal and gets to think about his career on his own terms but, although this story/situation will dissolve (let’s hope!), I am afraid so much damage…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
HAS already been done.