SKIN October 2020 Black History Month edition
Guest Editors Stephanie Phillips Stephanie Phillips is a London-based music journalist, singer and guitarist in the Black feminist punk band Big Joanie and an organiser at Decolonise Fest, an annual festival created by and for punks of colour. Her debut book, Why Solange Matters, will be released May 2021 on University of Texas Press.
This special edition of M Magazine is made up of features produced as part of our Black History Month curation. Guided by four wonderful Guest Editors, we have used October to honour Black songwriters, Black music and Black culture, but also as an opportunity to reflect on the lack of Black representation in both the music and journalism industries. It’s been a privilege to have been able to facilitate such a rich, thoughtprovoking and important body of work alongside so many talented contributors. The work to amplify Black voices will continue long past these 31 days.
Listen to Stephanie’s playlist
Jesse Bernard Jesse Bernard a writer, music archivist and broadcaster. His work predominantly maps the historical lineage of Black music in Britain while observing its role in contemporary culture and society. He is the youth and community lead at Release, working on the y-stop project and is contributing editor of Trench Magazine.
Maya Radcliffe - Editor M Magazine
Listen to Jesse’s playlist
Michelle Escoffrey is an award-winning singer, songwriter and vocal producer. The PRS Council Member is one of the UK’s most respected songwriters, she has penned songs for acts including Tina Turner, All Saints, Beverley Knight and Artful Dodger, worked on vocal arrangements for Rod Stewart and performed with Stevie Wonder and George Michael.
Ones to watch
Projects that define British Black music
Boy In Da Corner
Alternative Black music
Influential Black British female songwriters
The story of Split Mic
Carla Marie Williams
Editor Maya Radcliffe Art Director Carl English Creative Director Paul Nichols
Britain’s got soul
Strengthen the signal
Listen to Michelle’s playlist
Ben Wynter Ben Wynter oversees the management of Hitmaker, Momentum Music Fund and the International Showcase Fund at PRS Foundation. He is also the founder of Unstoppable Music Group which has been developing the careers of highly sought-after producers. Listen to Ben’s playlist
PRS for Music, 2 Pancras Square. London N1C 4AG T 020 7580 5544 E email@example.com W prsformusic.com ©PRS for Music 2018. All rights reserved. The views expressed in M are not necessarily those of PRS for Music, nor of the editorial team. PRS for Music accepts no responsibility for the views expressed by contributors to M, nor for errors in contributed articles. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission is strictly prohibited.
Ones to watch
Black British artists making waves in 2020 Black British music is being embraced more than ever before, and with such an abundance of fresh talent, we’ve pinpointed some artists that should absolutely be on your radar.
By Ray Sang
While it’s no secret that the UK boasts an eclectic mix of talent, covering a diverse selection of genres from afroswing to R&B, 2020 has seen a cultural shift with Black British music being embraced by the masses more than ever before. This is perhaps most adequately reflected by sheer number of musicians from previously considered ‘underground’ scenes achieving mainstream success, with artists like Nines going on to earn their first No. 1 albums. In recent months, there have been several movers and shakers within Black British culture that continue to leave a lasting impression on the UK music scene. Here are the eight new names you need to know in 2020 and beyond.
Ivorian Doll Boldly holding her own in a male dominated space, Ivorian Doll has been the name on everybody’s lips all year. After launching her solo career in 2019 with the prophetically titled single Queen of Drill, the YouTuber turned rap artist was propelled into the fore by the release of her track Rumours, capturing the industry’s attention with her raw persona and barbie inspired aesthetic. The rapper’s recent performance at GRM Daily’s 2020 Rated Awards added a fiery stage presence to her rapidly growing repertoire of strengths, serving as a positive indicator that she is well on her way to cementing her place as the First Lady of UK Drill.
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Ones to watch Shaé Universe Possessing rich and distinctive vocals, Shaé Universe is steadily forging her own path within the realms of UK R&B, oozing soul at each and every turn. Unapologetic in her expression, Shaé’s output to date has intentionally celebrated both her womanhood and her blackness, as demonstrated on songs like No Stallin and Black Panther. Paying homage to the greats that came before her including Beyoncé, Grace Jones and Erykah Badu the video for her latest single Levels explores the emerging R&Drill sound, placing Shaé at the exciting intersection of R&B fusion by pairing her expressive tone with percussion-driven drill beats.
Screaming Toenail A voice of defiance, this queer anti-colonial punk band embodies exactly what it means to make a statement with your art. The four-piece ensemble, comprised of lead singer Jacob, drummer Alice, bassist Natasha and guitarist Nadia, made it their mission to amplify the voices of those who have long been side-lined in society.
Image: Leleita McKill
Their latest album is a politically charged deep dive into a crumbling world, bringing together an assortment of ‘80s post-punk sounds and bass melodies. Unrelenting in their humorous critique of the white supremacy and imperialism, Screaming Toenail continue to stand out for their bold yet undeniably witty lyricism.
Reuben James British singer-songwriter and pianist, Reuben James, may be known for his role in Sam Smith’s band, but his solo star shines in its own right. Reuben is one of the most promising artists the UK jazz scene has to offer.
Image: Heather Glazzard
Having played the piano since the age of three, becoming the recipient of a scholarship to study at the Trinity College of Music in London, Reuben spent several years perfecting his craft before finally stepping out into the spotlight with Adore in 2019. His sophomore EP Slow Down, which saw collaborations with Col3trane and Kevin Garrett, felt like a moment of solace in a turbulent time and positioned the singer as one to watch.
No Home Minimalist punk is perhaps the best way to describe the music that London-based musician Charlotte Valentine creates. An eery blend of static sounds, No Home’s latest project depicts the beauty in chaos, with Valentine’s powerful vocal as the centre-point, amidst dissonant keys and minatory percussion. While Valentine remains an enigma, their music speaks of navigating through the complexities of anxiety over an array of punk-infused lo-fi beats.
Image: Lucero Glow
Bree Runway Pioneering popstar Bree Runway is a London-based singer and rapper who wears her versatility as a badge of honour. As the world grinded to a halt with the introduction of lockdown restrictions, Bree remained unphased and powered through the quarantine blues to deliver four striking singles. Dancing to the beat of her own drum, quite literally in her latest visuals, the Hackney-native’s allure stems from her ability to integrate elements of various genres including R&B, hip-hop, trap and most recently rock, to create an inspired sound that is uniquely her own.
Image: Chris Almeida
Having already received co-signs from the likes of Rihanna, Kehlani and Missy Elliot herself, the genre-defying artist edges closer to super star status with every release.
Arlo Parks South London’s Arlo Parks is the fresh indie voice offering Gen-Z a sense of reassurance though series of poignantly relatable lyrics and soothing guitar melodies. A proud mental health advocate and an ambassador charity for CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) the singer has used her talents to touch on many of the issues young people face, as seen on her single Black Dog, which delves into the at times debilitating realities of living with depression. As well as being tapped on the shoulder to support Haley Williams during her US tour, the 20-yearold has remained booked and busy performing at a socially distanced gig in front of Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage earlier this year in addition to working on her highly anticipated debut album.
Kadeem Tyrell In recent years, Kadeem Tyrell has become one of the front runners of alternative R&B. With a sound inherently influenced by ‘90s R&B and gospel, the singer, who cites Brandy and Aaliyah as his influences, has built a connection with fans through his vulnerability in an unfiltered exploration of the male experience. This is beautifully demonstrated on his breakout EP, Elements. The singer candidly addressed mental health and relationships over an array of soulful melodies. Boosting his presence with several of notable performances over the years, including a show at the Jazz Café, Kadeem continues to grow in strength and has to date amassed over two million streams on Spotify.
This piece was guest edited by Stephanie Phillips.
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Ms Dynamite ‘It’s like the success created a fairytale bubble for me to live in. I wasn’t carried away by things like a young teenager who’s gone from nada to ‘Wow, now you can do anything you want.’ I just was really happy to be happy.’
By Michelle Escoffery
Acclaimed British R&B artist Ms Dynamite, real name Niomi Daley, is highly decorated. With a Mercury Music Prize, two Brit Awards, three MOBO Awards and an MBE under her belt, she is widely recognised as a pioneering force in UK music. Guest Editor, Michelle Escoffery, first met Niomi when her life as Ms Dynamite was in its infancy and watched her career flourish, with a few hiatuses along the way. Michelle caught up with Ms Dynamite to talk navigating a male dominated genre and what success means to her. Michelle: Tell me about journey and what you think about your contribution to the music scene. Ms Dynamite: I’ve never thought about it. I never imagined 20 years later, I’d be sitting here having achieved some of the things that I have. That was never really my intention. It’s very humbling, I guess because it has been said, it has made me look at my journey like, ‘Oh yes, wow you did that.’ Michelle: Did you always want to be in music, or did it just happen? Ms Dynamite: I wanted to be a primary school teacher. I guess that came from being a big sister, having loads of cousins and just loving to have them all around and being the responsible one. All the positives that come with being the eldest. I just felt like, ‘Okay, great, I want to do this for a living’, but then I was raised with so much music. I never thought about it at the time. But on one hand, culturally, from the African-Caribbean side of things which, even though I am mixed, I was raised predominantly by my mum, my Grenadian step-dad, and my Jamaican dad was in my life.
Plus, I had an extended family from all parts of the Caribbean, from Africa. When I look back, I can always hear tunes playing in my head. My family would just always have music playing. All my uncles were DJs with sound systems. From very young, we didn’t really have much furniture and what we had was minimal, the chair was really like a speaker box with a sheet on it, but as long as we could play our music, we were fine. We always had massive speakers in the house. Looking back, I guess music was our lifeline and common language. Michelle: What was your journey into music? Many people don’t know that I met you when you were quite young. I remember giving you vocal lessons, but we lost touch, and then the next thing I saw you on my TV, and I was like, ‘Huh? How did that happen?’ Ms Dynamite: Yeah, when we had vocal lessons, I was living in a hostel. I used to get the train down South. A manager who introduced us, and he felt that I was talented. He said, ‘You should meet Michelle and have some vocal lessons.’ I had confidence, like street confidence, but not as an artist and no real inner confidence. It’s been a bit of a cycle in life, my confidence, or lack of, got the better of me. I didn’t think I was a good singer at all. I felt like I was tone deaf. I’d try, but I didn’t have a lot of patience then. I had a lot of determination, but then it gets to a point where you’ve got to put the work in, but if I didn’t find it fun, and I did obviously find it fun, I disappeared for a bit. Music kept coming to me. I was going to my gran’s one Sunday and a family friend who had a pirate radio station stopped me
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on the way and said, ‘I heard you can MC.’ I was thinking I didn’t know where he’s heard this from but my street confidence said, ‘Yes, and?’ and he said, ‘Okay, well I’ve got a station and I don’t have any females, and I would love you to come and have a set on there.’ So, I just said, ‘Alright,’ but it was my mouth, you know, then I walked off thinking, ‘Why did you say that?’ I would make rhymes because I loved poetry, and when we were having a little dance and we’d had a little drink, my friends were like, ‘Go on, go on the mic.’ I just was really freestyling, for fun, I never ever thought about it professionally. Anyway, this man had heard that I was an MC. So, now I’ve talked myself into it and I’ve got a set this Sunday on a garage station. I didn’t even listen to garage music line that at the time. I was so into my ragga. You know, it was ragga then, like dancehall, bashment. I was really set in my ways, and I had two jobs, I had college, I had so much to do, and I thought, ‘And now you’ve got to write lyrics to music too.’ Michelle: How did you navigate being in a male dominated genre? Ms Dynamite: I was raised from an old-school or traditional West Indian perspective. We’d be at my gran’s a lot, especially me. As the oldest girl, there was a lot of responsibility that came with that. When I was younger, I didn’t really understand it. I loved it because there was a respect that I was given and there was something I loved about it, but it was a lot of responsibility. So, I think by the time I got to music, my character had already been built and I was used to having to work harder. I feel like the strong women in my family prepared me for what was to come. I loved and respected the males around me. So, in the music scene, I genuinely felt like we were a big musical family. So Solid, Pay As You Go, Heartless Crew... there weren’t any MCs that I didn’t get along with. There was no one from the garage scene that I didn’t see as my brothers. Michelle: And how do you feel the music business has changed over the years, and do you feel it’s changed for the better or the worse?
Ms Dynamite: The first thing that comes to me is the diversity across the board. You know, if I think of artists that came before me, UK-wise, when I was a young girl I remember we would just be happy to just see a Black person or a person of colour on the TV, because it really was that different then. I feel like with every cycle of underground music that has come forth over the years in the UK - it brings things to the forefront. So, with music like jungle, with garage, it brings all types of people together, and then it starts to become a little bit more mainstream, and then you start to see a reflection of how we are as everyday people. You start to see that reflection on the television or on the internet. Michelle: So, because there’s more diversity now, there are potentially less barriers for people of colour when it comes to our creativity, our sound and the way that we want to put ourselves forward - because there are people on the business-side of music that understand where we’re coming from? Because they come from our community and look and possibly think like us? Ms Dynamite: Yes, definitely. There’s just more understanding and, in my opinion, more space for conversations that need to be had for people to be able to express from an authentic space. On that side of things, yes, I feel it is positive. You have so many unbelievably talented people that were not getting opportunities before, and it’s not to say that everything is perfect now, but, bit
‘At times I would feel so emotional, I almost just couldn’t be creative because I was so overloaded with expectations to keep coming with the goods.’
‘You have so many unbelievably talented people that were not getting opportunities before, and it’s not to say that everything is perfect now, but, bit by bit, things are shifting.’ by bit, things are shifting. There’s a space that’s been opened up where there were limitations before. Michelle: I hear you. So, let’s talk about your success. From my observations, you were catapulted into success. Do you feel success was freeing for you or restrictive? Ms Dynamite: I feel like it’s about our definition of success really, isn’t it? I went from being in a hostel on Jobseeker’s Allowance, and I say this not as a victim at all. You know, I’m so thankful for my journey, but just to explain some of the challenges that I was experiencing at that time. I had gone through a lot, as we all do. I’m a very emotional person, and I’m also this strong feisty protector. I didn’t have anywhere or even know how to even see that emotion within myself. It would just come out as anger. So, I just got into a really, really deep and dark space. I wasn’t eating, I weighed seven stone. I just wasn’t in a good place. I just didn’t know it and I didn’t see it because I was so in it, and then almost the next day, I was on the front of papers and in magazines, and everyone was saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so amazing. Sing that for us again.’ Overnight, I had a massive distraction from what I was really feeling inside. I was given funds and given the space to be creative, but that came with a lot of attention which I never really wanted. I couldn’t cope with the attention, but at the same time, there must have been something about it inside that felt great because I kept doing it and I kept going back. In that sense, I would say it was amazing. It’s like the success created a fairytale bubble for me to live in. I wasn’t carried away by things like a young teenager who’s gone from nada to ‘Wow, now you can do anything you want.’ I just was really happy to be happy. On the other side, it became a bit of a living nightmare, the success. I’m a very private person and suddenly, nothing was private. Whether I wanted to be noticed or not, that choice was gone. But I was really thankful for it. So, when I’d have those feelings of like, ‘This is too much’, I’d feel like, ‘You haven’t got a right to feel like that. You’ve been given this amazing opportunity. You’ve just got to keep going. You haven’t got a right to want your own space, and you haven’t got a right to complain.’ Michelle: Was your creativity an escape at that time, or was it stifled because of feeling that way? How did that affect your creative process? Ms Dynamite: At times I would feel so emotional, I almost just couldn’t be creative because I was so overloaded with expectations to keep coming with the goods. I didn’t know how
to handle it, but I would always be writing. I realised that it was self-therapy for me. It was part of healing. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was part of a way of me taking in all this stuff and feeling all of this pain, and then not necessarily being able to have conversations either directly with people. When I couldn’t do that, I would be writing, and it was, like, at least a way of just getting out. Michelle: What do you want your mark to be on the music industry? Ms Dynamite: I would say I would totally leave that to whatever anybody wants to take from it. I wouldn’t want to force anyone to think or feel this or that. I just want to do my work and, hopefully, it just connects in a positive way. It was always about a message of love, togetherness, understanding and healing, even if that was my personal healing or as a community or just as people across the globe. It was about love. Michelle: My daughter is 18 and I laugh because when she plays Booo!, she plays it like she knows what she’s talking about, and I’m like, ‘What do you know about Booo!?’ When your music lives on and on, that’s the greatest blessing. Ms Dynamite: Honestly, for me too. When we made Booo! with Sticky, we went in, we had fun and then the rest happened. So, I haven’t, been going ‘My gosh, look what I did.’ I went into the studio, and then it was sharing with the people, and then it’s just lived this long. That’s very exciting for me. Michelle: That’s just testament to the energy of music. It takes on its own life and, because of the intent and the energy behind it, you feel that. You can’t break it down and deconstruct it. It’s a feeling and I think you get a feeling from music that transcends time and generations because you can tap into that energy. To be in that space and to be that conduit, to be able to do that, that’s the gift. Ms Dynamite: Yes. It is a gift. I’m like, ‘Wow, you did not do all of this by yourself,’ and to be honest, yes it’s such a blessing. Michelle: Can we expect to hear more from Ms Dynamite? Ms Dynamite: Without a doubt, but please don’t ask me when exactly because me and her have been having a couple of conversations for a long time. She’s like, ‘Yes, I’m ready now,’ and I’m not. Then I’m ready and she’s not! She is a part of me and, if I’m honest, I’ve been running from her for a long time, but she’s not going anywhere. So, yes.
Read the extended interview with Ms Dynamite at prsformusic.com/m-magazine
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PROJECTS THAT DEFINE THE LEGACY OF BLACK MUSIC IN BRITAIN Image: Nadine Fraczkowski
By Nicolas-Tyrell Scott
Music and culture journalist Nicolas-Tyrell Scott explores underground albums that have had a lasting impact across multiple genres in Black music.
Black British music often forms as a product of grassroot movements. Not having the same access to the mainstream as their white counterparts, talent on this side of the pond has routinely straddled the underground, creating momentum that can later pierce through into the wider nation’s stratosphere. Even then, institutional barriers such as the Metropolitan Police’s former Form 696 has threatened the ascent of genres such as grime over its near 20 year rise to glory. ‘We know they’re just trying to shut down grime, because if it was anything else they wouldn’t have this issue,’ MC P Money told the BBC in 2017. Elsewhere, Black British women in pop, have spoken about racial stereotypes placed on them at the height of their success. The Sugababes’ Keisha Bunchanan mentioned on her personal YouTube channel that many national outlets branded her as the ‘angry Black woman’ and ‘bully’ during her time in the group. Despite the many barriers placed upon them, Black artists in multiple regions across the country have shaped quintessential eras in British music at large. The building blocks of UK rap and its many offshoots such as grime and UK hip-hop led to the meld of both worlds — best showcased in Stormzy. Stormzy’s Glastonbury debut last year is just one example of the heights of our impact to date. 20 years ago, we saw a similar sphere of influence in the juggernaut project Born to Do It. Craig David’s collision of garage and R&B, aided in marking garage as a dynamic and important British genre. To many across the globe, it acted as a formal introduction to the DJ EZ-backed sound. In celebration of Black British music and its evolution, here are 10 pivotal releases across the last 20 years that have helped shape the underground Black British music.
Despite the many barriers placed upon them, Black artists in multiple regions across the country have shaped quintessential eras in British music at large
Estelle - Lovers Rock As a child of West Indian heritage, Estelle has always made sure to show glimmers of her roots across her discography. Take the reggae-infused Come Over from her sophomore LP Shine. The simmering, reggae leaning single broke the US Billboard Hot 100 upon its 2008 release. It’s on her fourth album Lovers Rock however, that she offers up a full ancestral embrace, tributing the 1970’s reggae-offshoot across the project’s 14-track set. From its Luke James assisted-beginning, softly laden guitar runs ease listeners into the wholly soothing set. Estelle is perhaps at her most vulnerable, fully exploring her relationship with love here — in its various forms. The project also sees Estelle soaring as a singer, her raspy vocals at their most comfortable throughout. Lovers Rock is one of many strong representatives of West Indian’s influence on British music. The sound grew wings in London once it began, with producer Dennis Harris — alongside Dennis Bovell — even creating a record label in its name in 1977.
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Sneakbo - Brixton Kojey Radical - Cashmere Tears Kojey Radical has been an instrumental part of the loosely labelled alternative hip-hop sphere for close to half a decade. Taking inspiration from spoken word in his early career, Radical articulated his societal and relationship woes across both ambient, hip-hop and lo-fi infused soundscapes. A Lament To Rose for example, talks about the nuances in women and their interactions with men in metropolis societies. As he grew, so did his cadence. Nowadays, he leans into the grit in his voice, pairing this with a near-flawless use of tone. After Winter on his In God’s Body EP is a potent example of this evolution as a wordsmith. However, on Cashmere Tears Kojey Radical delivers his most ambitious project to date. Not to be confused with his debut album — still to be released — this project sees the Hoxton native experiment with jazz throughout. On Where Do I Begin he unpacks his mental health traumas and flaws in his character as the saxophone helps to represent the noise in his mind. Lyrically, Radical also finds the balance between his more complex, layered verses and easy on the ear, lighter touches, creating a universe that satisfies all listeners. Overall, Cashmere Tears is one of the most ambitious UK rap projects released in the last few years and places Kojey Radical as an undisputed leader of the next generation of UK hip-hop pioneers.
Ojerime - B4 I Breakdown Despite it’s fickle representation on a mainstream level, R&B has been a consistent arc in the UK’s underground arena. Artists such as Angel, Taliwhoah, Col3trane, Serpentwithfeet and more have allowed the genre to flourish and expand nationwide across the 10’s. Another artist who stands as an undisputed part of this renaissance in the sound is Ojerime. The south London songstresses sultry 4U EP landed in 2018 and debuted her rich tone and abstract, ‘90s inspired universe. Across electronic-leaning, ‘90s rooted celestial productions Ojerime painted her own canvas for the masses, instantly winning over grassroot lovers of R&B. In 2020, after a hiatus of sorts she returned taking her electronic concoction to further heights. Titled B4 I Breakdown, Ojerime is now confident in her voice, using it to form adlibs to cushion her verses and choruses a lot more here. You can still hear the traces of her TLC and Brandy influences, but she infuses her own touch also, even leaning into horn-based instrumentals on Give It Up 2 Me, nodding to avante-garde jazz. B4 I Breakdown is hazy in places, sometimes sombre, but overall it begins to build a particular pocket within the UK R&B landscape that’s instantly recognisable and addictive once penetrated.
Before it had a name, Sneakbo was creating early examples of ‘afro’ inspired genres in London. The Brixton native was loud in his Vybz Kartel love and homage, with Sneakbo’s version of Touch Ah Button making its way to YouTube in 2011. From Blackberry Messenger ‘ping’ references, to Patois and British slang, Sneakbo represented the start of a new decade that wasn’t inspired solely by grime and that leant into diasporic originating genres. Brixton strongly ushers in both dancehall and afrobeats inspirations, Sneakbo reigning as a man who can make both worlds attractive. On the Giggs assisted Active, percussionbased instruments surround both rappers, which hints at the beginning of afrobeats and Nigerian pop’s impending reign in London. Across the album, there’s even more direct winks at afroswing, with Afro B and Team Salut helping to shape the sound across album-track Body Close. Sneakbo embraces his pioneer status here without trying to be any of his successors either.
Akala - It’s Not A Rumour At a time when grime had started to make headway across parts of the country (particularly North London), Akala debuted a sound which took aspects of it — see Shakespeare — juxtaposing this with classic rock and hiphop. Telling Britain that he did not seek US approval across It’s Not a Rumour’s introduction, Akala possessed a similar nonchalance that he’s had throughout his career here. Sonically, It’s Not A Rumour is earth-shattering in its instrumentals, with Akala addressing classism, familial ties and politics throughout. It’s obvious that he’s always had a radical mind, but it’s great to hear his politics accompanied with musical backing, delivered in a rhyme-form, the same messages resonate in a slightly different way here.
Lotto Boyzz - Afrobbean (The Genre Definition) Birmingham based duo Lotto Boyzz decided to help in aiding the then simmering afro-swing pocket, with a definition of the sound called Afrobbean (The Genre Definition). In 2018, Lotto Boyzz’s Ash gave a comprehensive definition of what their title — and wider sound — was comprised of. ‘Afrobbean is basically a mix between African music and Carribean music [...] We merge them together to create this. It’s just basically based off of vibe, the instruments used and [...] yeah it’s just different,’ he told MTV. Across the project, dancehall homage makes itself pronounced on the project’s title track, with Jamaicanverbiage included also. This is marinated with strong afrobeats melodies and instrumentals throughout. Afrobbean helps to build off of the Sneakbo and J Hus assisted foundations of the sound, adding a more serene element to the sub-genre. Although it’s now called afroswing at large, Afrobbean was an ambitious attempt by the Birmingham collective, which, to a part of the country, was also used as an early name for the British-born creation. A S1mba or Darkoo wouldn’t exist without the contributions from acts before them including Lotto Boyzz.
Mis-Teeq - Lickin’ on Both Sides When Alesha Dixon, Sabrina Washington and Su-Elise Nash prowled onto the scene as Mis-Teeq, they again carried with them the then dominant UK garage sound. However, their amalgamation of hip-hop and R&B melodies helped make the trio distinct and usher in a variety of listeners across the spectrum.
JME – Famous?
Taking garage to the top of the charts, the groups debut album Lickin’ on Both Sides debuted at number three on the UK’s Official Charts, ushering the ladies into the poparena simultaneously. What set Mis-Teeq apart was their ambition and personality at the time. Alesha’s unapologetic personality, which fragments her bars on songs like That Type Of Girl and They’ll Never Know. On the latter, she’s blunt and transparent regarding her personal struggles, making the group even more alluring. There’s a worldly appeal across Secrets of the Night, especially in the production. It’s instantly reminiscent of Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s on the Wall with the thumping baseline and elastic ‘90s infused-R&B. Lickin’ on Both Sides presented the foundations of a strong British offering, with the grit and realism to match.
Many know that JME is the undisputed lyricist of his family. At the time of his 2010 debut Famous?, grime had reached the mainstream with help from Skepta, Kano, Dizzee Rascal, Boy Better Know etc. On Famous?, JME quickly asserted that the project would add to this canon on 123 stating, ‘This is grime, it’s not rap’. Adopting a flow that would dominate in grime clashes across the country, the North London rapper is authoritative throughout, adopting the spirit of a renegade still needing to prove himself. As a project, Famous? is minimalist, with JME evidently ignoring the need for validation or commerciality. This is to JME’s benefit as he’s unrestrained when it comes to themes in particular. On Show, he references his run-ins with the police — sometimes with Skepta, as well as the politics ‘on road’. Funnily enough, a decade later, as UK drill entrenches itself, rappers such as Headie One draw similar parallels across their projects also. It may not be mentioned as much as other projects of its time, but Famous? is likely to have inspired the Chip’s and Devlin’s who saw career heights years after this release.
Lemar - Time To Grow Lemar helped contribute to the UK R&B scene across the 2000s, following his run on Fame Academy in 2002. Quickly developing a soulful brand of R&B on his inaugural Dedicated release the Tottenham raised singer returned a year later, leaning further into this pocket.
Big Brovaz - Nu-Flow Yet another collective, Big Brovaz had it all at the height of their career. Movie soundtracks, breakthrough success and an unmatched flair. Nu-Flow rooted the foundations for this trajectory. Across the groups debut, you can hear soulful melodies and a sonic direction which didn’t mirror the early 2000’s US hip-hop landscape. Sure, some of the male members of the group often adopted a slight New York twang across a plethora of singles, but for the most part, the productions felt wholly English. A lot of their songs were grounded in coming of age concepts and were easy enough to follow. Big Brovaz were not a complicated collective — despite their size. If you wanted familiarity wedged with humour in places, Nu-Flow provided an intersection that still allowed listeners to take the group’s music seriously.
Titled Time To Grow, Lemar’s sophomore album is able to engage an adult-contemporary market — through its mature, sometimes classically leaning productions — while encapsulating younger demographics simultaneously. Some of its lyricism feels elementary, but Lemar soars vocally, adding flavour to the male R&B space nationwide. Armed with classic singles such as If There’s Any Justice, Lemar was able to win his first MOBO’s for this release. As one of only a few hypervisible Black men in the R&B space in the mid-late 2000s, Lemar represented the sound well, shying away from singing in a US accent also. This showcased that a Black-British talent could succeed — and reach multi-platinum status still — being themselves.
This piece was guest edited by Jesse Bernard.
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Image: Ben Tallon
Representation of Black artists in electronic music By Dirty Freud During Black History Month, I tend to get nostalgic and think deeply about the future; where I have been and where I am going. This year is no different. These feelings bubble away all year round, but the heat of that microscope burns particularly brightly at this time.
the tv, they were just lucky I thought.I withdrew from making music for the next few years. It did not stop me listening though and I soaked up the sounds of artists like Cassy, Todd Terry, Tricky and Massive Attack, still in secret. Until I left London for the north, that was.
My parents have a lot to answer for, musically speaking. My Mum was into a diverse mix of rock and pop - the likes of Iron Maiden, Kate Bush, Sade and Jimi Hendrix playing when she was in charge of the tunes. My Dad, on the other hand, loves the storytelling of country music, with the occasional bit of dub thrown in for good measure.
It was there that I discovered alternative dance music and even more inspiring Black artists at the heart of the scene. At last I felt able to start sharing my passion with others. Looking back on this era now, I can reflect on unsung heroes like Hewan Clarke and DJ Paulette. Two of Hacienda’s leading DJs, they are seemingly airbrushed from dance music history whilst Mike Pickering or Graeme Park have received widespread acclaim. Clarke’s involvement with the club enabled Black and other minority ethnic groups to feel like they belonged in this traditionally white space. When he left, the crowds changed. A coincidence?
They passed on their eclectic tastes to me. Whilst I enjoyed the UK garage, hip-hop and R&B my friends were listening to, I soon developed a love of electronic music. And within our four-walls, I felt able to share this discovery with my family. Outside of that haven, it was a different story. The phrase, ‘Is it Black enough?,’ would often dance around my mind. I just didn’t see people who looked like me making that kind of music. So I kept quiet about this newfound passion. It became a Saturday afternoon ritual to head to Pure Groove record store in North London with my parents. As usual, I could be found in the vinyl section. But this time it was different. I had a musical itch that needed to be scratched. I was looking for something, I just didn’t know what. I’m young, Black and feeling a little lost, what could be my lighthouse in the fog? Enter Jeff Mills, Marshall Jefferson, Maxim, Leeroy Thornhill, Sonique. These were the sounds I had craved. And they were being created by people who looked like me. They legitimised my no longer guilty secret. I felt seen and just maybe I found a place to belong. And so, I made the leap from listening to electronic music to creating it myself, crudely cutting and pasting sounds, creating samples and four and eight bit melodies. I proudly presented one of my creations to the music teacher at my school. He served me with, “Is that really your music? Wouldn’t you be more comfortable making hip-hop?”. I remember that feeling as if it was yesterday. My passion had to be a secret once again, my shoulders dropped and all the air in my chest evaporated. I went back to my chair, mumbling things I was not yet brave enough to say. The dream was over dead even, I needed to fit into the box that life had predetermined for me. Those guys on
I think not. Similarly, Rowetta’s soulful vocals can be heard on hundreds of records with acts such as the Happy Mondays. Yet she’s often referred to as a backing singer and not the lead vocalist she really is. There is a huge disparity that needs to be addressed here - it happens too often to Black singers and songwriters who are marginalised when white artists are allowed to shine. Take Elvis Presley, for example. Many of his most famous songs were written by Black artists, but do we know their names? No, we don’t. So where are we at today? Things aren’t perfect. Black artists in the electronic scene (and outside of it) still have to work harder and smarter in order to succeed. But there is definitely cause for celebration and hope. With all that has come before, doors and windows have been flung open for outstanding new DJ’s and electronic artists such as Jamz Supernova, Jaguar Worldwide, Afrodeutsche and Gaika. There is still a lot of work to do within our own community, as well as having the support of allies. Music has always been so important to me. through creating it, listening to others make it, culturally it’s been a massive way of us getting through tough times through solidarity and escapism. What’s important is representation. Seeing Black artists doing well is vital in order to inspire the next generation and show Black people everywhere that they belong. This is your tribe too.
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SKIN Deborah Anne Dyer, known by most as Skin, rose to prominence as the lead singer of Skunk Anansie. The first Black British woman to headline Glastonbury, Skin is the definition of the word trailblazer and has been shattering stereotypes since the early nineties. By Michelle Escoffrey
Following the release of her new book It Takes Blood and Guts, Guest Editor and fellow songwriter Michelle Escoffery, spoke to Skin about her love of the London borough she grew up in, how her songwriting has developed, how authenticity is the key to success and more.
Being the lead singer of a rock band was a difficult thing to retain and I didn’t grow up within rock music. I had to leave Brixton and go and find the people and find that community and find my place and demand my place and forge my place within that community.
Michelle: Reading your book, and I was taken by your love of Brixton. How do you feel about it now? Skin: I got a lot of my attitude, common sense and my peripheral vision from Brixton. Also my empathy and love of diversity. Back in the day, they called it multicultural. Now, they call it diverse.
In terms of authenticity, it took me a long time to get to that. I think once I found it, I just stayed within that consciousness. First you have the identity of being a black British person in an English country. You’re supposed to like this. You’re supposed to like that. You’re supposed to behave like this and have this kind of accent or whatever. Then it’s, ‘Well, I’m still Black when I’m doing all these things. I’m just not the Black that you want me to be. I’m my Black.’. It’s taken me all this time to get here, so I’m going to stay authentic and keep to that.
I’ve taken everything from growing up in Brixton, good and bad. Somebody said to me, ‘Why are you always political?’ And I was like, ‘Because I was brought up in Brixton. ‘How can you be in Brixton with your eyes open and not see what was happening in front of you?’ It has always had this bedrock of Black Windrush Jamaican culture. And everything rests upon that. Without that bedrock, Brixton is going to lose its coolness, its community. I feel very sad about it. All the wonderful, lovely, luscious things that make Brixton gorgeous are all going to be gone and it’s just going to become another dried gentrified part of London. Michelle: When I look at certain women within the music industry, I think about their authenticity and you’re one of those authentic women. I feel like you’re comfortable in your skin, you know who you are and not scared to show it. Is authenticity something that’s been a conscious choice for you? Skin: Growing up in England, there seems to be two ways that you can be. There’s the way that this country wants you to be, so that they can find you palatable. Or there’s the way that you truly are. I think that finding yourself and finding who you truly are, within this country, which is trying to tell you and dictate to you who you are, is a very hard long struggle.
When I stopped trying to be accepted by other people and I stopped trying to look like the typical rock star and look like the typical lead singer of a band, that’s when success really came. Because that’s me and that’s where I’m most comfortable. That’s where I’m the most inspired. I think authenticity is something that we all look for in other artists that we like. This idea of, for instance, pretending to be the straight hot Black girl. That was never me. You know, I was into just dressing the way I wanted to dress. I think that our audience saw that and that’s what they appreciate. Michelle: Do you find song writing to be cathartic? Skin: I think in the first 10 years, definitely because I felt like I had to get so much stuff out. I was so driven to get to a place where I could just do music full time. In the first half of your life, you’re just driven. In the second half of your life, career, you use all those lessons and you get a different kind of maturity. I think my songwriting in those early days was just bleurgh. Now, I’m a grown-up, responsible, more educated, more mature
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person. I think about every word much more. It’s more measured. There’s more subtlety. There are more layers to it. I feel the same about my voice. I’m much more aware of what my voice can and can’t do. My songwriting is a reflection of the fact that I’m older. I’ve won love. I’ve lost love. I’ve won political things. I’ve lost political things. I think, because of all those layers that my personality now has, I write in a different way. Michelle: When you write with the band, do you come with an idea first or do you guys write from scratch? Skin: Both. I’m always putting ideas into my phone. I like to sing the ideas. Well, now I try and write the melody and the lyrics at the same time. Do you know how many songs I have got that are just brilliant but there are no words to them? When I am with the band, we come up with ideas. I will have some words that I don’t have melodies to and I will want to, there and then, work out something good with the band. We all write everything together. We all get involved in everything. But the song can be literally inspired from anywhere. But the root of it is, lyrics and melody first. Because you know what it is like, you know, once you have got the lyrics and the melodies, you can do a million different grooves, a million different guitars. But if you don’t have those things, everyone is basically just jamming, and I hate jamming. It is the one thing I will not do. Michelle: Two things I love about your voice. One, the style of writing that I love is, conversational. But also, you can literally see the emotion. It is palpable. You don’t have to imagine it. It is right there. Skin: When I work with young musicians on some of the masterclasses that I’ve done, I have always said to them, ‘What do you think is the difference between me writing a song and you writing a song?’ And they all stare at me. I say, ‘You know, the difference is me writing it. And the quality of the songwriting comes from how good you can translate what you are thinking and feeling to someone else.’ My example I always give is, I had an argument with my mother yesterday, let’s say. Actually, this is a true story. My mum was unhappy about something and I was looking at her face. She was pissed off about something. And I was looking at her and I had a thing that came into my head about it. How am I going to translate how that argument felt? Like I said, my mother wasn’t happy. But what came into my head was, my mother had no laughter lines. I was looking at her face and I was saying, ‘Where are your laughter lines? Why don’t you smile more?’ From that one thing, you have got a song. It’s that translation of what you can say and feel, and that’s what I always say to my kids.
Michelle: Did you have vocal training or did you just happen upon that particular style of singing and decide to develop it? Skin: A combination of both. I am a soprano. I can sing very high and it is easy. But I don’t have a low voice, at all. When I had training, the first thing I did when I signed my first record deal in 1994 was, I found a trainer, a tutor, and I had training on how to keep my voice because I don’t think you can train someone how to sing. You either can or you can’t. The way my physique and my body is, that is how my voice is. That is what defines my voice, just me and my body. I just used to sing all the time. I still do. I just sing, sing, sing. Before I was in the band, I would sing when I was doing the washing up, when I was in the bath, when I was walking down the street. I was just always singing. Now, I can’t do that because I am too well known, and people think, ‘Oh, there is Skin showing off.’ Michelle: How have you navigated being in the public eye like that? Skin: I used to get very frustrated because a lot of the interviewers are old white men, and I know that I make them feel uncomfortable because I am unusual and society hasn’t taught them how to deal with somebody like me. And the way that they would react is just to say that I wasn’t very good. A lot of white male journalists would just start the interviews with, ‘Female, Amazonian, 6’4, aggressive, Black, lesbian, singer of Skunk Anansie.’ It’s that stereotype of Black women. You are Black and you are sexual, or you are black and you are angry and aggressive. I just realised, the way that I used to deal with it, and I have said this a few times, was just that it is not my problem. It took me a long time to get to that position of strength, and feeling happy in myself, and shaving my hair, and feeling confident when I looked in the mirror. When I felt that people were feeling uncomfortable with that, I used to say to myself, ‘Well, it is not me making them feel anything. It is them not dealing with their issues.’ I always like to keep my shoulders clear and not have that weigh me down. I know who I am. I am not aggressive to people. I am not rude. I am certainly not 6’4”. I am 5’8”. And I am not going to be insecure and worry about all of those things. Michelle: What is your take on what’s happening in the music industry following Black Out Tuesday? Skin: I think that Black Lives Matter was the best thing that could have ever happened. I think it happened because enough was enough.
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I have seen the rise of right-wing politics in England when Brexit happened. The next day, those kinds of racist white people felt empowered. There was a change. But I think Black Lives Matter has pushed those people and that viewpoint out the window because I have been able to talk about being Black, and female, and gay, in a way, because of that movement, that I have not been able to talk about in my whole career. So, for me, I think it has been a positive thing. Of course, when anything gets to that point, there are tangents of it that I think could be detrimental to us. I think that it is important to remember that we know who is an ally and who is not an ally. We know who is racist and who is not racist. I think that there is that, especially in America, there is a portion of people that have run away with being the social justice advocate, who are actively looking for things that they think are racist, to try and bring people down. That actually is bad for us. That doesn’t help our cause. That is not what we as Black people want. We want more people to see how we feel, and more people on our side. We don’t want to destroy and condemn people and ruin careers over one comment that they made 10 years ago, or because they wore a fucking Jamaican bikini, you know. Other people in the world telling us, as Black British people, how we should feel about that. We weren’t offended. We know our Adele. We know who Adele is. Adele is not a racist person. It’s the tearing down the people and making them feel that they can’t help us and be on our side because they are so terrified of what to say and what to do that they do, so they say nothing. That’s the negative side of it. But I think overwhelmingly, it is a very positive movement. I have seen it change just in the way people have talked about me and my career and my band. I have seen a change in that people have seen which parts of it were down to racism. People used to say, ‘Yes, the band is good, I just don’t like her voice.’ If you compare Skunk Anansie’s playlists and radio play at the time to the amount of record sales that we were having to bands that were successful, the same amount of record sales. It is chalk and cheese. It’s like Viola Davis being compared as an actress to Julia Roberts. It is chalk and cheese. That is one of the ways that we don’t have the same levels. Economically and financially. Michelle: How do you see that changing? Skin: I feel that the book was perfect timing. People have taken this book and my story seriously. I wrote it with Lucy O’Brien because we wanted to have a different perspective on what was happening in the ‘90s because the only story that we were hearing was about white people in Britpop bands.
Want more? Read the extended interview with Skin at prsformusic.com/m-magazine
I would say that Goldie has been way more influential in every music scene that has followed. The world’s biggest music scenes and music genres has been influenced by jungle, and whatever, from dubstep, to two-step, to grime, to drill, you know, to normal pop music. Justin Bieber. You know, it is is all from Black music. I don’t think my book would have been received in the same way if it had come out this time last year. I feel that people are openly looking, and open to hearing Black stories, and that is because of Black Lives Matter and the whole discussion around that. I feel that is the same with a lot of Black British artists, that we were doing this stuff 20 years ago in the ‘90s. It’s only now people are appreciating those stories, and appreciating our involvement, and appreciating our contribution. Michelle: What do you want people to take from your book? Skin: That Black people can do anything. We really can do everything, anything that we want, and it is about finding your way and finding the journeys. That is not always straightforward. I want people to realise that some of the negative things that have happened in my life, I have turned them into positives. I know that is a bit of a cliché, but you can learn a lot from a negative lesson. I want people to take away that whatever you do, have some morals, have some integrity, have authenticity.
How Dizzee’s Boy In Da Corner showed me the power of UK Music By Yemi Abiade
It’s been 17 years since Dizzee Rascal released the seminal Boy In Da Corner. Following the news that Dizzee will soon be honoured with an MBE, Yemi Abiade explores what the record meant to him and how it ushered in a new era of underground Black music.
By 2003, winds of musical change were blowing in London. The halcyon days of UK garage and the champagneguzzling, Moschino-wearing, sun-kissed riddims that came with them were giving way to something darker, moodier and more fierce. A movement that would change the face of UK Black music beyond musical and cultural recognition in the years to come. For, on the streets of East London, grime was bubbling, with a new class of abrasive young upstarts, too young to attend garage raves, lighting up the underground milieu of pirate radio. Sharpening their skills and practising their best bars, this is where our legends’ careers were born. From Wiley and Kano to Lethal B and D Double E, grime’s DNA borrowed from the energy of the final days of garage - the likes of So Solid Crew, Heartless Crew and Pay As U Go Cartel - and regurgitated it back out for the then-modern London youth. From the hazy view of my council estate in Camberwell, South London, my younger incarnation was none the wiser of what was happening east of the River Thames. A relative beginner on my personal musical journey, American rap ala 2pac, Biggie, Missy Elliot and Busta Rhymes was my vice, with the sounds of UKG humming from my big sister’s room representing my first conscious venture into UK music. But a shift was coming. I was 11 years old when I witnessed a skinny young Black boy six years my elder on TV picking up an award that, unbeknown to me, was the land’s most prestigious musical accolade. I was oblivious to one Dylan ‘Dizzee Rascal’ Mills, the subject on the TV that fateful autumn evening. This changed when he picked up the 2003 Mercury Prize for his debut album, Boy In Da Corner (BIDC). Watching the video of the seminal I Luv U, Dizzee’s first single, on Channel U quickly followed, with the young upstart from Bow E3 dressed to the nines like the elders that lived on the council estate behind me. A connection was made; Dizzee was for me. In the midst of my big brother’s mammoth CD collection, littered with classic rap albums, BIDC’s enduring cover, Raskit’s rebellious seated stance, clad in all Black with two fingers protruding either side of his head, amongst a blinding yellow backdrop, hypnotised me. Without knowing the album’s significance, it felt special off of visuals alone, ground zero of grime for me. I have little memory of my first listen but, after years of reflection, I realise that BIDC spoke to me without me knowing it. Dizzee’s ability to look inward as well as outward in his storytelling, and his penchant for introspection, as a 17-year-old, was beyond my levels of understanding. But it was obvious that he was talking for people like himself, young Black boys lost in a world of anger, misunderstanding, paranoia and intolerance for those around him painting him as a menace to society. The street life he witnessed growing up in Bow, East London, the friends he had lost to that life. BIDC, in many ways, was commentary from the frontline, Dizzee the news anchor narrating the madness. The album revealed to me the intricacies of being a young Black boy in London; the slang littered throughout, the dissection of the ‘screwface’ conundrum on Stop Dat and tales like Brand New Day’s let me know the hood existed in London, that they weren’t just American problems.
As I got older, naturally, the messages started to click, and Dizzee’s power of storytelling became more poignant. Though exploring what he has witnessed in his own ends, he created a transcendent piece of art applicable to any hood not only in London, but the UK as a whole. We all have friends that have seen what Dizzee has, that can relate to losing friends, teenage pregnancies and the feeling of suffocating in your own city with no refuge. The haunting riffs that usher in album opener Sittin Here forever set this pace, but by the final track Do It, with a beat murky yet optimistic in execution, leaves hope for a brighter day, for potential to be reached. By the time I turned 21, I recognised Dizzee had done just that, right out of the gate. Listening to the album today, at the age of 28, it still sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard, 17 years and thousands of albums later. It is only with older ears and continued listening that I comprehend the intelligence of Dizzee’s lyricism throughout. On tracks like Brand New Day, Cut Em Off and Jezebel, he condenses subjects like promiscuity, stereotypical images of young Black teens and friendship-turned-rivalries that envelope all Black London youth into digestible nuggets with impeccable ease. Sittin Here is arguably the purest form of self-inspection a UK rapper has exhibited, before and after Dizzee. Meanwhile his valiant cry of ‘Fuck the glitz and glamour, hit em with the blitz and hammer,’ from Fix Up Look Sharp proves Raskit’s authenticity trumps all. He will do him, whatever the weather. His flows throughout the album are akin to a supreme tap dancer as he comfortably finds the perfect pocket for each track, keeping it fresher than a new pair of all white Air Force 1s. Production wise, that Dizzee constructed all of the beats is the equivalent of a child prodigy admitted to Oxford University at the age of 10. Standing next to other seminal grime productions of the time, like Wiley’s Eskimo, Youngstar’s Pulse X and Danny Weed’s Creeper, Dizzee arguably deviated with his fiercely experimental and layered soundscapes, but with them, he opened up grime’s sonic confines at an early stage, beyond the grimy garage and eskibeat of the time. BIDC captured a movement, a burgeoning culture, with style, finesse and an unabashed defiance that made the nation gravitate towards Dizzee. Without knowing it, he laid out a blueprint for his generation, a cohort of young upstarts we know look at as legends, icons and stalwarts of UK Black music. He was a poster child for nerdy kids like me who may have caught the tail end of UK garage’s dominance and fully immersed themselves in grime, our genesis, our entry point. But additionally, he served a sucker punch to the face of the British mainstream, now getting clued up on the new ‘urban’ sound of the day. That Dizzee became an industry darling off the strength of BIDC was decisive for just how UK Black music is seen and received today, from him all the way down to D-Block Europe. Young Black kids, all of a sudden, could become the superstars on TV that we watched across the pond, with stories that spoke to us. Quite a bit of weight to be placed on one album and artist, but its warranted. So, one time for Boy In Da Corner, an album that showed me that UK Black music could be more than just that. This piece was guest edited by Jesse Bernard.
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Image: Liz Rose Ridley
â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;For years, the incorrect assumption that alternative music is made for and by white people was held by many in the music industry and beyond. Ironic when you consider the origins of rock itself.â&#x20AC;&#x2122;
How Black British musicians continue to shape alternative music Black musicians have played an essential role in the history of alternative music yet are often overlooked in favour of their white counterparts because they don’t fit the industry standard. Today, the next generation of indie and punk bands seem far more content to create music outside of what is expected. This week’s Black History Month Guest Editor, Stephanie Phillips, explores how Black British artists have shaped the scene.
By Stephanie Phillips
From Poly Styrene’s guttural cries against conformity to the angular, biting guitar riffs of Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, the impact Black musicians have had on alternative music over the years has been immeasurable. For years, Black musicians and fans of alternative music often had to endure being the only people of colour in punk spaces, just to see their favourite band or play shows. As a punk on the London DIY scene for over a decade, most of my early show experiences were like that. Being the lone Black punk in the crowd, as well as dealing with incorrect assumptions that Black people don’t make that kind of music, has always been frustrating. In the last few years, thanks to the genreflattening effect of streaming and social media, more Black bands and musicians are making a name for themselves in alternative music and are showing what can be created outside of what is expected from Black British musicians. ‘For years, the incorrect assumption that alternative music is made for and by white people was held by many in the music industry and beyond. Ironic when you consider the origins of rock itself.’
For over a decade, the singer and guitarist Rachel Aggs has toured the world with her bands, starting Trash Kit and going on to form the post punk dance act Shopping and SAY award-winning Sacred Paws. As a mixed-race Black girl who spent her childhood in the English countryside, she was used to being one of a few queer people of colour around. Her upbringing playing folk music with her parents, awakening in riot grrrl and queercore music, and love of West African highlife, has led to the creation of her unique, buoyant guitar style rooted in Black culture. Many other musicians also refuse to be confined to one specific genre, opting instead to apply a pick and mix methodology to their creative exploration. London duo Bob Vylan mix hardcore, punk and grime on their latest EP We Live Here, the title track of which tackles the bleak reality of the everyday racism they experienced in the UK: ‘Neighbours called me n***** / Told me to go back to my own country / Said since we arrived this place has got so ugly / But this is my fucking country / And it’s never been fucking lovely.’ It’s confusing that alternative music has
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‘As Black people clamour for more diversity in their scenes and
early blues, or the reggae and ska beats that propelled the Clash and The Slits, Black music has always been shimmering heart of rock music. Though Black artists have always been creative in every genre, their legacy is often misremembered, and their approach often misunderstood. As one of the few bands with Black members in the ‘90s, Skunk Anansie were determined to express the sexism, racism and homophobia lead singer Skin experienced but were often met with both explicit and subtler forms of racism. Speaking to The Observer, Skin said: ‘Black women
artists search for new ways to platform themselves, the music industry would be wise to keep the momentum going on this unavoidable train. become synonymous with whiteness given the catharsis found in distorted guitar music is a perfect vessel to let out the unrelenting anxiety felt living in a racist society, as Bob Vylan demonstrate. For years, the incorrect assumption that alternative music is made for and by white people was held by many in the music industry and beyond. Ironic when you consider the origins of rock itself. Whether it was the guitar theatrics of Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe influencing Elvis, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton’s heavy referencing from
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Image: Olivia Rose
The band often complained of being miscategorised as soul or R&B by industry executives, unable to understand the band’s clear rock influences with their own ideas of what Black people should sound like. Today, for many Black alternative musicians very little has changed and artists still feel they are overlooked for deals and industry support because they don’t fit the mould. Speaking to Pitchfork about the struggles Black indie artists face, digital coordinator at Terrorbird, Sabrina Lomax, said: ‘Anybody who knows anything about the music industry knows that most music isn’t profitable, but there’s this sense that Black music is not valuable unless it’s profitable. It speaks to real racism in the label world because, if it was always a matter of making money, no artists would get signed.’ ‘As Black people clamour for more diversity in their scenes and artists search for new ways to platform themselves, the music industry would be wise to keep the momentum going on this unavoidable train.’ There are ways that Black people are trying to reclaim their rightful place in the genre. I’m one of the organisers of Decolonise Fest, an annual event dedicated to platforming and remembering punks of colour. Starting in 2017, the festival’s success was largely due to people of colour of all ages who were tired of feeling alone in their individual scenes and were no longer happy to settle with the liberal racism they experienced. Following on from the success of
from Tina Tuner to Grace Jones and Mel B are perceived as aggressive, overtly sexual, animalistic, panthers in cages. The industry then was owned and run by middle-aged white men. If you weren’t sexual they didn’t know what to do with you. You made them feel uncomfortable, because you weren’t playing the game.’
Afropunk in the states, the idea of a more eccentric vision of Black creativity began to resurge in the mainstream. Paired with the rising accessibility of home recordings and sites like Bandcamp that streamline the promotion and sales of a record, Black artists were able to sidestep the label route and release lo-fi punk that didn’t follow the rules of any particular genre. There are signs that Black artists are being given more of a chance to pierce through the noise. The bass-heavy rap-rock duo Nova Twins recently announced their spot at next year’s Reading festival, an event known more for the organisers’ inability to book female acts than it is for being progressive. Singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka made headlines recently when his indie rock and ‘60s soul indebted third album, Kiwanuka, won the Mercury prize. As Black people clamour for more diversity in their scenes and artists search for new ways to platform themselves, the music industry would be wise to keep the momentum going on this unavoidable train. This piece was guest edited by Stephanie Phillips.
How Jetski Wave Ushered in the Sound of the Last Decade Rahel Aklilu explores How Sneakbo’s Jetski Wave and Touch Ah Button influenced the afroswing sound that exists today Since the arrival of Generation Windrush and those beyond, Black culture has lent elements to mainstream UK consumption - sometimes involuntarily - through various mediums of fashion, culture and food but most obviously in music. More than just a medium of expression, music plays an integral part in the formation of both individual and social identity, binding people into communities such as diaspora.
Every individual, every family, with their own rich cultures and rituals, brought with them small pieces that would form the foundation of British Black culture as we know it today. Whether it was the huge Nigerian and Jamaican communities sharing their language in what linguists have dubbed ‘Multicultural London English’, a blend of everything from Jamaican Patois to Arabic. More importantly however, is the contribution to music made most significantly from West African afrobeats and Caribbean dancehall.
Looking at the trajectory of Black British mainstream, Gen-Z’ers like me will probably have foggy recollections of garage, slight semblances of early grime but more vivid memories of US hip-hop being the mainstraeam ‘urban’ sound during their formative years. Think 50 Cent, Rihanna, and so on. Of course, Channel U was a different story. If you were lucky enough to have Sky TV, you could see the likes of Shystie, Lady Sovereign, Chip and N-Dubz, and North London’s BBK, on your screens as well as in your ends. The only channel dedicated to showcasing up-andcoming UK talent without the budget for glitzy music videos - simply pure, unadulterated talent. Online, Black British music was also burgeoning and finding a place for itself. By the mid-2000s, platforms such as Linkup TV and GRM Daily were in their most premature years, with SBTV being the most established, only two years old by the time GRM was formed in 2009. Around this time, afrobeats from the likes of D’banj, Kwamz and Fuse ODG were beginning to break the mainstream and gain traction with new audiences and demographics. But then, in October 2011, one man offered to ‘show us the wave’ over Vybz Kartel’s infamous war anthem Touch Ah Button in a video filmed with his friends in his local south London neighbourhood. Things were, arguably, never the same again. It was of course, ‘Sneak-to-the-Bo’ who had already rapped over Gyptian’s Hold Yuh featuring Chrissy, flowing decisively over the six-chord piano arrangement, with the now infamous question: ‘You wanna take it to the max like Pepsi?’ The skill with which this teenager from Brixton had managed to create a uniquely distinct sound with catchy, relatable lyrics that would ring on a decade later, started a trajectory that nobody could’ve predicted. At the same time, fellow South Londoner Timbo, or Mr Ey-le-le-le was making waves with his melodic tinged rap that somehow encompassed UK rap’s typical lyrical content, but light and palatable with music videos of apartment parties, holidays and flash cars. This was UK rap without the grey grit of tower blocks, but instead over the sunny isles of Ibiza. To put it simply, the sound dubbed ‘afroswing’ took influences of everything Black. Young people took influences from the past, present and future to form a distinctly British sound derived from the music they had grown up with at home as well as at school, whether it be US hip-hop and R&B, or futuristic trap that was emerging from the likes of Future and Lil Uzi. Of the generation that took this sound and truly moulded it, none have risen higher than Newham’s J Hus and his breakout song Dem Boy Paigon which has over 11 million views with no music video. Fierce yet playful, Hus created an anthem that was perfect
for dancing to as well as rapping along to. Finally this music was commercially viable and could be played in the club. And he just carried on. Hits such as Friendly, Lean and Bop (which he made for his younger brother to listen to) and features on Stormzy’s GSAP cemented his sound and status as one of the UK’s brightest stars. The east Londoner son of Gambian and Ghanaian immigrants was peppering Nigerian pidgin over dancehall beats and rapping in a clear east London accent, unlike British stars such as Taio Cruz who had picked up an American accent by way of Brent. This sound would go on to be adopted over the years by Hus’s fellow east Londoners (and today’s charttoppers) Yxng Bane, Kojo Funds, Not3s, NSG as well as Birmingham’s Lotto Boyzz, to name a few. It was at this point, around 2015 onwards, that the sounds started to gain momentum. These young men (they were all men) would ‘break’ their songs on the University rave circuit, from Birmingham to Buckinghamshire, Liverpool to Leicester, performing to their peers and building a name for themselves. Naturally, this was when major labels start to pay attention, taking note of how palatable a subgenre this was becoming. Grime was gritty and rap was too tough and problematic with the authorities, this was ‘sweetboy’ music that seemed fun, light and easier to repackage and slot into pop. Indeed, many saw an opportunity to add an ‘edge’ to upcoming singers, see Not3s and Kojo Fund’s collaborations with the likes of Raye and Mabel after being signed, or Lotto Boyzz with girl group M.O. Here, there seemed to be a foolproof formula that would crossover into both pop and ‘urban’. Two birds, one song. The commercialisation of afroswing has continued fast and heavy, with entire playlists dedicated to the genre on major streaming platforms (although Spotify and Apple can’t agree on whether it is called afrobashment or afroswing). Brands vie for one, any one, of the young Black men from inner-cities who can hold a note to come in on a conveyor belt and be the new face of their trainers. There has never been a better time to be young, Black and talented in the music industry. However, the commodification of a popular sound has simplified it, and those swiftly signed to major labels have had to evolve into the latest darling of the mainstream, drill, to maintain relevance in a new landscape. Six years since Timbo’s catchy hook, mainstream music has finally embraced drill. Dark, gritty and fast, the appetites of the masses have changed and the same labels that scrambled to sign afroswing artists are now looking for the next young star in a balaclava. This piece was guest edited by Jesse Bernard.
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Corrine Bailey Rae
Black British female songwriters behind your favourite tracks The influence of Black female songwriters courses through the veins of the UK music industry, yet even in 2020, they have to fight for the recognition they’re owed. Here, Annique Simpson shines a spotlight the writers behind some of your favourite songs. By Annique Simpson
When it comes to making music, songwriters are often the unsung heroes. Aside from a mention in the song credits (not always a given) the authors of our favourite tunes rarely reach the limelight, whether they’d like to or not. And it’s not just their identities that are well-hidden. The lack of transparency around how to build a successful songwriting career has helped create an industry that’s mostly male and predominantly white. Female songwriters and composers currently make up less than 20 percent of PRS’ membership and those at the top of their game earn 67 percent less revenue for their music compared to their male counterparts.
This gender imbalance is no doubt worse for Black British female songwriters who, together with ethnic minority music employees, make up less than 12 percent of the industry’s workforce. But things look set to change. PRS for Music recorded a 60 percent increase in its female membership in 2019, while the music industry has pledged to better support its Black employees following this year’s global Black Lives Matter protests. To celebrate this sea change, here’s a rollcall of six UK Black female songwriters whose hits have shaped the soundtracks of our lives.
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Sade Adu Dubbed the queen of ‘quiet storm’, Sade Adu is one of the finest British female vocalists of all time. Far less discussed though is her prowess as songwriter. The lead singer of the eponymously named UK soul band co-wrote most of the group’s six studio albums, including their classic singles Your Love is King, Smooth Operator and By Your Side. Part of Adu’s magic lies in her ability to present a multifaceted vision of love that sounds current while remaining true to the band’s soulful jazz roots. For example, the band’s 2009 trip-hop single Soldier of Love, a defiant declaration of post-love resilience which she partly wrote and produced bagged the group a Grammy Award for Best R&B performance and marked a highly successful end to their then 10-year hiatus. Fans were given the chance to reconnect with Adu’s sublime penwomanship this year thanks to This Far, the band’s first complete album collection.
Carla Marie Williams Hailing from North West London, Carla Marie Williams is one of a handful of UK songwriting superstars in her own right. Williams started her career with UK pop hitmakers Xenomania where she racked up six UK top-10s, an Ivor Novello nomination and a Brit Award, writing hits for the likes of Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue and Girls Aloud.
Michelle Escoffery With a career spanning nearly 30 years, Michelle Escoffery pretty much wrote the book on how to write a hit song. The award-winning singer-songwriter was one of only two female stock writers at EMI Music Publishing in the early 2000s and has worked with some of pop’s elite, including Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and Rod Stewart. Escoffery’s best known work is the 2002 chart-topping smash Just a Little by Liberty X. The song’s naughty lyrics and edgy pop-R&B flow earned Escoffery an Ivor Novello award and saw the band take home the Best British Single award at the 2003 Brits. Still an active songwriter, Escoffery also uses her wealth of industry experience to inspire the next generation of music creators.
However, it was William’s work on Freedom, Beyonce’s thundering rally cry from her iconic Lemonade album, which catapulted her to the global stage. Beyoncé invited Williams to contribute to the project following Carla’s work on Naughty Boy’s Runnin (Lose it All) which features vocals from the US megastar. Carla now uses her platform to empower female creatives through her Girls I Rate movement which she founded in 2016.
Image: Getty Images
Marsha Ambrosius As one half of the UK neo-soul group Floetry, Liverpudlian Marsha Ambrosius wowed fans with her smooth soulful vocals and her ability to lyrically capture the complexities of love, lust and loss. During her six years with bandmate Natalie Stewart, Ambrosius co-wrote their multi-Grammy-nominated debut album Floetic and collaborated with Michael Jackson on his last studio album Invincible, co-writing and providing backing vocals for his sensual R&B ballad Butterflies. Since going solo, Ambrosius has written for Angie Stone, Alicia Keys and Solange; released three studio albums and received three more Grammy nominations – two of which were for the haunting single Far Away which details her real-life experience of losing a friend to suicide.
Corrine Bailey Rae The Leeds-based, singer-songwriter burst into the UK mainstream in 2006 after her distinctive bluesy vocals and songwriting talent saw her top the BBC’s Sounds of list. The accolade came off the back of Rae’s first single Like a Star, a floaty acoustic ballad based on one of Rae’s old flames. Her debut self-titled album proved equally as popular, topping the UK albums chart – making Rae the fourth British woman to do so – and earning Rae four Grammy nominations.
Kamille With 11 platinum singles, five UK number ones and over four billion streams to her name, former city stockbroker Camille ‘Kamille’ Purcell could be considered a songwriting unicorn. As well as working with UK chart-toppers like Jess Glynne and Dua Lipa, the multi-award-winning songwriter is also the resident writer for pop starlets Little Mix. She’s written 22 of their tracks so far – including the ultimate boy bye anthem Shout Out to my Ex – helping cement the group’s position as leaders of the Girl Power 2.0 movement.
Following her husband’s suicide in 2008, Rae took a short break from music before releasing her second album, The Sea. She has since said that writing the album helped her deal with her emotions at the time. However, her lyrics aren’t necessarily 100 percent autobiographical. ‘None of [my songs] are pages torn from a diary, which is what people think. It’s art. It’s made up,’ she recently said.
The secret to Kamille’s success? Empathy. ‘It’s often us moaning about exes... just venting. That’s my typical relationship with an artist, and it usually leads to a really good song,’ she said in a recent interview.
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Ray BLK South London singer-rapper Ray BLK (real name Rita Ekwere) was the critics’ top pick for the 2017 BBC Sounds of list, thanks to her gritty take on inner-city life. Ray’s critically-acclaimed 2016 EP Durt tackles tough social issues like teenage pregnancy (Baby Girlz), female sexual liberation (Chill Out) and the ups and downs of growing up in Catford (My Hood featuring man-of-the-moment Stormzy). Empress, Ray’s most recent project, is an encouraging letter of positive affirmation for young women, urging them to never ‘settle for less’ in the acoustic title track, and letting them know it’s okay to be fiercely independent and future-focused in the gospelinspired Got My Own and Don’t Beg. And with a recent soundtrack credit for the UK coming-of-age film ROCKS and her first studio album about to drop, Ray’s future looks all the more bright.
Caron Wheeler As the voice of the eclectic collective Soul II Soul, Caron Wheeler was instrumental in shaping the UK’s ‘90s urban music scene. Wheeler co-wrote the group’s most famous song, UK chart-topping house Back to Life (However Do You Want Me). Widely considered as one of the best dance songs of all time, the song went platinum in the US and earned the group a Grammy Award for Best R&B performance in 1990. That same year, Wheeler left the band and released her first solo album, the self-penned UK Blak. The project, which was heavily influenced by Wheeler’s African-Jamaican heritage, peaked at number 14 in the UK charts and included the top 20 single Livin in the Light.
Beverley Knight MBE Singer-songwriter Beverely Knight’s powerhouse vocals and authentic penwomanship have captivated fans for the past 25 years, landing her the title of ‘the undisputed Queen of Soul’. Her commitment to speaking her truth through her music means her catalogue – eight studio albums and over 20 solo singles to date – serves as a melodic window into her soul. Prominent examples include the MOBO Award-nominated Made it Back, her first single following her acrimonious split from Dome Records in 1997, and her fourth album Affirmation which was largely inspired by the death of a close friend. It’s an approach that clearly works. Knight currently boasts four gold certified albums, three MOBO Awards, nods from the Mercury Music Prize and Brit Awards and an MBE for services to music in 2007.
Errollyn Wallen CBE While not a household name, Belize-born composer and songwriter Errollyn Wallen is a pretty big deal in the classical world. In 1998, she became the first Black female composer to have their works performed at the BBC Proms – all the more impressive considering it was her first orchestral commission. Wallen has since had her work performed at the Royal Opera House, Wigmore Hall and the 2012 London Paralympic Games. Wallen’s lyrical work has appeared alongside songs by Björk, Sting and Elvis Costello. She’s also released three albums, Meet Me at Harold Moores, Errollyn and The Girl in My Alphabet, all of which showcase her eclectic blend of avant-garde classical music and pop-influenced songwriting.
Best known as the bass-playing frontwoman for blues-punk band Noisettes, singer-songwriter Shingai’s quirky style and frenetic performances helped the band gain notoriety on London’s live-act circuit in the early naughties. The band’s first commercial hit was the stomping disco-rock track Don’t Upset the Rhythm (Go Baby Go). Co-written by Shingai, the track shot straight to number 2 in the UK charts in 2009 and appeared on TV ads for Mazda. Shingai also co-wrote the band’s other signature song Never Forget You, a jolly ditty reminiscent of ‘50s US soul. Shingai’s recently released debut solo album, Too Bold, is more conscious and Afrocentric than her Noisettes work. From the reminder on the album’s intro track that you’re never ‘too dark, too smart, too bold’ to the lead single War Drums which explores the murky world of political warfare. Even the afro-house remix of Dennis Ferrer’s Hey Hey, which featured Shingai’s uncredited vocals, is in itself an act of defiance. But we wouldn’t expect anything less from UK rock’s shock queen.
Jin Jin Since her move to London in 2008 Janée Bennett, aka Jin Jin, has established herself as one of the UK’s premiere songwriters. Alongside her own work, including the singles Sex in the City and Fire Me Up, Janée discovered Jess Glynne while teaching a masterclass at an east London college where the emerging singer-songwriter was studying. Subsequently, Janée has co-written some of Jess’s biggest hits, including her first official single Right Here and Hold My Hand, which was a UK No.1 and also hit the Billboard Hot 100.
This piece was guest edited by Jesse Bernard.
In addition to that longstanding collaboration, she has also written for Tinie Tempah, Olly Murs, Raye, Paloma Faith and Rita Ora, to name a few. In recognition of her achievements she was nominated for Songwriter Of The Year at the Music Business Worldwide Awards 2018, and won the Music Creative Award at Music Week’s 2018 Women In Music event. She also won her second BMI award for Madison Beer’s Home With You. M Magazine | 35
Image: The Masons
Keith Harris By Mo Stewart
‘We felt there was one rule for Black artists and another for (white) pop artists. If a pop artist had a hit, radio automatically supported their next release, with airplay and exposure. That didn’t happen for Black artists.’
Keith Harris OBE is the epitome of an unsung hero. He won’t register high on Google searches, but has fingerprints on some of the most influential moments in Black music history; developing the biggest names in Motown, overcoming racism within the industry that sought to keep Black faces from positions of authority, building a framework for talented Black British artists shut out of the mainstream, creating a music degree at The University of Westminster for youngsters seeking a way into the industry, and working with PPL to make sure all artists are properly paid. A dreamer from Wigan who became general manager of Motown Records, Harris went on to manage Stevie Wonder, Junior Giscombe, Omar and the late Lynden David Hall. 20 minutes easily became 80 in the company of this humble, affable man, who mentions luck so many times it’s clear he doesn’t see himself as a hero. It’s the only time we disagree. Mo : You dabbled in music as a teenager in Wigan, but how important were those first experiences of working with artists and building industry relationships at university in Dundee? Keith: I’d been fascinated by the world of pop music since the age of nine or 10. I’d realised by the time I was 20 that I didn’t have the talent to make it, so I needed to find another way into the business. Becoming entertainment convenor in Dundee was perfect, as in those days the university circuit was very important for bands. I would regularly book bands like Yes, Supertramp and Thin Lizzy, who all went on to global success. Many people doing my job at unis around the country used it as an entry point into the music business, like (Dire Straits manager) Ed Bicknell and (Live Aid promoter) Harvey Goldsmith. MS: After a year in Radio promotions for Transatlantic records, you were given the chance to work for Motown. KH: Transatlantic was a great learning curve. They had an eclectic mix of artists which matched my own tastes, and
it was at the embryonic stage of commercial radio, so it was all new and exciting. Despite a successful year, it was made clear to me that there was no chance for progression, so I walked down the road to EMI. I spoke to the general manager of their Motown arm, who was impressed enough to offer me a job. Almost as an afterthought he said, ‘You should probably meet the people at Motown International, they’re based in London’. I had what I thought was a great chat with Ken East, handed in my notice at Transatlantic and went on holiday for two weeks. When I returned, the Motown job was no longer available. I heard much later from others within the company that Ken East had made it known that he didn’t want a black man working at Motown. Mo: At Motown? Even considering the more overt racism of that era, that’s still shocking. How did you react? Keith: What could I do? There was nothing I could say that would change their mind. They found me a position working for other subsidiaries, and I got my head down. I developed a reputation as someone with good connections at Radio 1, which led to me working on Elton John’s promo campaign for Blue Moves. At the launch party, I happened to get into a conversation with Ken East’s wife, who found me a charming young man. Lo and behold the next day I was told he’d ‘made a mistake’ and got moved to Motown. Mo: While at Motown, you promoted some of the biggest artists of all time: Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, The Commodores, and of course Stevie Wonder. Things are great, until the position of general manager comes up… Keith: The managing director called me into his office and told me not to bother applying. Despite the fact that ‘some would say you are the natural choice’. He said I didn’t have the experience, which was true. A month later, he offered me the job, as they hadn’t found anyone else. Three months into the job, I’m called in again. ‘We’ve found someone to take over (a white man), but he’s not got much experience as a general manager. Can you help
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‘I had to ask myself ‘Do I want to be known as ‘Stevie’s man’, or do I want to carve a niche of my own?’’ him out (while being demoted back to promotions) as he’s settling in?’ I almost had to laugh. Mo: By this point it became clear to you that in the UK at least, there was no progression for Black people in the record industry. Did this make it an easier decision to move to the States to work with Stevie? Keith: In a way I was lucky that it was so overt. Racism is often more subtle, you don’t really get the message and it causes you to waste time. I met Stevie in 1977 when he and Yolanda needed someone to show him around London. We were a year apart in age, and really hit it off. He asked me to come work for him then, but I took it with a pinch of salt, as I’d heard it from American artists before. Once he went back to the States, we’d talk regularly on the phone, and he’d mention it every time. Being honest, I was scared. America was a long way away in those days, and all we knew from over here was that it was a tough place for Black people. But after that second direct snub, I took the leap and called him up. Mo: The American music industry certainly hadn’t eradicated racism, but it was a world where Black people had power, particularly at a label like Motown, and particularly for an artist like Stevie. It must have been a welcome change. Keith: Berry Gordy was a visionary in a lot of ways. Not only as a songwriter and a businessman, but he truly believed in the right person for the right job. As well as Black people, there were a lot of women in senior positions at Motown, which just didn’t happen in those days. He, and Smokey and Stevie laid the foundation for so much that followed. Mo: You spent four years as part of Stevie’s inner circle, a period of great critical and commercial success. I’m sure we could fill an entire article with Stevie stories, but I wanted to ask you about something your niece Remi (Harris MBE) mentioned. You were involved in the campaign to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday, and the global smash it produced in Happy Birthday. What was it like to be part of such a historic moment? Keith: Having Stevie on my arm, quite literally a lot of the time, gave me access to the highest tier of Black American society. It was an amazing learning experience. I remember when he called me to say he’d had the idea to resurrect the MLK campaign, I thought it was a great idea but I didn’t expect him to then ask me to help organise it!
The next year and a half was dedicated to strategising, alongside Ewart Abner (former Motown president and part of Stevie’s circle), Rev. Jesse Jackson and Martin’s wife Coretta Scott King. I didn’t have time to think about the historical impact of travelling to DC for meetings, or being in the presence of such great people, but I do remember advising him to use the inner sleeve of the vinyl to spread the central message. Alongside a picture of Martin, and of the civil rights riots, there’s a real call to arms, in a similar vein to Martin’s speeches (that featured on the B side). In any campaign for equality, you need allies. Getting Black and white people together was very important, and Stevie’s fans cross all sections of society, so there was no better method. That message was the centrepiece of the campaign, and I’m proud to say that I helped create it. Mo: What was the catalyst to leave the States and come home to start your own management company? Keith: By this point I’d become central to Stevie’s operations, but I had to ask myself ‘Do I want to be known as ‘Stevie’s man’, or do I want to carve a niche of my own?’ I wanted to see if I could use what I’d learned to have an influence in the UK, which was still my home. I served my notice with Stevie and came back on Christmas Day 1981. I don’t think anyone had left him before, so he was quite shocked. Luckily, we have a strong friendship and I still work with him whenever he’s in Britain. I didn’t have anything planned, but I was willing to go back to square one to start something of my own. Mo: The UK in the ‘80s was a real struggle for Black British artists. I’ve heard you discuss previously about building a Black economy, based around pirate radio, independent shops and live events. Talk to me about that experience. Keith: Back then we felt there was one rule for Black artists and another for (white) pop artists. If a pop artist had a hit, radio automatically supported their next release, with airplay and exposure. That didn’t happen for Black artists. We’d release a record and no matter how good it was or how well it did, we’d be back to square one. This was alongside the ‘one at a time’ policy, if there was already a UK R&B group, or Black female singer, there couldn’t be another one. It was a huge frustration because talent-wise, we were at least the equal of those pop artists, but no one was listening. Erskine Thompson had been working at building that platform for Black artists long before I arrived, and he taught a lot of us how to do it. He was a DJ on BRMB but also worked for Island records and had the connections to bring it all together. There was also Wilf Walker - the first Black promoter - and the British Black Music Association, run by Root Jackson & Byron Lye-Fook (Omar’s father) who built a Black music network, and ran seminars for Black people in the industry. I spoke at a lot of those, and
they were so important in giving people the knowledge to build a business, beyond the low-level street hustles. Mo: I Imagine that was an influence when you were asked in 1991 to write the Commercial music degree at the University of Westminster. How did that opportunity come about? Keith: The course had already run for a year, but was taught by people from Harrow business school, who didn’t really know the music business! They invited me to rewrite the course, and I taught there for 16 years. It was important to me, because for years what I heard about the lack of Black people working in the industry was ‘If there were people who were qualified, then we might be able to employ them’. However, until then there wasn’t anywhere to earn those qualifications. At Westminster we had a high percentage of minority students, which enabled me to give these kids the tools to succeed, and many of them did. And it wasn’t just about the Black students - the white students were being taught by a Black lecturer, which helps to reshape people’s perspectives about Black people holding senior roles. Mo: Your desire to share your knowledge with the next generation has continued at home. You have two sons in the business, as well as your niece and nephew. What’s been the biggest change in the challenges they face compared to the ‘80s? Keith: I’d say they were teaching me! We’re in a new business now, and it’s ‘adapt or die’, so it’s important that I learn from their experiences. My son Hamish in particular, as he’s working for September Management (Adele, Rick Rubin, London Grammar) at the very top level. The biggest change is that management now is central to everything. When I started it was the record company, managers are the ones that generate the heat, from social media to brand partnerships. They are the ones that really build careers. Record companies have always brought the finance, but the managers drive the industry now.
‘I wanted to encourage people across the industry to really think about what they’re doing, and I’ve been impressed by how willing most have been to embrace it. It’s the first time in all these years that I’ve been properly optimistic that things are going to change.’ Mo: After the recent Blackout Tuesday campaign, you wrote an open letter imploring the industry to use this as a step to tangible change, citing your experiences of the lack of opportunities in senior management for Black people. As someone who has been part of countless projects that has sought to redress this balance, such as MusicTank, and the Equality and Diversity Taskforce, what needs to happen to make the movement a real turning point? Keith: That was another example of being taught by my children. They suggested writing something, but initially it felt self-serving - like I was using an important cause to get a leg up. They said ‘Dad you’re nearly 70, you’ve been in the business 40 years - it would be weird if anyone thought you were trying to get a leg up now!’ That changed my perspective, and made me think ‘If not me, then who?’ I wanted to encourage people across the industry to really think about what they’re doing, and I’ve been impressed by how willing most have been to embrace it. It’s the first time in all these years that I’ve been properly optimistic that things are going to change. This piece was guest edited by Ben Wynter.
The story of Split Mic: A UK hip-hop classic London MC, rapper and songwriter Isatta Sheriff takes a deep dive into how one of UK hip-hopâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s seminal projects, Split Mic, was made.
Anyone who appeared on this mixtape could tell their version of events, some better than others. As one of the three female rappers who appeared on the Split Mic mixtape, this is my perspective. It was a defining moment that demonstrated the obvious influence that the US mixtape scene had on Black underground music in London in the mid-2000s. We were fans of jungle, garage, eski, hip-hop and everything else that we absorbed from our local communities. There were five female artists who appeared alongside thirtyseven male acts, and it would be crowned Mixtape of the Year at the Underground Music Awards (UMAs). In this unique moment, MCs with gritty flows, normally reserved for eski beats at 140bpm, downloaded their favourite rap instrumentals from Limewire and altered their rhyme schemes to reveal a range of musical influences. The Bow MC All In One (from the Wolfpack crew), dropped the perfect example of this crossover. A handful of rappers used original productions and there were also hints of a homegrown electronic hip-hop sound. The team was Alec and Alex Boateng (Twin B’s), DJ Crisis (DJ Hains), Tim Dog (Tim and Barry) and Juice, who was the only member of the team that lived in south east London. The other organisers all lived in east London and recruited MCs from E1 to E7. The twins had strong links across the river so our extended community was vast. Lethal (now Harry Shotta) and Destruction were the only act from outside London to appear on the mixtape. Some people recorded their freestyles and handed them over on a CD along with a phone voicemail message promoting the mixtape. The additional idents were recorded at my house in Stepney and DJ Wonder’s house in Bethnal Green. One night, we drove to Boundary Road in Walthamstow to meet Lethal B who pulled up beside us with Fumin’ leaning back in the passenger seat. He passed us a CD through both car windows which contained a freestyle from each member of the More Fire Crew. Lethal B’s freestyle was noticed by some major labels and was eventually reworked to be his first single on his first solo album, released by Virgin EMI. Durtty Doogz fired off a socially conscious message over Ludacris’ Act a Fool beat demanding that kids ‘go back to school, blaaaaaad’, while TY, one of the biggest rappers on the CD, dropped a witty freestyle on another Ludacris instrumental Stand Up. Alec recalls: ‘He came to meet me with his freestyle; I couldn’t believe it. He was TY. He was a big name and he made an effort to meet this kid from east London for an unknown mixtape.’ The US accent was beginning to fade but South London rappers Street Politics, Iceberg Slim and SAS showed traces were still present. SAS decided to flip the script and rap on Eskimo chanting: ‘We dem rapper dudes on them garage tunes.’ Early UK hip-hop crews had been preaching this message since the ‘90s, but it was during this period that a new generation of MCs began to heed the message and hardly anyone rapped with an American accent. MC Harvey from the award-winning So Solid Crew blasted Iceberg Slim for using a US accent and also managed to start online beef with RWD Magazine in the process. Blog style posts flew back and forth on Myspace between MC Harvey and the online publication. A week before I had told Harvey about the mixtape and three days later, he met me
‘this project wasn’t about polished mixes, marketing or artwork, it was about hearing ourselves’ and Alec in a petrol station in Hendon with a freestyle that he had recorded in the morning. UK MCs must have a thing about starting online wars in petrol stations. What was happening in East London wasn’t referred to as grime but it definitely wasn’t garage. Wot Do U Call It by Wiley dropped in the same year (2004) and Split Mic was a window into the changing musical landscape. Klashnekoff submitted an unreleased demo which was one of the few original productions to appear on the project. During this period UK hip-hop acts began to collaborate with garage MCs and two years later, Klashnekoff featured on a remix for Kano’s single Sometimes. The lines between underground scenes were more defined before this and the collaboration was a sign of things to come - 3 Wheel Ups anyone? splitmics2 The influence of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony could be heard in my offering and D Double E was pensive as he reflected on the birth of his daughter in a special moment over a Mobb Deep’s Quiet Storm. A session was held in Brick Lane where MCs could drop a verse without having to organise studio time. Kano was one of the standout MCs on the day and DJ Semtex played What Have You Done the next day on BBC 1Xtra as we all celebrated. Kano spent most that session writing an additional verse in the corner for a freestyle that he and Demon would record together. The outro by Juice summarised the tensions surrounding our community as young Black MCs. He rapped: ‘MCs are quick to spit with the venom, that was grafted on hip-hop, garage and ragga riddims, tried to limit us, box us, class it as urban, all they do is fuel the fire that’s churning, rise up young buck collect what you earn’. It was a scene that was ready to burst. Tim and Barry took press shots at TNT’s studio in Bow, we appeared in I-D magazine and New Nation. 500 CDs were sold for £5 each and DJ Charlesy (brother of DJ Crisis) uploaded the mixtape to YouTube six years later. ‘That type of moment could never happen today’, says Alex Boeteng. ‘Streaming services would take it down and people don’t really socialise or create music in the same way. Look at the names on the mixtape and the fun they had, it’s mad.’ Soon after, Alec was scouted by Ministry Of Sound as an A&R and presented a show on BBC 1Xtra. Alex co-founded the music PR company Angles before being scouted by Universal Music. Some called it Split Mics instead of Split Mic. Some referred to it as a mixtape while others called it a mix CD. There were never any corrections because it didn’t matter. The mic levels were all over the place and some of the mixes were flat, but this project wasn’t about polished mixes, marketing or artwork, it was about hearing ourselves. This piece was guest edited by Jesse Bernard.
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C A R L A M A R I E WILLIAMS ‘We’ve got to work harder, you know. We haven’t got time for excuses, because if we’re going to really sit at these tables and really say we’re adding value, then we’ve got to add value for real, not just because we’re women and we’re of colour.’
By Michelle Escoffery Carla Marie Williams has written hits for some of the world’s biggest artists, from Kylie to Girls Aloud, The Saturdays, Alesha Dixon and even Britney Spears. The founder of Girls I Rate, a movement that pushes for change and creates opportunities for young women in creative industries, Carla Marie uses her experience and wisdom to develop and empower the next generation. Guest Editor Michelle Escoffery caught up with Carla to talk about launching Girls I Rate, taking up the space as a Black woman in the industry and overcoming barriers. Michelle: I wanted to speak to you regarding your journey, and just how you came to create Girls I Rate, and why you felt that was necessary. But let’s start with your connection to music, and what brought you into the music industry? Carla Marie: My mum started working at this community gathering place called Bridge Park Complex in Stonebridge. Back in the day, everybody did singing classes there. A man called Stephen Cole used to teach singing to the olders in the area and I told my mum I wanted to have lessons. She was like, ‘Okay, and go and ask.’ He kind of took me under his wing, took me to Italia Conti, and during the six-week holidays, to the classes that he was teaching.
Whilst doing that, I saw an article in The Voice about a competition called ‘Hal Jackson’s Talented Teens’. You could win the chance to go to America to sing in the Apollo in Harlem and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s me. That’s me.’ I ended up winning the competition and actually performed at the Apollo. I lost one of my shoes, so I couldn’t wear one of my outfits and lost points, but I still came in the top 10. I started college when I got back from America and I went for an audition at Italia Conti to join a girl group. I sang for this man at The Dorchester, and he ended up being the manager of Wet Wet Wet. He loved my voice and asked me to join the group. So, I told my parents and they were like, ‘Who’s this man now?’ I said, ‘It’s this thing. They want me to go to Scotland to live.’ They were like, ‘Scotland?’ I was only 16. So they flew my mum and dad over to see where we were going to live. He lives in a penthouse, so my mum and that saw it. My mum was quite a strict Jamaican. She didn’t really believe in music like that. It was like, ‘Learn your book, and then you can do music.’ Michelle: Do you agree that diversity isn’t just about gender or race or disability; it’s also about background and class and where you come from? Carla Marie: 150 percent. You know that saying, ‘You can take
â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;Always being one of the few Black women sitting at many tables, again, is that a choice, or are they only letting one or two of us at the table?â&#x20AC;&#x2122;
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the girl out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the girl?’ All those things that I went through in my journey, going to my music classes and my mum not even being able to afford it, knowing I had talent, but couldn’t afford it. Also didn’t even advocate for it. It’s just having that raw talent and just keeping going, trying to find the opportunity. I feel like if I had it all given to me, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Michelle: When do you feel like you started making waves? Carla Marie: To be fair, when I joined the group, I was 16. I got my first writing break at 26. It took years, but it happened in a very big way. When I was 20, I met Brian Higgins. He ran Xenomania who did all the songs for Girls Aloud. But the way I wrote was so organic, when I went down and saw this massive house and heard the pop songs they were making, I was just like, ‘No, this is not for me.’ So I didn’t really follow that up. But he remembered me, and six years later, he called my lawyer, ‘What happened to that girl that you sent down? Tell her to call me.’ By then, obviously, nothing was really going on. I was doing my own album, but I’d gone back to study youth work. He called me and said, ‘Come down. I want to meet you.’ When I got there just put a mic in front of me, put on the tracks and pressed ‘Record’ on a Dictaphone. Then I looked around and saw the 10 acres of land – not 20 anymore, but 26 – thinking, ‘I need to get some of this shit. ’I just sang my heart out, and the lyrics just started coming.
I started a girl group, and it went into a major label, and it all collapsed and fell, really badly, on its face and went terribly wrong. I didn’t have any management or a team, and I felt really isolated and alienated during that time. I was like, ‘Wow, I wonder if there are any other women who felt like me.’ I was surrounded by men, and I was, sometimes, spoken to in really condescending ways. I felt compelled, after that situation, to really start having a voice. But it took me a long time to get it off the ground. I tried a few times, and it just didn’t happen. Then all the stuff started happening in America, with Beyoncé stuff and Britney. I was coming up against the same obstacles again. The higher up you go, the less of a voice you have. I was like, ‘Screw it.’ I went to sit with a PR, to say to her, ‘I’m in America. I don’t have a website or Wikipedia with all my work that I’ve done over the years. Can you help me?’ She was like, ‘Cool.’ I told her about my career, up to that point. ‘But I’ve also got this thing called Girls I Rate that I want to launch in March, next year, for International Women’s Month.’ So, she then helped me launch it in 2016, saying, ‘Beyoncé songwriter launches initiative to help women in the industry, Girls I Rate.’
In that kind of environment, as well, it was all white people. My approach to melodies was different. He was just gassed. He was like, ‘I really want a Black girl in my team.’ He was just vocal about it.
Michelle: What have been your barriers to entry with Girls I Rate? Carla Marie: I think the biggest challenge is just getting the funding. Also, there are just so many people doing the same thing now. Initially, I wanted it to be inclusive of all these 100 women that came on board and we’d all work together. But I realised we aren’t, as women, even set out like that. We’ve still got our own obstacles to overcome when it comes to collaboration. We don’t like to do it.
I ended up getting the job. That year, I think I had my first release with Girls Aloud, or three releases. Then, within two-and-a-half years of working there, I had six top tens. Then one of our songs won a Brit Award – The Promise.
When I came from Xenomania, I was still the only Black person in that building, and I was let in. I felt my difference was why I should be at the table. I’ve always thought that. I’ve never even tried to assimilate to be anything different.
Michelle: How did you come about creating Girls I Rate? Why did you think it necessary to create that platform? Carla Marie: After spending two and-a-half years at the production house, I had bigger ambitions. I wanted to manage and develop my own girl group that was like a UK TLC. I wanted to be like the people who helped me.
So, ‘Do we not feel, as Black women, sometimes, that we should be there? Do we even try hard enough?’ I don’t know.
Photo: Jenny McCord
Michelle: Yes. I’ve found that, over the years, there has been a huge imposter syndrome, even for myself. If I speak for myself, in terms of sitting on the PRS board, I was approached three years before I even sat on the board, by Paulette Long. I just thought ‘How does that relate to me? What contribution can I make?’ I think, sometimes, we get into these spaces where, like you said, we talk ourselves out of it. Representation is everything, so if there’s no-one there that looks like you, you think, ‘I shouldn’t be there.’
Want more? Read the extended interview with Carla Marie Williams at prsformusic.com/m-magazine (L-R) Amaria, Carla Marie Williams, Paigey Cakey, Ellie Prohan at GIR x PRS Presents March 2019
‘I can innovate. I can inspire. I have the vision for songs and sounds, and I The lesson that I’m learning is to encourage other women of colour and other Black women to say, ‘You have got something to contribute. Your ideas are so valid. Your experience is so valid. Carla Marie: Do you find that there’s collaboration between the Black community in music? With women? Michelle: No, I think there’s a lack of it. Sometimes, it’s really hard. Because the industry is male dominated, it’s even hard to find the women. I think, sometimes, it’s that idea of, ‘Well, there can only be one,’ or, ‘There can only be two at a time.’ So when there is one there, sometimes, they don’t want to share that space with another woman. They are the things that we have to break down, because we’re so much stronger together. Carla Marie: Yes, that’s the mentality that I’ve been searching for four years but I don’t think I’ve got it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to say I’m the easiest person, but I’m just the way I am, because I’ve been battered in this thing, hard. Sometimes, when women come, I’m like, ‘We’ve got to work harder, you know. We haven’t got time for excuses, because if we’re going to really sit at these tables and really say we’re adding value, then we’ve got to add value for real, not just because we’re women and we’re of colour.’ Michelle: So how would you change it? How do you see it changing? Carla Marie: If I’m being really honest, I’ve kind of semi given up on it, in terms of women of our age group or around our age group. I feel like that’s a battle that is just going to have to figure itself out. You see how you and me are talking now. I’ve known of you forever, and you’ve probably known of me, but we’ve just never found our way into conversation. But we have now. It’s like, ‘Actually, do you know what? I’ve been knowing her. She’s from where I’m from. She knows my people.’ It becomes natural. But what I am working on is the younger girls. That’s why I do the girls 16 to 30, so I’ve got the GIR Black girls. We have Zoom calls, and I’m re-educating them, and I encourage them to do link-ups and meet up in groups, have conversations. I feel like it’s the future generation that I can help to change their mentality and the way they look at working with each other. Michelle: Where will Girls I Rate be in five years?’ Carla Marie: I want to take it to an international scale. To push Black girls who were like me forward. I became a Keychange ambassador, because I believe that there should be change in festivals, within radio, and mentorship, especially for Black women. I’m trying to now say, ‘We want this in a global scale, within the Caribbean, within Africa, in places where our culture and music exists. But women still are the minority, even there.’ Also, I feel like, for Black women who from the UK diaspora, when we come home, we’re different, and we feel different. We feel empowered and we feel loved.
can tell you, from A to Z, what a song should sound like.’ The fact that we were a British colony, there is some synergy there, and that needs to be addressed. Organisations like PRS and PRSS, the British Council, all these companies now need to get behind giving full hours and doing cultural exchanges for women like us. Do you get what I mean? Michelle: Absolutely. Carla Marie: Yes. You know when you come to your family or you go to Jamaica, you’re like, ‘Yes, man. They are happy.’ Imagine doing music where you’re from, where your family is from. You’ve worked with Liberty X and I’ve worked with Girls Aloud. But that’s not our music. I used to come home and my mum’s saying to me, ‘What kind of music do they have you writing down here?’ Now, if I can give myself and other people opportunities to write music that we listen to in our homes and on our radios, and we don’t feel like we just have to write music in white spaces, for white spaces, that’s where I’m at right now. I know, when I speak to these young girls, they’re so gassed about even thinking that it’s okay. It’s got better in the UK, obviously, with the afro scene and whatever, but it’s still male dominated, and the girls are still few and far between. Michelle: So, what’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learnt on your journey so far? Carla Marie: I feel like my biggest lesson and one of my biggest breaks was, when we wrote Runnin, we didn’t write it for anyone. I wasn’t trying to pitch; I just wrote a song that was with my friend, and we wrote it about us. It was heard by the powers that be, and then it ended up with Beyoncé. Not always trying to chase, but going away and creating things you love, that can get you to places that you love. Michelle: I hear you. Alright, last question: what do you want your legacy to be, Carla Marie Williams? Carla Marie: Oh my God. Okay, my pinnacle is, obviously, music. I want to be known to be a writer and a producer. I’m a backseat producer though, I don’t think I’m going to touch buttons any time soon. But I definitely know what I like. I can innovate. I can inspire. I have the vision for songs and sounds, and I can tell you, from A to Z, what a song should sound like. Alongside that, social changes. I want to be known as someone who was always pushing for social changes for women, especially, Black women, like me. I had Black people, but they weren’t my mentors. All my mentors were white men. All my opportunities came from white men. So I’m happy, here, that I look like some of the girls who are like, ‘If you did it, I can do it.’ That’s what I love, being that person.
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BUR NA BOY Image credit - Nicolas Geradin
Spotlight: Burna Boy Following the release of his Real Life video, not to mention a killer couple of years, we’re shining a spotlight on Burna Boy. By Sam Ilori They’ve hailed him as the Fela Kuti of our generation and the giant taking over the nation of Africa, so it’s only right that we find out who Burna Boy is, right? Burna Boy’s third studio album Outside was released in January 2018 and peaked at No. 3 on the US Reggae Album Chart (Billboard). Featuring the likes of Mabel, J Hus and Lily Allen, Burna Boy, the Nigerian star has left a trail of fire in his path. In July 2019, he followed up with the album African Giant which featured the likes of Damien Marley, Jorja Smith and Angelique Kidjo. His most recent offering, Twice as Tall (referencing African Giant), saw features from the likes of Stormzy and Chris Martin and was exec-produced by P.Diddy. Who? Burna Boy. What? Afro-fusion: a genre that blends afrobeat, dancehall riddims, reggae, American rap and R&B. From where? Port Harcourt, Nigeria. What’s the story? Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu (born 2 July 1991), known professionally as Burna Boy, is a Nigerian singer songwriter who rose to prominence in 2012 following the release his single Like to Party.
worked as a translator. His grandfather Benson Idonije once managed the late great Fela Kuti which played a substantial role in Burna Boy becoming who he is today. His mother Bose Ogulu would later become his manager and still holds that position to date. Over the course of his career, Burna has racked up a number of collaborations which include working with global superstars such as Ed Sheeran, Dave and more recently Sam Smith. A man of very few words, he lets the music do the talking, and it does so in an electrifying way. This has been proven through his sold-out concerts at both the Brixton O2 (2018) and Wembley SSE Arena (2019), as well as his streaming numbers on various DSPs reaching the tens of millions. The future is extremely bright for the Nigeria-born phenomenon and it doesn’t look like the flame within Burna Boy will be burning out anytime soon. Sounds like? A strong and confident vocalist who’s comfortable demonstrating range and rifts at will. Predicted to? Make you shake your shoulders like you’re in - 30-degree weather. Must hear? Ye, Wonderful, JA ARE E and On the Low.
Growing up in southern Nigeria, his father managed a welding company and his mother
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Shaznay At that young age and with that much success, trying to separate and differentiate our friendship and our business relationship was just too much. Our journey has been rocky but we understand totally now that our friendship comes first. I wish that somebody had said to us back then.
By Michelle Escoffery
Shaznay Lewis is a Brit Award and Ivor Novello Award-winning singer songwriter and one of the founding members of girl group All Saints. The band had five number ones, released two studio albums and won two Brit Awards before splitting in 2001. 17 years later, the four-piece reunited and have since released what Shaznay would describe as her most creatively rich work to date. Guest Editor Michelle Escoffery, who has collaborated with All Saints, talks openly with Shaznay about her musical journey, what success looks like and how she maintained her sense of self. Michelle: What was your journey into the music business? Shaznay: As a teenager I used to go to our local youth club a lot. I used to make music; I learnt to play the drums and learnt to put tracks together and I kind of ended up being friends with other aspiring musicians. I was in a group with a friend from school actually. We used to make demos together at our youth club and then enter teenage competitions from radio.
Shaznay: I used to do tracks with Robert. Then, by chance, I was out one night with a friend and we went to a party in Leicester Square. I was quite shy at the time. I went around with my rucksack with my lyrics in and my tapes, but in my mind, all I was doing was what I enjoyed doing. I knew I wanted to make music. I never approached people. Me and my friend who was quite ballsy went to this party and Ben from Curiosity Killed the Cat was DJing there. Ron Tom happened to be there with him and my friend just bowled up to Ben and Ron and was like, ‘My friend is a singer and she writes music.’ Ron was like, ‘Oh yeah, really? Okay come back to our studio in West London,’ and we went. When I think about this now, if my daughter went back to somebody’s studio late at night... It would just never happen. We went back there and they just put instrumentals on and they were like, ‘Okay, sing over this. Write over that.’ I then went back the next day and that’s where I met [Melanie Blatt].
I later became friends with Rodney C from the original Double Trouble, the American rapper. He used to be married to Faith Evans. He was doing a lot of stuff with Choice FM. After that I started doing tracks with, do you remember The Boogie Bunch?
Michelle: What do you think the biggest challenges? Shaznay: One of my biggest would have been when Mel and I first signed as a three-piece along with another girl, Simone Rainford, as All Saints. We signed to ZTT and I was still at college studying business and I suddenly got offered this record deal with Mel. So, I left college and started the band.
Michelle: Oh yes. I was a Boogie Bunch girl. Who were you doing tracks with?
At the time it was like, ‘Oh my God, wow, okay. I’ve got a deal, wow this is really happening.’ The graft didn’t seem too hard.
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‘Back then it was more success but, I feel, less quality in what we were doing. Whereas now, it’s less
I went from Robert to Ron Tom to suddenly signing with ZTT. So, that was all great. I think when we did our first single Let’s Get Started and then we were just about to do I Know Where It’s At, and then we got dropped. That was probably really hard, as it would be at that age. Up until that point I had tunnel vision and definitely knew what I was doing. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, but all I knew is that was what I was doing.
Michelle: Yes, so it’s almost like you couldn’t feel the success of the song and what was really happening because you were still mourning that relationship. Did you ever experience writer’s block, and if you did, how did you navigate that? Shaznay: I would say I probably had writer’s block when I did my own solo record, but not so much on the All Saints stuff. With the second All Saints album it was just that typical, ‘Okay, the first album was a hit and we needed to go in now with another album,’ which is in the middle of doing all this other stuff. We wrote most of the first album unsigned. So, in that period after being dropped by ZTT and writing with Karl, we’d got our sound together and we’d got our shit together. We had established a body of work and a feel.
Michelle: Did that affect your writing? Shaznay: It probably enhanced it. At the time when the three of us were with Ron, we did a cover of Silver Shadow. All three of us, myself, Melanie and Simone, were working individually with Ron. In the end when Ron Tom tried to get us individual deals at ZTT, it was ZTT that said, ‘Why don’t you just ask the girls to work together?’
So, when we got signed by London Records we’d done most of the album. I think it’s vital that any artist creates their sound or writes their material away from that kind of pressure. When the second album came about, we’re already established, we’re travelling, we’re doing promo and we’re on a different plane every single day. Then, because the first album did well, you’ve then got the added pressure of A&Rs wanting you to replicate that.
We’d only just started to work together and we were already signed. There was no time to establish ourselves as a sound collectively and cohesively as a band.
I didn’t have writer’s block, but what I personally feel is that my writing was a lot more throwaway, I was just more concerned, probably, with just pleasing them in terms of being able to come up with it. ‘You asked me to do it. I can do it. You’ve spent loads of money. You’re asking me to do it. I can do it.’ There are a few songs on there that are great. I feel that, for me as a writer, I actually feel that’s probably my weakest album.
successful, but I prefer the quality in what we’re doing, we all do.’
Just before we got dropped we were introduced to Karl, K-Gee. Simone always, God rest her soul, I think out of the three of us, was always on the fence about being in a band. I think she always saw herself as a solo artist. She was vocally so strong and I could understand that. She went off and did her own thing, but Mel and I stuck together. That’s when I probably started really writing. It allowed me to put a commercial top line on top, but still quite cool. Karl and I we gave each other what we both needed. Then, I got this backing track from a manager that was looking after Mel and I at the time, which was just the piano chords for Never Ever. At that time, I had my first teenage relationship and was heartbroken, so it was perfect timing to suddenly realise just what a broken heart can produce. It’s so funny, because when I look back and think about that now, although it’s a great song and it resonates with people, but if I think about the situation or how I felt, now I just think, ‘Oh my God. You were that sad over a guy at that age.’ Michelle: When you are younger your feelings are so amplified. Shaznay: Oh my goodness. ’This is it. It’s the end. It’s the end.’ It really was the end. Even through the highs of the success of that song I was still quite sad. Do you know what I mean?
Michelle: How did you deal with success, because everybody wants a piece of you when you’re successful? Shaznay: I feel like I dealt with it quite well because I moved with the same group of people that I moved with before. So, my best friend, we grew up together, and she was always there. As you know, in this industry you can get a lot of people that just tell you what you want to hear. I’m not like that. I feed off honesty because I can work with that, and I can check myself. I couldn’t be fake Shaz because I couldn’t keep that up. All I’ve had to learn is to be aware that, sometimes, no matter how shy I may be feeling or anything like that, I just be a bit more forthcoming at times. I’m old now, so I’ve learnt that. Michelle: Would have done anything differently? Shaznay: Going back to what I said about how I personally felt about our second album, I would definitely have taken time to not be caught up so much in the fame side of things. I wish I could have gone back to the same scenario as I was in when writing for the first album, which was just quiet, instead of jumping on planes here, there and everywhere. That’s probably one thing I would change.
I know that for a fact, because even when the girls and I came back and wrote our last two albums, I feel that’s the best work I’ve ever done. Although they’re not as successful because we’re in a different time and a different climate, different stages in our lives. It feels more rich and it feels more of a success to me, personally, from a creative point of view.
It makes me feel great. I didn’t go to university and I didn’t do anything. Things like The Ivors, you know, that for me is my passion and it makes it all worthwhile. This is my graduation, and this is my everything in terms of learning and education. I feel so blessed to still be writing and still love what I’m doing, still working with talented people that teach me.
From a band perspective, the girls and I were all friends first and foremost before working. Our journey going like this was very much due to our personal relationships. At that young age and with that much success, trying to separate and differentiate our friendship and our business relationship was just too much. Our journey has been rocky but we understand totally now that our friendship comes first. I wish that somebody had said to us back then. Everybody just kind of sat back and got their tea, got their popcorn and fucking let us tear our relationship to shreds. If somebody had said to our younger selves, ‘You need to split the two up’, only for what’s on record not for our relationship, because it’s made us stronger than ever. I wish that had been different because of what’s on record. It’s funny because it’s two different things. Back then it was more success but, I feel, less quality in what we were doing. Whereas now, it’s less successful, but I prefer the quality in what we’re doing, we all do.
Michelle: Which Black writers or producers do you feel have made the most moves over the years in terms of influencing UK sound? Shaznay: Labrinth. As a producer, the quality in his production and the sounds that he makes, he’s a bit like what I said to you earlier how I would love, back in the day, to fill just beats and fill them with backing vocals, melodies and harmonies, all this kind of stuff. To me those were the musical instruments that were needed to make a track.
Michelle: Yes, I do know what you mean. Like you said, there’s richness to it. Shaznay: Back then it was so busy and I don’t think it felt very peaceful. Even when you met me back then you probably were getting half of me. It’s a shame. Back then I just wasn’t really present, because there was just so much going on. Michelle: Yes, I totally know what you mean. Shaznay: I always loved the things that you were doing anyway. The love and respect has always been there. Michelle: Yes, but it’s that thing isn’t it? When you admire somebody then you also question what you can bring to the table. So, I’ve been asking about people of influence and people who contributed to the UK sound over the last three decades. Your name is one of those names that comes up. How do you feel about that? Shaznay: It’s an honour really. I think because I’m quite quiet and private. I think when you have those attributes in a world like this you can, not fade into the background but, yes, because I’m not out there singing and dancing, and kicking up the dust. I write and I come out when I’ve got something to sell, or I go home back to my hole and scream at my kids, and I’ll give it to my husband over the heating. I feel really honoured, because at the end of the day I’ve been in the game a little while now and I love what I do. It makes me so happy to know that people enjoy it, admire it or respect it.
I feel like he does the same with instruments and does it so well, does it so well. Just off the top of my head as a UK producer/ artist, and what he’s done on Euphoria. I saw the trailer for that series, but it was the music that I could hear behind it that made me want to watch it. I just respect him so much and I just think he’s so talented. Michelle: Any females who would you think of? Shaznay: Caron Wheeler and I loved that whole Soul II Soul movement. Soul II Soul were a big injection for British music for sure. Michelle: So what’s next for you? Shaznay: I just want to keep writing and just to keep getting better. You’re forever learning and you’re forever improving. It can never become dull and it can never become mundane. It took me a little while to understand that. Michelle: If you had one piece of advice that you could share with an upcoming songwriter, what would it be? Shaznay: I think the best thing you can do is just to learn your craft. I think, in this day and age, if you can actually master your craft before you even bring it to a label, or present it to anybody I think that would be the most beneficial thing you could do for yourself, definitely. The minute you get into this game and you start getting pushed here, there and everywhere, you know, it’s gone. That’s 100 percent what I wish I could go back and do all day long.
Want more? Read the extended interview with Shaznay Lewis at prsformusic.com/m-magazine
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‘Soul music is something visceral that you can feel and that is ever present in all music of African descent.’
Britain’s Got Soul: Memory embedded in music London singer-songwriter Estée Blu explores what soul music means to her and how collective memories of music play a crucial role in the lives of Black people living in Britain.
When thinking about my own memories of music as a child of the nineties, my earliest introductions came from my Congolese-Belgian mother who was a fan of American R&B, Congolese Ndombolo and Gospel music from both the states and D.R Congo. The Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey When You Believe duet cassette from the Prince of Egypt film soundtrack was the first record I remember playing, replaying and learning the lyrics to. I was so obsessed that I even brought the tape into primary school and performed the song to my class. I was in awe of the beauty of the song, the film, and the incredible vocalists that brought it to life. My mother quickly signed me up to the children’s gospel choir at our Pentacostal Christian church in Kilburn, North West London. There were many wonderful moments on stage in church that I will never forget. These moments were instrumental in defining the journey I began, exploring the global spectrum of Black music both as a fan and as a pint-sized singer. As my knowledge of the intricacies and tensions that exist within Black music develops, the definition and categorisation of genres become increasingly more complex and at times problematic. I cringe whenever I consider word ‘Urban’, and how among many other things, it has contributed to commodifying and flattening the experiences of Black musicians, producers, DJ’s, tastemakers and cultural trends, particularly in the last decade of British music. However, despite these issues, the glue that holds Black music together, from Kinshasa Congo to Detroit, Michigan in the US and London, England, is its soul. Soul that can be described as spirit, essence, ritual, ethereal, communion, communication, healing and can also present a window into an altered state of consciousness. Soul music is something visceral that you can feel and that is ever present in all music of African descent. Looking back at the history of soul music in Britain, I have found it to be a transatlantic conversation between Black African, Caribbean and American diasporic traditions, hybrid in production styles, continuously evolving and yet forgotten. Both the Black British chart-topping and
underground stars seemed to have disappeared from public consciousness, only existing in the minds of those who remember, and the homes of those who lived through their records. This points to the wider Black experience in Britain, which can pretty much be summarised in the title of BritishNigerian historian David Olusoga’s book entitled Black And British: A Forgotten History. An upsetting reality of our lived experiences on this terrain, means that memory, both personal and collective, plays a crucial role in our lives. Memory is embedded in music, and when we replay those songs, we remember that we exist, we are seen, heard, held and that we are free. Time and space collapse and we are immediately transported back into the past to relive those sacred moments. The comforts that these sonic experiences bring us have intensified during 2020, as the global pandemic has kept us in our homes and out of our favourite venues, bringing the live music industry to a standstill. Additionally, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has forced the world to address police brutality and racial violence towards Black coommunities, leading to global protests, cross-industry discourse and the music industry’s response via Blackout Tuesday and #TheShowMustBePaused. As much as this tumultuous year is one we’d like to forget, I think that there is still value in remembering. Both individually, collectively and using the music we have been gifted with to restore our soul. And as a little reminder: remember the spirit, essence, ritual, communion, pathways of communication and healing. This piece on the ecology, delicacy and scope of British soul music, wouldn’t be complete without a playlist of intergenerational memories from people who know it intimately. Whether it was passed down from Dad or discovered on the dance floor, these are our shared memories.
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Estée Blu‘s Playlist Listen here
Goldie - Inner City Life (1995) Paul Heard, the original co-writer, band member and producer of M People. Discovered at Metalheadz nights at London’s Blue Note club. ‘It was an intense atmosphere in the club and a groundbreaking tune that had moments of incredible creativity from Artists and Musicians in London.’
Sweet Sensation - Sad Sweet Dreamer (1974) Karen Tippett, founder of Tippett PR and daughter of Stewart James Tippett, Reading’s Bluesman and Record Mogul. Discovered at home in Reading. ‘Watching my Dad get ready to go ‘out out’ full length big collared deep red leather coat, flares and Afro. He used to go to protest marches in that coat. I also remember watching them perform it on Top of the Pops with him before bedtime.’
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‘Memory is embedded in music, and when we replay those songs, we remember that we exist, we are seen, heard, held and that we are free.’
Janet Kay - Silly Games (1979) Rotimi Skyers, poet, author and member of London’s East Art Collective. Discovered at family functions. ‘When we were at a family function and my cousin who was a Selector, what we call a DJ in Jamaica, had his own sound system and whenever Silly Games would come on, all the old heads would just get up and start doing the 1-2-step. She sings the chorus really high, and that used to make me laugh because everyone was trying to reach that note, and no-one could get that close...everyone was struggling!’
Floetry - Floetic (2002) Isatta Sheriff, musician, founder of Doctored Sound Music Consultancy and Education and lecturer at Hertfordshire University. ‘It was the 2000s and a lot of the time we were fed, that sort of Soul music with that sound didn’t come from the UK, or I couldn’t hear it. So when I heard Marsha and the British accent, I was like this is my calling, this is what I want to do. It was perfect because it was Soul, and it was Rap. It was my world so I loved it and I still do.’
A more extensive playlist: Sandra Cross - You’re Lying (1985) Jaki Graham - Round & Around (1985) Kofi - Didn’t I (1989) Soul II Soul - Fair Play (1989) Des’ree - You Gotta Be (1994) Hawk House - Grow [Topic 2] (2014) Iamnobodi - An Idea ft. Emmavie, Zacari & Josh J (2014) Children of Zeus - Still Standing (2017) Shingai - Too Bold (2020) Demae - Stuck in a daze/Use it (2020)
This piece was guest edited by Jesse Bernard.
Mickey D With a career spanning three decades, Michael ‘Mickey D’ Davis, brought about a distinctly Black-British take on contemporary R&B and has been responsible for a multitude of chart-topping hits, from Mark Morrison, Cleopatra, Shola Ama, Eternal, MN8, Glamma Kid, D’Influence and more.
By Vuyokazi Mtukela
Vuyokazi Mtukela: Why do you feel your name has largely gone unsung in these conversations despite being such a pivotal force behind those Black British successes we know of? Mickey D: If you’re successful and Black in the music industry — most people know the artists, know the songs but they generally don’t know the people behind it all. Unless you’ve got people in your peer group that are in the industry, you’re not going to hear about people like me. Starting in the business at EMI records, I was the only Black person in there apart from the receptionist. The push now has to also be about getting [Black people] in the positions of power. Vuyokazi Mtukela: Black Market Records in Soho sadly closed in 2015. How do you feel the future of music will be affected by the loss of those spaces? Mickey D: It was good training for A&R because many of those guys came from that background - working in record shops and DJing, with fingers on the pulse. Record companies wanted us. So much talent came out of that store. Steve Jervier, Frankie Foncett, Paul Martin. Soho during that period was the best place in the world. So competitive, every time you went in you felt like you had to be on your toes. Soul II Soul was breaking in and nearly everyone else around you was creative. We never knew we were ‘trailblazers’ at the time, we were just doing it with no fear. I never kept my head down, I was always very proud of my Blackness. Vuyokazi Mtukela: Tell me a bit about that trajectory? Mickey D: I made friends with a lot of record industry guys because they’d always come in to the shop to find out what the new thing was - who they should be looking out for. There was a
guy that came in from EMI and he’d just got a job at a label called Positiva. He said ‘I’m thinking of doing this little R&B compilation; tell me what the hottest tunes are.’ and I said to him ‘Why would I be telling you that? I’d be doing your job for free. Pay me first.’ A few months later he came back and said his boss was looking for someone like me, and would I be interested in interviewing. I didn’t think much of it really but then Clive Black, Head of A&R at EMI records called me in. Clive told me he’d spoken to a lot of people and that he liked my vibe, offered me the job on the spot. We negotiated everything right there and then. He was like my mentor. I remember one thing he said to me was, now I was in A&R, I had to learn it wasn’t just about what I liked, what I would play in the clubs, or play to me and my friends. I had start thinking from a mainstream pop perspective. Vuyokazi Mtukela: That time at Black Market Records and those early stages at EMI were also the beginning of a journey which led you to developing a reputation as a hit-maker… Mickey D: One thing I had a knack for was discovering new producers. Just before I left EMI, I met these two guys from Denmark called Cutfather and Joe. They weren’t famous, they didn’t have work at the time, but they were really good. I found out about this guy called Mark Morrison who was being managed by a Black manager. He showed us this video of [Mark] performing and girls were screaming. I thought ‘Who’s this guy? Never heard of him and he’s already got girls screaming for him.’ Me and Clive signed him. I’m developing and working with Mark now and his first single, Crazy which entered the chart at number eighteen, and that was its final position. And we thought great, really nice video and everything, came out top 20, amazing.
Read the extended interview with Mickey D at: prsformusic.com/m-magazine
The second came out at something like number twenty-eight so we thought we really have one more shot at this. I wasn’t feeling the production of this third one. Mark started saying he wanted a ballad. I thought; ‘You can’t put a ballad out, without a hit first. We’re just gonna die.’ I wanted us to concentrate on this other song that we really liked. So I sent the track to Cutfather and Joe and they started working around it. What came out of it was incredible. They made it into Gold, well, Platinum really all over the world. The rest was history. I gave the record to a good friend of mine, Trevor Nelson at Radio One and he was the first DJ to play it on radio and he was essentially the first to premiere the song worldwide. Vuyokazi Mtukela: Was there any resistance in seeing someone like Mark Morrison who was creating that sort of sound, in the UK? Mickey D: I think in the early days. The first thing the CEO at Warner said to me was ‘How did you get [this record] from there to there?’ and I said to him that’s what we do. I want my tunes to be hits on the street before you even think of releasing. When we sent the Mark Morrison record out to the pirates around November, the pirates were killing it. After Trevor Nelson had it, of course. We didn’t release until April the following year. By then Mark was already doing so many shows all over the country before it had even come out. The people on the street are what make it cool for the mainstream to buy it. George Michael was coming out the next week and they said you’re never going to beat him to No.1 and we did. No white A&R had done that for years, so for this little Black boy to come in and do all that, you could tell there were certain haters around. For us to have a Black artist, Black manager and a Black A&R, it had never been done before. I was grateful because Warner were brilliant, they just let me get on with it. They were known for their great American artists but nothing British, really. They had it now.
We become the number one record company in the country. We signed Shola Ama, Glamma Kid, Cleopatra. Act after act. Vuyokazi Mtukela: Black Britain had something to say at this point as far as R&B and neo-soul were concerned. There was a real vigour. Not just with Mark, but Shola Ama, Eternal and the other great artists you were dealing with doing amazingly at defining and translating the sound internationally. Mickey D: Kwame Kwaten discovered Shola on the and started working with her. He rang me and said they were putting on a show at the Jazz Café. When I got there the room was full of all the other A&R’s. They were all walking out asking me, ‘What do you think?’ and I had to keep it cool. I would never give anything away. The next day I was on the phone to Kwame and I said immediately ‘Let’s do this deal’. Shola had the right songs and everything else. I’m a very impulsive person so when I hear something, feel something, I go for it. Later on, I’m sitting in a restaurant with my wife and I heard Randy Crawford in the background of the place singing You Might Need Somebody. I said to my wife this might be a good one for Shola. She was a bit apprehensive with it at first, but I was like just go in there, and just give it the best you’ve got. It was massive. People always ask how I did it. Mostly I feel because I’ve got that sort of personality that can bring people into my way of thinking in a way. It kind of worked for me and they got behind the things I was championing, luckily.
Mickey D can be found jockeying on Mi-Soul Radio weekly. This piece was guest edited by Ben Wynter.
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There’s No Signal: How one radio station captured a community We explore at the rise of the Black British radio station, No Signal, how they have effectively used their platform to promote Black British artists, how social media came to play such a large role in their story and what the future of the station is. When lockdown was enforced in mid-March, many in the creative industries were at a loss. What would happen to nightlife? To live music? The fragile network of DJs, artists, producers and promoters whose livelihoods were at risk for the foreseeable future? With many nonessential workers stuck at home, there was a void in entertainment that socialising had once filled. That’s where the team behind Recess, brainchild of the Sonubi brothers and their creative company High Roller, came in. A gem of London nightlife, Recess is
young, fun and authentically Black British in a way that many London nights could never fully replicate as both gentrification and government legislation choke Black nightlife. The team behind it are young Black Brits with their finger on the pulse of music and culture. This brand, built offline and cultivated through years of parties and events, was a ready-made foundation for the meteoric rise of There’s No Signal; the radio station that would go on to change the landscape of the music industry from the bedrooms of young Black kids in London.
‘From the interactive polls It all started with a question: ‘Who would beat Drake in a battle?’, and the rest was history. As ever, people online clamoured to throw in their two pence amidst the emergence of the US ‘Versuz’ Instagram clashes that had seen heavyweights such as Teddy Riley and Babyface go head-to-head, as well as Dancehall legends Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. #NS10v10 was born. Adapting the clash into a game show where contestants would pick the best ten songs from their respective artist’s discography as Twitter polls decided the winner, NS10v10 became a trending topic almost every night, generating even more content and memes and providing a welcome distraction from the ongoing pandemic. Nostalgic noughties favourites such as Missy Elliot and Busta Rhymes were pitted against each other, as well as East London heavyweights such as Kano and Dizzee Rascal. What really propelled TNS’s trajectory, however, was a controversial clash between two giants, Jamaica’s self-titled King of the Dancehall Vybz Kartel and Ojuelgba’s favourite son Wizkid. Attracting almost half a million listeners from around the world, the team behind TNS managed to tap into the diaspora without compromising their Black Britishness once. In reigniting a friendly diaspora rivalry, they had also unwittingly tapped into zealous patriots, which made for some interesting online conversation. The phenomenal success of the radio station, which aims to air content 24/7 (it currently *almost* does, from 10am to 1am) can largely be attributed to its accessibility. From the interactive polls for the clashes, to choosing contestants from Twitter, TNS is truly the people’s station. It’s young, Black presenters, some of whom have been fed through from youth-led station Reprezent, are broadly the same demographic as listeners which only adds to the community spirit. The nostalgic shoutout culture from Channel U days when viewers could text in their proclamations and dedications has also been pivotal, allowing listeners to share memes and jokes as well as make friends under the #NS10v10 hashtag. This accessibility allows TNS to authentically tap into all facets of Black culture and music, where mainstream stations may simply play ‘urban’ music under the umbrella of Black. Here, listeners may hear South African Amapiano, UK Rap, Jamaican Dancehall and Nigerian Alte all in the space of an hour. With mixes from DJs from Nigeria, the US, Canada and even Australia with broadcasts from Sydney-based community radio station Sauti FM. Original content shows such as Super Album taps into the young talent of those listening as well as those with previous presenting experience. Unlike other radio stations that are driven by numbers, label relationships and popularity, TNS listens to listeners, cultivating a community and a brand that feels like home for many Black British listeners.
for the clashes, to choosing contestants from Twitter, TNS is truly the people’s station.’ than IPDizzle and Nines, two very different artists. Selfdescribed King of Rumba Drill, Congolese artist IDPizzle shot to viral stardom with Dior (Remix) and his infamous Billie Jin refrain that became the unofficial lockdown anthem having been heavily requested by listeners every episode of #NS10v10 Season 1. With no music video, promotion or major label backing, the song managed to accumulate over 3.5 million Spotify plays. ‘Unlike other radio stations that are driven by numbers, label relationships and popularity, TNS listens to listeners, cultivating a community and a brand that feels like home for many Black British listeners.’ In late August, north west London rap stalwart Nines was able to secure his first UK Number one with his album Crabs In A Bucket. Seamlessly and authentically as always, the team were involved in the drive to get #NinaToNumberOne with an episode of The Listening Party talking about the album track-by-track. This accessibility and familiarity removes the notion of the ‘gatekeeper’ or the ‘musical elite’ radio, where presenters and producers must come from the music industry in some shape or form, whether as musicians or DJs or execs. The only qualification needed? A genuine love of music. As well as being physically accessible through its strong social media presence, the participatory nature allows listeners to feel as though they too run the station. Indeed, as TNS looks to solidifying its presence offline as well as online with a crowdfund for a permanent home, it has won a first place prize of £50,000 from the Metallic Fund which aims to ‘elevate Black talent and ideas through financial grants and mentorship’. The team hopes to ‘begin building a new generation of Black-owned media and entertainment’ pushing forward the idea of Black ownership, particularly as more young Black talent shuns the traditionally exploitative and old-fashioned major label deals in favour of independent careers. With co-signs and partnerships with Adidas and Spotify and the BBC amongst countless others, TNS have proven that they are here to stay, and plan to do so on their own terms.
You can listen to No Signal via their website and on Spotify. This piece was guest edited by Stephanie Phillips.
This organic approach has not gone unnoticed by major labels, with many recognising the vast marketing potential of its listenership and cultural significance, premiering singles and sneak peaks to gauge reception. However, no two artists highlight the reach of TNS more
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