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Black British Musical Identity is Being Erased by Cultureless Dance Music

Thinkpieces And Shit

By Kele Okereke

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Last week it was announced that resident dancehall DJ Robbo Ranks and R&B DJ CJ Beatz have been axed from British radio station 1Xtra. It’s part of reshuffle that BBC Controller Ben Cooper has put down to "budget cuts," but interestingly the station is keeping and promoting club DJs such as Mistajam, Monki and Friction. The daytime 1Xtra playlist is dominated by house producers like Gorgon City, Kove and Secondcity. Similarly, last year Capital Xtra, formerly Choice FM, lost nearly all of its specialist black music programming. Soca, gospel, and grime were replaced with a dance music-focused playlist with shows for Hardwell and Ministry Of Sound. Out with the bashment and in with the Calvin Harris. 

There has been much grumbling about the transformation of these stations. In the beginning Choice FM was launched as a black community station, and, at the height of Choice’s success, prominent forms of black music in the UK enjoyed prime-time placement. Regular talk shows such as the Schumann Shuffle, hosted by comedian Geoff Schumann, discussed issues facing the black community—from youth in education to black history, to police and community relations. There was a dedicated and ever-growing callership as Schumann featured black community activists, workers, and MPs such as Dianne Abbott, Gus John, and Rosemary Campbell. The message was clear: This was more than just a radio station playing the hits. It was about identity.

This is is a far cry from these stations as they are now. Capital Xtra and 1Xtra don’t even use the term "Black music" to describe their output. In 2010, 1Xtra dropped the historic "Love Black Music, Love 1Xtra" strap line in favor of the neutrally inclusive “Xtra Hip-hop, Xtra R&B." Capital Xtra launched with the slogan  "Dance. Urban. UK." I understand that with a drastically falling listenership they want to appeal to as many people as possible, but I can't help feeling a part of history is being erased by this conscious courting of the mainstream. I wonder what the ramifications of this will be on the Black British musical identity. Is there even such a thing these days as the Black British musical identity?

The reality is that the UK has never been able to nurture, develop, or sustain homegrown black music. British urban music has always been in thrall to the American urban music. Whereas domestic urban music dominates the American charts, the only British-born black face that I can think of that's in the charts these days in novelty rap act Tinie Tempah. There is an argument that black people only make up about 2 percent of the the UK's population, so promoting and developing a homegrown black artist will be limited, but that’s rubbish. African Americans make up 13 percent of the the US population, and that doesn't stop the genre being promoted and supported by both the communities from which it’s born and the wider music industry. Other people cite the lack of solidarity among the UK's black community: Black Britons do not necessarily go out and buy homegrown black music, often preferring US R&B and hip-hop.

In recent years the closest thing that the Black British community have had to call their own was probably grime, arguably the most important homegrown British music since punk rock. Grime never affected the charts the way garage did or traveled the world the way dubstep is doing now. Frankly, it never stood a chance, given the poor infrastructure brought about by the decline of pirate radio and specialist records shops coupled with the police's dogged insistence of shutting down every rave. Look what happened recently at the Just Jam event at the Barbican. Following advice from the City of London Police, the Barbican canceled the event though it wasn't a grime event. There was just one grime act scheduled to perform.

The question of a cohesive Black British musical identity is more than just a question of sales and demographics: It’s a institutional problem. The UK has an issue with racism that we are unwilling to address—it is reflected in negative attitudes towards Black British music, but also towards Black British culture in general.

The only way that Grime has been allowed to flourish is in a sanitized, chart-friendly way. In 2009 Grime acts Chipmunk, Tinchy Stryder and Dizzee Rascal all had number one hit singles, albeit with a much more commercialized vein than their previous output. Much has been written about Dizzee jumping into bed with the devil that is Calvin Harris, but who can blame him? I remember watching Dizzee perform at Shepherds Empire in 2008 on the Maths+English tour, and the venue was half full. Fast-forward a summer, and Dizzee was riding high in the charts with "Dance Wiv Me," a track many believe to be his death knell. It’s not only Dizzee that felt the pressure to commercialize his sound. In 2009 godfather of grime Wiley rapped in his single "She's Glowing," "if i didnt have another hit song the label would've probably shelved me," and in 2012 Wiley got his wish with the annoyingly saccharine hit single "Heatwave."

In each of these examples, commercialization meant danceification—4/4 beats and bubblegum choruses. That music is now being sold back to us by the likes of Capital Xtra and Tinie Tempah as a modernized replacement for what went before. But it’s rootless airport music, with no ties to Black British culture.

This is the narrative that accompanies every popular black art form; it is a cool little underground thing until some major corporation and/or a white audience buys into it. From Miley's recent appropriation of the Dirty South dance move twerking to Sam Smith’s note-for-note pastiche of Atlanta soul, it's continued. What is the message here? That black culture can only be relevant when it is declawed and can appeal to the masses?

I know it's not fashionable to talk about black music in terms of race nowadays, and there will be many people that think, with our shared multi-racial heritage, that the idea of a separate Black British musical identity itself is an antiquated idea. But every time I turn on MTV, every white pop star I see seems to be somehow indebted to black culture—from Justin Bieber to Iggy Azalea and even Disclosure. The MOBO awards, created so that Black British music would have an institution to rival the Brits, now seems to only honour white artists like Jessie J and John Newman. It seems obvious that in this present climate the people who are reaping the greatest rewards from black music are not black. If the Black British community remains silent in the erasing of the roots of our culture, then how is a defined Black British musical identity ever going to be allowed to flourish? 

Kele Okereke is a British musician. Follow him on Twitter - @KeleOkereke

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