I’ve got to a point now where I have so much stuff to get off my chest, I have to talk the truth and make the devil shame. I think it’s time I set the record straight, let’s start the sermon of realness.
In any of you didn’t know, last week here in the UK, the annual BRIT Awards were held and while there were plenty of people getting excited about the event, a considerable group of people, including myself were unhappy, very unhappy at that. For me, The BRIT Awards are supposed to represent the whole of the music scene in the UK, recognising artists from an array of backgrounds as well as recognising and embracing artists from outside the UK who have made a considerable impact with their music in the UK. Essentially, the awards ceremony should be a diverse, vibrant display of the multi-cultural place the UK is and because it’s a global event, it’s important that the awards highlight the strength in depth across a number of different genres and give the artists who have made the biggest strides in their careers the praise that they deserve.
Urban music in the UK had a huge year in 2015. The rise in the grime was meteoric, a stunning revival for the genre that had apparently died towards the end of the noughties. Rap and hip-hop had revivals too, all with growing fan bases. At the same time, established artists were raising their games because of the added competition that had arisen, for the first time in years, there wasn’t the urge for them to try and get a record deal, instead the focus was on making music, at times for the sheer joy of it. More than ever, I noticed more MCs and rappers been booked for events and festivals across the country and getting good receptions. Stigmas that had been present prejudicing the urban music scene in the past were and still are showing signs of being broken down.
So you would think this impressive turn of events would be recognised by a favourable nominations list, you would be wrong. For years, the BRITs have ignored lesser known or less marketable genres, making some artists feel like they’re invisible no matter how well acclaimed they are by their peers. Grime had a great year in 2015, so why was there a lack of representation for grime artists in the nominations. For me, the biggest barrier for rappers and MCs to break through are the charts in the UK. For a signed artist on a recording label, in theory it should be no problem for them to make a record and for it to chart seeing as they’re more likely to have better resources and more exposure than independent artists. The matters of making the music recordings for the record, advertising it, copyrights over who has the rights to use and distribute the recordings, dividing up the royalties among the relevant parties and the use of social media to boost sales and bringing awareness to the record are crucial to its success.
For South London rapper Stormzy, he did all that was asked from him. He massively blew up last year and yet despite this, he was overlooked. In an interview for Radio 1, he said “It was such a great year for grime and underground music… I thought maybe this year it might get celebrated… You know when you’ve got that little bit of hope and that little bit of faith, and then they didn’t. I thought it was such a shame”.
Here is a guy who’s already proven his talent, he won Best Grime Act at the 2014 and 2015 MOBO Awards and was named on the BBC’s Sound of 2015 list. He’s also appeared on the Jools Holland show, performing the track “Not That Deep”, a massive achievement. He charted inside the top 10 in the UK with the single “Shut Up”, charted inside the top 20 with “WickedSkengMan 4″and sold out various dates on not one but two tours last year across the UK. Stormzy did what the mainstream would require from someone in order to merit being nominated and yet he gets snubbed. It’s no wonder in his “One Take Freestyle”, he takes a pop at the BRITs for snubbing him and “his Gs”, calling the debacle “embarrasing”.
It’s not just Stormzy who should feel hard done by. Diversity has long been a problem, time and time again, the nominations list ignores artists from urban backgrounds, favouring artists who have a greater mainstream influence and who also are signed onto record labels. Grime has always had a connection with independent artists and labels, Boy Better Know don JME, a veteran in the scene for more than a decade released his album, “Integrity” last year and it charted higher than any other album belonging to an independent act in the UK at #12, an incredible achievement. Rap duo Krept & Konan (who managed to get signed onto Def Jam Recordings by the way) released their album, “The Long Way Home” and it had some pretty big features with the likes of Ed Sheeran, Wiz Khalifa and Rick Ross featuring on the album. The album debuted in the UK charts at #2, smashing their previous best position of #19 for their “Young Kingz” mixtape. Another duo who were successful last year were Craig David & Big Narstie, stalwarts of the garage and grime scenes respectively. Their track, “When The Bassline Drops” which charted inside the top 20 brought David back from the dead and made him relevant again while giving Narstie (who performed at Glastonbury for the first time last year) more mainstream exposure that he arguably deserves after being in the genre for over 10 years. Add in the rise of the likes of Section Boyz, WSTRN and Novelist; the infectiously catchy “Shutdown” by Skepta which was shot in the Barbican, the same place the police used Form 696 to close down the Just Jam rave a year before, perfectly encapsulating the maverick and rebelliousness about grime; the expansion of the genre outside of the UK with Skepta in particular making big strides across the pond and the rapid influx of new fans embracing the vibes of the underground and you come to a conclusion that hip-hop, rap and grime are going through a renaissance right now with the potential to grow ever increasing. So with all this positivity, why the lack of recognition? Krept & Konan have had their say, saying the BRITs are “out of touch” while Big Narstie has been vocal in the need to “embrace our country” and by doing that, we need to embrace artists who are both urban and mainstream. This is a problem that has been rumbling on ever since grime came to existence in the early noughties.
Maybe grime is too radical, it is a genre predominantly backed by young people from working class origins. Back in the old era of grime, the pioneers who were running things felt like they had no voice so they had to make a voice for themselves, getting all of their gripes off their chests without a care for anyone who opposed them. Old school crews like Pay As You Go, Nasty Crew, Meridian Crew (split into Bloodline & BBK), The Movement, Ruff Sqwad, Roll Deep, Slew Dem, the list goes on all played their part as grime built up its fast tempo, rowdy, no punches pulled style that existed, an style for me that has to be remain today if grime is to keep its authencity and its originality. There’s always been a sense of grittiness to this sort of music. It’s somewhat controversy, a form of protest, a way for people to come together and express themselves. Therefore, trying to integrate it among the mainstream will likely lead to having to water down this lyrically rebellious nature of street protest, something I don’t see going down very well.
To be honest, the dilution of underground music in order to make it marketable and therefore try to make a profit out of it is something that has been happening for years. Artists having to change themselves, their image, their music, their personalities just to make it. The music industry is cruel, it will pick you up, swallow you, chew & grind you and when you’re surplus to requirements, it’ll spit you out and restart the process with someone else. There are predators lurking around everywhere trying to catch you, some are easy to pick out and others aren’t so easy to find as you only find out their true intentions when things go awry. People have to be smart nowadays, look out for themselves and when they have genuinely loyal people around them and not people only there jumping on the wave because the times are good, hold them close.
Seeing such a lack of diversity is frustrating, to see such good things happen and for none of that to be credited although disappointing is something I’m not surprised at, I mean this is how the status quo has been for years. Changing the way the voting academy thinks about the artists will take a lot of a time and to be honest, if the BRITs really don’t care about the lack of diversity in the artists nominated, why should I care to watch the bloody thing every year, in fact, why should unsigned artists care about it when they know no matter how well they do, they’ll never be recognised.
In fact, the lack of diversity could be a good thing, I mean if breaking into the mainstream means new fans diluting the essence of what makes urban music what it is and appropriating the culture, making it look like they pioneered it, why worry about the mainstream? Last year, I saw quite a few examples of what I would call being a culture vulture. What I mean is there are guys jumping on the wave only because grime/rap are doing well, trying to big up the scene when a few years ago, they were probably listening to EDM & dubstep slagging off other genres. Just because you wear the merchandise of the rappers and MCs that gassed you at the event they played at your university, that doesn’t necessarily make you a fan. You might know all the bars to one or two songs but don’t act like you’ve been supporting the scene for time even though you know you haven’t. If you do that, you’re not a fan, you’re just a culture vulture and a pagan.
Although, two good things did happen in the aftermath of the BRITs. Firstly, Canadian rapper Drake’s improptu appearance at a Section Boyz’s Section Tour event in Shoreditch alongside Skepta and then revealing that he would be joining the Boy Better Know label. The fact that Drake even showed up at the event rather than going to one of the many after-parties that would have been going on deserves respect but to actually sign onto the BBK label (Drake has BBK tattoo and has practically been trying to be UK roadman for the last few years) is massive for the scene here. As to whether it’s merely some sort of symbolic gesture or Drake is a fully fledged member of the recording label, I don’t know, all I know is that no-one can say to me that Drake doesn’t rate the UK scene.
The second thing involves Lily Allen who took on BRIT nominated artist James Bay (or as I like to call him, Hat Man) in a spat involving the diversity issue. Allen criticised the lack of black talent being represented, blaming tactical voting from industry figures as the reason for this. Bay in reply tried to drag Allen through the mud, saying he couldn’t remember the last time she released a album (in simple terms, James tried to make Lilly hold the L). So what did Lilly do, she ended up reaching out to rapper Youngs Teflon through a series of tweets and one tweet led to another and two ended up in a studio together. “LILLY AND TRILLY” captioned a picture on Youngs Teflon’s Twitter page. This random combination of artists came out of the blue (ironic considering Lilly’s blue hair) but if more stuff like this happened where established artists are willing to offer a helping hand to those trying to make a name for themselves, surely the UK music scene would get better.
There we go, sermon over, I’m out.