It’s not often that grime legend Wiley’s Twitter account is seen as a place for reasoned debate. However, over the weekend, the BBC’s urban radio station, BBC Radio 1Xtra released what it calls its ‘Power List’ – a list of the most influential artists in British black music, which seemed to be full of white artists, including Ed Sheeran at the number one spot. This went unnoticed until Wiley tweeted that the list ‘bumped’ black artists – the tweet has since been deleted, in true Wiley fashion.
It might make some uncomfortable to define music by race, but 1Xtra once seemed unafraid to do so. From the beginning, it had no qualms about calling itself a ‘black’ music station and not using any euphemisms like ‘urban.’ The station’s slogan until it rebranded in 2010 removing all mentions of race, was ‘Love black music, love 1Xtra’.
Recently, Kele Okereke of Bloc Party criticised the way stations such as Choice FM – now called Capital Xtra – have ditched their policies on black music and talk shows for the black community, axing DJs such as 279 and reggae DJ Natty B in favour of Tim Westwood and chart house DJ Avicii. Just last week, in a response to Okereke, 1Xtra’s music manager claimed the station had a ‘commitment to black music and specifically black British artists.’ Yet when defending the power list, 1Xtra claimed that ‘anyone wanting to bring race into the discussion is a bit misguided.’
With backlash like that from the industry it is no wonder that performers such as Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea have been criticised so much for taking what black subcultures have done and repackaging them for a commercial audience that, consciously or subconsciously, is less likely to buy music made by black people and magazines with black people on the cover. Perhaps this is the reason that artists such as Meridian Dan, Fuse ODG and Krept and Konan, who have had huge hits on the British black music scene, have failed to make the top 10 with their biggest singles this year.
The idea of ‘power’ in the Power List is marketability to a mass audience, something Ed Sheeran has with his ginger hair and acoustic guitar. But this just leaves myself and many others wondering how Sheeran is an ‘urban’ or black music artist. What defines someone as being a black music artist? Is it collaborating with Wiley and Wretch 32? Whilst I’m no expert on Sheeran’s music, I find it hard to imagine how he’d be considered an urban music artist if it wasn’t for the fact he often collaborates with black musicians, whereas at least with some of the other white artists on the list such as Katy B, their music, whilst commercial, is still positively urban.
Yet it seems, when actually involving young black people, black music is heavily policed. Earlier this year saw the cancellation of Just Jam at the Barbican, an event involving black artists such as JME, Big Narstie and Preditah ‘on the grounds of public safety.’ The risk assessment form used to shut the event down, Form 696 originally asked the ethnicity of people likely to attend the performance, but this was amended in 2009. This led to grime artists and older white rock musicians such as Feargal Sharkey creating a documentary in which they speak to the police about Form 696. It’s hard to believe the cancellation would have happened had the line-up only included the other artists on the bill, such as Syrian folk singer Omar Souleyman and ambient duo Mount Kimbie.
Perhaps the two artists at the bottom of the list, Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, have every right to be angry at the list. They have both managed to champion black British music and more than likely have influenced nearly everyone else on the 1Xtra Power list. They have their roots in the underground black music scene and were very powerful in it in the early 2000s. Both have held on to their power, by transforming it into commercial success and record sales, having number one hits even after having been in the game for 10 years. The list looks at artists for the last 12 months, but I’d imagine if it was compiled a few years ago, we would have seen Dizzee and Wiley at the top. Instead, as the achievements of black music, particularly grime have become marketable, they have been picked up by label executives and repackaged into black music made by white people for a commercial audience. For all young people, there is sadly still a need to defend black music from both the police and marketing executives looking to cash in.
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Amika Shah is a 20-year-old English literature student of Indian descent from North London. She has always taken an interest in issues relating to social justice, race, identity and pop culture and has been writing about them herself since she was around 17. She hopes to study for an MA in social anthropology and to continue to keep writing for as long as possible. Find Amika on Twitter at @amikashah