Matilda Egere-Cooper: Where are the black winners at the Brits?

When black artists break through into the mainstream, they seem to be treated as a fad


The Brit Awards this week were hailed as a triumph for Britain, as homegrown indie-rockers wallowed in the appreciation of their industry peers and displayed the strength of the UK music scene. But black British artists have once again been overlooked by the mighty music ceremony, which only managed to give Best Urban act to a former reality television star, Lemar, for the second time, and an International gong to American hip-hop hero Kanye West.

Forgive me for not being surprised. No black artists were rewarded at last year's Brits, a scandal only emphasised by Devon singer Joss Stone winning Best British Urban Act.

But rather than accusing the Brits of being "hideously white", I prefer to call them "hideously commercial". This is something the Brits won't apologise for, as their ethos has always been to reward major-selling, hyped, internationally known, mainstream acts. So why are there not black winners who can make the profits of their white counterparts.

Partly, it is down to a well-intended reform of the Brits. The inclusion of the Urban Act category in 2003 was an attempt to recognise the growing popularity of the urban genre and to find a way of acknowledging black acts. Sadly, the effect has been regressive. After all, before its introduction, black artists such as the late Lyndon David Hall, the British soul artist who died on Tuesday, Shola Ama and Des'ree would be nominated and often win the other prizes.

Now this Urban Act category prevents top black acts from being acknowledged in other areas, limiting the representation and impact of black music in the long run. Craig David is known across the Atlantic, while even Dizzee Rascal has a following in Japan. And Kano, the grime act from East London, is surely just as deserving of the Breakthrough act nomination as his white label mate, The Street's Mike Skinner?

The most pertinent issue, however, is that not enough black artists are being signed to major labels. The bigger companies seem to be content to take one flagship urban act - a Jamelia for instance - and then adapt their look and sound to ensure mass appeal. This approach smacks of tokenism, while diminishing the risk of investing in more organic acts. There is a graveyard of contracts from black artists who've been signed and then dropped within the past five years.

I hear it said that black British music doesn't have the kind of quality that can attract a big enough audience who will attend the gigs, download the albums and buy the merchandise in quantities to create a musical brand, such as the current housewives' choice, James Blunt, or current indie darlings, the Kaiser Chiefs. But are they given the chance in this country?

When black artists do break through into the mainstream, they seem to be treated as just a fad. Ms Dynamite was the perfect revolutionary comrade to rival the nasty gangster-chic of So Solid Crew in 2002, but three years later, and her hard-hitting single "Judgement Day" hardly made a ripple. I don't want to curse the beloved Lemar, but let's see where he is by 2008. One wonders whether he is really a true reflection of modern black Britain.

It is all so different in the US, where black artists sell huge amounts of records and stand side-by-side in the industry with white artists.

No wonder Kanye West collected the Best International Act this week: like several other previous recipients of this award, he is a black artist with colossal status in the US. It would be wrong to blame racism - look at the tense state of race relations in the States compared with here - but there are deep issues for our music industry to confront.

Music remains an important expression of black youth culture, just as it is with young white people. If nothing is done, there are alternative solutions. There is the possibility of "buying black British" to support the cause and build its profile; although personally, I don't buy music according to its nationality, but rather its quality.

There is the separate development of an autonomous black music industry which is in the works already, with the growth of a black music independent scene that has ensured acts are recognised on their own terms. Yet sadly, so many of these people seem happy merely with the kudos of their mates in their local manor rather than seeking access to the global stage. Another option would be for major labels to recognise their failure and hire specialists who understand how to market black music.

Whatever the solution, something needs to be done. I'm not mad at the Brits. They're only highlighting the desperate need for labels to invest in black artists so they too can wave the flag for their nation.

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