‘If our band was fronted by a white girl, people would get it’: How the UK fails Black indie musicians

The recent furore over the lack of rock category at the Mobos highlighted how Black Brits with guitars get overlooked. Stephanie Phillips speaks to Nova Twins, Babeheaven and more about making space for alternative artists

Thursday 10 December 2020 18:08
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Clockwise from top: Babeheaven singer Nancy Andersen, Nova Twins, Dev Hynes and Arlo Parks
Clockwise from top: Babeheaven singer Nancy Andersen, Nova Twins, Dev Hynes and Arlo Parks

Cast an eye over the UK charts and British Black music has never been stronger, from Stormzy and Headie One to Jorja Smith and AJ Tracey. But for many Black artists who make music that’s considered more “alternative”, away from the commercial currents of pop and rap, the music industry can feel less than welcoming. Last month, in an interview with The Independent, the Essex-born, LA-based artist Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) explained that he had to emigrate to America in order to succeed in his music career, suggesting that the UK didn’t know what to do with Black musicians who weren’t rappers. “I've never been invited to play on Jools Holland ever,” Hynes told me, adding: “I wasn’t, you know, an MC.”

Many Black artists find themselves typecast or separated from their Black identity. Michael Kiwanuka could relate. Though he won the Mercury Prize this year, for years the singer-songwriter felt that people viewed him as “this crazy weird Black guy from Muswell Hill that plays guitar” for making music that “isn’t necessarily specific to who I could be typecast as,” he said in one interview.  In another, with The Independent, he wondered why his audiences tended to be white. “I was like, what is that?” he said. “Because everyone making my music is Black.”

And while the fast-rising singer-songwriter Arlo Parks is being touted as the voice of a generation in the indie scene – she has been interviewed by DIY Mag and made the digital cover of NME – she’s had less press in traditionally Black media outlets like The Voice and SBTV.

The UK has a history of notable Black alternative artists, including Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex and Pauline Black of The Selecter in the Seventies and Eighties, Skin from brash and bold rock band Skunk Anansie in the Nineties and, in the 2000s, Kele Okereke and Shingai Shinowa of indie bands Bloc Party and The Noisettes. These acts were treated as lone outliers in the conventional swamp of white male-led rock. Today, there are many more Black British alternative artists – including myself, with the band Big Joanie – but often we are caught between worlds as the UK music industry fails to recognise our value. We are too Black for mainstream media and too alternative for Black media outlets.

When the Mobos nominations were announced a fortnight ago, it was yet another reminder of challenges that alternative Black artists face in the UK. The awards, which take place tonight, were established in 1996 to celebrate music of Black origin – but it still has no rock or alternative music category. Its focus on hip-hop, R&B and grime fails to acknowledge the Black artists who created rock and roll, like gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, thereby creating a situation where a Black award show is far more likely to acknowledge a white soul singer than an all-Black punk band (as it did in 2014 when Sam Smith took home four awards).

Nova Twins: Georgia South and Amy Love

It was a point so evident to London-based grunge-pop duo Nova Twins that when a friend kidded about them maybe getting nominated, they laughed at first. Then the joke quickly wore off. As two Black musicians who grew up watching the Mobos, they felt they had every right to be represented. The band wrote an open letter to the Mobo awards a week ago asking them to “pave the way” for Black indie artists by adding a rock/alternative category to the award show.

“We're ready to open up the conversation,” explains Amy Love, Nova Twins’ vocalist and guitarist, stressing that they didn’t want the statement to be seen as a takedown of the award show. “We love the Mobo awards. We just want to make sure that whilst we're talking to the rock community, which is white male-dominated, and telling them you need to accept us and diversify, we also need that from the Black community as well.”

Award ceremonies such as the Mobos are one way for Black indie and alternative artists to make their mark in the UK. Without them, many artists fall between the cracks of the industry’s rigid system. One reason could be said to lie with traditional mainstream radio structures, which silo artists depending on genre. Across the BBC radio stations, genre-segregation is clear to audiences who view 6Music as the home of indie, while 1Xtra is seen as the BBC’s home for Black music.

This kind of genre segregation, though, can be seen most clearly on commercial stations, according to Ross Dorrance, managing director of PR agency Skinny Music. “Their objective is to generate advertising income,” he says, “and the easiest way to define their audience for advertisers is by building their brand around a particular genre of music.”

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And if you step outside those narrow genres then it seems to confuse the largely white, male-dominated label execs. The misrepresentation of artists points to an industry that still lacks confidence in its ability to market an act that isn’t white. In their early years, Nova Twins were often told to make their sound poppier and sat through meetings with A&Rs who, according to Love, “would get in contact and talk rubbish to us, and we'd be like, ‘that's not what we want to do’.”

For Nancy Anderson, lead singer in bedroom indie-pop band Babeheaven, being a Black woman in this world has led to a lot of lazy readings of her band’s music as R&B. “If our band was fronted by a white girl and the rest of the line-up was all white guys, people would get it straight away,” Anderson tells me. “But because of the way I look, being plus size and mixed race, people look at us and they're like ‘what the f*** is this’. They just don't understand it at all.”

Similar experiences were shared by the genre-blurring American musician Moses Sumney, who has spoken previously about the assumption that he makes R&B music based on the colour of his skin. His recent inclusion in the Soul Train Awards – the US’s answer to the Mobos – suggests that, like Hynes said earlier, the US is, on the whole, more accepting of Black artists of all persuasions. Jess Kangalee, director of Good Energy PR, suggests there are structural reasons for America’s comparative openness. “It’s just a bigger market and they have more options for coverage in terms of regional stations, national stations and college radio,” says Kangalee, “whereas in the UK we [only] have the national stations as well as some key regionals that can make a difference to a[n artist’s] campaign.”

According to a recent Pitchfork article, though, the alternative music sphere isn’t any better representation-wise. The piece, titled “What it’s like to be Black in Indie Music”, suggested that Black artists face the same barriers in the supposedly more inclusive indie arena as they would in the pop mainstream. It added that the indie community “discreetly functions to serve white people almost exclusively”. This was certainly true of the alternative music scene in the UK in the past, though more recent platforms like Black Lives Matter have given Black British indie artists a confidence boost and allowed them to open up a conversation on race and representation in underground music. Nova Twins cite the political movement as the inspiration for their open letter and for “giving artists a voice to say how they've felt all these years”. It was also one of the sparks for the creation of Decolonise Fest, a London-based festival I’m involved in which promotes people of colour in punk music. The runaway success of alternative music festivals like Afropunk (of which there is a London iteration), meanwhile, have provided new spaces for Black artists who don’t align with any one genre.

Rock and roll spirit: Musician Brittany Howard, nominated in the rock categories at next year’s Grammy Awards, performing at Afropunk festival in 2019

If it feels strange to think about race in music, then maybe that is one of the few beneficial outcomes of today’s streaming environment. Stylistic segregation is slowly eroding due to, as Dorrance explains, “evolving listener tastes, with the rise of streaming platforms more people are discovering new artists and genres, and listening to mood-based playlists where the genres can be pretty fluid”.

And the conversation is evolving, too. The Independent reached out to the Mobos for comment and received no reply, but the Mobos did respond to Nova Twins statement on Twitter saying: “The Mobo Awards Judging Panel have actually discussed [alternative music] and we will continue to review potential category expansions for future award ceremonies. We will always do our best to represent Black music talent across a variety of genres.”

Dan Chalmers, director of EMEA at YouTube’s streaming platform YouTube Music, cites the letter as an important moment in the industry. He tells me that it “brought attention to an important point – all music genres should celebrate inclusivity, and sometimes it takes a spark like this to make a change and create awareness.”

If Nova Twins’ open letter could grab the attention of YouTube Music, then surely the next move has to come from one of the industry’s heavy hitters. For Nova Twins the Mobos are still the key to breaking that final glass ceiling. “If the Mobos open it up, you'll start to see 1Xtra for example toying with heavier artists on their shows. It would definitely be a domino effect.”

For Nova Twins, who are still hoping to talk further with the Mobos, the need for change is about diversifying music industry gatekeepers and thus creating more accurate visions of Black Britishness – ones that can inspire young people just as they were, watching the Mobos as children. Their hope is that instead of being discouraged that they don’t have the lyrical dexterity of a rapper like Nines – who was nominated this year five times – young Black kids can know that they can spin gold in any genre, with any instrument. “The new generation are waiting to see something different,” says Love, “so they can then think, ‘Oh, I can do that, too. I might pick up a guitar’.”

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