The 2018 Brits’ Critics Choice Award shortlist was a progressive step... let's hope it's not an anomaly

We must keep challenging the academy so the industry continues to recognise a diverse range of talent. Britain isn’t just buttressed by fish and chips, Robbie Williams and the Queen - we need to reflect Britain for what it is: a huge mix of cultures, voices and dialects

Emma Madden
Tuesday 05 December 2017 16:53
Jorja Smith performs live onstage
Jorja Smith performs live onstage

Each year, around 1,200 industry experts vote to decide who will become Britain’s next big musical act and take home the BRITs’ Critics Choice Award.

The first prediction back in 2008 was their most accurate. Adele will be huge in 2008, they declared. And sure enough, she’s become one of our country’s greatest assets and exports. Since then, the winners have not only been questioned for their lack of viability, but for their lack of diversity too. In its eight-year history, the winners of the Brits Critics’ Choice Award have been disappointingly uniform. Save for Emile Sande’s win, the only true variety we’ve seen in the past few years has been the size of the winners’ beards. Rag’n’Bone Man, Jack Garratt and co. were certainly the (pun intended) more vanilla choices, but this year something happened that never had before: an all-women shortlist.

Jorja Smith’s success is a win for artists of colour who are too often overlooked. Like the other nominees on this year’s shortlist, Smith started from the ground-up; releasing her first track on to Soundcloud while she worked at Starbucks. With her intellectualised approach to music (she wrote her A-Level coursework on the topic ‘Is Post-Colonialism Still Present in Grime Music?’) and an independent approach to her career, she represents something outside of the BRITs’ comfort zone. Something which forces the academy to scrutinise why that comfort zone is there, and who it excludes. Those exclusions came to further public attention in 2016, when there were no black nominees in that year’s awards, prompting the widespread hashtag #BritsSoWhite. Laura Mvula and Stormzy, who were listened to ubiquitously in 2015, backed the campaign.

Jorja Smith with the Critics' Choice Award

The Grammy’s have had an even whiter history. It’s been nine years since a black musician took home Album Of The Year. That was Herbie Hancock, and his album was a tribute to a white woman: Joni Mitchell. Several years later, #GrammySoWhite trended at a time when academy awards were being condemned for their disconnect between what was being listened to and who was being rewarded. These hashtags inspired real structural changes, proof of which is in the nominees across the board this year. Three black men are in the running for the Grammys' Album Of The Year, and for the first time in the award’s history, they won’t be competing against a white man. This isn’t tokenism. Some of the world’s best musicians are finally and rightfully being recognised.

The kind of white-washing that has taken place in music award ceremonies has occurred largely because the organisers themselves are almost entirely white. That’s certainly been the case for the BRIT Awards: the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) is a fully-owned subsidiary, and it alone ordains how the voting process itself will work - and who gets to vote for the winners of each award. Its council is currently made up of 15 members, all of which are white, and only one of which is a woman. They organise the 1,200 voters who are drawn from across the UK music industry.

Following the #BritsSoWhite backlash in 2016, these voters had to be reshuffled. A specialist committee comprising of leading Black and Asian figures in the music industry were ushered in by the BPI to help calibrate who was entitled to a vote. The following year, over 700 new voters were placed on the final invitation list, with the intention to diminish the white male bias. 2 per cent was added to the overall BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic) percentage, which is 2% above the national population. It’s a small markup, but the positive changes are already being seen. We must keep challenging the academy to see that figure rise. Britain isn’t just buttressed by fish and chips, Robbie Williams, the Queen... our language and our culture is a huge petri dish of different cultures and dialects. We need to keep working on the percentages so that they reflect Britain correctly.

While non-white tastemakers and experts still aren’t given anywhere near the authority they deserve, it’s wins like Jorja Smith’s that give us hope for further systematic change. The world’s listening habits have changed, and Britain itself has become more equitable. Teenagers are no longer moping in their rooms to Radiohead; they’re having their ears and experiences challenged by the semi-recent resurgence of soul, R&B, grime, hip hop, rap.It is all of our responsibility to challenge authority whenever it becomes exclusive or elitist. After all, it’s not the industry which is inspiring the change, it’s everybody else.

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