How the UK failed black Britain’s would-be pop superstars

From Mis-Teeq to Eternal, British pop music is indebted to the powerhouse vocals provided by black groups and soloists. So why are they still curiously absent from the scene? Asks Janine Francois

Monday 05 October 2020 16:35 BST
‘Mis-Teeq were huge at one time. If their record label Telstar had not gone bust at the point when their careers were taking off in 2005, who knows how much bigger they could have been?’ asks Janine Francois
‘Mis-Teeq were huge at one time. If their record label Telstar had not gone bust at the point when their careers were taking off in 2005, who knows how much bigger they could have been?’ asks Janine Francois (Getty Images)

Growing up as a teenager from Stratford, you just knew certain things to be true, even if you did not know quite how to explain them.  

I knew Stratford was the “endz”, because my friends and I would hang out in the mall, as there were fewer recreational provisions on offer to us.

I knew other people viewed Newham, one of London’s chronically deprived boroughs, as a “rough” area, or believed our schools weren’t as equipped as others.

At 15, I didn’t attribute Newham’s generational poverty to decades of underfunding. All I knew was that it was where I lived. It was only when I became an adult that I realised what those structural inequalities meant. The same way I experienced Stratford’s deprivation was how I eventually came to understand black women’s underrepresentation in UK music.  

At that age, much like I knew I lived in the “endz”, I knew that I liked Mis-Teeq. I did not attribute my liking of Mis-Teeq to the fact that they were the only all-black British girl group out at the time. When you’re a teenager, enjoying a pop group is not considered a political act, but when you add 20 years and reflection, you realise being a fan of the only black British girl band illuminates how erased black women were and still are within the UK music industry.  

I remember 2003, the year Mis-Teeq’s album Eye-Candy was released, so vividly. I was growing into my adult body and recall literally waking up one morning with D-cup boobs. I was becoming a woman, a young black woman. My ideas of womanhood were not just shaped by that of my mother and older sister, but also the imagery that I was exposed to.  

Mis-Teeq represented women who were stylish, sophisticated and sexy. I desperately wanted to be like Sabrina, the epitome of beauty as far as I was concerned. I was clearly emulating women who looked like me. It is only now as an adult that I have realised not only how integral seeing a black woman with darker skin was for my self-esteem and confidence but also life-affirming. In the early 2000s where conversations about colourism were non-existent, there was something empowering about a dark-skinned woman being centred in that way, and all while drawing on the import of the “independent women” maxim à la our black American sisters  – Destiny’s Child – of empowerment and in part owning one’s sexuality.  

Mis-Teeq may have had only three albums, two of which were studio recordings and the latter a compilation. Lickin’ on Both Sides, their debut album, reached number three in the UK charts and went on to become double-platinum, spawning a string of top ten hits. They also won two Mobo awards and were nominated for four Brit Awards in a span of two years. But what really catapulted Mis-Teeq internationally, was the song “Scandalous” from Eye-Candy. The catchy chorus, infectious baseline and its sexually suggestive lyrics, highlighted where women were at during the early 2000s, especially black women.  

Whenever I hear the opening lyrics to that song, the strings, thumping baseline and sirens make the hairs on my body stand to attention, instantly taking me back to my 15-year-old self, lip-synching in front of my mirror, sultry strut in tow.

Mis-Teeq performing on stage on in Tokyo, Japan, November 11, 2003
Mis-Teeq performing on stage on in Tokyo, Japan, November 11, 2003 (Getty Images)

I have tried and failed to name other all black British girl-groups with the same amount of success or exposure as Mis-Teeq, considering their last album was in 2003. I even tweeted about it to my followers and someone reminded me of Stooshe, who, while edgy and clearly talented, unfortunately, had only one chart hit. Another mentioned The 411, who I barely remembered. Others went as far back as Cleopatra, the late 1990s band consisting of three bubbly Mancunian teenagers signed to Madonna’s label. Even with that kind of industry backing and a successful television show, they only secured three top ten hits and two studio albums; and of course, there is Eternal, the supergroup of the black British girl-group. The ongoing narrative of black women’s erasure within the British music industry, explains why Eternal is still probably the only black British female group to have real international success and as a Cultural Studies lecturer, my job is to understand the reasons why.  

In over 20 years, we have experienced a dearth of black female talent, especially when they triple or quadruple up as a group. Add in the toxicity of colourism and capitalism and we have a society that both steals from and simultaneously shuns black women.  

I have noticed how the UK music industry works, letting in one black female singer in at a time as if on some kind of rotation. When we do have a sizable do “break through”, they often all have light skin, just look at our current cohort right now. This drip and drab approach seem to be the reason why black women are not properly marketed. The likelihood of having the same amount of time, money and energy invested in their careers as their white counterparts, is slim at best, and often leads to poor sales. The UK has produced some of the most talented black female artists of our times, from Gabrielle, to Mica Paris, Kele Le Roc to Beverley Knight, whose 1999 hit, “Made it Back” speaks to the very challenges highlighted in this article.  

Mis-Teeq were huge at one time. If their record label Telstar had not gone bust at the point when their careers were taking off in 2005, who knows how much bigger they could have been? Looking back now, it seems bizarre that no major record label offered them a deal when these women were set to change the face of British Pop music. So when Alesha Dixon opened up about her experiences of misogynoir in 2018, it came as no surprise. She told Russell Howard on his show that a record executive said, “Black girls would not sell records in the UK”, coming from a mixed-race woman no less, who for some would argue has proximity to whiteness.  

It pains me to know that there has never been another all black-British girl-group with the same force and impact as Mis-Teeq since. While it is somewhat disappointing, it is hardly surprising; an all too familiar story of how black women are misaligned within the music industry. Take for instance, Ms Dynamite and Speech Debelle. Both won the coveted Mercury Award, but unlike their black male and white counterparts, their careers mysteriously did not skyrocket.  

The same issue of deep and entrenched misogynoir explains why black women artists like Estelle have to flee to America to sustain their careers. It was only when Estelle was snapped up by John Legend, making her the first signing to his label and when she scored the international hit, “American Boy”, featuring Kanye West, which she received a grammy for, that she received her due respect in the UK. The narrative that we do not sell, when artists like Estelle prove otherwise, is not only a slap in the face, but gaslighting of the highest order.

The British pop music we have today is indebted to the powerhouse vocals and rhythmical structures of Black music – and that is just where sound is concerned. The fashion, style and overall aesthetics we see heavily borrows from Black women and this appropriation exists amongst the waves of all white girl groups and or with their token Black member in tow.  

I never got to see Mis-Teeq live, which is genuinely one of my life regrets – and I suppose it is something I should take to therapy. Still, like many of my peers who still love and appreciate the talents of Mis-Teeq, I will always remember how they made me feel: “So, so scandalous.”

Janine is a Cultural Studies lecturer and Black feminist cultural producer and curator

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in