UK Artists Shouldn't Be Compared To US Counterparts And The Goal Does Not Always Have To Be The US.
Earlier this year, The Grammy’s spoke of its decision to drop the term “urban” to describe music made by Black artists at its awards shows, as one of “several” changes being made to “evolve with the musical landscape”. The Grammy’s decision comes after years of artists addressing the academy for its failure to recognise the complexities and down-right racist malice surrounding its categories.
First of all, can any of us actually defy the term “urban contemporary?” - not if my life depended on it.
As reported by Cate Young for NPR Music, the Recording Academy — the parent organization of the Grammy Awards — announced that it would be renaming the Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Rap/Sung Performance categories to Best Progressive R&B Album and Best Melodic Rap Album, respectively. The former includes "the more progressive elements of R&B and may include samples and elements of hip-hop, rap, dance, and electronic music." The latter encompasses songs with "the strong and clear presence of melody combined with rap cadence."
This brings me to my point, that is, we must start recognising Black British musicians as individual artists and stop comparing them to an American counterpart - as this has the similar effect of the Urban category row.
As a music journalist and lover of all things Black culture, nothing bothers me more than the constant validation Black people require to be seen as a valuable individual artist. While the US could be a goal for some, this doesn't necessarily mean it is the goal for the majority. The UK music scene has a large enough platform for each homegrown talent to prosper as a British individual in their own country.
When comparing artists to a fellow Black-counterpart it reinforces the idea that there is only room on the so-called “Urban” charts for one Black male vocalist or “sassy R&B diva”.
Streaming platforms and Black culture-based companies are almost all headed by White professionals, as we all found out in a recent Twitter trend evoked by the buy Black movement. Without Black professionals in the conversation, regarding Black culture, the result is the invention of vague terms such as; BAME, POC and “urban music”.
If 2020 has taught us anything it is that society’s structure needs to include Black people in the conversation - including the music industry.
Beyond outright discrimination, there are psychological costs to being one of just a few Black faces in a predominantly white environment. This has also been highlighted by Little Mix’s Leigh-Anne Pinnock, former X Factor winner Alexandra Burke and singer Misha B. On top of that, those who know and have felt it, in an everyday office environment the term ‘grateful mindset’ can have a Black employee grateful for the position they are in (as a minority) and feel a threat to the position if their firm was to hire another Black person. Bringing this back to the music industry, if we constantly compare artists the pressure to sound the same overrides the pressure to keep an authentic sound.
Perhaps that is how we’ve come to the sudden whispers of R&B now being a dead a genre? While we love the 90s and early 2000’s sound, every artist that has entered the scene since has been compared to OG’s of the genre, without the consideration of a neo-sound.
That being said, there are definitely examples of UK artists that have prospered outside of comparison and have chosen to market themselves in the US. Singer/songwriter Angel began his roots in London and championed sounds alongside WSTRN etc and has now chosen to move stateside. Another example is Ella Mai.
There seems to be this uncanny belief that UK artists need a US counterpart or influence to actually succeed in the charts and maintain momentum after they've released an EP or freshman album. Earlier this year, Young T and Bugsey made worldwide waves when their hit Don't Rush ft Headie One - released in November 2019 - peaked charts fuelled by 'The Don't Rush Challenge' on Tik Tok. It's almost insulting that when it came to remixing the song Headie One was removed and replaced with DaBaby in order to appeal to a 'US audience'.
My argument is; if these tables and platforms don't respect the authentic British sound, which often includes our slang and inside jokes, why is it seen as the ultimate goal?
The Drill scene that we all know began in Chicago, has manifested its own authentic sound in the UK and drill artists and producers exemplify great example of the home-grown sound. I think it's interesting that despite Pop Smoke being openly a lover of our drill sound - and often receiving credit for bridging New York drill to London - his posthumous album (produced by 50 Cent) failed to feature the UK talent that inspired the sound. However, shout out to 808 Melo and Swirv who have production credits.
There is definitely room for all UK artists to succeed in their native charts if we look at them as a lone artist and not a prodigy of someone else. Perhaps more artists are looking towards the US more because when in the US they stand out as a British individual than they do in the UK.