I remember watching Kanye West perform “All Day” at the 2015 Brit Awards. The powerful image of so many unapologetically amped black men in black hoodies – so many of whom are heavyweight names in the UK grime and rap scene – was something to behold. Those men up there looked like my brothers and their friends – my “olders” who I knew growing up. I could only imagine how young black men and especially those wanting to break into music, would have felt seeing their music being represented by faces that look like their own. Fast-forward to 2018 and most of the acts who were on that stage have shot up into the mainstream stratosphere with people like Skepta, Krept & Konan and Stormzy achieving household-name status across the UK and further afield. So far black dark-skinned men have been dominating these genres and embraced all the same. It saddens me to see that the same doesn’t seem to be true for black dark-skinned women.
In contrast to their male counterparts women like Lady Leshurr and Shystie are either still climbing uphill to break into the mainstream or have completely faded into the background despite their impressive bodies of work. Where we’re seeing the major disparities however, are within female pop and R&B artists who are continuously charting. The UK Top 40 is home to an assortment of white female music artists from Dua Lipa to Anne Marie and MØ, a lot of who have very similar sounds – a luxury that isn’t often afforded to black female musicians. In a recent BBC Live Lounge performance, Dua Lipa invited her contemporaries MØ, Charli XCX and Alma to perform with her. I tried to think of four black women with the same amount of mainstream heft who could deliver a performance that generates the same buzz but to no avail.
This is a major shame considering how much cultural influence Afro-Caribbean/Black Britons have on these very artists. Zara Larsson’s “I Would Like” got to number two on the charts with a hook that samples ‘Dat Sexy Body’ by Sasha – a dark-skinned dancehall singer. Charli XCX features on David Guetta’s “Dirty Sexy Money” where she uses grime-influenced chants on the hook. This isn’t a debate on appropriation nor is it a critique of these artists. Black culture in its many divisions are penetrating mainstream culture globally beyond just music so we’ll be seeing this influence manifest across races and genres whether we like it or not. All I ask is that the originators and descendants of these sounds, fashion trends and popular vernacular be allowed to share the platform rather than shut out or seen as “ghetto”.
The disparity doesn’t doesn’t just exist on an interracial level – colourism is very much an issue as well. Artists like Mabel, Raye and FKA Twigs have been championed – and again this isn’t to discredit their talent or work ethic – but I refuse to believe that there are so few darker-skinned women who are just as talented and working just as hard. This is a thorny topic for many. Jorja Smith was recently at the centre of a Twitter storm with some people pointing out that her skin tone may have played a major part in the recognition she’s been receiving and others dismissing those statements as bitter and demeaning of her talent. Though any history or sociology textbook will tell you that colourism has always been linked to mistreatment and the blocking of socio-economic progress of darker-skinned people globally, to heap this onto the shoulders of Jorja Smith can be seen as unjust. After all, now that she’s in the public eye is she expected to surrender her passion in the hopes that a darker black woman will take her place? Surely we should be holding accountable the A&Rs, radio stations and successful artists who have the power to choose who they collaborate with?
Though artists like Jorja may be harmless in their musical pursuits, old tweets from Stefflon Don that resurfaced not long ago showed a sinister acknowledgment of her privileges as a light-skinned woman with the rapper even taunting darker-skinned women in her now-deleted tweet from 2013. Despite the backlash I have no doubt in my mind that she’ll go on to have a successful music career and collaborate with more big artists. We need only look at the complete ostracisation Azealia Banks has faced for her online behaviour to see just how low tolerance is for dark-skinned woman who cause offence versus the absolution of male counterparts like Kanye West. Furthermore – like with Stefflon Don – we seem to unearth new receipts every week where white or light-skinned women appear to be directing or co-signing insults aimed at dark-skinned black women, yet despite brief Twitter storms, they continue to hang on to lucrative beauty and fashion deals while still excelling in their chosen fields. This says a lot about how lightly we take the abuse of dark-skinned women, in comparison to how quick we are to take down women like Munroe Bergdorf who dare to critique white people.
The British music industry needs to start championing black female artists, and giving them equal footing on the mainstream platform especially since the very cultures that we hear being replicated on our radios right now, originated from black women and their male counterparts. With more African-American artists like Janelle Monae, Kelela and SZA setting the bar stateside and worldwide, the fact that seeing this on a similar scale over here is embarrassing. Let’s really get behind NAO, Ms Banks and Little Simz. Let’s do the same for Denai Moore and Ray BLK. Black male artists in the mainstream should also be looking to black women to collaborate with; all I ever see is Tinie Tempah ft Zara Larsson, Kojo Funds ft Mabel and Sean Paul on a track with Anne Marie. More than anything, record label A&Rs need to get out there and really pay attention to the talented black women who should be stars. They’re out there and they deserve to take centre stage.
Written by Tash Mwansa