Make Yourself Heard: How a DIY spirit opened doors for PoC in the UK music industry
Diversity and representation are major issues in the UK media industry. In 2016, a report published by The Guardian stated that the British journalism sphere is 94% white and 55% male, with a meagre 0.2% accounting for black journalists. In 2017, where artists such as Stormzy, Skepta and J Hus have reached pinnacles, there’s the perception that – in UK music at least – the faces are changing. So what do we really mean by ‘diversity’ and ‘representation’? Have we reached a stage where creatives are allowed to thrive by the powers that be? Or have they taken matters into their own hands?
The new generation of creatives have shown supreme confidence in shunning the industry and projecting their ideals to the scene, across music, media and art. Kojey Radical and Little Simz are glaring examples. Both artists have chosen independent routes – Simz releases music on her AGE 10: Music label, and Kojey through his Pushcrayons platform – and have refused to conform to the mainstream. Instead, their creative control has allowed their music to flourish. Simz’s Stillness in Wonderland album (released mid-December last year, followed by a deluxe re-release in November) and Kojey’s self-funded 2017 project IN GODS BODY have further earned the artists committed fans who respect their DIY grind.
“Rarely have black British people had such an open space to express themselves”
Diversity has also penetrated on a corporate level. In September 2016 Austin Daboh was employed as Spotify’s Senior Editor, and has arguably become one of the industry’s most significant players. Daboh has subsequently used his platform this year to promote black British music – rap, grime and Afrobeats – and big up the likes of Giggs, Yxng Bane, Kojo Funds and more. We’re in an age where playlists and streaming are primary sources for consumption. A 2017 International Federation of the Phonographic Industry report cited a 60% surge in streaming revenue across Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal, with Spotify producing 4500 self-curated playlists over the last year. Clearly, Daboh understands the industry is gearing towards urban music and is demonstrating its ingenuity through playlists like Who We Be, Grime Shutdown and Afro Bashment. Daboh’s example is a massive deal for young black kids hoping to make their own break into the industry, projecting a refreshing representation of themselves onto its faceless mechanics.
This year there was a surge to diversify in the independent realm too. As a beneficiary of this, award-winning print and online magazine gal-dem has constructed a milieu for women of colour to share thoughtful discourses on race, music, culture, politics and the industry. Created and updated by staff from their bedrooms, gal-dem’s authenticity and breadth of content has garnered universal acclaim. 2017 has seen gal-dem continue to go from strength to strength, establishing partnerships with festivals like Outlook and Afropunk while staff members and contributors have gone on to work with established media platforms like the BBC, The Guardian and Dazed.
“Young people of colour have levelled the playing field with their self-created spaces, which have changed perceptions within the industry”
Also taking control of their own narrative is London-born club night BBZ. Founders Tia Simon-Campbell and Nadine Davis have paid homage to the experience of queer women of colour, curating inclusive club nights in celebration of all backgrounds and identities. BBZ’s popularity led to an extensive installation at the second Afropunk London festival in July. Titled My Yard, childhood nostalgia was created through a sequence of bedrooms at Afropunk venue Printworks, and the installation was littered with homages to black British music’s past greatness.
It’s significant that My Yard was exhibited at Afropunk, the festival which boldly celebrates the difference, diversity and creativity of black culture. Launched in Brooklyn in 2005, Afropunk has extended to host festivals across the world, building a community amongst black people from all walks of life. This year, established UK acts JME, Corinne Bailey Rae and NAO performed alongside newcomers Mahalia, Connie Constance and Nadia Rose, entertaining a crowd wearing everything from purple afros dotted with flowers to double hats stacked to the ceiling. Rarely have black British people had such an open space to express themselves as defiantly.
In all, young people of colour have levelled the playing field with their self-created spaces, which have changed perceptions within the industry and shifted the momentum from the establishment – labels, publications and corporations – to the creatives themselves. With a fierce determination to make things happen for themselves, they have reinvented where media is heading. Ultimately, this is what diversity and representation really looked like in 2017.