The Pervasiveness Of American Music Isn’t A Threat To The Richness Of British Culture

Words: Jesse Bernard

With Ella Mai’s success in the States with her song “Boo’d Up”, and the transatlantic relationships artists are forming in greater proportions than years gone by, the clear distinctions between US and UK popular music which once existed, are now slowly eroding. “Boo’d Up” is a song that conjures the ‘90s R&B nostalgia which is often cheapened by lazy sampling, but it’s because of that very reason why it became a hit in America as much as it has in the UK.

For a long time, and whether UK audiences want to ever truly admit, artists and fans alike have sought musical and artistic validation in the States. Historically, there have been a number of reasons why recording artists, predominantly R&B, soul and rap, find themselves relocating. American pop culture is a behemoth of a machine, dominating much of what we consume. Success stories like “Boo’d Up” however indicate not only the strength of British artists, but that many barriers to collaboration that previously existed via technology and resources are now being eroded.

Commercially, there’s a clear difference between the UK and US markets. Where currently Afroswing is the current popular trend in the UK, flute-laced trap-lite sounds are what have been dominating the US over the past few years. At that level, it becomes difficult to sell what used to be an alien sound like grime to US audiences without them having a full understanding of the cultural context behind it, hence why it received negative criticism in the States and, to an extent, still does. America’s cultural hyper visibility, on the other hand, means that UK audiences have been accustomed to popular genres and sounds from the US because of the sheer size of the market compared to ours.

There are few songs that attempted to wash away that line drawn in the sand quite like Estelle’s “American Boy”, featuring Kanye West. Estelle knew that with her neo-soul leaning style of rap and R&B, she would be better received in a market more receptive to her sound. And that it took Kanye West for Estelle to reach the Top 10 in the UK charts speaks of the validation audiences themselves subconsciously seek from American music. Floetry made a similar decision a few years prior when their debut album, Floetic, peaked at No. 4 on the US R&B charts, earning a gold certification, while not even charting in the UK when released in 2002.

With grime, the stories differ slightly. The idiosyncrasies in the sound and culture created a clear distinction of that and rap, which has made it difficult for it to be fully received in the States. Although it may not be as popular at present among mainstream audiences, at an underground, independent level still, we’ve been given plenty evidence as to why the culture will remain healthy without having a stronghold in the US—the existence of this very platform being one of them.

There’s a richness and depth to black British music history which may not be as ghetto fabulous as hip-hop but it’s given cultural sustenance to generations on a small island where we are less than 10% of the population. The cultural importance of black British music can’t be measured or weighed by size of audience or sales. We created raising your hand as a replica gun in the dance and motioning like a piston, the ‘no hats no hoods’ era which gave a British-laced idea of what ghetto fabulous should look like.

Black British music has been able to remain so unique for so long because it has sought to seek out its own identities, much like anywhere else would in the diaspora, and it serves it little by it being seen as competition. It works for artists like Drake, Skepta and Giggs for the most part, and beyond bragging rights in the ‘grime vs rap’ debate among segments of fans, there’s little that’s provided in seeing an overseas market as a rival, particularly when it detracts from the uniqueness of UK underground sounds in a ubiquitous environment.

It’s inescapable that American music will infiltrate our lives; given the pervasiveness of technology and media, it allows us to experience the frivolous display of a culture not our own through entertainment. This shouldn’t weaken our perception or experiences of British music but remind us of the abundance of sounds such as grime, R&B, rap, garage and reggae that have enriched our lives within this pocket of the diaspora.

Posted on August 13, 2018