2019: The Year Black British Music Broke The Glass Ceiling

If 2019 has taught us anything, it’s that British music continues to excel in reach and stature. Whether the aura of our legends has grown, or the ascent of the new generation has soared, the year has been defined by one seismic shift after another. Gone are the days where the UK had little to say musically, where artists looked beyond their own country for inspiration. We’re now in a more pro-active, go-getting era where our music scene can stand next to that of any country and hold our heads up high.

For some, 2019 marked the crystallisation of many of our young bucks. A strong contender for ‘Winner of 2019’ is Dave, whose achievements in the last 365 are tantamount to sheer brilliance. Topping the album charts with his debut album Psychodrama, for which he would later win the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, Santan followed through on the massive talent he clearly possesses and joined an elite class of musicians in the process. Stormzy, a fellow South Londoner, made strides previously unheard for black British emcees. Securing only the second ever UK number one single by a rapper for “Vossi Bop”, Big Mikey took his momentum to the headline slot at Glastonbury Festival and shut it down. For nearly five minutes, he reeled off the names of UK talent past and present, nodding to the abundant talent we possess to a worldwide audience. And his second studio album, Heavy Is The Head, will ensure a noteworthy end to what has been an amazing year.

In equal measure, Kano’s musical return after three years—with the video of the year for “Trouble”, a modern grime classic in “Class of Deja”, and the subsequent Hoodies All Summer album—was an inspiring sign that the UK legends of a previous generation still have much to offer the game. The same can be said for Skepta, Giggs, Wretch 32 and P Money, whose respective projects represented continuous growth and maturation for the OGs. Their steady foundation has allowed for their younger counterparts to fly. Little Simz stood up and was counted in 2019, too. Her Mercury Prize-nominated album, GREY Area, surely confirmed what many already know: that she is a top-class spitter, and has been from day dot. In a rap market still overwhelmingly dominated by men, Simz’s presence cut through the male milieu and earned her new levels of visibility, simply for being good at what she does.

As 2019 rolled on, it became clearer that UK music had a J Hus-shaped void. His release from prison in April and appearance alongside Drake at London’s o2 Arena was the year’s most heartfelt moment, much like the return of Simba to Pride Rock after his self-imposed exile in The Lion King. The feeling was very much that the scene’s prodigal son had returned, and his following Daily Duppy freestyle, feature on Dave’s track “Disaster” and official comeback track “Must Be” marked a slow but steady return to top form.

UK drill also had a lot to say this year. The wider debate of its correlation to the epidemic of knife crime on London’s streets could do nothing to silence its stars. Headie One arguably shook off his tag as a drill artist, transforming into a well-rounded rapper of substance, while K-Trap, Digga D, Skengdo x AM and more expanded the variety of the genre beyond its ominous origins. It is now, more so than the beginning of the year, a commercially viable option for a new generation of rappers.

2019 wasn’t without controversy however, as cultural appropriation debates reared their head once again around the enigma that is Alex From Glasto, the young teenager who blew from rapping Dave’s “Thiago Silva” on stage with the artist during his Glastonbury set. Appearances on national TV, a debut single and lots of Twitter outrage later, the shine on Alex was very much a passing moment, but one that continued to ask questions about how certain sectors of the country perceive our scene. The ever-colourful Wiley made sure his voice was heard throughout the year, beefing with everyone from Skepta and Drake to Ed Sheeran while orchestrating one of the tunes of the year in “Boasty”. Authenticity lay at the heart of his beefs with Sheeran and Drake, which—as an elder statesman—Wiley has earned the right to comment on, and the respective tensions served as further proof that there is never a dull day for Eskiboy.

The likes of slowthai, Octavian, Kojey Radical, Jorja Smith, AJ Tracey, NSG, Aitch and Ms Banks provided a considerable backbone to the scene’s success throughout the year, strengthening UK rap, R&B and grime in equal measure. Meanwhile, further underground, Knucks, BenjiFlow, Yizzy, JGrrey, Miles From Kinshasa, Greentea Peng, Arlo Parks and more set the groundwork for future success in their own right in the coming years. The fact that so many talented names can now be reeled off at a whim speaks to the breadth and depth that the scene has continued to find in 2019.

As the decade comes to a close, pondering the trajectory of black British music is an interesting endeavour. Barely recognisable from the glittery, money-fuelled grabs at chart success of the early years, the scene now stands at the decade’s end as a multifaceted incubator for greatness that pays as much tribute to its legends as it does its new gen. 2019 was another step in its evolutionary phase, as the next year and decade will also prove to be.

Editor’s Note: The playlist below is in no particular order.

Posted on December 13, 2019