Contemporary Black British Music Is In A State Of Transition

Words: Jesse Bernard

As a music journalist, there’s nothing more taxing and nauseating than having to describe a genre of music that has yet to fully evolve into its mature form. Grime suffered from this in the early noughties when MCs, DJs, and producers were still transitioning out of a heavy UK garage sound. More than a decade later, the name stuck as this exciting, forward-facing genre that combined the grittiness of road life with the dance and electronic culture of UKG and jungle.

Genre defining has been one of the elements of British underground music that’s never really been a priority for its musicians. As fans and critics alike, our need to classify the music we listen to is important, as it falls under the conversation of ownership and identity. People want something they can easily recognise because it gives them a sense of belonging, but as underground genres have emerged under this new generation of artists, we’re caught in a state of flux where there still needs to be room for development of a culture before becoming mainstream. Hence why so many grime artists found it difficult navigating commercial success in the early days, due to a core grime culture still being cultivated.

Afrobeats—through a British lens—is still in a gestation period. If fans recall, it was around 2009-2013 where Afrobeats gained some prominence in the club scene and charts, but there was still an undeniable continental African identity to it. Artists that have combined it with grime, trap, and dancehall have done so as it speaks to their own relationships with black music genres in this country. Many of us who grew up with grime found other genres later on, such as UK funky, Afrobeats, and even deep house. And for those acts who found a lane in music, experience and circumstances really do shape sound.

Grime itself is an interesting genre to debate in 2018. Over the past couple of years, its ‘resurgence’ has been well-documented and there are many differing views on what it sounds like. In the mainstream charts, grime hasn’t been as prominent as commentary has led us to believe; in a purist’s eyes, it still remains firmly for the radio and raves such as Grime Originals, which has been credited as occupying the space Eskimo Dance has now vacated since its influx of middle-class audiences. Artists such as AJ Tracey and even Stormzy, who found their beginning in grime, have begun adopting more rap-inspired sounds because that’s what the trend currently dictates.

Afro-wave—a hybrid genre that’s recently emerged—could easily be described as a culmination of Afrobeats, trap, UK rap and grime. Leading names behind the sound include J Hus, MoStack, Sneakbo and Kojo Funds, as well as UK Afrobeats pioneers Afro B and DJ P Montana. In a recent interview with TRENCH, P Montana broke down the intricacies of UK Afrobeats and how it differs from the traditional West African afrobeat style. “Where you can hear an accent,” he explained, “it’s always going to be Afro, so that’s where the whole Afroswing and Afrobashment thing comes from.” While that goes some way to explain what typically makes a sound ‘Afro’, there is still the musical arrangement to consider. “If you listen to the ting, it’s not Afrobeats,” he added. “A lot of the beats are bashment, but because they’re not Caribbean, they always put the Afro ahead of it. From that, it just connects people around them and it’s making the sound universal. That’s how both worlds linked.”

Then there’s UK drill, which transcended to popularity through 67, Harlem Spartans and Section Boyz. An obvious black American import, namely from Chicago, drill remains grounded in depicting road life post-2011 London Riots. Youth worker and journalist Ciaran Thapar credits the rise of UK drill to the harsh conditions for London’s youth that haven’t seemingly improved under this Tory government. “Drill thus presents a chicken-and-egg conundrum,” he wrote in a piece for The Guardian. “On the one hand, it’s a reflection of the harsh social environment its artists are forced to inhabit. This is plagued by a bleak, race-to-the-bottom mentality that requires carrying a weapon and dealing drugs to feel secure.”

Many often decry the genre for it being believed to influence knife crime in London but, without the sound, we’d be led to believe that things are rosy in the capital for its black youth. At present, various black-originated genres have carved out their own spaces in the underground, mainstream and the awkward space in between. Live music has allowed space for all of these genres to coexist in a city where it was often difficult to find a night that catered predominantly to bashment and hip-hop.

Afro-wave is an interesting entity because, for it to survive, it needs more than a few artists pioneering the sound—but there’s yet to be a visible culture that the fusion genre brings to British music. Where grime created its own culture through pirate radio sets, wheel-ups, clashes and war dubs, UK drill and Afro-wave are yet to create such an environment in underground music. As previously mentioned, these two sounds are still in a gestation period, but due to both sounds being fairly popular in mainstream music, many of its identifying features will be placed on it by pop culture. It may just be that Afro-wave will serve and exist as a trend.

While this means there’s a viable route to success, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s longevity in it and artists will need to ensure they ground their styles in genres with concrete and easily-identifiable cultures. With the propensity at which new music is released these days, emerging undergrounds need to adopt a core sound as well as dabbling in what may end up being a trend that lasts a few years. When you look at the charts and the most popular artists that are prominent right now, it becomes even more difficult to claim that grime is enjoying a resurgence. If anything, grime facilitated the popular emergence of Afrobeats and UK drill while it continued to flourish underground—a space where, perhaps, it’s most effective and impactful.

Image credits: Ashley Verse.

Posted on March 05, 2018