The Black British Renaissance Existed Underground Before It Went Mainstream

Words: Jesse Bernard

Some of the few visceral memories that have stayed with me since childhood (well, the ones I wish to hold onto) are of the music I was introduced to via my parents’ record collection; too young to truly appreciate the early music education I would receive for most of my childhood through D’Influence, Loose Ends, Mica Paris, Sade, Soul II Soul and more. In the early-to-mid 2000s, when it seemed as though there was a decreased black British presence within the charts, it was through tastemakers such as Jenny Francis and Trevor Nelson that soul and R&B artists found an audience, while pirate radio and newly-founded startups like Lord Of The Mics and Risky Roadz gave a home to the MCs flourishing at the time. The story is pretty similar for other underground scenes that had to thrive in live venues such as Jazz Re:freshed which, fortunately, still lives today.

I’m sure many have similar experiences, but with all those black British names and voices I was exposed to as a child and throughout my later years, by retracing those memories, one thing has become apparent: the foundations of the current black British renaissance can be traced back to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. As far back as 2015, discussion has arisen regarding a contemporary renaissance taking place in black British culture, namely music. The arrival of Stormzy, Dave, NAO and J Hus into the mainstream, and the chart presence of the likes of Not3s, Jorja Smith, AJ Tracey et al., have led many to believe a black renaissance has only just emerged within UK music. No doubt, there’s been a surge in interest in drill, Afrobeats, R&B and rap—number one albums from Stormzy and Dave suggest so—however, history has shown that visibility in the charts doesn’t always lead to career longevity or sustained success.

With a visibly increased interest in black British sounds, particularly UK drill and jazz, this has led to black artists finding themselves in the charts at a higher rate compared to fifteen years ago. It’s the reason why festival bookings, both domestically and internationally, have become routine for these artists in recent years. In her book, Urban Music and Entrepreneurship: Beats, Rhymes and Young People’s Enterprise, Dr. Joy White explores the “urban” music economy and the exportation of grime post-2009, drawing on the success MCs found in holiday resorts such as Ayia Napa. She goes on to explore the idea that one of the reasons why grime flourished was the desire of independence and status. Considering that many of the scene’s veterans can be considered legacy artists, given their longevity, it challenges the notion that success is dependent upon mainstream visibility.

In 2006, journalist Hannah Pool for The Guardian explained that “the problem lies at the heart of the record industry. Its interest in black British music is seldom genuine; it wanes quickly and it is always ready to move on to the next big thing.” She then went on to add: “The suits, and the money they bring with them, never stick around long enough to nurture black British talent, which means black British music has no solid foundations. Hence its ability seemingly to disappear.”

Tastes among pop/mainstream audiences change very quickly depending on current trends. At one point in time, it seemed as though garage would be able to thrive in the charts, but the mainstream success was short-lived. Given the precarious history the industry has had with black British music, the reality is that its foundations lie in the underground, independent scenes that have shaped many of them that still exist today. Does it really disappear, or in truth, does the general public and industry lose interest in sounds they don’t completely understand? Streaming numbers may suggest that the current wave of Afrobeats-inspired pop coming out of the UK is at the height of its popularity, but eventually, mainstream audiences will move on as new trends begin to emerge.

Pool went on to note how the indie scene of the mid-to-late 2000s dwarfed the progression of what were typically considered “urban” sounds. Along with grime and UK hip-hop systemically being shut out at the time, self-starters and independent platforms began to blossom aided by the MySpace migration. It’s an idea that held little weight considering that, for a long time, British pop-R&B has emulated black American melodies. Lynden David Hall—who signed to Cool Tempo, an imprint of Virgin EMI in the mid-1990s—achieved moderate chart success at a time where audiences had already been introduced to label-mate, D’Angelo.

The success stories are few and far between, if we’re measuring by sustained chart presence over a period of time. So Solid Crew (pictured), who rose from pirate radio and South London raves to the charts, sparked mainstream interest in garage at a time when most MCs and DJs were being routinely shut out by the industry. While they represented a pivotal transitional period for the genre, which would later birth grime, there were those who were less successful yet still maintained a dominant presence. By calling an explosion, or wave, of artists emerging a ‘renaissance’, we erase and ignore the work of those less visible names.

London-via-Liverpool duo Floetry found chart success across the Atlantic with their debut album, Floetic, released in 2002. Peaking at 19 on the US Billboard 200, the success of Floetic catapulted vocalist Marsha Ambrosius to becoming a well sought-after voice in both rap and R&B. Let’s not forget, she also co-wrote Michael Jackson’s 2001 hit, “Butterflies”—the Floetry demo recording can be heard on their album. Not to mention, Estelle’s “American Boy” with Kanye West and her earlier work with John Legend and Talib Kweli marked the continuing of a tradition where Britain’s neo-soul artists found musical homes in the States. It’s a pattern that followed a commonly-held thought that British artists attempting neo-soul weren’t considered authentic, hence the lack of British chart success. Historically, that idea doesn’t give an accurate representation of the relationship that exists between black American and black British music, and adds complexity to how to categorise when cultural exchange is how many black music forms still exist today. Therefore, it’s less so that neo-soul didn’t have a home and a likelihood that mainstream British audiences found the sound too nuanced for their ears.

If, indeed, increased visibility has led to greater chart success for non-pop UK black musicians, it’s worth acknowledging those that sought career longevity from outside the mainstream have achieved a feat which has alluded many of them. In the digital era, where it’s much easier to chart and track the success of artists, it’s important to consider that some names didn’t survive the transition toward digital-led media and their stories exist in the archives of magazines also unable to exist when physical sales depleted. For some artists and musicians, the underground scene is all they know and for others, it’s all they care to navigate. The lesser-known but still visible voices that exist within contemporary black British music shouldn’t suffer the same fate as their predecessors.

Black art has always existed within the margins, therefore it becomes less about a renaissance and more about which voices are deemed more pertinent than others. When mainstream audiences move onto the next big phenomenon, it’ll always be the underground that represents the brightest and best of black British talent.

Posted on May 21, 2019