The “Is UK R&B Dead?” Debate Has Got To Stop.

Words: Yemi Abiade

Since the arrival of R&B trio FLO this year, with their viral smash “Cardboard Box” and subsequent debut EP The Lead, fans have revelled at the latest incarnation of the genre on UK shores. With their textured, angelic vocals and music videos channelling the heyday of UK and US girl groups—from Sugababes to Destiny’s Child—FLO carry a nostalgic but forward-thinking feel that is both promising and exciting. Their entry comes at a time when the very existence and progress of UK R&B continues to be under intense question, a harsh line in the sand being drawn between fans and onlookers who are invested in the genre vs those who, on the surface, don’t appear to be. It feels like we’ve been having the same debate for aeons now. Side A argues UK R&B isn’t any good, or barely exists. Side B disagrees with detailed examples. Side A scoffs. The end. To explore this issue is to pick apart various factors that, when combined, can determine which side of the fence you stand.

Let’s assume those who decry UK R&B are right; that it isn’t credible. In the first half of the 2010s, after R&B blossomed somewhat thanks to the commercial success of Craig David, Lemar, Gabrielle, Jamelia and so many more legends in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the state of the genre here felt stagnant in the wider context of UK Black music being drowned out by the mainstream electro-pop phase of the late noughties and early 2010s, consuming and detaching would-be rap and R&B stars from the pure elements of their genres. As a result, the sounds were left to migrate underground, thus creating a disconnect with certain sections of music fans who only value the success of a genre by how visible it is, namely how well it is doing on the charts. It may explain why, even in recent years, artists such as Mabel and RAYE—who both got their starts as R&B singers—have transitioned to pop and commercial house to great success. Or someone like London-born Ella Mai who, by virtue of being raised in America, kickstarted her own wave to a predominantly US audience. Fans over here were almost conditioned to discard pure R&B as unpopular as a result, regurgitating itself today on the social timeline.

Kara Harris, a live music promoter for AEG and Goldenvoice and radio host for No Signal Radio, breaks down this conundrum: “If R&B isn’t presented perfectly to people, either through the mainstream or via buzz through social media, then they just think it’s not there. People make such broad statements that aren’t based on using their ears but what they see in front of them. They think, ‘There isn’t a big UK R&B artist. I don’t hear UK R&B when I’m out, so it must be dead,’ when that is such a narrow way of thinking. You can’t sit on your computer and claim you love R&B and with the same breath say UK R&B is dead.”

Now for the other, more reliable side. The proliferation of the UK scene as a whole since grime’s resurgence in 2014 has allowed for new players to emerge representing UK R&B. These artists are not governed by any particular sound, thus taking their artistry, grounded in R&B influences, to new sonic territory. They exist in spades. Throughout Jorja Smith’s career, she’s proven adaptable to old-school soul, Afrobeats and UK garage, grounding her direction with soulful expression. The same could be said of Ray BLK, Mahalia, Sinead Harnett, Jaz Karis, Bree Runway, Etta Bond, Ama Lou, Ojerime and Miraa May, artists that offer variety under the umbrella of the genre. For the traditional heads, Cleo Sol, Jamilah Barry and Tiana Major9 (who was recently handpicked by Adele to perform in front of a worldwide audience at BST Hyde Park) carry the torch for stripped-back, voice-led R&B that evokes feeling.

Their output reflects the general melting pot that the scene is musically, but never do they lose their credibility as R&B artists. And as much as women voices are thriving, men are equally excelling in the genre and putting their own spin on it, from BenjiFlow, Ragz Originale, JVCK JAMES and Children Of Zeus to Kadeem Tyrell, Jelani Blackman, A2 and Miles From Kinshasa. Even the newer class of artists coming up such as Bellah, Shae Universe, Nippa, Geovarn, Mnelia and Jim Legxacy are keeping things fresh with their takes on rap, drill and trap. I could name names until the Martians touch down and the point would only become more valid: UK R&B is alive and well! “UK R&B is so versatile and experimental,” says Harris. “There are artists that make really good, traditional R&B, that make nostalgic, 2000s-era R&B, that make soulful R&B and even alternative and electronic R&B. The genre shows up as a foundation for so many artists that there isn’t solely one sound that represents the genre. Talent-wise, UK R&B has everything.”

These artists may not be the finished article—racking up millions of streams, or ‘blown’ by any particular definition—but they are visible, present and active, touring the country and wider world, receiving radio airplay and playlist placements. On top of Tiana Major9’s link-up with Adele, the likes of Cleo Sol and Shae Universe recently sold out their first headline shows, while Miraa May and Bellah shut down Wireless Festival, symbols of ultimate acknowledgment from a legion of fans ready to take them in. It may take a bit of digging to find these artists for some, but they are there to be found; the work of online platforms such as Soul Surge, The Blues Project and 360RNB to assist discovery means that these artists are just one click away.

We can argue about the visibility R&B gains in the present day: bigger and more established platforms such as record labels most certainly should do more to uplift their artists, particularly those of colour. If anything, the genre has been underserviced—often with racial overtones—for years by a very deliberate bias by the powers that be to Black R&B artists, particularly women, creating a void that some fans still feel needs filling in the mainstream arena. Think of Beverley Knight remarking that her skin was “maybe too dark” for her to be successful in the early 2000s, or Alexandra Burke being urged to bleach her skin after winning The X Factor to appear marketable years later. These are biases that aren’t too far from the present day that continue to persist, robbing the culture of genuine talent. “There have to be widescale changes within the industry, especially when it comes to Black women,” Harris says. “But that won’t change until the music industry deals with the broader issue of racism. The perception of UK R&B has to change. We can’t compare it to America or look for a Summer Walker in London; there has to be an openness and willingness to give it a chance.”

Elsewhere, we could even argue about whether the music itself moves you as an individual; there is certainly room for improvement for those artists at the early stages, especially as it pertains to putting out absolute, genre-defining bodies of work. Harris expresses her desire for this new generation to reach those heights: “I think the output from UK R&B artists has to improve, in terms of projects. I’m not saying there are no quality projects at all, but I think there is room to grow in terms of putting out a strong body of work, that tells a story, that allows people to get to know you. I don’t even think it’s the artists’ fault—I think we live in a music culture where everyone is chasing that single, that hot song that’ll pay your mortgage for decades. But I think when a genre is growing, there needs to be a definitive album that people can always think of with fondness.”

One thing we can’t do, however, is pretend UK R&B isn’t in great health right now. Despite the overall framework of the scene, new players continue to emerge to break the chain of perception and prejudice and present themselves as extensions of the genre. Most excitingly, this new school is still young and finding themselves artistically, making the future of UK R&B incredibly bright. Will they top the charts or become superstars? TBC. But an abundance of variety is on show, on a level not quite seen before, evolving the genre beyond recognition in this country. To question the validity of UK R&B is as disingenuous as it is insulting to the acts fixing to make a mark. Attitudes towards them and the genre need to change, and the sooner we all get on board and support those repping, the better.

“The talent will only get stronger and stronger,” Harris adds. “Maybe one or two artists will be able to break through into the mainstream and potentially open the door for other artists. Every genre has its time and I think R&B will have its time. I hope that once it gets there the music industry doesn’t do what it does with all genres that are hot: commercialise it and then make it formulaic. UK R&B is so creative, it doesn’t just sit in one box and it should never have to.”

Posted on August 01, 2022