Jude Rogers | Is Speech Debelle really 'not black enough'?

Speech Debelle seems to be yearning for another vision of blackness, rather than settling for being 'urban' and making race redundant

In the whirlwind of comment and criticism that followed last week's Mercury shortlist announcement, you may have missed a bold statement from one nominee. This short, sharp shock came from Speech Debelle, the 26-year-old south London rapper whose debut album, Speech Therapy, struck a more serious note in a list that had moments of frou-frou and flounciness.

In this week's Sunday Times, Debelle speculated why her music wasn't played on Choice FM, the Brixton-born hip-hop station with which she grew up, and revisited a provocative statement in Hip Hop Connection Digital magazine in May. She had told the magazine, "I'm not black enough for certain black radio stations," and explained herself more fully to the Sunday Times by discussing the uselessness of the term "urban". "It probably came from a middle-aged white man thinking, 'This is too black, but that's not as black, so it's not as offensive. Let's call it urban, then we don't have to say black any more.'"

Before we get into the politics of music and race, let's begin by stating the obvious. One way music is defined is by the genres and labels that people create for it, which are then used to help sell that music. These labels might be rooted in similarities to other kinds of music, or based on something about the sound, but their boundaries and limits become the stuff of argument almost instantly. Go to messageboards and you'll find formerly sensitive souls effing and blinding about the differences between indiepop and twee, or clubbers throwing their dummies out of their rave-carts as they argue the toss between happy hardcore and donk. They do this for simple reasons: to belong to a gang, to feel part of a scene and preserve its autonomy.

When race enters the equation, however, labels become tricky, often dangerous, creatures. When Debelle said her album was "not black enough" for some radio programmers, she was making assumptions rather than stating facts. Also, it's easy to argue that Speech Therapy is very much a "black" album: it details the formative experiences of a black woman, and uses black politics ("For every Malcolm X, there's a President Bush," she raps on The Key) and black musical icons (Tupac Shakur in Bad Boy) as lyrical touchstones. By that logic, however, verses about vegans and Xboxes could make it a record about aubergines or technology – and, on the flipside of this argument, how often have you called an album by Blur, the Kinks or Lily Allen a white album?

Nevertheless, when Debelle talks about the lack of "blackness" in her music, she is probably not talking about her lyrics. Listen to her record, and hear the differences between it and the albums on the Choice FM playlist. When she talks about a record's blackness or otherwise, she is probably talking about the way her songs sound, about the clouds of woodwind and strings that carry them along. Choice FM pushes the sultry R&B of Beyoncé and Jamie Foxx, the dancehall swagger of Sean Paul and the autotuned rudeness of Jeremih's Birthday Sex. Debelle doesn't strut, she slinks, and when she sings about bedroom antics on Buddy Love ("Pull up the handbrake, we can do it right here") her words don't strike hard, they are released sweetly. Next to songs that are often presented as sexual, sensual or aggressive creatures, Debelle seems to be yearning for another vision of blackness – one that is purposefully gentle, delicate and different – rather than settling for a term such as "urban" to render her race redundant.

Many people may advise Debelle not to cling to her colour. But we must remember that labels, at their roots, can be sources of pride, as well as prejudice. All Debelle wants is to have her voice heard on a radio station for young, black Londoners, and there's nothing wrong with that. And when she asks why she isn't thought of as a black pioneer, she is not trying to limit herself, she is expanding the meaning of that idea, opening up the scene, and asking more of us to belong.


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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