Why pop’s future is black and British

Ray BLK’s triumph in the BBC’s Sound of 2017 poll underlines the dominance of UK R&B

After a week counting down, the winner of the BBC’s Sound of 2017 poll has been revealed: R&B singer Ray BLK. The Brits, of course, have already spoken. Their Critics’ Choice award last month crowned Uckfield bluesman Rag’n’Bone Man the rootsy solo artist most likely to succeed; he is also the BBCSO17 runner-up. Technically, Rag’n’Bone Man has been bubbling under for some time now and we could probably take this as a positive, as evidence of the music industry nurturing an artist. In choosing him, the Brits did not go for the most obvious pop choice in Dua Lipa.

Having put the already well-known US singer-rapper Anderson .Paak on the longlist, the BBC has not gone for the dead cert, either – a victory for imagination.

Rag’n’Bone Man in Manchester, November 2016.
Rag’n’Bone Man in Manchester, November 2016. Photograph: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage

Ray BLK’s tunes are sometimes stark, but accessible, with distinctive British concerns. Aside from the high quality of her work, the fact that BLK (which stands for Building, Living, Knowing) is not signed to a major label is significant; she responded to her win by dropping a freestyle about not becoming industry cannon fodder. So it’s a victory not just for the Catford singer, but for independent up’n’comers, and for the influence of UK urban music; there are four young black women in the SO2017 top five. BLK is not strictly grime, but has collaborated with MCs such as Stormzy; a UK hip-hop flavour permeates her work.

Like the Mercury roll call, the BBC Sound Of longlist (of 15) provides a crucial jump-start to the non-winning contenders, and illustrates subtle tectonic shifts. The embarrassing whiteness of our music awards ceremonies – a situation not confined to #oscarssowhite – has begun to be been addressed, with grime, a genuinely fresh, young British genre, finally taking considerable pride of place outside the Mobos. Last year’s Mercury win by veteran rapper Skepta has been parlayed into a varied slew of new male and female MCs here.

Stefflon Don.
Stefflon Don. Photograph: Derrick Kakembo

There is no shortage of commerce to Stefflon Don, a kind of homegrown answer to Nicki Minaj, while the silver-tongued Mobo winner Nadia Rose (fifth in BBCSO17 poll) keeps it way more Croydon. Even the smoother Raye – the Charli XCX protege and third in SO2017 – has an edge, a distinctively London feel.

More generally, pop’s appetite for solo artists (cheap to run) seems undiminished, keeping boys in bands in the minority. With songs about wanking into quiche, Mossley’s Cabbage were never going to top lists, but scurvyish polemic is not entirely gone from new music. It was as heartening to see the five-piece react so violently on Twitter to an endorsement by the Sun as it was to hear Declan McKenna taking Fifa to task on his 2015 breakthrough track, Brazil. Not everyone young, it seems, is writing commercial pop-soul about heartbreak. And even when they are – take the slow-burn R&B of Jorja Smith (fourth), for instance – it can go hand in hand with vérité tunes in which someone with a guilty conscience is spooked by flashing blue lights.

You can’t help but wish BLK and these other emerging artists well, as you might wish an acquaintance traversing the South Pole on a hoverboard good luck: they are going to need it. It’s getting infinitely harder to do an Adele, who won both tips in 2008, and actually sell actual records, or even a James Bay (2015 Brits critics’ choice).

Slow-burn R&B… Jorja Smith.
Slow-burn R&B: Jorja Smith. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Last week, the news emerged that the biggest-selling UK debut album of last year was not by Jack Garratt (2016’s BBC Sound Of and Brits critics’ choice). Nor was it by Zayn Malik or Blossoms, the token SO2016 guitar band who went to No 1 with their debut album. It was 56-year-old TV personality Bradley Walsh, with some swing covers.

Yes, there are obvious demographics. Millennials buy fewer albums than over-50s ITV viewers. Swing albums themselves have a perverse appeal: just ask Robbie Williams. Obviously, there are new ways of measuring success now: tickets sold, streams, earnings from syncs, and Ray BLK’s people will be maximising revenue from all of them.

But you can’t help wanting to butt a bass bin in frustration that album sales are diving off an icy cliff. Perhaps to the tune of How Do You Keep the Music Playing? – as sung by Walsh.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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