‘The British music industry needs to update’: Paloma Faith, Nao, Sleaford Mods and others on 2018’s music controversies

Artists including Kojey Radical, Let’s Eat Grandma and Róisín Murphy discuss the year’s biggest stories, from Childish Gambino’s This Is America to the rise of K-pop and Jessie J’s success in China

April: Kanye West reaffirmed his support for Donald Trump on Twitter, part of a turbulent year in which he claimed slavery was “a choice”, released several albums, visited Trump in the White House, handed out Yeezy shoes in Uganda and announced he was thinking of building a flying-car factory.

Kojey Radical: I feel conflicted. I’ve got Yeezys on right now. The problem is, for all the contribution he’s made to music, he’s gotten to the point now where he just likes the conversation.

Kanye West meeting Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in October
Kanye West meeting Donald Trump at the White House in October. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Jenny Hollingworth (Let’s Eat Grandma): There’s speculation about his mental health when none of us actually know anything. I don’t like it when people censor others’ opinions by saying they’re crazy – it’s a bad way of looking at mental health. I think the responsibility rests on the people around him who are profiting from all this controversy.

Kojey Radical: If the music was still lit, we wouldn’t care.

Hollingworth: The thing is, if anyone else had released that album [Ye] this year, people would have been more into it.

Kojey Radical: It ain’t lit, I’m telling you. If I was making my favourite playlist of the year, a couple of tracks off those albums might sneak in.

Alexis Petridis: If he came back with a killer album, do you think people would forget about everything else?

Kojey Radical: People wouldn’t forget it, but at least you’d be able to have a conversation about Kanye that was about the music. We need a conversation about the music now – we need to hold him to account about how his shit ain’t happening. It ain’t hitting; it was hitting before.

Jason Williamson (Sleaford Mods): He’s probably peaked, but that [West-produced] Pusha T album was brilliant.

Kojey Radical and Róisín Murphy at a Guardian roundtable
Róisín Murphy (left) and Kojey Radical. Photograph: Linda Nylind/Guardian

Kojey Radical: Pusha’s album was cold, but then it just went down. Now Kanye’s gone and done a record with 6ix9ine [an American rapper who is in prison awaiting trial on racketeering charges]. Cool, but why have you done that, apart from getting numbers? Clearly, your actions are showing me you want attention more than you want to make great music. You’re in Uganda giving out white trainers. Who have you helped? It’s clickbait for people to say: “Look at the nice thing Kanye did,” and it’s not nice. Give them books.

April: Drill music – a “‘demonic’ music linked to [the] rise in youth murders”, according to the Sunday Times – was repeatedly attacked in the press. In June, drill group 1011 were handed a court order banning them from making music without police permission and from mentioning death, injury or postcodes (in a gang context) in their tracks. In August, the rapper Incognito was stabbed to death, making him the second member of the Camberwell drill group Moscow 17 to be murdered. Moscow 17 had been involved in a long-running, violent feud with the Peckham group Zone 2, stoked by diss tracks posted on YouTube.

Kojey Radical: I think with drill music, it’s a form of expression. These kids are narrating what they go through in their life. At the start of the year, I lost my best friend to a stabbing and it was a very tough thing to deal with. I know music didn’t make me feel like that – life made me feel like that. I don’t even make drill music, but music might have been my way of expressing that.

They don’t have an answer for why [knife crime] spikes, they don’t want to address the fact they’ve taken money out of fundamental things. There are plenty of things that don’t exist now that existed when I was young, that took people out of situations or at least gave them an outlet to express themselves in a more positive way. Like youth clubs, for example. I knew a lot of man that went to youth club to record; there were people there who could guide some of the decisions they made around music.

But, then again, it’s always going to come down to what do the kids want to do, how do they want to express themselves. I know a lot of man that don’t even want to do drill no more because it’s hot for them. As soon as police are on to you, it makes everything else difficult; you can’t book shows.

Paloma Faith: I understand [the police’s] perspective, where at some point you might go: “We’re terrified because this person has threatened to do this to somebody else, what can we do about it?” But I agree with Kojey that you can’t just think that if you take away the genre of music that it won’t happen in another manifestation. You’ve still got social media and you’ve still got these conflicts.

Kojey Radical: It’s coming from the kids and the kids ain’t living nothing positive. It has to start in real life for it to affect the music.

Jenny Hollingworth from Let’s Eat Grandma and Nao
Jenny Hollingworth from Let’s Eat Grandma (left) and Nao. Photograph: Linda Nylind/Guardian

Nao: It’s a lot to do with marginalised people and cuts – drill is just an expression. The problem I think is that we’re in an era of narcissism. It’s a big thing across social media, so if you’re publicly shaming someone who’s part of gang culture, saying “this man’s doing this”, and it’s been shared among their friends, then they have to find a way to respond.

Williamson: From a musician’s point of view, drill is real-time invention – this thing is changing all the time. I listen to it from the comfort of my nice suburban home, but it’s bleak. These lads are virtually crying on the microphone. There’s nothing glamorous about it and they know that. They’re not sending up consumerism when they’re talking about what they own and what they’re going to get. It’s just miserable and you get that.

May: Childish Gambino released This Is America and its acclaimed video directed by Hiro Murai, which became the most discussed of the year. Billboard called it one of the greatest videos of the 21st century, but a critical piece in Vanity Fair suggested it was “tilted toward a liberal pop-culture intelligentsia … in love with getting spanked by black truth-tellers”.

Watch the video for This Is America by Childish Gambino.

Faith: I loved it. I’m a liberal and I love a good spanking. I thought the video was amazing.

Williamson: When it first came out, I just heard the tune and I said on Twitter I didn’t rate it. People were just going at me, then I saw the video and thought: “Oh.” For a while, it did seem like it was a load of my white mates going: “Grr, it’s really important,” then forgetting about it. There’s hundreds of records –

Kojey Radical: Yeah, there’s loads. Nothing he was showing in the video was a new thing. I think he put it together well enough to create a conversation. If it can create that much reaction, by the end of it you don’t care what other people think. Whatever people want to interpret it as, you’ve made it, put it to the world and it is what it is. So, it was sick. But Vince Staples does a video like that every month and no one talks about it.

Róisín Murphy: He’s a polymath – it’s like a TV show. In terms of being a production put together from all angles, it’s brilliant.

Kojey Radical: I think a deeper discussion is hard to have because we’re not Americans. We have our struggles and then we’re all spectators to theirs. I think there’s nuances to that video you would probably only understand if you were American.

May: BTS released Love Yourself: Tear, which became the K-pop band’s first UK Top 10 album. Following a breakthrough year in 2017, a glut of Latin American pop hits land throughout 2018, suggesting that the chart is now somewhere non-English-language music can be more than a novelty.

BTS performing on Jimmy Kimmel Live in Los Angeles
BTS on Jimmy Kimmel Live in Los Angeles. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Nao: Consumerism of music has changed – it’s not necessarily driven by the labels or Radio 1. The power of choice is with the audience and everyone is discovering music in different ways. Little kids love YouTube, they binge-watch loads of influencers who are like: “I LOVE K-POP!” That’s a factor.

Rosa Walton (Let’s Eat Grandma): That’s a positive of music streaming: more stuff is accessible. All the teenagers who I know who are in this fan world, they go on Tumblr blogs where K-pop had been separated out from mainstream pop. As soon as [streaming] merged them, they realised that K-pop was way more popular than they thought. It was just that it hadn’t been given a platform.

Faith: What’s popular on a commercial level is normally not lyric-based. Obviously, there are artists that still focus on lyrics, but mostly it’s about being melodically contagious, so the language it’s in is irrelevant. For years I’ve said to my label that I want to sing in these other languages I can speak – Spanish, Italian, French – and they always say to me: “No, why? Your audience is English.” It’s quite exciting that might be happening.

Hollingworth: With a lot of K-pop songs, the choruses are in English and everything else is Korean. Its rise has been very gradual – it has taken 10 years. I don’t think anyone really knows what’s going to happen next because I don’t think people quite realised it was going to break through as much as it did.

Murphy: There’s a political dimension, isn’t there? South Korea being next to North Korea, which is the sworn enemy of the world. To have a situation where there’s pride in a country that’s attached to more western ideals – is there a conspiracy theory going on? I’m not much of a tinfoil-head, but surely there’s going to be certain powers that will be extremely happy to see the rise of K-pop. You know, it’s cultural warfare, in a way.

May: Rita Ora released the bisexuality-themed single Girls, which proved controversial: queer artists and commentators accused her of appropriating their sexuality, being tone-deaf and doing “more harm than good for the LGBTQ+ community”.

Watch the video for Girls by Rita Ora.

Hollingworth: I think she didn’t necessarily have that intention for that track, but, if you look at who wrote it, there were six guys involved. I think it’s pretty much written from the male gaze. Even the video is … exploitation of female sexuality. Bisexuality is something with so many misconceptions around it already.

Nao: Afterwards, people were asking Rita Ora if she was bisexual. Obviously, she has to be responsible, but it’s probably the male writers who were pushing their perspective on to her.

Petridis: Is there a wider problem here – that pop stars feel they have to engage with social issues, political issues, gender issues, whether or not they have anything to say about them?

Kojey Radical: If the same song came out 10 years ago, no one would have cared.

Hollingworth: I don’t think it’s a problem that issues are being talked about or that we want songs about these issues. Hayley Kiyoko was one of the musicians who talked about the Rita Ora track. She’s a gay musician who writes about loving women ... As a queer woman, she’s able to talk accurately about her experience of living. I think it’s important to have music about it. Obviously, when people have nothing to do with it, it’s going to be crap.

Faith: I feel in that context there was a bit of a bandwagon involved.

Petridis: Another argument is that a mainstream pop star putting this song out crowds out queer voices. Do you think there’s a lack of diversity in pop?

Jason Williamson from Sleaford Mods
Jason Williamson from Sleaford Mods (left) and Alexis Petridis. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Faith: Yes.

Hollingworth: I think something like PC Music is pop music – and that’s a scene that is very queer.

Kojey Radical: There will be a genre that’s doing its thing, it knows what it is and it has a community. Then it becomes popular in some way and the mainstream says: “That’s an interesting thing, let’s do that,” and there’s no good intent behind it.

Williamson: It’s appropriation, people appropriating from other classes, other cultures to a point where it’s like: “Oh, come on.”

Murphy: I feel like I have to be a lot more honest in my lyrical content. If you’re not honest lyrically in today’s day and age, you might as well give up.

Nao: We’re in an age where everybody has a category, whether it’s race or sexuality, and I think there’s a lot of pressure for artists to stand for whatever category they have. I get picked up a lot because I am a black female. I get called to talk at Oxford because I’m a black female. Even though it wasn’t ever my point to do that, now, just by existing, I’m political in the world I live in – which is fine, but not everyone is articulate enough to say the right thing or has genuine experience. We have to be careful. I think it’s down to artists to chose if they want to be a voice in that situation. But I do think there’s a pressure for it, definitely.

October: By this month, only two albums by British artists were among the 10 biggest-selling of 2018 in the country, while no British albums were in the US Top 20. In a Guardian article headlined “Why has the UK stopped producing pop superstars?”, interviewees suggested that streaming services, the global dominance of hip-hop and the feeling that British artists were satisfied by doing well in Britain had a role to play.

Nao: I feel like I’ve broken America in spirit. I came up through the internet, so I’ve got lots of followings around the world – if I go to America, I sell out shows. I think it’s generally harder to break new artists in huge capacities, the way Adele did, because there’s so much music out there. The British music industry needs to update. They’re not particularly innovative in breaking new artists – it’s still very much Radio 1, the Guardian, Jools Holland. I love the Guardian, obviously!

Williamson: We did a sellout tour in the US, but we never made money. With 1,500 people each night, we could have gone back, but it was flying every other day and the working visas are $10,000 [£7,800]. And that’s just me and one person with a laptop, so God knows how people do it in bands. I suppose they just do it for the image: it makes them look successful. That in itself can shift units back home.

Petridis: Kojey, you’re a rapper – it’s traditionally hard for a British artist working in your genre to break the US. Are you bothered about success over there?

Kojey Radical: Not really, no. I’ve probably got the least stripes of anyone around this table, but I’m a global artist. If I go to Johannesburg, Sweden, Russia, I’m selling my show. It’s a mistake to define breaking America as the globe. That just inflates their egos more than they need.

Faith: I think China is where it’s at. Jessie J felt the UK and America had turned their backs on her, so she went to China and entered a TV talent contest and she won it. She sold 12m tickets to tour China afterwards. She’s making more money than anyone around this table and nobody ever hears about it.

Petridis: How do you define success in 2018, in an era when all the old-fashioned markersalbum sales, media appearances – have been overturned?

Williamson: I’d say gig attendance. If you’re making dough from gigs, you’re all right.

Faith: I go to my accountant meetings and he basically just says: “Did well on live.” Then he says: “The rest is nothing.” There’s sometimes a bit of cash if you do brand deals.

Paloma Faith and Let’s Eat Grandma’s Rosa Walton.
Paloma Faith (left) and Let’s Eat Grandma’s Rosa Walton. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Nao: You don’t have to be a massive superstar now to have a successful musical career. You can live a good life selling out shows and if you get a record out it’s all right. I mean, I’m not Drake, but …

Faith: I remember when I hadn’t got a deal yet; I went to a record label and they asked: “What do you want from life?” and I said: “I really want to be on Jools Holland, that’s all I want.”

Walton and Hollingworth [in unison]: That’s what we said!

Petridis: That’s interesting – even though a show such as Jools Holland isn’t that big, ratings-wise?

Walton: It’s a stepping stone. We also really wanted to go to Japan.

Murphy: But isn’t it all about legacies, about what you leave behind? When you’ve got kids, you can sell your publishing, have it all now and move on – or you can be proud, like me, and think: “It’s worth something, it all means something in the end and I’m going to leave these songs to my kids.”

Williamson: Definitely. I come from the environment where there was just work and that was it. When you’ve got something to give your kids, it’s quite something, you know. Big time.

Kojey Radical: No one’s opinion can tell me how successful I am. I’ve been in some dark places, where I thought my own mental state would kill me. So, when I can wake up and be happy to be here, I’m successful.

October: Spotify celebrated the 10th anniversary of its launch, prompting questions about whether the streaming service has been good or bad for music.

Nao: There’s lots of good things about Spotify, but lots of shit things, too. The problem with their playlists is that you listen to the song, you like it, but you don’t check the artist out. There are lots of artists who get millions and millions of streams, but they can’t sell out a small venue because no one has an attachment to them.

Petridis: That’s one of the arguments against it: that it militates against album artists because it’s all about single tracks.

Faith: There’s a generational thing there. I think I’m part of the last generation of artists where fans bought albums. Take That just sold 110,000 copies in their first week. A good first week for me would be 30,000 to 40,000. But I can’t get fucking streaming for shit.

Nao: I can’t get album sales. I’m 30, I’m in the middle of those generations. My audience kind of half-stream –

Watch Let’s Eat Grandma on Jools Holland.

Hollingworth: We have quite a lot of older fans and because we’re not a very big band a lot of our fans are really intense, so they buy albums.

Petridis: Do any of you make money out of streaming?

All: No.

Faith: Actually, I made a little bit. Sony did a deal with Spotify and they gave a little bit to everyone on the label because the labels were exposed for having these deals and not passing it on to the artists. So, we all got a little shut-up cheque.

Kojey Radical: As soon as you look behind the scenes, whatever the platform is – label, Spotify – it’s all Babylon anyway. However you listen to music, you’ve got to get back to that feeling of why you like music, finding it, discovering it. When there was crates, there wasn’t a crate at the front of the shop that said: “This is the best hits of today” – you had to walk in and actually dig and listen first and then decide. You didn’t just buy something because someone told you to. It’s all nonsense.

Throughout the year, artists without standard record labels made the charts, renewing discussion about whether it is possible for an artist to be successful while remaining independent of the music business.

Williamson: Some of those artists are affiliated to major labels. People think they’re independent, but they’re fucking not. I’m sorry, they’re not.

Faith: That shows the fear of labels and the knowledge they’re defunct, though. They’re doing exactly the same thing they always did, but saying: “Let’s pretend we’re not ... it’s cooler if we just remain silent.”

Kojey Radical: If a young artist came to me now and said: “Do I need to get signed?” I’d probably say no, until they had built up enough experience of the music industry to know whatever decision they’re making is the right one. You should work with the people who show enough belief in what it is you’re trying to create, to help it grow. It doesn’t have to be a label – it could be a management deal, a brand – anyone who’s got the belief and the money and the resources.

Murphy: I had a very fraternal label to begin with when I was in Moloko: not involved creatively in any way, did what we wanted, paid decent advances that you could live on for a year or two in Sheffield, no problem. Videos paid for. Tour support. Now I do it all myself, going from being a person that just worried about the creative part, and it’s fucking hard work – really, really hard. I was exhausted this year. You have to grow up as an artist and become more adult. Your fairy godmother is not going to come in and sprinkle her wand across and make everything possible for you. You’ve got to look at numbers and shit and that makes my head spin. It’s not fun.

Kojey Radical: That’s something else I’d say to young artists – it looks sick, the indie thing, but when you jump in and look at the receipts, it’s wild. When the taxman comes for you, he’s a bastard. I don’t want to chat to him no more. I had to jump. I got to certain point with independence, had cultivated my fanbase, grown it to a point, and I wanted to focus on the music. That’s why I went with a label.

November: the actor Hugh Jackman announced a world tour as a singer off the back of the soundtrack for the film The Greatest Showman, which has dominated the UK charts all year, spending 21 weeks at No 1. The soundtrack to A Star Is Born has been a transatlantic smash, too. Meanwhile, the poorly reviewed Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has grossed more than $539m.

Hugh Jackman and the cast of The Greatest Showman
Hugh Jackman and the cast of The Greatest Showman. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox

Nao: The Greatest Showman appeals to kids of six or eight years old; the parents are going to go to Tesco and actually buy a CD.

Kojey Radical: If someone had bought me The Lion King CD when I was a kid, I would have been the happiest kid in the world. I could have listened to The Lion King a million times a day. So, if you leave a kid on an iPad for a day, chances are they’ve probably listened to the same songs over and over again.

Murphy: Movie soundtracks have always been massive, haven’t they? My mum and dad always bought them. A Man and a Woman – the theme music from Panorama’s on that.

Petridis: That’s true – The Sound of Music outsold the Beatles in the 60s. The Lion King is the biggest-selling studio album Elton John has made. Are people flocking to film soundtracks because they represent escapism?

Hollingworth: I don’t think it’s about escapism. One of the really popular songs on The Greatest Showman is This Is Me. It’s about embracing who you are, it’s identity politics, but on a soundtrack.

Walton: The lyrics are just so general that anyone can play it.

Petridis: Did any of you see the Queen film?

Hollingworth: I saw it. The thing is, the way they presented it, unless you actually knew more about his actual life, you wouldn’t question it – and when you do, you realise it has all been manipulated by everybody else in the band. [To Walton] If I die, you’re not making a film about me. It’ll be: “I won all the arguments, I wrote all the songs.”


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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