This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.
Last weekend, Stormzy made history as the first ever black British MC to headline Glastonbury. Stood before a crowd of some 100,000 people and dressed in a Union Jack-adorned stab-proof vest designed by Banksy, his performance was emblematic of the shift that has taken place in UK music over the last few years.
This transition can be seen in the UK top 40, which looks much different from how it appeared just a decade or so ago. Staking a claim to territory once the sole preserve of indie bands and pop stars, artists such as Stormzy, MoStack, Wiley, and Dave are riding high — black British artists who imbue their music with a strong sense of cultural identity.
The UK’s relationship with black music has traditionally been a tempestuous one. For a long time, tracks by black artists struggled for airtime on mainstream radio stations. As a result, pirate radio came to the fore in the ’80s and ’90s. Stations such as the soul-focused Horizon and KISS FM, which played reggae, funk, and soul, offered a platform for music that was otherwise left unheard.
“A record in America didn’t have to become a pop record to sell half a million. It could still be deemed a specialist record,” says legendary DJ and presenter Trevor Nelson. “There’s that big a market and enough black radio stations that were specifically playing black music. Outside of London, Manchester, Birmingham, and other cities like that, Britain was completely different. It was a predominantly white, rock and pop-focused country.”
That isn’t to say that black music was enjoyed exclusively by black people. “Some of the most passionate people weren’t black,” says Nelson. “The people who wanted to research it and be real anoraks about it were white. We had so many fragmented types of music emerging that were essentially black but merged with a white British influence.”
As genres such as jungle, drum and bass, garage, and house gained in popularity, the umbrella term “urban” surfaced in the ’90s to encapsulate it all. “Lots of people didn’t like the term ‘urban,’” remembers Nelson. “But I understood it from a marketing perspective. It was a safe way not to exclude people.”
Heading into the early ’00s, “urban” became a distinct category, with singers such as Shola Ama and Craig David propagating a crossover between R&B and garage. Their tracks were routinely played on stations such as Choice FM, the UK’s first licensed 24-hour black music station. Shortly afterward, grime began to emerge from East London’s underground scene.
Grime’s origins are tied to pirate radio station Rinse FM, which was founded by teenage DJs Slimzee and Geeneus in 1994. Of all the early MCs, Wiley is most often credited as the “godfather of grime,” spearheading this then-new strand of rap that combined rapid, syncopated beats with an aggressive flow.
Most will remember Wiley’s game-changing track “Wot Do U Call It?” which mocked the classification of black British music, while his beat “Eskimo” can still be heard in clubs today. Wiley’s success gave rise to other notable grime MCs. Kano captivated listeners with his sharp lyricism and Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 album Boy in da Corner went down as one of the greatest UK debuts ever.
On a global scale, however, early grime failed to acquire widespread popularity. So what makes this new generation so palatable in comparison with its forebears?
“I truly feel hip-hop has something to do with this,” says DJ, presenter, and producer Shortee Blitz. “As a direct descendant of sound system culture, hip-hop was birthed from the funky elements of every style of music known to mankind. So the next generation of musicians, whether they realize it or not, are affected, and in turn, it affects how they make, receive, and enjoy music.”
Nelson agrees that hip-hop’s absorption of other influences helped it to grow, pointing to how Rick Rubin’s rock influence helped Run-DMC find a larger audience beyond early hip-hop’s niche. But, he argues, it wasn’t until the ’90s that hip-hop started to get the recognition it deserved as a genre. In what he calls the “post-Puff Daddy era,” hip-hop was transformed into something more akin to pop.
“Puffy realized that black music wasn’t getting enough radio time and was getting pigeonholed, so he started to mix other genres into his songs and got radio play across all stations,” Nelson says. Other artists on Diddy’s Bad Boy Records took the same route to success: Notorious B.I.G.’s blend of hip-hop and R&B turned tracks such as “Juicy” and “Hypnotize” into hits, while Mary J. Blige’s melange of soul, R&B, and hip-hop has given her a decades-long career.
“Hip-hop artists of the ’90s started selling millions of records, and I thought it was black people buying it — but it was all the white kids,” explains Nelson. “And that’s exactly what’s happening with grime.”
Grime MCs started taking a leaf out of Diddy’s manual, breaking free of the one-genre mold. In 2008, Dizzee Rascal joined forces with dance producer Calvin Harris and R&B singer Chrome to release club banger “Dance Wiv Me,” his first number one single, holding the top spot for four consecutive weeks. Similarly, Wiley’s “Heatwave” featured R&B singer Ms D and debuted at number one in 2012. In this period, the likes of Tinchy Stryder, Chipmunk, and Tinie Tempah also found success with poppy takes on grime and hip-hop.
This tendency to avoid pigeonholing is a mark of today’s British MCs. Dave and Skepta have joined forces with Nigerian Afrobeats artists Burna Boy and WizKid respectively, with the disparate genres that exist under the term black music coming together to form a fresh type of pop.
The same propensity for experimenting with international genres is now shared by North American rappers. Drake’s “One Dance,” which samples the UK funky track “Do You Mind” and features vocals by WizKid, blew up on release in 2016. Elsewhere, North American and British rappers continue to work together on genre-bending tracks, including A$AP Rocky and Skepta on “Praise the Lord (Da Shine)” and Drake and Giggs on “KMT.”
Dumi Oburota, who founded label and all-purpose agency Disturbing London with “cousin” Tinie Tempah, believes the fusion of sounds is what guarantees appeal. “Collaboration is key for [developing] new sounds, new audiences, spreading culture and influence. This has helped African music big time,” he explains.
And “African” is a key word here. The influence of Afrobeats has propelled black British music to the next level. Although the Jamaican and Caribbean influence remains strong in the UK scene, with dancehall, bashment, and reggae-inspired tracks still garnering significant hype — think Wiley’s “Boasty” for a recent example — songs with a distinctly African influence are truly starting to take hold.
British MCs with African heritage are drawing on their backgrounds more than ever. Rapper J Hus caused a stir with his 2017 debut album Common Sense due to his choice to spit with a West African dialect. Oburota sees this African influence as a unique selling point and a natural progression. “Tongue-in-cheek culture is very much both an African and British cultural thing, so [the crossover] works,” he says.
UK producers such as Jae5 and Steel Banglez have been instrumental in launching the new trend for sampling African music. “Afrobeats is now the new pop,” says Nelson, and with the likes of Ed Sheeran dropping Afrobeats-inspired songs like “Shape of You,” it’s hard to disagree.
On the back of this proliferation of Afrobeats-flavored tracks, this August will see the debut of Afro Nation Festival in Portugal, featuring artists such as Yxng Bane, Burna Boy, and Stefflon Don. “This festival is here to spread our culture to the masses globally,” says Afro Nation co-founder Adesegun Adeosun Jr. Elsewhere, Afropunk Festival, which now takes place in Brooklyn, Atlanta, Paris, London, and Johannesburg, is in its 14th year.
With Stormzy’s history-making headlining performance at Glastonbury, the demand for black British music is on the rise everywhere. “In my lifetime, I never thought I’d see it,” muses Nelson, which just goes to show how far the culture has come.