War in a rack Pt 2

WAR IN A RACK – Part Two
Its not surprising that the term ‘urban’ itself gives so many artists a problem. On the one hand it doesn’t embrace the full gamut of black music, and on the other it includes names that have a dubious connection to ‘the streets’ (Lily Allen or Joss Stone).
jossbritIt was invented to make ‘black music’ more inclusive and palatable to mainstream audiences – but at the same time retain all of the raw edginess of the streets. The acclaimed M.C Ty publicly criticised the Brit Awards after Joss Stone won ‘Best Urban Act,’ “If Joss Stone is the closest thing that they feel comfortable championing because of what she looks like and how she sounds and who she’s signed to, then so be it. It’s got nothing to do with what’s really going on…” It’s as though the label covers such a wide range of black music, that it doesn’t actually have to mean anything specific.
Urban music was created in boardrooms and then sold back to inner city, predominantly black communities. It has become popular because there are award ceremonies and potential sales figures attached to it. Moreover, if urban music is just a more politically correct byword for what used to be called ‘black music’ then the industry has even more to answer for. In effect it has taken ‘jazz,’ ‘rock’, ‘protest songs’, ‘spoken word’ etc away from black music, and left only bling bling behind. It’s corrupted the inheritance of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, James Brown, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and Boogie Down Productions and left us with watered down disposable icons, none of whom have the staying power of true cultural leaders. The results are damaging to all communities.
guncrimeThis wouldn’t be such an inflammatory issue if urban music wasn’t blamed for the recent spate of gun and knife crime, or if it wasn’t targeted as the chief cause of anti-social behaviour. In effect ‘the industry’ has created a caricature of black culture and any ‘intellectual’ voices have been marginalised. From being created as a more inclusive and politically term, ‘Urban’ is now a thinly veiled way of advancing some deeply un-P.C ideas: urban (i.e. ‘black culture’) is to blame for gun crime and social disorder. Its no accident when shootings occur outside the MOBOs and UMAs, the disproportionate news coverage they get further reinforces the connection between ‘urban’ and violent crime. This issue is not confined to black, inner-city areas: the more all disaffected youth start subscribing to ‘thug’ life, the more gun and knife crime will appear in more ‘safe,’ rural areas. Whereas hip hop is a democratic culture in which anyone with skills can stand out, ‘urban’ demands that they act the caricature.
But why would retail chains or a radio station want to join in promoting this distorted image? There are powerful economic incentives. Artists like Akon and Snoop have an enormous corporate machine behind them, and can effectively buy representation in the industry. Moreover, gangsta-rap markets behave more predictably than any other forms of urban or black music. Much of the market don’t scrutinise lyrics too much- people buy the artists more as a lifestyle choice, or because of a catchy beat, rather than on the merits of the message. Conversely, Yun Gun‘s listeners, or Ty‘s place the power in the hands of the artists not the marketers – the complexities of their albums take longer to register and the albums therefore take longer to sell.
It’s just much smarter to have consumers that don’t question, and behave generically. Speaking to secondary school teachers – and I know many – reveals this fact, inner city teenagers are some of the most blind consumers in Britain. Black, Asian teens and Chavs are more likely to be dressed in expensive Lacoste or Burberry, or have the latest mobile phone handsets to feel validated. They can be relied upon to buy music with the same intentions.
So the most active front on which this war is being waged is in schools. Competition for what could be called ‘the teen quid’ has grown so intense that some labels have abandoned all ethics and crawled directly into classrooms to sell distorted images of celebrity and urban music. Ultimately, it offers a very narrow model of success.
In October 2006, I was involved in the government’s Music Manifesto. Having the full endorsement of Education Secretary Alan Johnson and Culture Minister David Lammy, the scheme was designed for 11-16 year olds, to give a much needed boost to music education, and to ‘deepen and broaden’ their appreciation of music right across the spectrum. (http://www.musicmanifesto.co.uk/news/details/pupils-vote-with-their-feet-or-mouse/18755).
hiphophoHowever, it was hijacked by major labels and became a cheap marketing opportunity. One of the most obvious culprits was the marketing team behind <font color = “#FF6600”>Mr Skillz</font> and his Crazy Girls. I was shocked and disturbed at the images his label was actively sending into schools. With such unforgettable lyrics, as “Pass your phone, give me your digits” and “shake it, shake it, shake it… shake your booty like a strip dancer…
“Urban” music is both economically and politically a very useful term. It allows some artists to have all of the credibility of ‘the streets’, all of the edge of ‘black’ music, without any of the uncomfortable racial connotations. It sells records, because it’s a myth of overnight success (coming up from the ghetto) – very easy to market to aspirant inner city kids. It’s politically useful as an easy scapegoat for inner city violence – whereas a loss of social mobility under Thatcher, under-investment in council housing and the breakdown of community are just too complex and contentious.
“Urban” music does not represent hip-hop, soul, grime, reggae, black culture or even the inner city experience. It’s merely a way of selling more, and curtailing artistic individuality.
There’s another tag that’s almost as offensive as ‘urban’ – ‘intellectual hip hop.’ It’s as though thought provoking lyrics, and a social conscience represent some radical new sub-branch of hip hop that never existed before. Having a large brain is one of the distinguishing traits of our species the average human brain weighs between 1300-1400 grams – chimps by contrast average at around 400g. All humans have intellects; however certain groups are encouraged to deactivate them. The term is tremendously patronising, and again confirms some strange assumptions about ‘urban culture’: no decent music writers refer to “intellectual rock music” or even “intelligent dance music.”
Most people who actually live in British inner city areas do not live the gangster fantasy. Although drugs and violence may be more visible (with residents living in confined spaces), there just isn’t enough of a demand for crack for everyone to be dealing. Far more people earn money through cleaning/retail jobs, or choose college above shooting people as a vocation. However, these lives are far less glamorous, or marketable.
Nobody is held accountable for projecting harmful images into society. The retailers claim “Guidelines come from head office and are decided through a dialogue between the label and the executives. It comes down to common sense and instinct; these people have a lot of experience in the industry.” (http://www.newstatesman.com/200701290019).
Whereas the urban icons are everywhere from billboards to magazines, the powerful individuals that direct the industry from labels to radio and retail are all faceless. Their conceit and closet prejudices present both personal and collective problems
asboThe issue affects a huge number of British artists who do not conform to the urban gangster-pop stereotypes. It matters beyond them, as Sarah Burke wrote, because promoting a more balanced picture of urban music, “Could help to alter the way in which street culture is viewed. It may be a fairer reflection of a way of life that is not just tied up with crime and antisocial behavior.” This flags up a hugely important fact. It’s much easier to think of gun crime, drugs and ASBOs as issues which only affect a few ethnic minorities or council estates kids, not manifestations of a national epidemic of teenage delinquency and violence.
It’s important for likeminded urban artists to demonstrate solidarity, to show there is a healthy alternative, and that mainstream music industry has no legitimacy in representing urban culture. Left to ‘market forces’, shops/radio will continue to champion whichever client pays them the most: consumer choice will shrink, and inner city teenagers of all races will fall into negative stereotypes.

Soweto Kinch is a saxophonist, composer, music arranger, lyricist, MC / Rap Artist, educator, and actor. This article originally appeared in Soweto Kinch’s blog – we liked it so much, we just had to republish. Visit blog.myspace.com/sowetokinchfor more updates.

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