As new cultural landscapes are being formed online, Ian McQuaid investigates shifting perceptions of what black British performers can say and play.
In his 1967 text The Medium is the Massage, cultural philosopher Marshall McLuhan describes how rapid technological change forces cultural schism. Youth attuned to new mediums of communication dream and create entirely new languages, whilst authority tries to maintain outmoded patterns of thought. "Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old," McLuhan lamented. Near fifty years on, and this quote remains an unfortunately pertinent summary of the situation a new generation of black British musicians find themselves negotiating.
"I feel like there is a core expectation of what black artists are about, and what their music should be about, and when it's not that, it's a bit terrifying for people," explains GAIKA, a Brixton based MC and producer. His music slithers beyond easy definition, forging new sounds from London's pulse- voice gliding from ethereal choral tones to tortured auto-tuned patois over beats that draw on everything from crashing grime to the kind of portentous synths found oppressing Rob Smith's voice on The Cure's Disintegration. Whilst there are nods to the sounds that the mainstream has decided acceptable black British music in 2016 - the grime and rap references are plain to hear - GAIKA's aesthetic unashamedly strikes out into new territory. To simply call him a grime artist, or a rapper, would be to either under represent his talent, or to massively open out what the term meant. Either way he knows that despite huge online support, English TV and radio know what they want and are prepared to support from black British performers - "that whole black tracksuit roadman thing" - even as entirely new cultural landscapes are being formed online.
"If you exist outside of that roadman image you're a weirdo. You get ignored by the mainstream media outlets. As a black man you're expected to be hyper masculine or super angry. Or you're expected to be really, really indie, as if you're not black and you've got no connection to hip hop. And in reality nothing is as simple as that, there are grey areas. Everything's a mix. We're allowed to be three dimensional."
This desire to be three dimensional has seen GAIKA work with like-minded Americans such as Venus X and Mykki Blanco - pioneers who are getting some play on the international stage. But he is also part of a scene of lesser known black British musicians who are equally pushing, in a variety of unique ways, to recalibrate the perception of what black British performers can say and play. Performers including Mickey Lightfoot, Bipolar Sunshine, Azekel, and Kojey Radical are trying to widen a wedge that has been placed by the success of Young Fathers and FKA Twigs. Lightfoot, whose latest single, the sparse Anxious combines rock bass guitar with seared vocals in what could be broadly termed a Londoners response to TV on the Radio, is feeling somewhere between positive and frustrated.
"There's a lot of interesting acts coming through pushing barriers and feeling free to be themselves and move out of traditional brackets," he starts. "A lot of the time it's perceived as easier to understand, 'oh yeah you're just a black geezer from the estates' - but those associations are a bit dated. This is 2016 and we all interact with different people, the internet is there, we've had an education, we're comfortable and proud of our history - all these things are playing a part. People making music just wanna be free. You want to be acknowledged as a black artist, but you don't want that term to be restrictive."
Lightfoot, GAIKA and their peers have found themselves inhabiting - for the time being at any rate - a strange limbo. Terrestrial TV and radio, the traditional custodians of British culture, simply don't know where to place them. Programmers at 1Xtra or Capital Xtra (ostensibly stations set up to support black British music) deem them too 'weird'.
"The first radio station that played my music" remembers Azekel, a singer whose soulful vocals and fizzing, disrupted rhythms just scored him a feature on the latest Massive Attack single, "was Radio 6, it wasn't 1Xtra, cos 1Xtra was going what the fuck is this? Ha! The music I make isn't really 'in' right now - it doesn't fit aesthetically with grime." Ironically, Azekel went to the same music college as Dizzee Rascal, and was one of the youngsters looking up to Wiley in his mid 00s peak. It seems fair to extrapolate that the problem lies with programmers and record executives that (having largely ignored it first time around) want to push a grime sound that was big a decade ago. Azekel has little interest in replicating the past- you could argue that his desire to push onwards is actually more true to the spirit of the grime pioneers of '04 than any of the current producers filling their tracks with Eski-clicks and snares Wiley rinsed ten years back. His sound is a reflection of London - naturally it's a hybrid.
"Trip hop, grime, guys like The Streets, they've always pushed the boundaries of UK music. I'm forever grateful for the musicians in this country who've pushed forward. I don't need to take from America; London has so much culture I can draw on. I can walk through Hackney and see the austerity, see a politician on one side of the street and see council estates on the other, when I see that I hear jazz, which is why I incorporate a lot of jazz into my sound, jazz and pirate radio. I thrive on London in my music."
Lightfoot echoes this openness, stating that he wants to listen to the whole world of music- no matter what genre- and respond artistically. He doesn't really feel like he has a choice in making music that others have decided is an outsider sound. "It might come across as being weird or different, but there is only one set of genetics that is you, so stay true to you."
GAIKA, however, is more bullish.
"In my head it doesn't sound weird. I don't really listen to a lot of other music so I don't compromise my own music. I don't think about radio play or sales - in the grand scheme of things I'm totally uninterested in them. You remember stuff that's innovative or classic, and sometimes to make that you've got to be the guy that's disruptive."
"I don't get sad about this - it's more a comment than anything. People miss out on the richness of culture when they look at it in a very flat way. Major labels are missing a trick cos people like this shit. Instead of thinking black music is, let's get a kid who can spit a bit, then create a fake road man image for him, then pit him against his brother, and then it becomes two kids fighting in a phone box over 20p, there's other stuff out there that could really go over. Talk about Mickey - he's making big sounding tunes. The only reason he doesn't get picked up is cos nobody knows where to place it. There's no one in a position of power in the music industry that understands or respect black culture in all of its complexity."
It's little surprise that a post-X Factor world is producing artists entirely cynical about the music industry. Where grime artists were regularly chewed up and spat out by major labels - and UK Funky was pretty much killed off before it had a chance to grow - these web savvy kids are aware that any mainstream popularity is useful, but double edged
"I feel like we shouldn't write off traditional channels as a waste of time" - warns Kojey Radical via an email exchange- "but we need to be knowledgeable of the politics that create them. The industry can break you as quick as it made you and without a solid foundation of support that is loyal it doesn't matter if you do make it on to those outlets. Sally from Scunthorpe ain't gonna save you in Peckham."
With a recent Brit ceremony that couldn't find room for even the most successful of grime artists - let alone these pioneers trying to drive black British music forward - it's doubtful that the industry is going to wake up to the talent on their doorstep any time soon. GAIKA doesn't care what the industry does. He's probably right not to, because he knows where the drive to sort things out has to come from.
"I think it will change - we're gonna change it. I've got a label, I've started picking up artists. It's what happened with American hip hop; you won't be able to ignore us. If you won't let us in we'll just kick in the door bro..!"