June is Black Music Month in Britain, as it is in the United States. Britain’s Black Music Month is an initiative of Black Music Congress (BMC), whose founders wanted to create an oppor-tunity to “focus on and celebrate British Black music through performances and talks-based programs.”
Earlier this year, Kwaku (he uses only one name), a music industry lecturer and consultant, editor of BritishBlackMusic.com (BBM) and BMC’s founder and chair, discussed the state of Black music in his country with the local publication Self-Help News. Here, TNJ presents an excerpt of that interview, with permission from both Kwaku and Self-Help News, to inform readers about one of the world’s largest Black music markets.
Self-Help News: What are the basic objectives of your organizations?
Kwaku: BritishBlackMusic.com and Black Music Congress were formed in 2002 as a successor to the last Black music sector organization, Black Music Industry Association, which folded in the late 1990s due to funding problems. BMC is a forum for discussing Black music issues, particularly with a British bias, networking and a pathway to music-industry education. BBM is the Web site for BMC and it’s focused on music, the music industry and music-industry education. It is actually the organizer of BMC events and a music-industry provider, in association with the voluntary organization BTWSC (Beyond the Will Smith Challenge). The overarching aims of BBM/BMC are to raise awareness and consumption of British Black music, represent its sector’s views, promote music within an edutainment context and music-industry education.
SHN: Is the U.K. Black music industry expanding or decreasing?
Kwaku: It’s difficult to say because where does one draw the baseline, or what consists
of British Black music? If you wish to include the likes of Leona Lewis and Amy Winehouse, who are often included in pop, then with the recent addition of Alexandra Burke, one may assume that it’s expanding, particularly in the high end of mainstream.
Another view that underscores this trend, although not at the high end of the mainstream, is the success of acts who are undoubtedly rooted within the Black music scene and who crossed over in 2008, such as Estelle, Wiley, DJ Ironik, Tinchy Stryder, Bryn Christopher and Dizzee Rascal. However, it’s important to note that one is just looking at records, particularly singles, which often act as promotional tools rather than moneymakers. On the underground, there’s definitely an expansion due to mix CD releases, Web site free downloads and streaming, showcases and open mics.
SHN: What proportion of Black musicians are trained professionals? And those who are not trained, are facilities available for them to further and enhance their skills? And if such facilities are available, are there many takers?
Kwaku: There are no statistics as to trained professionals. My observation is that there is a dearth of traditional musicianship, by which I mean those that play an instrument in real time, as opposed to programming. This is perhaps due to the downgrading of music in schools, closures of youth centres and youths not availing themselves to opportunities such as church choirs and bands. This is of great concern to me, because unlike Indie Rock music, where the focus is on playing instruments and being live, much of contemporary Black music is focused on programming and recording. Music technology has become so accessible, intuitive and prevalent that many music-makers (as opposed to musicians), particularly youths, can create adequate or intricate music with little or no training. There are adequate opportunities to train to play or program, if one wants to, but it’s not much of prerequisite to making music.
SHN: How successful are Black musicians in marketing their products? What do they need to do to gain more from their talents and skills commercially?
Kwaku: We can do with better music-industry knowledge and contacts, through education and networking, respectively.
SHN: Would your organizations recommend young people to take up careers as musicians in Britain?
Kwaku: If that’s where their talents lie. But one would also like to caution by reminding them that it says “music business.” And so they should not just be swayed by the prospect of fame, glamour and money, but also try to be aware of and learn about how the business runs. Musicians and artists often have a limited shelf life. Industry personnel can have long careers.
SHN: How would you summarize the state of the Black music sector?
Kwaku: There will always be a British Black music sector. The level to which it’s exposed or sustains careers of artists and behind-the-scenes personnel will depend on the will of the artists and the industry players, and the commitment of us as consumers to support the musical activities from the Black music sector. Music-industry knowledge and education is key, as is an entrepreneurial spirit and networking with people with common values in order to build and move forward.
SHN: What are its strengths and successes?
Kwaku: The capacity to touch the heart, to elevate, empower and transport one above ones circumstances. Its successes, particularly within the Western context, are its ability to routinely cross over into the mainstream and become a major driver of culture.
SHN: What are its weaknesses and failures?
Kwaku: It’s prostitution because of an overwhelming drive for lucre and commercial dictates, which seems to focus on serving a base, common denominator. The failures include conscious music not having a high enough profile and access. This failure can be put at the door of the producers and consumers — the former for not persevering enough to produce conscious music and the latter for not making enough of an effort to find and proactively consume and support conscious artists.
SHN: What are its current opportunities?
Kwaku: The notion that independent is cool, accessible music-making technology, and the amazing access provided by the Internet, provides huge opportunities for making and presenting music. However monetizing those endeavors is another issue, which I think can be mitigated if our musicians develop their stagecraft and the live scene.
SHN: What are the threats?
Kwaku: Whilst I recognize stakeholders are not, and need not be, just of African descent, I believe the way that the mixture of technology and the popularity of Black music has made it relatively easy for anyone to produce Black music. We run the risk of non-Africans becoming the face of, and major earners from “music,” that have come from an African experience.
SHN: What are your predictions for British Black music for the next five years?
Kwaku: It’s a bit of a bind. If we continue to produce music that’s just serving the underground, the streets or on road, as some of the youths say, few people are going to put food on their tables from these activities. On the other hand, if some from the underground crossover into the mainstream, that style or movement is soon co-opted and “commoditized” by the mainstreams using people, particularly artists, who are not intrinsically linked to the source that birthed that particular music or scene.
That notwithstanding, I would hope that enough people from the British Black music scene make enough of an impression that the mainstream infrastructure has no choice but to embrace, profile and sell them. Whilst there are those that advocate staying underground or keeping it real, and that is a choice I won’t decry, it’s also important to realize that the demographics and industry reality of Britain means that engagement with the mainstream is almost the only option in which one can realize adequate recompense for ones endeavors. Engaging with the mainstream does not necessarily mean the music has to be crass or not conscious.