British artists have been crossing the waters to look for success abroad for as long as the music industry has been functioning.
When we say “abroad” the first place that comes to mind is the USA, because for many it’s the ‘music capital‘ of the world and for most artists, it is the ultimate place to gain international success. For Black British artists, in particular, it seems to be a struggle to achieve their full potential in the UK and as a consequence, they look towards America as the Utopia of the music industry.
It would seem that the US beats the UK hands down in terms of musical prowess. We need only mention the likes of Michael Jackson, Kanye West, Beyonce… However, I can truly say Black music in the UK is definitely on par with our American cousins and holds its own. Artists such as Labrinth, Emeli Sande, and Taio Cruz illustrate the amount of talent and quality of talent we have here in Britain. The only difference – and the thing that holds us back, is that in America there is a lot more support from the music industry and a huge platform for all ‘black’ music genres. This cannot be said for the UK where predominantly American Pop and Rock music dominate not only the television but the radio stations too.
Now, don’t get me wrong, things have changed. Nowadays British Black musicians are getting a little more recognition in the UK with not just a one-off novelty song in the top 20; musicians such as Wretch 32, Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal, and Misha B have taken the charts by storm with their unique and distinctive sounds. But it has been a hard long road that for many before them saw their only chance of survival was to relocate to the US. Make or break!
One of the most successful Black British acts to ‘make it’ in the US has been Estelle who released her 3rd studio album in 2012. She went from a struggling female rap/R&B artist in Britain to a Grammy award winner in the US; all in a year. Although she had been nominated for a Brit Award and won a MOBO her profile remained mediocre. It was only when she had cracked the US did her status in the UK rise. Estelle has been quoted to have said that her reason for leaving the UK was because ‘… it’s too (expletive) hard for the British to be taken seriously as R&B artists’. It seems that once you have been accepted by audiences in the US you are then considered a serious artist. It is this thought process that hinders many Black British artists careers.
The World’s largest and most successful record labels are based in the US: Universal, Sony, Warner, EMI to name but a few and where there is big business there is big money. Most artists aim to be signed by the big labels to gain success internationally. There are obviously UK labels but none that can compete in stature. In 2002 the Black British female R&B group Floetry were signed to America label DreamWorks records, apparently, their music had no place in the British mainstream and instead of wasting their time here they too saw that opportunity awaited them in the US. Since then they have written music for the likes of Michael Jackson, Bilal and Jill Scott and now have solo careers to be proud of. But would they have been as accomplished if they remained here? It’s doubtful.
80’s pop star Sade is a huge success with people like Kelly Rowland and the late Aaliyah citing her as a major inspiration in their music lives. In the UK she is remembered for her hits “Sweetest Taboo” and “Smooth Operator”. But in America, she is seen as one of the music greats.
One of the main reasons I believe that artists don’t often reach their full potential in the UK is because every dominant music genre started somewhere else. Hip Hop and R&B started in the US, Reggae and Bashment comes from the Caribbean. At the moment Afrobeats is becoming very popular and that music form (as is obvious) started in Africa. There is not really a forum or platform for Black British music to expand in the UK, it is limited and feels stunted.
It is not just the lack of support here that drives artists to want to achieve success abroad; it also boils down to sheer motivation. For instance, you may begin as an underground artist, become popular by word-of-mouth; then get attention from small independent record labels, which leads to you gaining attention from huge labels. You get a level of fame and support from fans so it is only right that you try and take your career to the next level. These are the steps that many artists go through, so in essence, going abroad and gaining success is a rite of passage. Which can be said for artists such as Tinie Tempah and Chip (formerly Chipmunk) who gained success and popularity in the UK with number one singles under their belt. But Chip didn’t think he had the support needed from his management and record label so left for L.A. where he was signed by T.I.’s Grand Hustle label. Tinie Tempah got his big break performing on American X Factor and with the success of his song ‘Written in the Stars’ made him the first British rapper to have a platinum single in the US charts. These artists could only dream about this back in the day when their songs were only being played on Channel U (AKA).
Nobody wants to be a one-hit wonder or be seen today and forgotten tomorrow and in order to stay relevant and in order for longevity expansion is needed. When it comes to success within the music or any other industry what is the point in being insular when the World is your Oyster.
It seems that it’s about time British Black music be accepted and celebrated in all its glory on home soil. Black music has been here for a long time and has influenced many non-black artists just look at Dappy with his “Na na ny’s”, and Cheryl Cole with her song “Ghetto Baby”.
When will Black British artists not be a novelty in the UK charts? Hopefully soon!