Since the arrival of Generation Windrush and those beyond, Black culture has lent elements to mainstream UK consumption - sometimes involuntarily - through various mediums of fashion, culture and food but most obviously in music. More than just a medium of expression, music plays an integral part in the formation of both individual and social identity, binding people into communities such as diaspora.
Every individual, every family, with their own rich cultures and rituals, brought with them small pieces that would form the foundation of British Black culture as we know it today. Whether it was the huge Nigerian and Jamaican communities sharing their language in what linguists have dubbed ‘Multicultural London English’, a blend of everything from Jamaican Patois to Arabic. More importantly however, is the contribution to music made most significantly from West African afrobeats and Caribbean dancehall.
Looking at the trajectory of Black British mainstream, Gen-Z’ers like me will probably have foggy recollections of garage, slight semblances of early grime but more vivid memories of US hip-hop being the mainstream ‘urban’ sound during their formative years. Think 50 Cent, Rihanna, and so on.
Of course, Channel U was a different story. If you were lucky enough to have Sky TV, you could see the likes of Shystie, Lady Sovereign, Chip and N-Dubz, and North London’s BBK, on your screens as well as in your ends. The only channel dedicated to showcasing up-and-coming UK talent without the budget for glitzy music videos - simply pure, unadulterated talent.
Online, Black British music was also burgeoning and finding a place for itself. By the mid-2000s, platforms such as Linkup TV and GRM Daily were in their most premature years, with SBTV being the most established, only two years old by the time GRM was formed in 2009.
Around this time, afrobeats from the likes of D’banj, Kwamz and Fuse ODG were beginning to break the mainstream and gain traction with new audiences and demographics.
But then, in October 2011, one man offered to ‘show us the wave’ over Vybz Kartel’s infamous war anthem Touch Ah Button in a video filmed with his friends in his local south London neighbourhood. Things were, arguably, never the same again.
It was of course, ‘Sneak-to-the-Bo’ who had already rapped over Gyptian’s Hold Yuh featuring Chrissy, flowing decisively over the six-chord piano arrangement, with the now infamous question: ‘You wanna take it to the max like Pepsi?’ The skill with which this teenager from Brixton had managed to create a uniquely distinct sound with catchy, relatable lyrics that would ring on a decade later, started a trajectory that nobody could’ve predicted.
At the same time, fellow South Londoner Timbo, or Mr Ey-le-le-le was making waves with his melodic tinged rap that somehow encompassed UK rap’s typical lyrical content, but light and palatable with music videos of apartment parties, holidays and flash cars. This was UK rap without the grey grit of tower blocks, but instead over the sunny isles of Ibiza.
To put it simply, the sound dubbed ‘afroswing’ took influences of everything Black. Young people took influences from the past, present and future to form a distinctly British sound derived from the music they had grown up with at home as well as at school, whether it be US hip-hop and R&B, or futuristic trap that was emerging from the likes of Future and Lil Uzi.
Of the generation that took this sound and truly moulded it, none have risen higher than Newham’s J Hus and his breakout song Dem Boy Paigon which has over 11 million views with no music video. Fierce yet playful, Hus created an anthem that was perfect for dancing to as well as rapping along to. Finally this music was commercially viable and could be played in the club. And he just carried on. Hits such as Friendly, Lean and Bop (which he made for his younger brother to listen to) and features on Stormzy’s GSAP cemented his sound and status as one of the UK’s brightest stars.
The east Londoner son of Gambian and Ghanaian immigrants was peppering Nigerian pidgin over dancehall beats and rapping in a clear east London accent, unlike British stars such as Taio Cruz who had picked up an American accent by way of Brent.
This sound would go on to be adopted over the years by Hus’s fellow east Londoners (and today’s chart-toppers) Yxng Bane, Kojo Funds, Not3s, NSG as well as Birmingham’s Lotto Boyzz, to name a few.
It was at this point, around 2015 onwards, that the sounds started to gain momentum. These young men (they were all men) would ‘break’ their songs on the University rave circuit, from Birmingham to Buckinghamshire, Liverpool to Leicester, performing to their peers and building a name for themselves.
Naturally, this was when major labels start to pay attention, taking note of how palatable a subgenre this was becoming. Grime was gritty and rap was too tough and problematic with the authorities, this was ‘sweetboy’ music that seemed fun, light and easier to repackage and slot into pop. Indeed, many saw an opportunity to add an ‘edge’ to upcoming singers, see Not3s and Kojo Fund’s collaborations with the likes of Raye and Mabel after being signed, or Lotto Boyzz with girl group M.O. Here, there seemed to be a foolproof formula that would crossover into both pop and ‘urban’. Two birds, one song.
The commercialisation of afroswing has continued fast and heavy, with entire playlists dedicated to the genre on major streaming platforms (although Spotify and Apple can’t agree on whether it is called afrobashment or afroswing). Brands vie for one, any one, of the young Black men from inner-cities who can hold a note to come in on a conveyor belt and be the new face of their trainers.
There has never been a better time to be young, Black and talented in the music industry. However, the commodification of a popular sound has simplified it, and those swiftly signed to major labels have had to evolve into the latest darling of the mainstream, drill, to maintain relevance in a new landscape. Six years since Timbo’s catchy hook, mainstream music has finally embraced drill. Dark, gritty and fast, the appetites of the masses have changed and the same labels that scrambled to sign afroswing artists are now looking for the next young star in a balaclava.