The Black female voice has been revered, envied and commercialised for centuries; from Shirley Bassey’s iconic Bond themes to the haunting vocal of Jorja Smith’s Blue Lights, these voices have always told the stories of their times in a way that no one else can. Neneh Cherry taking a Buffalo Stance in 1988 and Ms. Dynamite taking things A Little Deeper with her 2002 debut, earning her a Mercury Prize, two BRIT Awards and three MOBOs, are just two earlier examples of Black British women thriving in the mainstream, proving that there is a varied and fruitful path for them in the UK.
Black female voices are the Midas touch that can soar on a power ballad, or glide on a house track. Aitch’s recent single Baby samples and features Ashanti’s hook from her classic hit Rock Wit U, propelling Aitch to No.2 in the UK charts. Headie One’s sampling of Faith Evans on Home from his certified silver mixtape Music x Road in 2019 made it a fan favourite. Black female vocals have also been the driving force behind some of our most loved dance hits. Kele Le Roc, Raye, Kelli-Leigh and Alika, to name just a few, are essential in the success of dance giants like Basement Jaxx, Duke Dumont, Jax Jones, Cliq and Regard As the cultural and economic capital of Black British music rises exponentially, Black female artists have and continue to achieve record-breaking firsts and against undeniable odds. Arlo Parks’ Mercury Award winning debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams peaked at No.3 in the UK charts and earned her several nominations at the 2021 BRIT Awards. The world-renowned Joan Armatrading was the first female artist to win a Grammy Award in the Blues category, going on to be nominated three more times. In 2007, she also became the first female artist to top the Billboard Blues chart.
‘Black women’s appearances are heavily scrutinised no matter their talent.’
The value that Black female artists have brought to countless records can’t be ignored, though they’ve tried; there is a myth that surrounds them, entrenched in racist ideology that seeks ultimately to hold them back. It hangs like a veil of smog over the boardroom conversations in TV, magazines and record labels alike. It slinks into the tabloid headlines and the discourse on our Twitter timelines, perpetuating these negative messages about a Black woman’s face and place in society.
The myth says that they are difficult to work with and to market, less aspirational, and so less likely to succeed. These assumptions are rarely backed up with solid reasoning and much of it is rooted in desirability politics; Black women’s appearances are heavily scrutinised no matter their talent, colourism means that the barriers to entry for artists who look more like Mabel or Jorja Smith are significantly lower, though not without their struggles. For women of a darker hue, the same old tropes are projected on to them: ‘difficult’, ‘aggressive’, or not having ‘the right look’. This is reflected in the support they receive from brands, tastemakers and social media, and these attitudes corrode confidence and can birth frustrations and doubts which can paralyse an artist. Meanwhile, the already narrow crack in the door of opportunity slams shut.
‘The versatility of the Black female artist - their sound, the genres, their complexions, their hairstyles, steez and energy have moulded pop culture since time immemorial.’
Paradoxically, the attitude that soul and blues encapsulate through uniquely Black female voices (think Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Etta James) has frequently been co-opted and cloaked in a guise of whiteness in the UK, giving rise to ‘Blue-eyed soul’ starlets like Joss Stone, Duffy, Amy Winehouse and Adele. The dizzying heights these women are able to reach is largely down to their race. In her 2010 autobiography, Dionne Warwick wrote about the UK’s Cilla Black covering Warwick’s hit Anyone with a Heart just two months after hers in 1964. Warwick wrote that Black’s version, ‘…just flat out copied. Note for note, word for word, and not very well, I might add’ – it became Black’s most successful release.
Black’s team undoubtedly understood the power of the cut and paste assignment, illustrating the commerciality of Black female voices is understood, yet swapping Black female vocalists out for whiter or lighter versions is still a common industry occurrence. Elisabeth Troy being omitted from the original credits of MJ Cole’s Crazy Love cements the false notion that Black women can only sell records when their faces and names are erased from the consumers’ view.
It was in the UK that Misteeq were told that ‘Black girls don’t sell records’; they went on to achieve two top-ten albums, seven consecutive top-ten singles across the UK, Europe, Asia, Australasia and the US in eight years. There are numerous examples of Black women in music achieving remarkable international and global success despite the obstacles. It fills me with optimism to see the swell of Black female artists in the UK. I want them to know that they stand on the shoulders of the legends who came before them and they must climb to the highest peak of the mountain unapologetically.
‘Black male artists should also be using their platforms, voices and opportunities to elevate these women out loud.’
Regardless of naysayers, there are numerous Black female artists who have an indomitable ability to embody culture and accomplish both critical and commercial acclaim. The versatility of the Black female artist – their sound, the genres, their complexions, their hairstyles, steez and energy have moulded pop culture since time immemorial, capturing the zeitgeist and setting trends – these women are potent and global artist propositions. Yet the whispers of the myth remain, with key decision makers lazily reverting to it to explain away their lack of knowledge or care shown to Black female artists under their supervision.
Black male artists have been able to navigate more easily on their own terms since the resurgence of Grime into the mainstream since 2016; it’s vital that Black female artists are also able to exist and develop without compromise. Rather than being expected to fail, they deserve to be invested in wholeheartedly. This can’t be dependent on them conforming to one aesthetic or sound because the Black female artist’s very essence is that they are the blueprint.
Seeing is certainly believing, the importance of having footprints to trace in the shifting sands of the music industry is as crucial as ever. Black female artists need to continue to champion themselves and each other to weather the road less travelled and create a new normal. It’s not only down to them though, Black male artists should also be using their platforms, voices and opportunities to elevate these women out loud.
'...it’s vital that Black female artists are also able to exist and develop without compromise.'
The rich lineage of legendary Black British female artists who have triumphed through the limitations imposed on them by the industry, is a promise that as the tides continue to change, they will undoubtedly go on to dominate the uncharted waters and silence the myth once and for all.
In homage to: Jamelia. Gabrielle. Mica Paris. Tasmin Archer. Beverley Knight. Estelle. Marsha Ambrosius. Shola Ama. Corinne Bailey Rae. Shaznay Lewis. Michelle Gayle. Shirley Bassey. Alexandra Burke. Ms Dynamite. Cynthia Erivo. Kele le Roc. Nao. Terri Walker. Vula Mulinga. Shara Nelson. Skin. Sade Adu. Emeli Sande. Caron Wheeler. Neneh Cherry. Nay Nay. Laura Mvula. Shingai. Lianne La Havas. Leona Lewis. Ella Mai. Raye.