The Sound of Scotland: Grassroots groups and unexpected genres

Across the Scottish music scene, DIY initiatives drive support for underrepresented voices and diverse genres, writes Arusa Qureshi.

Arusa Qureshi
  • By Arusa Qureshi
  • 21 Mar 2023
  • min read

Scottish music has long held connotations linked to tradition, conjuring up images of regal pipers and sweeping balladry. Beyond the country’s instrumental and folk history though, pop, electronic acts and guitar bands have tended to reign supreme in the popular music sphere, as evidenced by some of our most famous recent exports. But the landscape has been gradually shifting, accelerated in part by the efforts of a number of grassroots and DIY initiatives which place greater emphasis on the work of underrepresented voices and in turn, on genres not typically associated with Scotland. 

‘Music is a form of self-expression, and when artists from marginalised and diverse backgrounds share their unique perspectives, they bring a richness and depth to the industry that would otherwise be lacking,’ podcast producer Halina Rifai explains. Together, Halina and I curate the award-winning AMPLIFI series at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, which puts local musicians at its heart, while simultaneously underlining the importance of diversity and inclusion through its billing. 

‘The music industry has historically been dominated by certain groups, and things like AMPLIFI can help to create a more inclusive and equitable environment for all artists,’ Halina continues. ‘I think the success comes from its representation, creation of visibility and ultimately the talent AMPLIFI is platforming. It’s also thanks to the support from an established and major venue in the country.’

The series has included the likes of Brownbear, AiiTee, Danny Cliff, AMUNDA and rising rapper Bemz, who was crowned BBC Introducing in Scotland's Act of the Year in 2022. Bemz’ progression over the past few years epitomises the potential for genres like hip hop in Scotland, but also that there is a captive audience seeking expression that goes beyond the norm. We can additionally see this in the existence and popularity of initiatives like the Scottish Hip Hop Bursary, which was launched as a partnership between Sunny G Radio, UP2STNDRD, 644 Studios and Creative Scotland, to assist hip hop artists with the development of their practice. 

'Overall, Scottish hip hop is in a state of growth and transformation, reflecting the changing cultural landscape of the country.’

‘For me, Scottish hip hop has changed and evolved over the years,’ says Bemz, who will soon play a huge headline show at Glasgow’s SWG3. ‘I feel like it is now in the forefront of a lot of conversations. I also believe that the landscape of Scottish hip hop has changed as well. And there's a little bit more of a united front, within different sectors of the scene.’

‘When it comes to the growth and reach of hip hop in Scotland, there is a desire to see more grassroots organisations contributing to the development of the genre,’ UP2STNDRD’s Sami Omar adds. ‘UP2STNDRD is an example of an organisation that has played a vital role in creating access to opportunities and highlighting what is happening on the ground. Overall, Scottish hip hop is in a state of growth and transformation, reflecting the changing cultural landscape of the country.’

Though the Scottish music scene may be relatively small in comparison to its wider UK counterparts, there are artists, organisers and projects that are operating successfully beyond the mainstream zeitgeist, highlighting the breadth of talent that exists in all corners. In Glasgow, for example, DJ collective and events platform Peach  have made a name for themselves, hosting parties and events with a focus on women in hip hop. 

‘Girls on line-ups and girls in the crowd – that's always been the mission and we will continue to push this,’ co-founder and DJ Kacie McAdam, also known as K4CIE, explains. ‘Peach was created because there weren’t many club nights that played hip hop and R&B. There wasn’t anything current and most importantly, it was only ever men in attendance and zero women on the line-ups.’

Peach have created a space which places women at the forefront, but is welcoming of everyone, which Kacie believes is essential to the growth of the wider scene. ‘As a gay woman, it was vital to create a space for all of us. What other rap focused club night would you see that has gay, trans, straight and all ethnicities in the one room vibing together? Peach is special and vital for the Scottish scene. It is an outlet for all of us.’

Like Peach, Edinburgh-based online radio station EHFM  contributes to positive change through its community-centred approach. ‘The original mission statement was: “to provide mentoring, guidance and a healthy supportive community to encourage more diversity, access and raise standards in the scene as a whole, and acting as an incubator and hub to broaden the discussion across barriers that currently exist.”’ Director and Station Manager Jamie Pettinger explains. ‘To be honest, that is still what we're trying to do! We try to use the resources and reputation we have to provide opportunities for – and raise the profile of – people we think are getting overlooked, as well as provide a low-pressure, wholesome and sober entry point to the independent cultural community of Edinburgh.’

‘Creating a more diverse industry means giving people their first chance to play or to curate or to lead, and they have to feel supported and empowered through that process.'

Shows on EHFM range from panel discussions and cultural reviews to hip hop, folk, and techno specials, all put together by a range of residents. The focus, however, is on giving people interested in radio and the wider music industry a chance to experiment and get involved, without fear or pressure. 

‘Creating a more diverse industry means giving people their first chance to play or to curate or to lead, and they have to feel supported and empowered through that process,’ Jamie says. ‘If we're throwing people into positions they aren't equipped to deal with, or throwing the limelight on someone who isn't ready for it, then the result is a negative outcome for everyone.

‘This I think is where radio stations like ours play a part. We are an incubator for people who have something to say, but want to experiment a bit and build a bit of an audience before taking that idea to a venue or launching it as its own brand. On top of that, you have the support of a community of like-minded individuals who are making things alongside you, all without any serious financial pressures or need to make it a success.’

Through AMPLIFI, Halina also recognises the need to give more opportunities to people at the early stages of their career. In addition to this, however, she believes one of the most important steps in creating an equitable music scene is the increase in diversity in all areas, including in top tier organisations. ‘There needs to be an increase in affirmative action policies, diversity training programs, and the training and recruitment of diverse talent,’ she notes. ‘I want to see more collectives and organisations that are intersectional. Not just straight white able-bodied men but a real intersectionality across a workforce.’

‘I think there is an effort across Scottish music to platform more diverse voices, but this often only extends to a diverse list of award nominees or a diverse festival line-up,’ Jamie adds ‘The people actually making the decisions in the industry are often still straight white men.’

Bemz’ hopes for the future of the Scottish music scene includes more diversity, but also more acknowledgement and opportunities for the style of music that artists like Bemz make. ‘I hope that in the future, the young’uns don't have to go through as many barriers as we had to just to be heard and seen and appreciated for their talents,’ he says.

Peach has a strong following and ambitious plans for the future, but Kacie admits there have been some hurdles along the way. ‘Unfortunately, we face the difficulty of some venues not wanting to work with hip hop,’ she says. ‘In the past we have actually been banned from a venue because of “our crowd” and our posters being “for men” which speaks volumes when it comes to how much change is needed in Scotland today. This has only made us more determined to break the barriers and we will continue to push and knock down doors to build on something great.’

AMPLIFI, UP2STNDRD, EHFM and Peach are just a few examples of how people are organising within Scottish music, but they all share a similar focus: creating a more welcoming and appealing space for creativity in all its forms and crucially, for the unconventional and unexpected. Scottish music may be guitar bands and folk icons, but ultimately, it’s also incredible rappers, women running hip hop nights and communities built with collectivism in mind. There is work to be done but there are passionate individuals and groups doing exactly that, adding weight to the multifaceted and staggering nature of the Scottish music scene.