Comment: Leee John

Leee John discusses black British role models in music

Kyle Fisher
  • By Kyle Fisher
  • 24 Sep 2013
  • min read
Role models: In 2009 we began working on a documentary called Flashback about our band Imagination. It was intended to track our rise to international success, explore our heritage, our musical influences, early gigs and songwriting. But as research began, we realised we were uncovering another story – one about the history of black British music. We started to expand our remit to cover scores of hugely influential black songwriters, artists and actors who had all played a part in sculpting popular culture but who had somehow escaped proper recognition.

The film was intended to cover just the eighties but now we’re documenting the thirties, forties, fifties, right the way up. It was a revelation to me that there has never been a definitive exploration of black British history from the musical or theatrical side. I notice that when they do try to cover this on TV there are so many gaps that it’s hard for viewers to join the dots.

Most of the coverage looks at immigration culture rather than the lasting legacies of black artists in this country. I find it very condescending. In that way, I always feel like we’re second to the Americans. In the US there is a history of celebrating its notable black artists like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder. We need to learn to do the same here.
There is a media blind spot and I really believe some brilliant up-and-coming black groups aren’t getting picked up

Before Imagination, before Light of the World or Soul II Soul, before any of us, who was doing it in Britain? Do most people know? I think not. Music fans don’t know enough about our heritage. It’s great to enjoy current black British music that’s trendy right now, but we need to recognise its transience. Popular music is made up of so many genres, from reggae, ska to rocksteady to blues, jazz and funk. We need to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to experience and explore all of that rich black music history at a very early age.

When I relocated back to the UK from the US in the early- to mid-seventies, I noticed straight away that something was missing. There was no definitive and identifiable story of our black music. In the US there was a momentous change taking place at that time – popular media was embracing Motown, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding. When I came back to London it was very different. All over the media I was seeing The Sweet, Bay City Rollers, and I thought, ‘What is going on? Why are we worlds apart?’

I know there is a whole demographic of people who are starving for this – everyone I talk to about Flashback tells me that we’re not seeing or hearing the full spectrum of our musical heritage on TV and radio. The same can be said for emerging acts. There is a media blind spot and I really believe some brilliant up-and-coming black groups aren’t getting picked up. If it’s American, bam! They’ll be all over the radio. But if you are a UK-based black act or R&B singer, then it’s going to be much harder for you to break through. Why is that? Is it because we need a black music narrative in this country that makes sense to people?

Perhaps the problem goes deeper than that. Perhaps young people are being shown only one dimension to black music. Rap is just one part of our rich cultural tapestry, and DJing is another. But how many black British musicians are kids exposed to? How many young black bass players or guitarists can you name? All the recognisable young bands with bass players, guitarists and drummers are almost exclusively white. There is a distinct lack of role models for black youngsters interested in music. You see a four-piece white group and that is ‘normal’ and sellable - a British tradition which harks back to The Beatles. But there have been many black groups throughout our recent music history. We need to celebrate them as well. There’s a whole movement that has been missed out of our collective history.

We must create a credible black British music movement. We need to build our legacy. In Flashback we talk to Janet K, The Real Thing, Loose Ends, Eddy Grant, Jazzy B, Clem Curtis of The Foundations, Beverley Knight, Osibisa – more than 80 acts, many of whom you might never have heard of. It’s time to rewrite the history books.


Leee John is co-founder and singer-songwriter with British soul group Imagination. During the early eighties the trio had five consecutive gold albums and five top ten hits in the UK alone, including Body Talk, Just An Illusion, Flashback and Music and Lights. He has maintained a successful solo career and DJs regularly.

The group’s jazz and funk-influenced pop has directly influenced Destiny’s Child, Mariah Carey and DJ Dero, all of whom have reworked parts of their songs. Meanwhile Flashback has been directly sampled by Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada, Music and Lights by Tiger & Woods and All Night Loving by 88 Keys and Kanye West.

Flashback – The Best of Imagination album is released this month (September) while the Flashback documentary of black British music, which Leee has directed, is now in post-production.

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