What Colour is Music?

For the record, most sane people know there is no such thing as black music or white music or any [insert your colour] music. These are but labels that have been created within society by those with influence for the purpose of division. Those terms have never been used for the purpose of cohesion, but rather find their sources in a historic means of distinguishing between racial groups and what is acceptable music.

The trouble is that in this day and age the perception and labelling of music genres by colour still plays a big part in the way that much music is grouped or defined.

Take hip hop for example. Is it black music? Some would say it is because of the culture within which it was birthed in North America and the Caribbean, but rap and all elements of hip hop culture are expressed around the world through various ethnicities, languages and regional groups. How many beyond mainstream media realise how big the francophone hip hop market is? The second largest market in the world, and most politically conscious, is often ignored because of the caricatured narrative of the most dominant. Hip hop has long since emerged beyond a specific culture but by and large it will be still defined as black music by many.

Music corporations, mass media outlets and inevitably communities will continue to define music by colour. For many it becomes a defining part of identity and culture and as such is not something to be played with. And when it is played with, it is like when Pandora decided to remove the lid.

Take the following case study as an example. This morning a bit of a storm kicked off on Twitter.
Ed Sheeran was voted the most influential UK artist as played on BBC 1Xtra. No biggie you would think until media outlets such as HMV and Digital Spy both started to report that he was the most influential black and urban artist in the UK.

Now pause for a minute.
What the heck does that mean?
A number of artists rightly pointed out that right about now Ed Sheeran is probably the biggest deal as a contemporary urban artist. Given his rise to fame on popular youth channel SBTV, ability to mix with grime and hip hop emcees as with more mainstream pop and rock artists you understand this, but when the headlines such he is “most influential black and urban artist in the UK” you’re going to rub a few people up the wrong way. Yours truly included.

Yet I get why they did this. BBC 1Xtra is positioned as urban music station but has a legacy of “Love Black Music, Love 1Xtra”. For some even though there is a rebranding people don’t forget such associations that easily. So whether or not you recognise that music has no colour, media and organisations have no problem reminding you about the social constructs.

This kind of thinking does not stand in isolation.

Forbes ran an article “Hip Hop Is Run By A White, Blonde, Australian Woman” profiling the artist Iggy Azalea. The title of the article was hastily changed by the author to “Hip-Hop’s Unlikely New Star: A White, Blonde, Australian Woman”. You tell me what the inferences are and why the need for emphasis on race if music has no colour?

Variety ran an article claiming Elvis to be the founder of rock ’n roll

Again a hasty change was made to the title to “ How Elvis Sparked the Rock ‘n’ Roll Era on July 5, 1954”
after Twitter tore Variety a new one, shows how sensitive this can be.

Many genres of music from rock, punk, jazz, soul were birthed from the experiences and musical forms of expression of black musicians in North America and The Caribbean. They were adopted and adapted by various cultures and ethnicities along the way. The reality is that so often media and the corporations that promote said artists will be as culpable for the racial labelling of music. When you consistently push out the notion that such said music is black or white (what happened to all the other colours) there will always be pushback on this and especially when something certain music styles attached to this are discarded or replaced by even more meaningless labels such as urban.

The likes of soul, reggae, punk, gospel, rock and other forms of music have been promoted and celebrated by all cultures across the UK for a long while now. From sound clashes to soul weekenders, jazzfests to carnivals. Without a doubt many of them have been predominantly birthed and shaped by artists from African and Caribbean backgrounds. With this there is no issue. The problem arises when such music becomes either becomes pigeon holed without nods to the originators or an artist emerges from said genre and labels and/or media push these alternatives as a great white hope. Both subtly and blatantly. This is when people get their back up. (Note to Mackelmore)

Of course there are those who will play down the racial implications of this as irrelevant, sniping or people playing like victims and wanting to play the race the card. The thing is the answer is very simple.

If you don’t want people to play the race card, change the deck.


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