This year for Black History Month, I would like to showcase the achievements of the black pioneers who broke into the British music scene. Furthermore, I would like to show you how the work of these individuals (and more!) shaped the Black British music scene today. Today, black artistry is widely celebrated and, upon hearing the UK Charts, it is no surprise to hear the likes of Stormzy, Ray BLK, Jorja Smith and Digga D. However, this was not always the case as black artists historically faced different barriers in the industry.
Winifred Atwell (1914 – 1983)
Winifred Atwell was a rag-time, boogie-woogie artist who soared to success in the 1950’s. In December 1954, she was the first black person to ever have a UK number 1 with “Lets Have Another Party.” During this period, the charts were dominated by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and David Whitfield. Any black presence in the charts was largely American, with Nat King Cole reaching number 10 in April 1954 with his rendition of “Tenderly.” In the same year however, Dame Shirley Bassey debuted on the charts at No 50 with “As I Love You.”
Ms Atwell was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1914 where she, like her father, trained as a pharmacist and worked in her father’s family business. Following WW2, she quit her job and moved New York before, like many others from the Carribbean Islands, she settled in the UK. Here, she studied piano, having played since age 4, at Royal Academy of Music. She was the first female pianist to be awarded the highest grading for musicianship and is also said to be the first Black artist in the UK to sell 1 million records. She didn’t abandon her classical talents however, and in the same year as her No 1, she reached No 9 in the charts with a recording of the famous Andante cantabile in D flat major (Variation 18) from Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini”.
Dame Shirley Bassey (1937 – present)
Dame Shirley Bassey was born to a white mother and black father in Cardiff, Wales. Her career began in the mid-50’s where she toured theatres and clubs having enjoyed singing her whole life. In 1958, after getting off to a slow start, “As I Love You” became her first No 1, as well as being the first No 1 by a Welsh artist.
Being a woman of colour and a pioneer, she faced much of the discrimination at the time – especially in the US. Like Sammy Davis Jr and Duke Ellington she wasn’t allowed to enter the public rooms of the hotels nor swim in many swimming pools. Nevertheless, Dame Shirley Bassey currently has 27 Top 40 UK hits, 34 Top 40 albums and her themes from the James Bond movies, Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever are modern classics.
Labi Siffre (1945 – present)
Claudius Afolabi Siffre was born and raised in West London to a mother of Barbadian-Belgian descent and a Nigerian father. During the 60’s, American soul began to emerge amongst African American communities. Many white artists, to include Tom Jones, The Beatles, Dusty Springfield and Kiki Dee were all heavily influenced by this sound and dominated the charts. Black Brits however, were less prominent. Labi Siffre however, rose to fame in the early 70’s when he began releasing music that infused soul, jazz, funk and soft rock.
His first hit was “It Must Be Love” which charted at No. 14. It was later covered by white ska/pop band ‘Madness’ who reached No. 4 and featured in the 1989 movie ‘The Tall Guy.’ He followed up with 5 more singles that reached the charts, most notably “Something Inside So Strong.” This was his biggest track, charting at No 4. It is widely held that Labi Siffre wrote the song in response to both a documentary he watched that showed white soldiers killing South Africans during Apartheid as well as his experience being a homosexual.
Since then, Labi Siffre has inspired and influenced the sound of a number of contemporary artists with his songs being sampled on hit singles like “My Name is…” by Eminem and “I Wonder” by Kanye West. Other artists that sampled Labi’s music include Fatboy Slim, Miguel, Jay Z, Def Squad and Jon Kennedy.
By the late 70’s, reggae had begun to take hold in the UK. Bob Marley & The Wailers were already hugely successful and in 1978, BBC Radio London launched their first reggae show, Reggae Rockers, hosted by David Rodigan and Tony Williams. This era saw a number of Black British artists come forward to establish a new sound that would later influence new genres such as jungle and grime.
Aswad (1975 – present)
As is common in reggae music, many of these songs were political and challenged the consensus at the time. Aswad, for example, were a roots reggae band hailing from West London that told the story of the Black British plight. They were in the charts almost every year from ’84 to ’95 and had their only No.1 with “Don’t Turn Around” in 1988.
Smiley Culture (1963 – 2011)
David Victor Emmanuel, better known as “Smiley Culture” was born and raised in South London to a Guyanese mother and Jamaican father. He is best known for his lighter-hearted take on reggae and is hailed as an icon for his “fast-chat” style which can be likened to rap. Whilst hip-hop was taking form in the US, Smiley Culture definitely birthed and shaped the UK hip-hop, jungle, Drum ‘n’ Bass and grime sound. In 1984, he released “Cockney Translation” – a comical translation of Cockney Rhyming slang into Jamaican patois. Whilst it got a lot of radio play on BBC radio, it failed to make a big impact on the charts and only reached No. 71. Nevertheless, in 1984 he released “Police Officer” which charted at No. 12.
The Birth of the Black British Sound
The 90’s were largely characterised by a burst of genres emerging within Black British communities to include soul, jungle and rap. In 1989, Soul II Soul released the classic “Back to Life (However Do You Want It) which charted at No.1. and continued to release charting tracks until 1997. Sade, who came out in the 80’s and saw unfathomable success in the USA also continued to shine in the UK charts through the 80’s and 90’s but never seemed to reach No.1 in the UK.
Jungle also began to take form during this era. Producers and DJ’s such as MC 5ive ‘0, Groove Connection and Kingsley Roast are known as the early pioneers of the genre that later birthed both Drum ‘n’ Bass and grime. The London Posse, for example, were an early hip-hop group of the 80’s and 90’s consisting of artists Sipho, Rodney P, Bionic and DJ Biznizz. Rodney P himself as well as fellow MC Roots Manuva are seen as pioneers of British rap after being the first to rap in English accents. This was significant given that a number of British rappers would sing in American accents as late 80’s/early 90’s hip-hop became an international success. These two MC’s gave Britain its own sound, and would infuse elements of reggae and dancehall into their tracks. Despite London Posse’s impact, the group had trouble climbing the charts and never charted higher than No. 89. Roots Manuva’s highest charting was at No. 28 in 1999.
So Solid Crew ( 1998–present)
The early 2000’s largely saw the commercialisation of the underground Black British sounds that was bubbling. In this era, we get legendary group So Solid Crew who fused garage, hip-hop and dance after much experience in rapping for Pirate radio stations such as Delight. So Solid Crew’s hit No.1 in the UK charts with classic hit “21 seconds” but other tracks, including “So Grimey” also charted. Until this day many are active members in the Black British music community and they continue to perform and participate in culture clash. This year especially, Asher D deserves much accolades for his contributions to black British film, most notably, Topboy.
Wiley (1979 – present) and Roll Deep (2001 – 2013)
Wiley was born in Bow, East London where the grime sound emerged with pirate radio stations such as Rinse FM, Deja Vu FM and Major FM. Wiley first charted with garage group Pay As You Go Cartel with “Champagne Dance” at No. 13. Even though the earliest inklings of grime can be heard in the music made by garage artists at the time, to include So Solid Crew, Heartless Crew and Pay As You Go, Wiley is often hailed as the “Godfather of Grime” – a title we can all agree he deserves. Wiley’s name was firmly established as an innovator of Grime in 2002 when he released instrumental “Eskimo.” During this time, he would refer to this new genre as “Eski” or “Eskibeat.” He also released tracks with group Roll Deep such as the era defining “Shake A Leg” and “Good Times.” As a solo act, Wiley has charted 133 times in the top 75 with hit songs “Heatwave” featuring the legendary Ms Dynamite, and “Wearing my Rolex” which charted and No.1 and No.2 respectively.
The Commercial Success of Grime
Wiley also mentored Dizzee Rascal who was also from Bow, East London. He, alongside the likes of Kano and Boy Better Know, is also seen as a pioneer in grime. Dizzee earned a Mercury Prize in 2003 for his debut album “Boy In Da Corner.” Dizzee currently boasts 5 UK No. 1 singles and 13 Top 10’s. Kano was born and raised in East Ham, London and brought a a essence of poetry and depth to his sound. It was also a massive year for Kano who, alongside Asher D, played a lead-role in era defining series ‘Top Boy.’ Kano’s name became familiar in the underground grime world after he dropped “P’s & Q’s” which had elements of rap in it also. Kano joined N.A.S.T.Y. Crew (Natural Artistic Sounds Touching You), who consisted of big names including BBK’s Jammer and D Double E as well as Ghetts. They had a show on underground pirate radio station Deja Vu.
As we progress through the late 2000’s and into the next decade, a large array of artist hit the radio and charts consistently. This includes veterans such as Skepta, JME, Lethal Bizzle, P Money and Ghetts as well as younger artists such as such as Chip (formerly Chipmunk at the time) and Tinchy Stryder.
The Current Success of Black British Artists
Today, it is no surprise to see black artistry on the radio as we mould the UK sound. As is always the case, artists are influenced by sounds from their ancestral homes or other Western influences. Today for example, Afrobeats has a massive influence on Black British music with the likes of J-Hus and NSG dominating the charts. Caribbean sounds continue, as always, to influence the charts, recently this has been most significant with female rapper Steff-London. Other names also dominating the charts include Dave, Fredo, Headie One, Not3s, Loski, Stormzy, AJ Tracey, D-Block Europe, Jorja Smith and Ray BLK.
Drill and Digga D
Finally I would like to pay homage to drill, the most recent, organic musical development amongst Black British artists today. Despite being drawn from Chicago’s stint at drill music with the likes of Chief Keef, Lil Durk and Fredo Santana, drill music carries a undeniable British aura. As with all boundary-pushing music, it has received significantly bad press but nevertheless continues to satisfy the musical needs of this generation by using casual and cheeky British slang to tell real and raw stories. Digga D holds the current title for the first solo UK Drill Song to chart in the Top 20 with “No Diet.”
Whilst I wish I could list more artists, I couldn’t pay enough homage in a single post. Nevertheless, I urge all those with an interest in Black British music to research further than this article and be inspired by the British Black Excellence that beautifully and gracefully persists through time.
Jorja Smith (1997 – present)
Whilst this article has mainly focused on the development of rap derivatives, this is not the only genre to have been drawn from early soul, jazz and hip-hop. Jorja Smith is currently No.8 in the UK Charts featuring afrobeats kingpin Burna Boy. Jorja’s sultry voice gives a modern take to pop, R’n’B and more. She has hit the Top 40’s 4 times and has collaborated with the likes of Kali Uchis, Drake, Preditah, Stormzy, Maverick Sabre, Loyle Karner and more.
If you’ve made it this far then congrats. I think it should be said that hitting the charts is far from a defining feature of Black British Excellence in music. The sounds we here stem from an underground music scene that continues to flourish and create. Instead, this article explores the achievements that opened the door for artists into the mainstream. Current Black British artists in the charts include Jorja Smith, Headie One, Dave, Steff London, Mist, Stormzy, AJ Tracey, Bugsey, Young T and D-Block Europe.