A couple of weeks ago Kele Okereke wrote a piece for us that suggested "black british music is being erased by cultureless dance music" and stated that "daytime 1Xtra playlist is dominated by house producers like Gorgon City, Kove and Secondcity". Austin Daboh, music manager at BBC Radio 1Xtra, responds.
As a station with over one million listeners, it's only natural that BBC Radio 1Xtra will sometimes receive critical feedback. It's something I welcome, as our listeners drive the station forward and their thoughts are very important to us. However, I feel I have to respond to Kele Okereke’s recent article which claimed that 1Xtra is a catalyst in the decline of black British music.
I believe we are currently in the midst of one of the most successful periods black British music has ever had in the UK. From Meridian Dan’s "German Whip" reaching No.13 in the Official Singles Chart, through to Rudimental performing on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, there are dozens of black music success stories that were incubated and nurtured within BBC Radio 1Xtra.
1Xtra’s commitment to black music and specifically black British artists will always be the cornerstone of what we do, it’s part of our distinctiveness - no other national station supports home grown talent as much as us. Every week at least 40% of our playlist features British artists and we have whole programmes, such as 100% Homegrown, dedicated to exposing and promoting British black music. Even when celebrating American artists we find ways to incorporate British black music talent – check our recent Michael Jackson tribute sessions featuring the best in British R&B talent.
1Xtra’s widespread and consistent support of black music has a wider impact on the music industry: there are around 30 black British acts signed to major labels that cover the spectrum of black music. From Stylo G to Fekky to Wretch 32 to Kwabs to Mista Silva, these are all acts that were played, supported and guided by 1Xtra, often before anyone else cared. There is always more to be done, but it’s fair to say that our musical culture has never had so much exposure.
Black music genres are constantly evolving, as are the tastes of young audiences. Different genres will always peak at different points. Sometimes it’s R&B, other times it’s hip-hop and it just so happens that we are currently going through a strong point in house and garage’s rich history. As a station with a remit to cater for large and diverse demographics we have to keep pace while remaining true to our core values. We have to appeal to a broad range of listeners: from bashment fans in Brixton to grime heads in Glasgow and everyone in between. Ultimately, not every song will be for every listener, but I feel 1Xtra do a good job at supporting the most credible black sounds across the board. It’s the reason we can put artists like Krept & Konan and Popcaan on A-list rotation while also backing massive club records by Route 94 and DJ Zinc. The audiences taste for house is a reflection of the shift we’ve seen away from Ayia Napa towards the Balearic islands like Ibiza. As in previous years, many 1Xtra listeners will bring back the songs they most enjoyed from their summer holidays. You can bet your last pound that alongside the massive soca, dancehall and hip hop records that will tear up carnival this year there will be a house tune getting one of the biggest reactions - it’s our job to reflect that.
The debate will always rage between commercialism and the underground; I remember waiting outside the school gates for my GCSE results while debating whether So Solid had sold out by releasing "21 Seconds". Thirteen years on and not much has changed - just the names and genres involved. In any case, black music should not be confined to young black men spitting into a microphone (as the article’s photo depicts) there is a treasure trove of exciting black music artists currently being supported by 1Xtra and the wider industry. Should Kwabs and Jacob Banks not be classed as authentic black artists? What about George The Poet? Laura Mvula? Ill Blu? The list goes on - all of them strongly supported by 1Xtra.
The BBC isn’t immune to the changing economy and the harsh reality is that 1Xtra has to make cuts in order to survive. However alongside the painful losses to talent, we are bringing new faces to the station and promoting from within. The new 1Xtra line-up includes Seani B, Sian Anderson and A.Dot - all representatives of black music culture that will bring a fresh outlook to the music we play and the artists we support. This is alongside our bespoke specialist shows for reggae, drum & bass, afrobeats and garage. If anyone wants to single out a particular DJ such as MistaJam - they would only need to take a cursory glance at his tracklists to see he supports acts like Scrufizzer, Lady Chann, P Money and Fekky. He’s hardly digging the grave for a black music burial.
Alongside our support of British talent, 1Xtra shines a spotlight on the rest of the world. In January we were in Jamaica, recording music and interviews with Damian Marley, Ninjaman and Tarrus Riley. A few weeks later we were in Nigeria for "Destination Africa" - recording exclusive content that was then broadcast on 1Xtra during a week-long celebration of the hottest music coming out of Africa. August will see a drum & bass takeover, while September will be a month long celebration of hip hop. 1Xtra Live in November will spring even more surprises. We are a station that cares very deeply about black music.
When we pledge our support to an artist we stay committed to give the project its best chance of success. If during that journey an artist decides to make a more abrasive sound - we will play it if we believe our audience want to hear it. The opposite also applies, which means we will also play more mainstream efforts by our core artists if they fit our station’s sound. As the lead singer of Bloc Party and writer of "Tenderoni", Kele Okereke should know more than most that you can experiment with commercial sounds while still retaining credible black music attributes. We should be celebrating the fact that so many of "us" are sneaking past the old guard and into the charts. It should make us proud that Skepta, the same MC who did "Private Caller" can gate crash the top 20 multiple times. We should be cheering Tinie Tempah for growing from "Wifey Riddim" to headlining festivals and signing multi-million pound deals.
There is definitely a wider debate to be had around the mainstream support for black music and the infrastructure that surrounds it. Legitimate concerns have been raised around the pressure some artists feel to compete commercially and I'm as passionate as anyone about the state of black music. That’s why I'm confident that it's not being erased, it's just evolving.
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