In case you'd forgotten, last year's Brit Awards were really white. Super-white – more white than veneers, La La Land or those flaps on caps that protect your neck from sunburn. From James Bay to Jack Garratt, Coldplay to Calvin Harris, the closest the awards got to diversity among British acts in 2016 was nominating a Little Mix song called "Black Magic". As award ceremonies go, it seemed less concerned with showcasing the best music found in the UK that year and more concerned with showcasing the best music found in your dad's glove compartment that year – incidentally, I hear the cellophane still hasn't come off that Foals' album, bless him. The cover does look a bit "doom and gloom" to be fair!
As you'd expect, the internet noticed and outrage ensued. Before long #BritsSoWhite was trending, Laura Mvula was on the Andrew Marr Show and Big Narstie was being ferried in cabs between the Channel 4 and 5 news studios. Following this, a blogger and promoter launched a petition, mounting pressure on the Brits organisers to release the diversity figures of their voting academy – a voting academy that, based on their selections, people assumed read like the cast of Dad's Army. Anger towards the Brits came to a head when Stormzy – perhaps one of the most glaring omissions – released the fierce "One Take Freestyle" in which he angrily tackled the awards' failure and hypocrisy. He later told Radio 1, "It was such a great year for grime and underground music. I thought maybe this year it might get celebrated."
Cultural whitewashing aside, this fast turned into a PR disaster for the Brits organisers, who must have been going full Thick Of It behind the scenes. Before long, they released a statement acknowledging that they needed to take a "fresh look at the metrics around the Brit awards". The 2016 panel had about a 70/30 male-female ratio, with BME voters making up 15 percent of the total. Then at the start of March, Brits chairman Ged Doherty wrote in an open letter to the Guardian that the awards needed to change, and that thanks to pressure from the likes of Stormzy – who he met with – he was going to make sure this happened sooner rather than later. "Next year's Brits," he promised, "will be an event everyone can be proud of."
Introducing then, the Brit Awards 2017: Woke Edition. That's right, Ged and the boys (now 52 percent of voters) and girls (now 48 percent of them) at Brits HQ have come through with the goods, added 700 new voters and presented us with a year of nominations that, actually, nearly reflect the wealth of black talent working in Britain: Craig David, Kano, Skepta, Nao and, um, Rag'n'Bone Man's voice to name just a few. The list is in no way perfect. There are no women nominated in either the British album or international group categories, and Laura Mvula wasn't nominated anywhere after she spoke out about the lack of diversity last year and released a very well-received album – but as progress grows it is clear that a demonstrable change has taken place in how the Brits evaluate and celebrate music.
This is, of course, also an excellent exercise in "Why Nobody Likes Looking Racist On the Internet." Grown men with Twitter pics of random dogs might argue this is all "political correctness gone mad," but really it's much simpler than that. The Brits failure to include a truly diverse roster of nominees was embarrassing, and nobody likes being embarrassed. If there's one thing old white men don't like being reminded of, it's their oldness and their whiteness. #BritsSoWhite basically Twitter-shamed an entire awards ceremony into restructuring its voting system – and that could be seen as either a victory for representation or a case of forceful virtue signalling, depending on how you squint at it.
It's tempting to ask, though: does this really matter? More specifically – given the nominations of Skepta and Kano – does this really matter for grime? In a way, the Brits were always a strange source of approval for the scene to chase. The movement has enjoyed a return to favour through remaining resolutely underground – if not in numbers then at least in spirit – so it's difficult to see what the image of Novelist mingling with Keith Lemon at a Mastercard after-party does for its authenticity. Much of the efficacy of grime has always been down to its success outside of the conventional framework – top ten hits from Youtube freestyles spring to mind. As Skepta says at the start of Wiley's "Speakerbox": "there is no money that record labels can offer us no more, it's dead." So, does the UK's insurgent, anti-establishment, fiercely independent genre really need a Brits global success gong to prove itself?
Well, no, of course Kano doesn't need Ant and Dec, but that's not the point. The real victory here – and it is a victory – is in what grime, and more broadly British black music deserves: a level playing field. It deserves a climate where it is acknowledged and celebrated for the lifeblood it pumps into British music.
The biggest insult looking at last year's nominations wasn't just that they were bland, but more that they seemed to be intentionally presenting an inaccurate vision of British music. As Anna Leszkiewicz pointed out in her piece for the New Statesman, nomination deadlines were extended to include Adele, and Amy Winehouse was nominated despite being having been dead for five years. Not only that, but Catfish and the Bottlemen and Wolf Alice both enjoyed nods, despite Stormzy's "Know Me From" charting higher on the UK singles chart in 2015 than songs from either band. As with every year, the Brits are designed to celebrate commercial success. Still, the 2017 nominations represent not only the major label artists that have enjoyed stratospheric sales, but also the artists that are shaping contemporary culture and provoking conversation.
Of course, this doesn't mean we're hoping Skepta is going to go full Alex Turner and pull rock'n'roll poses in front of a bemused crowd of ITV2 presenters and nervous X Factor finalists, but the recognition afforded here is a powerful statement. It's acknowledging something closer to the truth of British culture on a mainstream stage, which as Mastercard would say, is priceless.
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(Images by John Marshall / JM Enternational)