It Shouldn't Be This Hard to Stage Black Music in Manchester
MCs taking part in Grime Beyond Borders 2 at Festival in My House (L–R: Kuo, Rolla, Dona B, Sangy)

It Shouldn't Be This Hard to Stage Black Music in Manchester

Meet the producers and promoters getting creative about the city's history of pushing grime and hip-hop to the margins.

It's a freezing Saturday morning in Manchester and Tunde Adekoya is in Longsight, a residential area three miles south of the city centre. He’s preparing to host This Vibrant Thing, an all-day party headlined by rappers and MCs, in an underused library. No, really. As a prominent tastemaker with ten years’ experience putting on grime raves, he's one of several promoters and event producers finding innovative ways to showcase black music live, in a city that has at times been slow to catch up to how much so-called "urban music" has taken over the mainstream.

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As part of the three-week initiative, Longsight Library fills with people dancing to hip-hop, R&B and bass, listening to poetry and spoken word, and doing the sorts of things that would normally make no sense in a place where the smell of yellowing books and silence rule all. I ask Tunde, who co-founded community organisation Platform MCR, how the idea stuck. “I haven’t been to a club and seen people say, ‘Yo that was mad inspiring,’” he tells me, “but I’ve been in the library and I’ve seen both young and older people being like, ‘that was amazing, my daughter really wants to get into MCing now.’”

Tunde has a point: not just about libraries’ potential as places to intimately experience music, but about city centre clubs’ limited reach. Although on a typical night you can hear black music across the board – from hipster bars in the city’s Northern Quarter to the bougie clubs on canalside strip Deansgate Locks heaving with shirt-and-shoes guys and women in imitation Hervé Léger bandage dresses – the venues blasting hip-hop, trap and R&B aren’t necessarily populated by people from communities where the music is born, or even the people it could most inspire. Testament to this is the fact that Manchester’s leading trap artist Sleazy F didn’t perform in any of those places on a recent Friday. Instead, you’d have caught him at intimate, underground rock venue Rebellion. And the next night, Rapper HMD performed at Longsight Library. In other words, black music happenings in Manchester often pop off outside the venues you’d expect to find them.

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A This Vibrant Thing library gig (Photo by Joel Chester Fildes, courtesy of Platform MCR)

The more I spoke to people both embedded in the experimental, trap and electronic scenes anchored to black artists, the more I realised that this mainly boiled down to a disconnect ripping quietly through the gentrifying city. Of course, the fact that black music genres are now being blasted out in huge venues owned by governmental bodies and prestigious cultural centres is a testament to how much more reach the scene has gained, reflecting a mainstream embrace of black music genres that historically faced shutdowns from police. But equally, when you’re more likely to see your favourite rapper at the library than a city centre club, where does this gap, between “mainstream” bookers and the black underground, leave the people who just want to enjoy the music?

“The time when black music events were not welcome in the city centre is definitely gone,” agrees Danny Fahey, founder of company Thirty Pound Gentleman. TPG have staged innovative events from a micro-festival held at local MC/producer Chunky’s house for Manchester International Festival to screening documentary Grime Beyond Borders in the city’s HOME cinema. “Even the ‘tacky’ venues are playing Drake and Future and they’re playing UK music as well – J Hus is a pop star,” Danny continues. “But the time of black people not being welcome in those venues all the time is still with us.” As a producer of boundary-pushing collaborations, mentor of emerging artists such as Just Banco and manager of Manchester grime originators Slay and Stef Smith, Danny's well-positioned as a black music figurehead, knowledgeable of the scene’s history its new cultural territories.

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He believes his events reach black audiences because they’re essentially anti-establishment, and fully independent. After all, they’re staged without the extra boost of arts grants (he instead works with organisations like the city’s Whitworth Art Gallery). “The entry point is not designed to be a shape that we fit through,” he says, speaking in particular as a producer of colour. “As a producer, culture maker, promoter and supporter of talent, TPG is all about resisting. So we don’t pursue public funding because it’s not designed for us at that high level. We just wanna do what we do, with no apologies. The minute you start borrowing money from the public purse, you have to start following rules; you have to start answering to people who don’t know or care about the culture you’re making anyway.”

Unlike Danny, Tunde believes working with closely organisations that offer funding can create a positive impact, but he concedes that “there aren’t enough people in management roles, in programming roles who can be in a board meeting and say, ‘this is what we need to be doing for these people’.” As a result, he left a programmer position at creative music charity Brighter Sound to pursue a more DIY approach and currently works with a creative music agency. He believes that, to stage black music in a more straightforward and inclusive way, “We need more Afrocentric owned venues, bottom line. People coming from a place that understands how the culture operates might identify a risk everyone else misses.” Without black venues and promoters curating black music events, the culture runs the risk of being divorced from what makes it so special.

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Cotton-mill-turned-venue Mantra, situated near NTS Manchester in creative neighbourhood Ancoats, is more inclusive than some of the clubs that sit at the city centre. It’s where Mason – a collective of three people-of-colour DJ/producer promoters – have been hosting their house music events for the last two years. The trio’s parties tend to sell out within hours, filling the 1000-capacity venue without relying on big name headliners. Inside you typically find a mix of leading Manchester “creatives”, MCs and students – it’s not a million miles away from what Mike Skinner collaborator Murkage Dave and experimental musician/all-round artist GAIKA did while running their Murkage club night a few years ago. “Because Mason are working outside of the construct of what the white mainstream want from black artists, they’ve been extremely successful,” says Danny, who’s been mentoring the trio for years. “It always has been what ensures longevity.”

Thirty Pound Gentleman's Danny Fahey, photographed by Elliot Davenport

Danny sets out an interesting contradiction, which seems to sit at the heart of this cleave between black culture and club bookers. Ultimately there’s a risk associated with putting acts on in a saturated market – and that’s why you may find a trap artist playing in a rock venue, or art gallery. Melissa Penny, a booker for upmarket clubs History and LIV, tells me that there aren’t many promoters willing to take that risk. “Whoever is going to host a come-up show has to be ready for some humility or a financial loss,” she says. Having hosted Krept’s recent birthday party as well as Kojo Funds and Lotto Boyzz, Melissa sees the difference between London artists and local acts, citing confidence as another reason why bookers and venues are hesitant to host Manchester artists. “Some artists are great behind the mic in the studio, but when it comes to doing a party – which can raise so much awareness – I don’t believe some have ‘it.’” So will Manchester’s burgeoning scene ever match the level of international success achieved by its southern counterpart, or always have to work twice as hard?

While reporting on other stories about Manchester's live scene, I spoke to Austin Collings, creative director at Salford's The White Hotel. Since opening two years ago, it's become the go-to destination for the city’s more experimental events, but has had limited success in attracting black music promoters, perhaps owing to Salford’s association with indie venues such as Islington Mill and guitar-loving festival Sounds From The Other City. “I feel there’s a lack of curiousity from both sides, from venues and promoters. Manchester is still in awe of its icons,” Austin says. But he asserts The White Hotel’s mission is to provide an alternative: “Manchester has become so self-righteous – look at the shops, the expense, property. Our main aim is to cater for the dispossessed but we don’t see it as racial difference, we see it as class difference because of the excessive white, middle-class control.”

Despite how complex staging black music within Manchester nightlife has become, Danny, Tunde and Melissa are all positive about the future. “So many artists that Manchester produces are artists that are this original because they’ve had to problem-solve in a way that London artists don’t,” Danny says. “While black-owned clubs such as Lounge 31 haven’t been a part of Manchester’s success conversation and black DJs such as Silva or Layza haven’t been invited back into the city centre as much as they should have, time and scenes move very quickly. And right now young, black, Mancunian DJs are the top boys.” The tectonic plates beneath the trap, rap, grime and spoken word scenes are shifting quickly, and with them expectations of just where to catch those sorts of act. “So while the repair for the historic disconnect hasn’t happened, new connections that are being weaved every day.” And in time, that may mean gigs move from libraries to black-owned clubs. Just find a good spot where the shelves won’t block your view.

You can find Kamila on Twitter.