Earlier this month, a woman in south London tried to book a private room at a local bar and restaurant and ended up at the centre of a Twitter firestorm. ".@TheExhibit," her tweet began, directed at the venue, "I wanted to book the studio, but you won't allow me to play @Stormzy1 or garage hits by @CraigDavid. Why?" She included a screenshot of the bar's booking page, which detailed its music policy.
"The Exhibit prohibits any music that it deems to be too far away from being relatively mainstream/chart music," the booking statement read. "A good way to judge what sort of music is acceptable would be to say that music played on a national commercial radio station during the daytime will be fine." But then it continued, with a list: "no drum & bass, trance, garage, heavy/death metal, dancehall, bashment, grime, bassline." The potential customer, Bieneosa Ebite – who declined to speak to us – and others who questioned the Exhibit's policy didn't miss the optics of including those genres, the majority of which are rooted in what can loosely be described as "black music".
"I spoke to @theexhibit about their music ban," Bieneosa tweeted a day later, on 4 March, "and was told owners put it in place because of 'explicit' language and 'atmosphere it creates'. Was also told by @theexhibit that afrobeat is on banned list too. When asked if they thought this action was discriminatory, they said 'no'." The bar's initial chirpy responses to Bieneosa the day before – "ooh, we are strict! Love a bit of @CraigDavid" followed by an invite for her to ring them for a chat – jarred even further.
But by the time the brief social media flare-up had fizzled out, I couldn't shake the questions it hovered around. How do we get to define pop or the mainstream today? Where does music largely made by black people fit in? And when will be we able to accept shifts in those definitions to include styles and sounds that may not have been considered part of the top 40/mainstream 60 years ago? We've been in a rut for long enough now, one foot stuck in the mire of America's racially segregated charts and belief that pop acts fronted by non-white people wouldn't be "marketable", and the other trying to step into a future of pop that more accurately reflects the voices, backgrounds and aesthetic of today's pop stars.
In the UK in particular, where the belated arrival of commercial and pop radio stations in the 60s largely copied trends coming from the US, future generations would come to be hemmed in by the same illogically race-based lines that helped facilitate the white-washing of music originally made by African Americans, rather than just widen the scope of what could be marketed as "pop" on the radio. That legacy, of a separation of "white mainstream" from soul, funk, jazz, R&B, rap and even country pushed so many genres from both sides of the Atlantic to the margins, even though pop borrowed heavily from them anyway. But today, surely we can do better.
Somewhere between PC Music, vaporwave and what might be the altogether fictional creation of "phonk", we've started to lose all sense of what purpose genre demarcations serve in contemporary music. Sure, an Indie Songs for Slackers or I Love My Neo Soul playlist can assist anyone desperate to soundtrack the sesh with a particular style, but even Spotify has learned we increasingly categorise music based on a "feeling" rather than anything more rigid. Does this song make you want to: work out; hook up; drift off; turn the fuck up? And so on. The firmness of one genre is only really useful to people who still stack CDs in HMV. The songwriters – many of them enigmatic Scandinavians – who facilitated the success of acts like N*Sync, 5ive, Backstreet Boys and later Taylor Swift and Katy Perry perfected blending R&B, soul or dance into pop. Its roots aren't at all monocultural, so why does its final product tend to be?
If this is meant to be a new era of blurring boundaries – particularly inside the ever-growing expanse of pop – some parts of the industry remain stuck in the past. You can feel this most keenly in two parts of the music business that seem to creak slowest with change: the legacy print British music press and some major labels. Rock and the authenticity myth have been anthologised so effectively in magazines and music papers over the years – from Uncut to Sounds to NME – that you could almost hear the groaning lurch of journalists attempting to make sense of genres like calypso, Britfunk, reggae (Melody Maker smartly bringing on Vivien Goldman for it) and now, grime.
One academic picked up on a similar trend at major labels. "The demographic make-up of the management levels of large recording companies meant their commercial strategies are not 'simply business decisions … but are informed by a number of value judgments and cultural' beliefs'," wrote Dr Robert Strachan, quoting author Keith Negus' 1999 book Music Genres and Corporate Cultures in a chapter on Britfunk in Black Popular Music in Britain Since 1945. "In terms of the UK recording industry, the white, middle-class nature of key decision-makers, and their internalisation of rock authenticity discourses, had material consequences for black artists at this point." To Negus, Strachan continues, "this resulted in a 'taken for granted way of working in which staff view artists that can be accommodated to the conventions of the rock tradition as long-term career acts', whereas pop, soul and dance acts are viewed as 'short-term fashion dependent artists'."
But that isn't how music actually feels to people. We connect to its rhythms, melodies, harmonies, its beats. The naming of genres, and creation of a hierarchy where "vapid and commercial" pop sits near "gritty and real" rock, while the minor players duke it out below, doesn't have much of a place in our society now. Pop's only main rules are meant to centre on how a song is constructed, throwing hooks, verses and choruses into a neat package of about three to four minutes. And still, an artist as huge as Beyonce is still most often classed as "urban" rather than pop by the Grammy Recording Academy. Still, it took decades before we heard soca or dancehall infiltrate the pop charts.
"The idea that music should: a) aim to entertain large audiences; b) be judged by sales figures in lists of best-selling recordings; and c) requires polished presentation based upon practice and the skill of background professionals has been the staple of the music business for the whole of the last century," wrote Tim Wall, professor of Radio and Popular Music Studies at Birmingham City University, in Studying Popular Music Culture. "For audiences it represents a vital, always renewed 'alive for the minute' experience, mixed with a communal will to sing the chorus of a song, as well as adoration for a star and the excitement of the show."
Many of the stars who'd find their albums tucked into "urban" categories today would meet those criteria too. So why does black music still feel like genre music? In a rare forward-thinking display, the Brit Awards did away with genre categories for nominees for their 2007 live broadcast, and the UK's pop charts, unlike the US', aren't so meticulously sliced up by genre. So it seems we should be ready to accept that pop can extend beyond Sam Smith and Adele – both indebted to soul – and come to include FKA twigs, Jorja Smith and Stefflon Don, too. twigs said herself, in a 2014 Guardian Guide interview: "When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: 'I've never heard anything like this before, it's not in a genre.' And then my picture came out six months later, now she's an R&B singer." How long would it take for twigs to be considered pop? Or Stormzy? Or Sean Paul?
And this brings us back to the Exhibit. "Our policy is to have music that's an inclusive as possible," says Lisa Loebenberg, one of the venue's owners and directors, when I ring her for a comment. "So we take the guide from anything that's played on mainstream radio or featuring in the charts, because hopefully that should be diverse and eclectic enough to cover all genres and keep all customers happy. All we ask is that we don't play one type of music repeatedly, whether that be country, hardcore heavy metal or grime.
"I'm West-Indian British, my partner's a mix of everything and we know our customers so would never say no to anybody on grounds of discrimination," she continues, before listing the different types of events she says the bar is putting on. "I'm no music expert, by any stretch, but I would only hope in this day and age that commercial music and popular music is diverse and inclusive, and it would be very sad to think that it wasn't."
Realistically, the history of censorship on pop radio in the UK makes it more complicated than that. We've come a long way from Radio 1 stopping Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" mid-play – boosting its sales, hilariously – but traces of conservatism, and what's "allowed" to be pop or mainstream persist. Pirate radio wouldn't have sprung up in the 60s then had a resurgence in the 90s otherwise. Social mores around sexuality, profanity and decency are shifting and it's time the charts reflected that. If not, our sense of the mainstream will continue to sit rooted in the moral panic that labelled jazz "devil music", feared blues and rock 'n' roll's thrusting sexuality and initially tried to resist both rock and rap's brash (and sometimes toxic) masculinity.
A mainstream adult radio listener today doesn't have to fit the mould established in the wake of Britain's 1950s dance halls and ballrooms. Oddly, the MOBOs are one of the last vestiges of a time when black music had to demand recognition from the masses. Now, we can call garage or grime or soul "pop". We can absorb back into the mainstream the so-called black genres that it quietly pulled from in the first place, without ghettoising them in "urban" corners. Then we'll push our sense of the mainstream to a level that really showcases music's diversity – and maybe avoid genre-based Twitter beefs along the way.
You can find Tshepo on Twitter.
(Lead image by Andreas Meixensperger via Flickr)