In 2017, i-D and Chanel’s partnership project The Fifth Sense ran an article about the ten most influential women in grime. In keeping with the site’s dedication to shouting out creative women, the piece mentioned DJ and presenter Julie Adenuga, then-features director at i-D Hattie Collins and more. But when journalist and author Yomi Adegoke scrolled through the piece, she was surprised to see just three black women out of the ten interviewed – after all, we’re talking about a genre rooted in working class, majority-black communities in east London. But, as Yomi would tell me, some parts of the genre also reflect the biases in that community.
For one, some MCs’ early, teenage bars leaned on crafting punchlines out of colourism (where preferential treatment is granted to lighter-skinned black people or mixed-race people in black spaces). In the Fifth Sense piece itself, two of the white women interviewed appear to inadvertently quote lines like that, from Mz Bratt’s “Pretty little lighty but I can get dark” to Lethal Bizzle’s “Your mum’s got athlete’s foot, flat face, flat chest, blacker than soot.” In both, being a dark-skinned woman is positioned as something negative rather than just… an indicator of having more melanin in your skin. And so, after months spent trying to get people to speak to her on the record, Yomi wrote a Guardian article about what it felt like to see an under-representation of black women, both behind the scenes and on-stage in grime.
Now, she’s following her feature with an upcoming radio documentary on BBC Radio 4, due for broadcast next Monday 1 April. On it, Yomi – who’s since co-written the book Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible with her friend Elizabeth Uviebinené – speaks to artists like Stush, Lioness (both still criminally underrated on a mainstream scale), Mercston as well as academic Dr Joy White, broadcaster Jasmine Dotiwala, Island Records label division head Alex Boateng and more. She presents them with a simple question: where are all the black women in this black British genre?
Well, I say “simple,” but as a black woman who writes a lot about black British identity, Yomi knew it wouldn’t necessarily be an easy question to pose. People would be able to search her name, see her past clips and “because I’m not a black man, or a white woman, asking this question, it’s already going to look like I’m coming from a place of bitterness and saltiness.” But as a journalist, she felt she had to pursue an accurate representation of what’s happening. “I was very respectful in how I approached people,” she tells me over the phone a couple of weeks before the documentary airs. As we chat, her voice races to keep up as her mind zips from one thought to the next. But on this point, she slows down for a breather.
“Because I’m a grime fan, I pay these women – the Hattie Collinses, the Hyperfranks, Olivia Roses – their dues. They all really set pace; no one can dispute that. But this is about the fact that there are other women who we don’t see. So the question I’m trying to approach is: do they not exist? Or is it that they exist and there’s an over-representation of other women?” And she thinks it's a combination: there's a dearth of black women in the scene, as well as women doing their thing who aren’t as visible. Here, she shares what she learned in the process of exploring those questions through the interviews you hear in the doc.
IT’S HARD TO SHAKE THE IDEA THAT ‘BLACK WOMEN DON’T SELL’
One of my biggest takeaways from this whole documentary is that this is not only a grime problem. This is a music industry problem, full stop. And I’ve realised that if I wanted to do a follow-up, I’d look at lots of different genres. Take afrobeats, for example. I can sit here and list so many artists – Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy – before naming one woman artist. It’s so complex. You see something similar with UK rap, R&B, pop music, afro-bashment. I think grime’s so interesting because you have the comparative element of very visible white women (not as MCs) in the industry. But when you look at pop with elements of soul and R&B in it, you’ve got Jess Glynne, Adele, Jessie J… I can’t think of a single black woman who’s reached those levels of commercial success in this country. The ‘black women don’t sell’ is a real chicken-and-egg situation. I honestly don’t know why it is.
COLOURISM COMPLICATES THE QUESTION EVEN MORE
Speaking to Alex Boateng, Island’s urban division president, I got the impression that people don’t put the same energy behind black women artists as they do white women, white men, black men. But at the same time, when there are black female musicians doing their thing and being vocal about the issues that face them – like Lioness said to me in the doc – the reaction is different. That’s where colourism becomes such a big thing. Acts like Stush and Lioness told me they had people basically tell them that they’d be more successful if they were light-skinned. Colourism is a seed that was planted by white supremacy, but is watered within our own communities. We can’t pretend otherwise. I think that when it comes to women we consider commercially viable, it’s not always even about race. It’s about skin tone within the black community, too. Very dark-skinned men do well in grime – just look at Stormzy. Dave, in UK rap, just had his number 1 album. But I don’t know why we haven’t yet seen a talented woman as dark as Dave do that well.
BLACK MEN’S INPUT AND ENGAGEMENT MATTERS
Not every critique comes from bitterness. Lioness is one of the best in the game. She’s incredible. One thing she said to me was that when she speaks about colourism, on a track like the "Dead Black Ting" remix (above), people label her as bitter. And that’s why black men are so crucial to this conversation, because when Ghetts releases a song like “Black Rose,” people hear him. They actually hear the point he’s making because they know it’s not coming from a place of supposed bitterness. When you’re a black women raising the conversation it’s already read as ‘ooh you’re pissed off.’ But you’re not – you’re just talking. To be honest, it means so much more for someone like Mercston to be saying, ‘yeah, this is a thing – we should support black women.’ More than the most academic, sociopolitically thorough argument behind why this is the case. It gives this so much credence, because I feel as though the reaction to this doc will be ‘you’re overdoing it, you’re overthinking; you’re bitter, blah blah blah.’
SPEAKING ABOUT RACE IN MUSIC IS UNCOMFORTABLE
If I’m being completely honest, I think you get two types of people. You get those who are absolutely aware of the issue of colourism and misogynoir in grime, and know that it will reveal their complicity. They’re like, ‘leave me out of this, I don’t want to take part in this unless it’s about women generally’ or whatever.
Then you get people who genuinely aren’t aware… They really want to try and contribute to the conversation. But the reason that can be difficult because I genuinely think they believe there’s nothing malicious at play. I push this idea a lot: we’re not all born woke. I wasn’t born understanding misogynoir. So when you tell someone, someone who loves black women romantically, platonically, that, ‘Look: have you ever noticed there are bare white women behind the scenes in grime and that there don’t seem to be as many visible black women?’ some of them are like, ‘Rah, now you mention it…’ Before being asked, they may not have thought about it. And I believe that. It’s like an elephant in the room when some people aren’t even in the same room.
BLACK WOMEN ARE EASILY BLAMED FOR THEIR VISIBILITY
A lot of it came down to ideas about gender. So many people I spoke to made reference to things like ‘oh you know, girls don’t like the violence of grime, they don’t want to get involved’ – the onus was put on the women. The idea that black women didn’t want to partake in the scene was a very common theme. And that’s so difficult to discuss because people would say, ‘black women didn’t want to partake. All the women pushing the scene in the beginning happened to be white.’ And no one’s disputing that; as I said, those women absolutely helped push the scene. But to then suggest black women simply weren’t interested is dangerous. That kept coming up in some way with almost everybody: ‘black women just weren’t on it.’ And that’s just not the case.
Yomi Adegoke’s Where are all the black women in grime? doc debuts on Monday 1 April at 4PM, on Radio 4 (on the BBC Sounds platform).