Last night, the 2017 BRIT Awards tried to repair the diversity crisis of 2016’s ceremony with a swathe of nominations for the UK’s young black talent. Yet the only non white winner was Emeli Sandé. Jesse Bernard takes a closer look at the BRITs’ awkward relationship with race.
Beyoncé’s explosive performance at the Grammys this year proved her ability to own the moment – even if that moment has been taken away from her again and again. This time, it was a tearful Adele who beat Beyoncé to Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance.
Across the Atlantic, there was a hope that with the undeniable success grime has collectively accomplished, this year’s BRITs would be a more inclusive affair. The 2017 BRIT Awards took place last night – and this time round, there was no repeat of last year’s #BritsSoWhite campaign to point out the lack of black artists nominated. In fact, there was a promise from the organizers to “more effectively acknowledge diverse, breaking and established talent in future”.
They had obviously made an effort – Emeli Sandé’s British Female Solo Artist win was an improvement on last year, when not a single black artist took home an award. But Sandé’s win revealed that only a particular type of black music is allowed to reach those heights: a more ‘respectable’ type of black music, the type of black music that doesn’t mean 30 men dressed in black taking over a stage, like when Kanye brought dozens of UK MCs on stage with him during his 2015 BRITs performance.
This year, Rag’n’Bone Man beat Stormzy to the British Breakthrough Act trophy. He also won the Critics’ Choice Award, despite Stormzy already having proved just why he is the artist likely to make an impact in 2017. The ‘Human’ singer might be the fastest-selling male artist this decade (which admittedly isn’t so difficult with new streaming rules), but it’s important to acknowledge the privilege that even this relatively unknown artist holds while surpassing Stormzy – especially when you consider the platform the latter has built independently.
David Bowie picked up the award for Best British Male despite having died over a month before the 2016 BRIT Awards. While it was right to acknowledge Bowie’s impact on the past year in music and the success of his final album, Blackstar, what does it say to a generation of black artists when a dead white man, his legacy already immortalized, can win an award over Skepta, Kano, Craig David and Michael Kiwanuka?
When Beyoncé was snubbed by the Grammys for Album of the Year, Adele’s acceptance speech reminded us of what privilege truly means. “The way you make my black friends feel is empowering,” she said as she accepted her award. But the Grammy president’s ‘non-apology’ suggests that despite shattering records with Lemonade becoming her sixth number one album and putting on one of the greatest awards performances in recent memory, Beyoncé should have been grateful just to be there.
There was a similar feeling that grime artists should have appreciated simply being nominated, their presence on the ballot a huge improvement on the year before. But as actress Viola Davis said at this year’s SAG Awards, “inclusion, not diversity” should be a priority for those in power. If diversity means black artists get an invite to the party, then inclusion is about picking up the slice of the cake at the end. The presence of grime artists at the BRITs should’ve been more than lip service to the #BritsSoWhite furore and instead part of a sustained effort to make changes from the top down – rather than the other way around.
In the grand scheme of things, grime suffered a minor setback last night – if anything, the snubs only highlighted how difficult it is to keeping shutting the door in grime’s face when the likes of Stormzy and Skepta just get bigger and bigger. During the show, Stormzy gave disruptive marketing a new meaning with a TV ad promoting his debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, out this Friday. More than just a shrewd commercial move, it ended up being a rebuttal to the fusty BRITs once it was clear Stormzy would be left empty-handed, his way of kicking down the door.
Stormzy will likely have a massive hit with Gang Signs & Prayer and in time be nominated for more awards. But with the a whole generation of new talent right behind him, from AJ Tracey and Dave to Nadia Rose and Stefflon Don, it will be increasingly difficult for the BRITs to ignore their artistic and commercial power.