There’s no denying that the UK R&B bubble is filled with an abundance of talent. A genre that had once felt like it had lost a sense of vibrancy has flourished into a colourful ecosystem. Want to wind down with some mid-tempo soul? Amia Brave will satisfy that urge. Need some R&B with a hood-esque feel to it, rising talent Nippa is the one to call.
Yet whilst UK R&B listeners are very spoiled for choice, there is a common frustration from both listeners and artists themselves in regards to the infrastructure of the genre in this country. If you are frequent to the corridors of Twitter and Clubhouse, this is a discussion you (i) most likely know and (ii) tired of hearing. It’s a conversation that plays like a game of ring-a-rosie: issues relating to lack of system are mentioned – a heated debate ensues yet resolutions are seldom. The solutions that are reached are minimal in action thus the discourse is rendered reductive.
The common consensus often reached is that artists should flee ‘bad vibes’ UK and travel to the US in search of more fruitful opportunities. Though the proposed solution may seem too simplistic, it does have its merits. Though growing a presence in their city, much success was not achieved until neo/soul group Floetry left the London shores for Philadelphia. With writing credits for artists such as Jill Scott and Michael Jackson, the group is since viewed as part of the “Philly Soul” collective.
Desiring to know the reason for the cultural disjuncture, we posed this question to DJ Smooth Fuego.
When viewing the genre’s fragmented and disjointed history in the country, you can’t help but question – has the genre actually ever had a place in the UK?
When it comes to UK R&B history, Smooth is the connoisseur. Instantly he corrects the mis-thinking of the genre never having a seat in the industry.
“Yes, it has had a place, numerous times in different generations in the UK. From the 1950s with British Blues, “Boogie Woogie”, Jazz and Skiffle sounds to the 1960s where acts such as The Rolling Stones, Yard Birds, and the Kinks took influence from American Rhythm and Blues (R&B) acts. Jimmy James (Jamaican-born) was one of the first British Black acts to gain recognition through the 60s and 70s.
“UK acts such as Elton John and Rod Stewart took influence from Rhythm and Blues, went and came back with the introduction of Northern Soul in the 70s. Groups like Liverpool’s own The Real Thing were even introduced. The combined elements of R&B and Reggae even created Lover’s Rock (a genre created from the youth of first-generation Jamaicans.)
“The most known form of R&B/Soul came in the 80s-90s with acts such as Soul II Soul, Loose Ends, Five Star, Mica Paris, Lisa Standsfield, Beverley Knight, MN8, Mark Morrisson, Eternal, etc through to the modern eras of 00-now with acts such as Craig David, Ella Mai, Mahalia, Floetry. So it’s had a place and always been rooted in UK culture just not in the traditional or more recognisable way in which we classify it now.”
Yet if R&B has had a space in the country, why are UK labels historically known for mismanaging their acts? Mainstream push seems to only occur when the sound is more “Pop” oriented and branded by a lighter appearance. Additionally, when comparing public support for Black genres, R&B has been last in line though gradually changing. Mahalia further echoes this sentiment in her interview with Who We Be TALKS. Whilst the soul singer is reflecting more so on the lack of support for women in music, the topic can stretch across the genre generally. Maybe the disjointed support is down to R&B often not being looked at as our own?
Pianist/Music Producer StevieBBeatz seems to think so. Responsible for hits such as Mnelia’s Say Yeah and Senseless, Stevie is one producer to keep on your radar.
“R&B is not homegrown in the UK. It’s more homegrown in the US, Grime is homegrown, Drill is not homegrown but due to how UK producers have changed the sound it’ll always be more popular since it’s more of a faster tempo and for the clubs,” says Stevie.
Smooth further echoes this sentiment, “If I’m honest I kind of agree with this reason. Genres like Lovers Rock etc have prospered in the UK (such as ‘Silly Games’ getting to number 2 in 1979) because it was created from descendants who didn’t feel as culturally connected or recognised with traditional Jamaican Reggae, thus shows the power of having something as ‘Your Own’. All of the genres from Black people in Britain which have prospered have been ones created and combined from the melting pot of heritage cultures here or are British iterations of other genres, even down to UK Garage, Grime, Bassline, Drum & Bass”.
Even Rap music (a genre that has been around in the UK for decades) wasn’t really truly accepted until the UK “made it our own” which included losing the American accents. “Now the UK has flipped the style of Drill, creating UK Drill by combining the elements of UK genres such as the bass slides in Grime and implementing our own slang, speech, and flow to create a more familiar and acceptable sound.”
Ultimately the mass exodus of UK R&B artists to the other side of the pond is understandable. Artists tend to vie for America more than most due to its bigger market and knowledge of marketing R&B acts. With that said, a sizable amount of faith in our home system remains. Artist-friendly platforms (see Colors) and R&B dedicated playlists at Apple/Spotify have created an environment for our artists to not only further their global reach but build a solid fanbase. The reliance on labels to facilitate the scene is diminishing and in spite of the fruitless clubhouse debates, there are individuals making active efforts to support R&B in the UK.
“One thing about UK culture is that we are very reserved and a bunch of complainers”, Smooth Explains.
“We will complain all day about R&B in the UK (which was evident from all the multiple UK clubhouse chats that have resulted in absolutely nothing from people who couldn’t even name a current R&B act from the UK) to look like they’re fighting for something but won’t actually be out there supporting or shouting out the artist’s works. Instead of knocking on the door, create your own and go where you are loved, they can only deny the success for so long because the UK will soon follow as they do with everything else.”
So, does R&B have a place in the UK? Have your say on our socials!