Jan 22 2019

UK R&B: Where’s the noise?

Most 90s babies have fond memories of R&B, its sensual melodies opening our then unbroken teenage hearts to a world of emotion. Yet, when we think of the genre, it is common for our minds to be drawn Stateside to the likes of TLC, Aaliyah, Usher and everyone’s favourite Auntie, Mary J Blige. The UK’s lack of front is somewhat remedied by later noughties legends like Jameelia, Shola Ama and Craig David but not enough to steal the crown from across the Atlantic. Only recently, Ella Mai’s adoption by the U.S is testament to an inability for the British market to uptake R&B in the same way as popularly received rap, drill and commercialised Afropop. In his documentary in collaboration with GUAP, Rakeem Omar explores the cultural disjuncture and the possibilities for change in the near future.


Conversing with tastemakers who themselves are invested in the genre’s curation and streamlining to establish what exactly the scene lacks (clue: infrastructure and support), he meets those who have collectively flouted seeking the validation of labels, doing it by themselves instead. Weaving the stories of Kadeem Tyrell’s soulful garage with Jaydon Clover’s experimental alternative alongside that of Nakala and many more, it is a scene with the vitality of self-starters willing to make their own name, yet it is plagued by the London-centric pull of culture, whereby those outside the M25 are excluded. Talking through their eyes, the easy conversationalists that are Nadia Jae and Smooth Fuego open our eyes to a scene that is emerging, despite the commercial silence surrounding it.


“Coverage of UK R&B (as with nearly everything UK) is still London-centric with artists from outside having to travel down or do business within London for proper recognition. From a consumer stand point [artists] shows are selling out and streams are growing by [actual] R&B fans but it’s still not getting the recognition it deserves from a casual [music] fan or most media outlets. Hoping to change this with my platform 360RnB by not only exclusively showcasing “UK RnB” (which tends to do more damage than help as it sometimes makes it look lower as songs are covered for being UK not from quality) but showcasing all RnB and showing the music from the UK is just as good as US, Canada and the rest of the world with showcases who’s like-up’s represent that with a mix of different acts from different places” – Smooth Fuego


Caught in the throws of establishing a firm base, Malaika notes that UK R&B is plagued by the type boxing that saps diversity, confessing that on the rare occasions of a mainstream push, it has a tendency to be “pop-y” in sound, branded by lighter, whiter appearances who are often “in a band, like Little Mix”. Gradually, it’s embrace by bigger platforms has taken place, although it remains patchy. Last year, Spotify’s creation of an exclusively UK  R&B playlist was a step in the right direction, as is the current uptake of artists like Jaz Karis and Mahalia. Without universal embrace however, it may continue to translate as a rat’s race for those who don’t want to jump ship to America.


“UK RnB is bubbling right now. It’s in an exciting place because it’s getting the attention it deserves, slowly but surely. With publications, radio stations and events catering for the RnB genre specifically, we are creating a new infrastructure for it to thrive in the UK. What I want for UK RnB is to bridge the gap, I want it to be in a place where when Usher, H.E.R and Bryson Tiller come to Europe, they are looking at our artists to support and collaborate with instead of bringing artists with them.” – Nadia Jae


In the end, Jaydon confesses, “we don’t want to be the next Beyoncé, we want to be the next me”. So perhaps, “where is the noise?” is the wrong question. The noise is everywhere, across the country. What it needs is integration into popular channels of music that will take it from merely being an online phenomenon of retweets and likes, to a real-life phenomenon.

Words by Danielle Koku