The Emergence of the UK ‘Imperfect’ Soul

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In British television, particularly reality television or talent contests, there is a repeated trope that black female contestants fall into. The ‘soulful’ black woman, she can power through ballads, her style is gospel, her vocal abilities surpass those she is competing with. Often, she is subject to genre experimentation, we see her recite self-written rapper verses, just to pander to the British public’s understanding of what is ‘urban’. The contestant is boxed into the trope of ‘Sassy Black Woman’ through what the media understands as black characteristics; urban wear, rap music and dance, she is also held to the ‘Magic Black Girl’ perfection, consistently having to meet high performance standard, where one can draw comparisons to existing R’n’B singers. If this standard is not met, she faces the cognitive dissonance of the British public. We are told her downfall is her inability to relate to the public, but really, the issue is that the contestant was unable consistently meet the tropes of black women heavily engrained into British culture. British ‘reality television’ platforms continuously fail contestants through attempting to frame their art forms to one that can be digestible through an entertainment lens, with minority contestants, this lens is understood as a “white entertainment” lens where the additional struggle of being understood by the white majority audience arises.

Contemporary soul, rap and R&B is seeing the development of a counter culture that perfectly responds to this trope, the nuances of black existence are translated into a musical soundscape to form a sonic understanding of this identity. Moreover, we see the rejection of the polished soul singer, as indie artists could embrace the imperfections of the raspy “Halsey” voice, contemporary R’n’B artists are embracing the gentler, softer notes that counter traditional vocal powerhouses.

Fusions of gospel, classic soul and electronic music appear in artists such as Nao, Ray Blk, Sampha and Kelsey Lu, to ears that haven’t experienced the cultural mishmash that is growing up city immigrant communities around the UK, it acts as a way of understanding such beings as products of these cultural interactions. A clear example of this idea is Ray Blk’s “Baby Girlz”, the song is a UK rap piece with a sung chorus. Blk’s identity as a South Londoner is clearly demonstrated, her accent is a clear marker of her London upbringing and the old-school hip hop samples imply a black musical presence in her lifetime. Jorja Smith’s debut single “Blue Lights” uses a similar indicator, the song is an entirely sung pieces yet uses a sample from Dizzee Rascal’s 2007 single “Sirens”, clearly indicating her English identity.

Similarly, to how Solange used her expression of experiences exclusive to the African American community as catharsis, we are seeing UK artists break through the stereotypical representations of blackness in British media and express their exclusive Black British experiences.