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'We're not a black band - we're JLS!'

JLS: (l-r) JB, Aston, Marvin, Ortise

IT’S HARD to believe that it was just three years ago that JLS shot to mainstream attention as runners up on the X Factor.

And for some, it’s even harder to believe just how successful they’ve been in that time.

As the talented quartet sung their hearts out week after week on the popular reality show back in 2008, there were many cynics (I spoke to several of them), who were convinced that a black boy band would not be victorious on the show.

After all, the very term ‘boy band’ had long conjured up the image of ‘blue-eyed’ pop sensations from Bros to Take That – and JLS didn’t fit that mould. But despite coming second on the show (Alexandra Burke was crowned the winner that year), the handsome foursome – comprised of Aston Merrygold, Marvin Humes, Jonathan ‘JB’ Gill and Oritsé Williams – went on to become one of Britain’s best-known boy bands, racking up millions of album sales, scoring chart-topping singles and clocking up numerous awards.

So as far as they’re concerned, success in the music business is not determined by race.

“I think the great thing for us is that people don’t look at us and think, ‘that’s a black band,’” said Oritsé, as we chatted at the group’s record label in central London.

“People look at us and say, ‘that’s JLS’. We’ve fused elements of R’n’B and pop [in our music] and that has earned us a really diverse audience. We’re really proud of that.”

Marvin added: “We’re proud of all of our achievements, regardless of our ethnic origin. I’ve got black family and white family, and I’m just proud to know that people look up to us, irrespective of colour.”

Still, the Everybody In Love hitmakers, who recently released their new single Take A Chance On Me, are all too aware that race in the music business has long been a contentious issue for many, particularly here in the UK.

Whether it be the argument that soulful black singers who find fame through reality shows are forced to ‘water down’ their music style to suit the mainstream, or the ongoing cry that black British singers are often overshadowed by their white counterparts, JLS are by no means unaware of these sentiments.

Speaking on the development of soulful singers who take the X Factor route, Oritsé said that contestants can – and do – put their own flavour into their performances.

“On the live shows, the most important thing was that you interpreted the songs you were given in your own way. So if you do a Beatles song, you’re not trying to do it in the style of The Beatles, you’re trying to do it your way. That’s why so many people got excited by [2010 X Factor winner] Matt Cardle’s interpretation of Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time; because he put his own take on it and it was good."

“This year, Misha B has been an incredible artist. She’s young, black and extremely talented because she can both sing and rap.”

Aston added: “She rapped an Adele song,” before Oritsé continued: “Exactly. Who would have ever thought you could rap an Adele song on the X Factor? I think it proves that urban music is pop. Look at the MOBO [Music of Black Origin] Awards this year; some of the year’s biggest stars were there and I think that’s great.”

Oh yes, the MOBOs. The organisation, which seeks to celebrate music of black origin, has often been accused of handing out too many gongs to white acts. This year was no exception, with the annual event receiving stick for awarding pop singer Jessie J with four awards.

With Adele also being awarded the gong for Best R&B/Soul Act, it left many questioning why the MOBOs would award white stars who already have huge mainstream exposure, over black talents who, though successful, would perhaps find the MOBO exposure more beneficial.

“It’s a very sensitive subject for a lot of people,” Aston said of the MOBO debate.

“But at the end of the day, what is music of black origin in this day and age? We know what it was back in the day and that’s why it was great that Boyz II Men got the Lifetime Achievement award this year. But now, a hot song is a hot song, regardless of whether the artist is black or white.”

JB mirrored Aston’s sentiments: “Adele’s music definitely takes its influence from old school soul. For me, her album [21] isn’t a pop album and yet it transcended age groups, class – it went diamond [selling over 10million units]. Artists don’t do that every day and I think that should be recognised. Her music is soulful and soul music is a part of black music, so therefore, her music does qualify as being of black origin.”

Oritse feels that as long as black music gets the exposure it deserves, it doesn’t matter who’s fronting it.

“I think it’s great that music of black origin has such a crossover appeal. Adele’s voice is incredible and she’s very good at interpreting music of black origin in her way.

“Someone else who I think is very good at that is [2009 X Factor runner up turned pop star] Olly Murs. His music has reggae and swing influences and I love the way he interprets his music. If people like them can get the music heard, that’s great.”

Considering the argument that soulful white singers get more airplay than their black counterparts, Aston says that the success of one artist can only open doors for other similar acts that follow.

“Someone like Olly [Murs] is currently one of the frontmen for pop/swing/reggae in the UK,” Aston says. “[Rising singer] Bluey Robinson has a similar sound and now, I think it will be easier for him [Robinson] to get his music played on radio because Olly’s softened the blow.

“If a song is a hit, it really doesn’t matter who the artist is. And once an artist breaks through with a hit song or a hit album, they’ll naturally open doors for those who follow with a similar sound.”


JACK THE LADS: JLS take group photo

Well, JLS have certainly established their sound and cemented their place in the business.

Gearing up for the release of their third album Jukebox, which, as Aston explains (and the title would imply), features “a real mix of music, from R’n’B tracks to pop tracks to slow jams,” the group’s image and high energy performance style has been as synonymous with the JLS brand as the music itself.

Aston confirms that for JLS (an acronym for Jack the Lad Swing, in case you didn’t know), it’s all about making sure each aspect of their presentation is right.

“Once we know what we’re aiming for, every element of the package has to be right, from styling to choreography – all of it. People say this and that about gimmicks, but for us, that’s all part of the business.

“Whether it’s fireworks or flying across the stage or creating a song that’s so catchy people can’t help but sing along, it’s all part of being an entertainer. And it’s a formula that’s been proven to work.”

So non-stop is the group’s work ethic that they’ve already started working on album number four.

Marvin revealed: “We’ve already got a title for the album and the leading track.”

Was there any chance that they’d go one step further and reveal the name of the album to me? They all laughed and collectively answered with a resounding “no!”

Marvin added: “But you’ll love it!”

JB then chimed in: “Everything we’ve spoken about... well, you’ll see.”

As if my intrigue couldn’t be any more heightened, Oritse said: “The title of the album, you’ve already used the word!”

Sensing my frustration, the boys all laughed before JB added: “I’m gonna predict now that you’re gonna be so in love with the concept; you’ll really appreciate the album.”

Well boys, wishing you all the best for album three – and bring on album four!

The new single Take A Chance On Me is out now, the album Jukebox is out on November 14 through Epic Records,

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