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A black and white issue?

Plenty to smile about: Akon signed Lady Gaga, Usher signed Justin Bieber and Will.I.Am manages Cheryl Cole

WHEN CHER Lloyd walked timidly onto the X Factor audition stage in 2010, it came as a surprise when she opted to perform Keri Hilson’s version of Soulja Boy’s hit Turn My Swag On.

A small-town girl from Worcestershire, Lloyd, who was then 16, appeared to be an unlikely candidate to get her ‘swag on’ to a US hip-hop track. And perhaps it was the shock factor that gave her the ‘x-Factor’ as far as Cheryl Cole and the fellow judges were concerned.

But whilst Lloyd impressed a smitten Cheryl Cole – who declared after Lloyd’s audition, “Cher, you are right up my street” – and wowed the rest of the judges with her “unique” sense of style and “attitude,” it begged the question: would a young black girl from south London have received the same reaction?

As black music has become more and more profitable and commercially viable over the years, it would appear that the British music industry has taken on more white artists to spearhead genres like soul, leaving up and coming black artists cut short.

Of course, race should not come into the equation at all. After all, everyone has a right to enjoy or make soul music, regardless of colour, and all talented aspiring artists should have the same opportunities within the industry.

What should matter is talent. But it would appear that profit is overriding this factor as executives are seeing dollar signs by signing white artists, regardless of their vocal ability.

US star Usher signing teen sensation Justin Bieber to his Island/Def Jam label has undoubtedly earned the R’n’B star a huge profit as ‘Bieber Fever’ continues to sweep the globe. Similarly, R’n’B star Akon who signed the now megastar Lady Gaga to his label Kon Live Distribution, joked during an interview, “She’s pretty much retired me! I’m glad I believed in her, boy!”

In addition, after her X-Factor stint, Cher Lloyd was snapped up by hip-hop hero Jay-Z, and Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.I.Am currently has Cheryl Cole under his management wing. Is it sheer coincidence that these black stars opted to cash in on white artists, or are white acts simply more profitable – and perhaps easier to market – than their black counterparts?

“With my generation of black artists and those who came before me, there was an element of, ‘We don’t know what to do with you, in terms of marketing,’” says this week’s here! cover star, Beverley Knight. “In fact, I had a conversation with another artist recently and he said, ‘there’s nothing new or special or marketing-worthy about a black girl with a fabulous voice. But a white girl with a fabulous voice – that’s marketing gold.’”

An industry insider, with over 10 years of music marketing experience shares similar views:

“I think the novelty of something new is always a bonus,” he says. “When people think of soul, they think of it as black music, so something that doesn't fit that mould is intriguing, making it slightly easier to gain public interest.

“We can't deny the facts: the most successful R’n’B and soul singers in this country right now are white – Duffy, Adele, Plan B, Amy Winehouse. So you can see why a label rep might not want to take a chance on a black act.”
Great vocalists like US singer Christina Aguilera, and more recently, UK acts Jessie J and Ed Sheeran have definitely challenged the notion that white artists ‘don’t have soul’.

However it cannot be denied that there are black artists who, although they have great vocal ability and a large underground following – think British songstresses Terri Walker and Kele Le Roc – they still don’t achieve the commercial appeal of their white counterparts within the same genre.

Of course, white artists performing black music and giving it a crossover appeal is nothing new. From Elvis Presley turning blues into rock’n’roll in the ‘50s, to Vanilla Ice earning notoriety as a white rapper in the ‘90s, white artists have re-branded our sounds and reaped the commercial success for years.

Fast-forward to the Noughties, and whilst Cher Lloyd was hailed by judges as “original” and “unique” as she attempted to rap or sing R’n’B hits, black X Factor contestants such as Gamu Nhengu and Treyc Cohen were shoved aside, even though many felt their vocal their vocal abilities were far better.

Still, not everybody believes this is a black and white issue.

“I do think labels understand now that’s it about creating a buzz for these artists, says rising British singer Loick Essien. “And they know that with audiences spending so much time on the internet, it’s important for artists to have an online presence so that they can build strong fanbases. I do think labels understand that now.”

A product manager from Universal Music UK agrees:

“I don't believe that it's easier to market a white soul singer, than a black soul singer,” he says. “History is littered with white soul singers that have ultimately failed to sell: Jon B, Lewis Taylor, 98 Degrees, Hinda Hicks and even Dane Bowers had a stab at going solo.

“Recently, white soul singers like Adele and Amy Winehouse have achieved massive success, but this is much more about the quality of songs than the colour of their skin. If D'Angelo or John Legend had sung Adele's Rolling In The Deep, it still would have been massive. Bruno Mars has shown with his debut album and Aloe Blacc has started to show with his single I Need A Dollar that the quality of the song is the key to success.”

He adds: “The UK is already developing a real sense of solidarity towards its own artists as the rock and pop acts and more recently the rap acts have seen.

“Right now, the only flag bearer for top quality soul songs is Adele, but as time goes on I'm sure this will change.
“The harsh reality is that the record buying audience is much more sophisticated than it was 25 years ago, and if they don't believe or connect with an artist or song, they will ignore it and find something they do like, regardless of the artist’s ethnic background.”

It’s certainly an issue that divides opinions. But while there is no question as to whether black music sells, the issue that still perplexes many is why black British soul artists – compared to their white counterparts – do not.

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