Like much of the world, the music industry is also dominated by white men.
Slowly though, over the years, other diverse artists have begun to come up. We’re seeing lots of men and women from different backgrounds breaking into predominantly white mainstream spaces with increasing frequency now. Just think of African-American women as one example – one of the most vulnerable and marginalised minorities in the US – but they’re getting long overdue representation in the pop music industry now.
Our job, as an audience, is far from done though.
To clarify, I’m not saying that Beyoncé is not enough or that her juggernaut presence outshines other performers. Instead, I’m saying that the industry capitalises on whatever works to woo audiences, and Beyoncé fits the bill perfectly. However, no one individual can represent an entire community. And massive successes like Beyoncé should serve as a lesson – to the industry as well as us, the audience – that there’s a lot of more to experience out there. And just because the mainstream industry isn’t picking it up, doesn’t mean we can’t find it and actively support it.
If the industry will not go out of its way to create an inclusive, feminist musical community, then we need to do it ourselves and find artists with original voices.
Let’s start with Sons of Kemet. They are a jazz outfit from the UK consisting of Shabaka Hutchings, Theon Cross, Seb Roch and Tom Skinner. In 2017, Sons of Kemet released their album ‘Your Queen is a Reptile’, featuring vocals by poet Josh Idehen whose words seep into the band’s tuba, drums and sax seamlessly.
The album has nine songs each named after a ‘queen’ or Hutching’s personal feminist heroes. They range from the personal, like his great-grandmother Ada Eastman, to political, like Harriet Tubman and Doreen Lawrence. So with song titles like ‘My queen is Angela Davis’ and ‘My queen is Mamie Phipps Clark’, the track listing reads like a rebellion against the UK’s actual queen. Idehen explained that the group doesn’t feel represented by her, and instead looks at these women as the real leaders of the community. The result is that if you like a track, you will inadvertently remember the name of a queen.
This is one way to be a good ally to the feminist movement – to use our male privilege to create platforms for women deserving of recognition, who may otherwise be ignored by our patriarchal world.
The album goes even further than this, celebrating its Caribbean influence courtesy of British-Barbadian Hutchings. Anyone familiar with jazz understands the strict adherence to tradition prevalent in the genre.
Hutchings, who is well versed with these traditions as well, blends them with ancestral music. The result is an album that is both intersectional and excellent. It is a bilingual sound which mixes its adopted language with its own heritage. Like a snare drum tuned to sound like a conga.
Another great intersectional band from the UK is Kero Kero Bonito. They are an electronic pop group composed of Sarah Midori Perry on vocals and producers Gus lobban and Jamie Bulled. Their music is catchy and professes an almost pure and wholesome view of the world. Another way to say this would be to say that they exhibit kawaii culture, an aesthetic associated with cuteness in Japan. This is one of the ways that Perry, a Japanese expat represents her heritage. The other way is by rapping in both Japanese and English. These are bold risks for a band as they tend to limit its audience.
In response to this, Kero Kero Bonito doubles down on catchy hooks and listenability. Their song ‘Flamingo’ has a catchy synth lead and a familiar sounding chorus. Other ways they make their music familiar is by referencing pop culture. For example, ‘Sick Beat’ samples Supefr Mario Bros through which Perry professes her love for playing video games.
Kero Kero are able to maintain their uniqueness and still appeal to mainstream tastes. Their song ‘Break’ is about taking a break from work. In its interlude, Perry calls up her fellow bandmates and tells them that she won’t be coming to work today, and they all then make this work.
Kero Kero Bonito is culturally aware as well. Sarah uses ‘Sick Beat’ as an opportunity to address sexist notions regarding women’s hobbies (“I should get some girly hobbies instead”), declaring that she’s not into bitching or submitting. Similarly, ‘Flamingo’ is a thinly veiled metaphor for body positivity and loving yourself regardless of your race.
Sons of Kemet and Kero Kero Bonito represent the tip of the iceberg. Over the years it has become easier for people to compose music. Couple this with the advent of music streaming services and we have a much wider array of music available to us than ever before. There are several other unique bands out there deserving of your time and attention.
It is up to us to ensure that commercial interests don’t force them to quit.
Sureet Singh is a 21-year-old economics student from NMIMS, Mumbai. Find him on Twitter @_kenoshakid