“It’s not very often that the words Liverpool, Urban and Music are seen together in the same sentence.” This was the opening gambit from Radio 1 DJ Ras Kwame, compere of the Diaspora Urban Music conference at Liverpool Sound City festival earlier this year. The event was designed to throw a spotlight on the Urban music talent of the city, and raise the question of why Liverpool has never cultivated a reputation for Urban music in the same way it has other genres.
Liverpool is a small city with a global reputation, built in no small part on music. Since the dawn of the 1960’s the city has been at the forefront of music, with prominent performers in a number of different scenes and bands as diverse as Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Carcass making a name for themselves in their particular eras. However, the city has so far failed to gain a reputation for a buzzing local Urban scene. From the members of the audience at the Diaspora seminar, it would seem that Liverpool does have a wealth of underground Urban talent. So where are these performers being let down in terms of the opportunities being afforded them in the city?
Yaw Owusu runs the OneHundredGlobal Youth Culture and Management Agency, and the Urbeatz Record Label in Liverpool, home to artists such as KOF and JANIECE MYERS. With such a prominent position in the Liverpool Urban scene, he is ideally placed to shed some light on the problems that face local artists. “Kof has supported acts like Akon, Lupe Fiasco, N-Dubz etc. He has performed at Glastonbury, toured, had his music played regularly on Radio 1, collaborated with national stars and been covered in everything from the Guardian to RWD Magazine. Yet he still can’t get a full feature in any regional press or a listen by the programmers at local radio. These are facts.”
Save for the touring artists playing the arena, there is precious little to be found in local mainstream media about Urban artists. There are obvious constraints placed on local editors, minimal pages allotted to entertainment, however, much more emphasis seems to be placed on the local Indie scene that to the Urban scene. Local radio station Juice FM used to run a weekly ‘Urban Hour’, but that has been cancelled and not replaced.
One reason for this could be the dissemination of Urban music styles into the mainstream. A glance into the top forty charts on any given Sunday will reveal a plethora of Urban artists who have transcended their underground roots and made it big. Former grime upstart Dizzee Rascal is now a pop-kingpin, Tinie Tempah has two number ones to his name and even the more obscure Dubsteppers’ Skream and Skepta have made breaks for the big time. But surely this increased interest in a certain style should make for a more vibrant local scene, and increase the interest in local talent rather than be used to reduce its airplay?
One of the problems hit upon at the Diaspora conference was that of a lack of solidarity in the scene, with too much competition and infighting detracting from the overall goals of the collective. Yaw continues, “Yes there is definitely competition. I am sure that exists within every genre. But add into that we are a small city, a small scene and there are only a set number of shows and only so many opportunities. Like a ‘crabs in the bucket’ vibe. But I don’t think you can blame the artists. Hopefully as the scene matures then we can have some elders that can help and also a system by which Urban acts can come through so they don’t see each other as their main competition rather they have bigger goals and horizons and they can focus on conquering the various platforms necessary to reach national status.”
It seems that this is a vicious circle for some artists, with the lack of recognition from local media and a dearth of venues to play causing a more competitive, splintered scene less inclined to help each other on the way up. Urbeatz artist Kof, who releases single Fire it Up featuring Wiley and Chelcee Grimes on 23rd August echoes these sentiments, “In terms of performance there are only a few places in Liverpool that still put on Urban gigs, there isn’t much respect for it. I think a lot of people are still stuck on stereotypes of Urban music. Any urban gig has a big police presence; no other genre gets that in this city.”
It’s fair to say that Urban music has received a large amount of bad press over the years. It’s equally fair to say that much of it has come from the gangster posturing and braggadocio associated with some facets of Urban music. However, to hold this against everyone involved in a certain scene is both ignorant and short-sighted. Perhaps the term ‘Urban’ music can itself be a little detrimental to this cause. It seems to serve as an all encompassing meta-genre, an umbrella term that covers a massive spectrum of music, allowing for a swift dismissal of artists. Kofs’ assertion that Merseyside Police pay more attention to Urban gigs highlights a widespread attitude that Urban music automatically equates to violence. It’s a shame that isolated incidents have tarred the reputation of a genre in a city.
It’s possible that this lack of support from venues is the cause of a lack of confidence in the Liverpool scene. Kof continues, “There are artists making moves in the city, but sometimes you see that the lack of a decent host venue and media support takes away the motivation, like they can’t win. I had to go to Manchester and then London for gigs to get noticed.” For artists to find recognition away from Liverpool highlights that the lack of a visible presence of Urban music is by no means down to the lack of talent. As well as the attitudes of the press and the venues, could it possibly be that there just isn’t a strong desire for Urban music in this city? That doesn’t seem to be the case. Festivals such as Africa Oye have become a huge success in the city, bringing in massive crowds, and the recognised mainstream artists consistently sell-out the Echo Arena and O2 Academy. It seems odd then that an underground scene is not given more of a chance to prove itself at a more mainstream level.
Liverpool built its musical fame on the back of Merseybeat, and then of course, the Beatles, and has since produced The La’s, Echo and the Bunnymen and countless other indie-rock outfits. All these acts came from small, local scenes that were given an opportunity. It seems strange that a city as proudly diverse as Liverpool would not have that same infrastructure for Urban music, given its massive popularity. Yaw states, “I do find it odd. But then I know the people in power maybe have a lack of understanding of Urban music and culture and probably a greater love and affinity for ‘Guitar music’. However, I believe ‘they’ need to try and understand Urban music and support it. Why? Simply because the culture is so vibrant amongst young people both locally, nationally and internationally. And we have acts in the City who song-for-song are probably as good as any acts in the UK. However, without the support from our industry, they will not have a chance to get to that national level.”
In order for the local artists to thrive in Liverpool, it seems that attitudes will have to change. With an artist like Kof venturing towards the mainstream, it may be time to reassess the possibilities for an Urban scene in Liverpool, and how much time they’re given. Urban music is at an all-time high regarding global popularity, and it would be a lost opportunity to see a city so proud of its historical position at the forefront of musical trends left behind.