The music industry’s white infrastructure is holding back black female artists | VV Brown
I remember the first time my music was played on the radio. I’d made it into the top 10 of the BBC Music Sound poll – which predicts who might be successful – and it was common for a national radio station to play the music of each artist. So there I was, huddled on the sofa with my family.
But the excitement was short-lived. Immediately after the radio presenter played my song, she took a phone-in call from a guy who said, on air, that I was ugly and stupid. Their discussion then led to a lazy comparison with another black artist, and the presenter concluded the call by going close to the mic and whispering quite smugly that she thought Janelle Monáe was much better than VV Brown.
My sisters and I were in tears. I felt so humiliated: the comments about my looks; the kneejerk dismissal of music I had taken two years to put together with everything in me. My ego had taken a beating.
That call took place in 2008, and I have battled with it throughout my career. It knocked my self-esteem for six. Despite this, I told myself to stop being so sensitive and just concentrate on the music.
I tried to move on from it, but one of the things that stayed on my mind was that, during the show, I didn’t remember any of my white counterparts being compared to any other white artists in such a polarised way – being pulled apart for their looks, intelligence or sound. I understood that this criticism might come from the public, but I did not expect it to be encouraged by my industry.
Throughout my career I’ve noticed many other examples where the UK music industry pits black women against each other, making us believe there is only room for one of us. We are not seen or heard in the same way as white artists.
Approaching radio stations for airplay would regularly lead to responses such as, “There isn’t any room on the playlists because we already have that black female artist. It might be best to try 1Xtra.” And it was common for the press to perpetuate competitive language as if black artists were rivals with each other. The genre of music didn’t matter; it was only based on the colour of our skin. I hated being immediately categorised as R&B even though I had written a pop punk song, and it was frustrating to never be regarded as a songwriter or a producer despite writing and producing 70% of my first album.
In 2020 I checked myself into therapy because of the countless experiences that had severely damaged my self-esteem during my time in the industry. I related to the experience of Laura Mvula being dropped from her record label via an email. She said last month that, four years on, she “still feel[s] this kind of resentment. And, you know, my ego suffered a lot.”
It was exhausting having to prove to the industry that I wasn’t some sassy, aggressive diva. I was tired of worrying about feeling isolated and ridiculed on photoshoots for having afro hair. I was tired of being stereotyped, I was tired of journalists assuming I was a soul singer and never a producer. I was tired of white so-called feminists playing a huge part in the racism towards black women within my music industry and feeling unable to talk about it.
I would see countless images on social media of “UK women in music” conferences championing the progress on gender within the industry, yet with no black women to be seen. I would notice tight cliquey networks of white women in the industry supporting other white artists but ignoring black artists. It was unconscious, unintentional, packaged politely – and was never done in a way that meant to cause harm. However, it was deeply rooted in the industry.
Black female artists are used, abused, discarded and mistreated. The patterns of disparity are undeniable. Our careers have quicker expiry dates than our white counterparts and we are not promoted or treated with the same intent. There sometimes seems to be a one-in, one-out rule so rampant it can feel like a factory line of disposable blackness.
As I took my headphones off after listening to Laura Mvula’s latest album, Pink Noise, I almost wept because of her brilliance. I was so frustrated that her previous label had treated such a genius with such disrespect and I hope that she will receive the high praise she deserves. I thought about the British black female musicians who have come and gone over the years, and how their talents have never come to light in the same way as their white counterparts.
Artist Raye has spoken out about not being allowed to release her music, and throughout my years in the business there have been countless black artists in exactly the same position. I experienced it myself. For two years I was unable to release music and was completely neglected. I negotiated myself out of my first record deal in a 24-hour web cafe at 1am.
We musicians are trained to be silent about our experiences because there is a heavy stigma that our rebellion will be categorised as aggressive, bitter or ungrateful. We are supposed to accept what we are given because to be black in this industry is thought to be even more of a privilege for us than for white artists.
Why hasn’t the UK music industry produced a black pop star like Rihanna, and why do so many of us instead make our success overseas? I sold more than a million records in the US and had a strong fan base, but my album was derided as music for a children’s party by NME, and it spoke of “sass” as if I was a soul singer who’d just picked up a mic and danced.
Black female artists don’t lack talent, it’s the white infrastructure that stops them from fulfilling their potential. Our careers are in the hands of people who take from our culture and package it for the masses through a white gaze, whereas success stories of black individuals often arise from independent, grassroots, progressive platforms.
The next time you see a white female British artist on television, count the number of black women who stand behind them, supporting the continuation of white female artists singing music from our culture. The next time you see anything to do with championing women in arts, count how many black women are speaking. The next time you see an article in a music magazine, think of how few black women in the industry have the power to make executive creative decisions. The disparity is obvious and it needs to change.
Today, with Spotify and independent artists having more power, it’s exciting to see black female artists such as Little Simz taking control. However, unless we go independent or bang down the doors forcing the industry to embrace us, the UK music world will not allow black women to reach their true potentials. It’s obvious to see that the music industry leaves black women behind.