What’s going on with British R&B? Artists and advocates on why the UK music industry needs to step up

Mahalia has been outspoken about her thoughts on the BRIT Awards’ combined pop and R&B category this year  (Steve Gillett/Livepix)
Mahalia has been outspoken about her thoughts on the BRIT Awards’ combined pop and R&B category this year (Steve Gillett/Livepix)

Mahalia, one of the brightest talents in the UK, is furious over the British music industry’s attitude to R&B. In response to the genre still being lumped in with pop in one of the award’s categories, she tweeted at the Brit Awards in January: “Forget putting us in this category. Give us our own!!!!! How many times do we have to scream at you?”

She added: “Winning awards isn’t the reason why we make and release music. We do this shit out of love. But, at this point, it’s nothing short of disrespectful.”

It’s no secret that UK’s music markets predominantly favour pop, dance and rap – the Official Charts Company’s biggest top 40 hits of 2022 showed no sign of R&B at all – a distinct difference from the US, where Drake, Future and Tems’ R&B track Wait For U hit No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified three times platinum.

Mahalia (Dave Benett/Getty Images for ES)
Mahalia (Dave Benett/Getty Images for ES)

So what about the British R&B stars such as Ella Mai, NAO, IAMDDB, Mahalia, James Vickery and many others? Why aren’t they getting the same exposure as artists over the other side of the Atlantic?

According to experts there is a range of issues facing those in the genre. BBC Radio 1XTRA presenter DJ Ace, who hosts the biggest R&B radio show in the country, says, “I don’t think it’s just a label thing, I think it’s radio, I think it’s industry, I think it’s platforms. I just feel like, in the UK, because R&B is not seen as a British genre, they don’t necessarily know how to promote it – and they shy away from it.”

In 2021, British singer RAYE revealed her then label Polydor Records had been withholding her debut album for several years. Before her record deal, the singer was making R&B and hip-hop tracks but after signing, her material changed and her voice used in multiple pop and dance tracks, that while successful, did not match her musical ambitions. When she was finally released from her contract to become an independent artist, her R&B track Escapism, with 070 Shake, became the most successful of her career.

RAYE (Dave Benett)
RAYE (Dave Benett)

RAYE’s case is not isolated. The UK industry has a complicated relationship with the genre. The south London-raised singer James Vickery, who lost the hearing in one ear as a boy following surgery to remove a cholesteatoma tumour and was taught to speak again by a vocal coach, grew up loving R&B. It was his mother’s love of the music, which included taking him to a Boys II Men concert, that helped solidify his passion for it.

“I always wanted to make R&B and soul,” he says, but growing up “there wasn’t so much of a UK R&B scene. I got told by a producer I was trying to work with that ‘You can’t make R&B in this country’, so I didn’t bother doing it.” He was, instead, pushed towards electronic music.

Things started to change around 2014. With the release of Sam Smith’s hugely successful In The Lonely Hour, which prominently featured R&B sounds, Vickery found himself encouraged to take a similar route.

“Because Sam Smith was such a prominent figure for British people growing up, I’m a chubby white guy, so I think they saw that and thought ‘Let’s make you a BTEC Sam Smith’,” he says. “I love Sam, but I don’t want to be Sam, I want to be my own person, I think that’s the nature of the music industry; follow on from what has worked before, and that’s just a clear model of what worked.”

But in one of music’s most important genres, which has counted Etta James to Aretha Franklin, James Brown to Marvin Gaye among its pioneers, and has influenced so many other styles, why have UK artists been left behind?

James Vickery (Handout / BBC)
James Vickery (Handout / BBC)

Part of the problem is how the industry differentiates UK R&B from R&B as a whole, according to DJ Ace. “If H.E.R is R&B then why isn’t Jaz Karis R&B? Why is she a UK R&B artist? We need to get rid of the UK R&B term.”

Both DJ Ace and Vickery are speaking from Austin, Texas. DJ Ace has taken the UK’s brightest R&B prospects over to appear at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival with his ‘Everything RnB’ platform, to showcase their talents to crowds of thousands. Many of the UK’s R&B artists who performed there have well-established fanbases in the US.

Vickery sold out his US shows for his upcoming tour, with demand so high that an additional LA show was added. He is also close to selling out his London show, though the enthusiasm was clearly greater in. North America. This trend has seen many of the best talents the UK offers flee to the US for better opportunities.

London-born R&B singer Ella Mai won a Grammy for her 2018 track Boo’d Up, which became a top five track on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The same track failed to chart within the top 40 of the UK Singles Chart.

DJ Ace (Handout / BBC)
DJ Ace (Handout / BBC)

Ace says the conversation about what the UK should be doing to help its R&B artists has become tiring.

“I think we should start looking at the global industry. Let’s go where we’re celebrated, rather than trying to get in, because I’m doing bigger things over here [in the US], than I’m doing in the UK, so why do I need to beg for this validation from a system that’s not really here for me?”

Vickery, who releases his work as an independent artist, says the UK music industry needs to believe in its R&B artists more: “Most R&B artists I know are also unsigned. It comes from the top for sure. Some of us have got over one million monthly listeners and that’s more than some of the rap guys being so heavily pushed. I think rap and grime has needed to have such a push for so long, and everyone can agree it’s great to see the rise of rap and grime, but I think it’s time to give it to R&B.”

The BBC aims to address this issue with its Radio 1XTRA’s RnB weekender, showcasing the genre for three days this weekend, and featuring special performances from many of the UK’s top emerging R&B talents, including Jaz Karis, Vickery, Sinead Harnett and Elmiene. In addition, R&B legend Usher will be doing a one-hour takeover of BBC Radio 1XTRA at 6pm on Friday.

Head of BBC Radio 1Xtra, Faron McKenzie explained: “There is still a long way to go but there are signs of the industry finally waking up to the incredible homegrown RnB talent we have in the UK. It is of paramount importance to me that BBC 1Xtra continues to keep the pressure on and be a driving force behind this – finding, nurturing and championing the next wave of British RnB talent, whilst also protecting RnB’s integrity as a standalone genre so it doesn’t become diluted or sanitised.”

Grammy award-winning US R&B artist Miguel, who spoke to me a couple of weeks ago about his massive hit Sure Thing, hopes that recent successes will raise the profile of R&B in Britain, so that local artists can receive long-delayed recognition: “Big shout out to the UK R&B artists who’ve been doing their thing and deserve to be heard.”

BBC Radio 1XTRA’s RnB Weekender runs from March 24-26