#BritsSoWhite – has anything changed?

The music industry is often thought of as extremely progressive. When we think of iconic artists such as David Bowie, Prince or Michael Jackson, it’s difficult not to consider their influence on modern society. After all, who among us can truly say that their view of the world has not, in some way, been affected by music?

However, contrary to its open-minded appearance, in recent years, numerous BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) artists have spoken out about racism in the music industry. The BRIT Awards, for example, were heavily criticised in 2016, when the infamous hashtag #BritsSoWhite highlighted the fact that just four of the 48 nominees were BAME. Three years later, in the wake of the 2019 ceremony, how much has changed?

Throughout its 42-year history, the BRITs has had a clear issue with racial bias. New research that we have conducted at Pearn Kandola has found that, prior to this year’s awards, only 14% of all winners have been black. In fact, only a fifth (21%) of the winners of British Female Solo Artist and just one-in-ten (8%) of the British Male Solo Artist winners have been black. Indeed, Stormzy’s success in this category in 2018 was the first time that a black artist had won the award since 2010.

Not only does this data highlight a severe shortage of black winners, as well as a tendency on the part of the BRITs to recognise the achievements of female black artists more readily than male black artists, but our analysis has also found that black artists are more likely to be recognised if they are not British.

Incredibly, more than half (57%) of all International Male Solo Artist winners have been black, compared with just 8% of British Male Solo Artist winners. The divide was less severe but still visible for black women, who made up a quarter (25%) of International Female Solo Artist winners. These findings may suggest that on a subconscious level, we are more accepting and therefore more likely to reward the achievements of BAME artists when we aren’t required to perceive them as British.

In response to the issue, in 2016, the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) transformed the BRITs’ voting panel. 700 new members were invited to join, increasing BAME representation to just below 24% and reducing the male-to-female ratio from 70:30 to 52:48.

Change didn’t come straightaway, though. In 2017, Emeli Sandé was the only black British winner. Some might claim that the results were skewed by the fact that David Bowie, who had died a year earlier, won more awards than all British BAME artists put together. However you interpret the results though, the new, “diverse” BRIT Awards were not off to a good start.

Instead, the shift that we had waited for came in 2018. 42% of all nominees were BAME, Stormzy won two prizes and for the first time, the British Breakthrough category had no white male artists. Change, it seemed, was underway.

What I find encouraging about this story is that once the criticism was made, the BPI responded very quickly. There’s a tendency among organisations and industries facing criticism on the grounds of diversity to “um” and “ah,” using carefully worded press statements to explain that reviews are required. Investigations will be made. The BRITs, in a bold, refreshing move, did none of this. They simply took the problem and did something about it.

Now though, in the wake of 2019’s awards, we must ask whether that change has been sustainable or if it was simply a reflex action to the disparity of 2016 and 2017. I’m sorry to say that while this year’s results may appear diverse, the sad truth is that they were entirely predictable; reinforcing a very familiar pattern.

Aside from British Female Solo Artist, which was won by Jorja Smith, all of the major awards for British artists went to white nominees, with British Male Solo Artist going to George Ezra, British Breakthrough Act to Tom Walker and British Group to The 1975. Continuing the pattern, the majority of the international awards were given to BAME artists, with International Male Solo Artist going to Drake and International Group to The Carters.

I do admire the action that the BRITs has taken to improve its diversity, and I would advise other organisations that are grappling with similar issues to take note. There’s no tiptoeing around the issue of racism if we really want to see change. It requires organisations to take an honest, often painful look at their own shortcomings and say, “This is what we’re going to do about it.”

What I can’t help but feel discouraged by when it comes to the BRITs though, is that despite a solid commitment to change, this year’s results have demonstrated just how resilient bias can be. While there is a responsibility on the part of organisations that are wrestling with racism to take immediate, decisive action, the lesson that we must take away from the BRITs is that achieving real, lasting change takes time. 2016’s transformation of the voting panel was a step in the right direction for the BRITs, but we must remember that it takes more than a single grand gesture to overturn years of unconscious bias.

 

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