What would the music industry look like if black women weren’t side-lined and forced to compete?

To understand what this blog is about, please click here. Last week’s article asking whether credit is given where due to black creativity & originality / Fortnite stealing hip-hop dance moves is here, as part of my Black History Month series.

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Are black women side-lined and forced to compete?

You might be wondering what made me reach the conclusion that black women are ‘side-lined’ and ‘forced to compete’.

While writing this article I came across this quote, showing I’m not alone in my beliefs:

“black women in music are virtually invisible…those that [make it to the mainstream] are eventually blockaded by a ceiling made not from glass, but concrete” (Adegoke, 2018)

But to answer whether these beliefs are valid, and if so, why black women are treated like this in the music industry, let’s look at 3 genres:


When thinking of the biggest grime stars, you might think of several black men, and you’d expect this given grime originated from the  “black working class” (Adegoke, 2018).

If a list outlining influential men in grime only included 3 black musicians, this wouldn’t be okay. So why did this happen to women? Why are black women underrepresented even in spaces created from their own culture (Adegoke, 2018)?

Women in grime have “struggled for parity” with male counterparts since the genre formed (Mohamed, 2018). Grime has exploded in recent years and “finally infiltrated the mainstream”, but the amount of women in the genre’s limelight hasn’t had the same growth (Mohamwed, 2018).

This was never more apparent than at this year’s Wireless festival. The event known for showcasing grime showed little love for women, with no female grime stars and only 3 women performing in the original line-up: one was a US act and one a non-black woman (see cover photo).

At the MOBOs, a show honouring ‘music of black origin’, “not a single black woman who released an album in 2017 made the best album shortlist” (Adegoke, 2018). Here’s something to think about: the only category a woman won was “best female” (Adegoke, 2018).

These examples enforce the idea of black women being forced to compete for few spaces available in the first place.


British R&B has had strong black female vocalists like Alexandra Burke, Leona Lewis and Beverly Knight (Adegoke, 2018) and Mis-Teeq, one of the most successful 00s bands (Adegoke, 2018).

But Alexandra, Leona and Beverley’s voices landed on Broadway, and not the charts, in recent years. Mis-Teeq were constantly told “black girls won’t sell records” (Adegoke, 2018). Since their last release in 2005, Adegoke believes that “black women’s position within the music industry hasn’t much improved” (2018).

What’s interesting for today’s UK R&B scene is that unlike grime, there are plenty of women who are getting attention – Ella Mai, Jorja Smith and NAO to name a few. But within R&B, women often find themselves sidelined for white counterparts, showing the music industry’s racism. Singer Jamelia claims

“I know a million black Sam Smiths, and I know a million black Adeles doing back-up singing”

This shows how black women have a “cement ceiling” (Adegoke, 2018). For some, the only way to come to the limelight is in America, as I discussed here and here.

Hip-hop and rap

I couldn’t go without mentioning Cardi B and Nicki Minaj. The two are in ‘competition’, because there can only be one ‘big’ female rapper, right?

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 17.58.40.png

This simply enforces the competition aspect. Don’t get me wrong, men are competing too within the industry, but it doesn’t seem to be on the scale of women, and definitely not on the scale of Cardi and Nicki in recent months.


Hip-hop and rap (by no means the only genres) are good examples of the added complexities (like sexism) black women face within in the music industry. This is misogynoir:

“the unique ways in which Black women are pathologised in popular culture” (apkan, 2016), drawing from colourism, which is

“prejudice against people who have a darker skin tone – and/or the preferential treatment of those who are of the same race but lighter-skinned”

This mentality dates to slavery, where lighter-skinned slaves were kept in the house but darker slaves were forced to work in fields. As well as ridiculing black features to prioritise the Eurocentric features of the slave owners, this produced a desire to distance oneself from blackness and align with whiteness (June, 2018).

This means lighter-skinned musicians are put into the limelight instead of darker, equally as talented or more talented musicians. If merely being lighter-skinned boosts your career in the music industry, this is extremely problematic, and not just ethically. Music quality is an afterthought to physical appearance, when the two have zero correlation, technically. As listeners, we should want more from the music industry.

But misogynoir isn’t just about colourism. I recently watched a video showing the treatment of ‘video vixens’ in popular hip-hop videos:

Even though the ‘vixens’ disagree, they were labelled as “sluts”, “hoes”, “bitches”. This adds to the “hypersexualising” and “giving little respect” to women through the genres’ lyrics (Nwoko, 2018).

So not only do women have few spaces available, but they are further disadvantaged depending on their skin tone, whilst being negatively portrayed and objectified by lyrics and in music videos. It seems like black women can’t win, whatever they do and that  they are “virtually invisible” (Adegoke, 2018).

What would the music industry look like if this didn’t happen?

There are studies showing that increasing diversity (up to a point) improves the quality of a group’s decision-making and creativity.

Viki (2016) outlined that “multiple unique insights are combined to create something novel”, creating a eureka moment. Like-minded groups have similar viewpoints (Grollman, 2012) which prevent this.

A room full of Londoners might answer pretty similarly when asked what the best UK city is. But when you add a Liverpudlian, things change. They not only suggest why Liverpool > London, but challenge any assumptions made and get you thinking in ways you wouldn’t have before.

For the music industry, if black women are more prominent, they can enhance musical diversity. The men of grime might have similar experiences, so many songs might have the same themes. But a woman can add something new that may not have thought about. Black women could challenge misyognoir and other music industry issues, if more darker-skinned women can shine in the music industry’s big spaces and aren’t sidelined.

This can have a profound effect on listeners who look just like them. Someone can feel “validated” (Gollman, 2012); despite “prejudice, discrimination” and the constant negativity towards your image, you have a self-reflection in the media which can positively counter-act this, and this experience is powerful.

Music thrives on self-expression in all forms. Fung (2007) believes this keeps music evolving. I have seen many complaints that music sounds the same today and I have discussed this here, so if we want this to change, we can’t allow the same people to be making music. New voices are needed to break the cycle.


Sources: http://www.imc-cim.org/programmes/WFM2/Fung.pdf, http://gal-dem.com/two-burnt-black-women-young-thug-misogynoir/https://www.thecrimson.com/column/where-rap-meets-race/article/2018/2/27/whererapmeetsrace-installment2/https://www.forbes.com/sites/tendayiviki/2016/12/06/why-diverse-teams-are-more-creative/#158558ea7262, https://egrollman.com/2012/09/24/representation/https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-44229236https://www.the-pool.com/news-views/opinion/2018/34/mis-teeq-black-women-and-diversity-in-uk-musichttps://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/feb/09/black-women-still-minority-grime-scene

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