The station is Radio 1's ‘black music network’ – but three of the top four in their Power List are white. Does it matter or not?
Over the weekend, Radio's 1 beacon for black music 1Xtra released its 20 Most Important Artists On The Scene list. The list is notable for the artists that sit pretty at the top, with Ed Sheeran, one of the whitest men alive, claiming top spot. Disclosure, Tinie Tempah and Sam Smith make up the rest of the top four. The vote was apparently decided by audience vote and a panel comprised of "industry experts" and 1Xtra DJs.
Typically, Wiley, who came in at 16th, had something to say on the matter.
So does it matter that 1Xtra have voted overwhelmingly in favour of Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith? Let's look at sales and plays. Sam Smith is the most played artist on 1Xtra and his album broke records in America, selling 166,000 in its first week. Whatever you think of his music (this author thinks not a lot), it's hard to argue against his inclusion on a 20 strong list. Ed Sheeran released an EP of collabs with grime artists back in 2011, so there is at least something that links him to this fairly intangible scene. He went quintuple platinum in the UK with his last album, so his sales record is difficult to argue with.
White or black, we think that the list is just plain weird. What links Disclosure, Fuse ODG and Laura Mvula? What clubs would play all this music together? The list seems to be made of up artists that are united by one very tenuous factor - a vague, misunderstood attachment to urban music, a genre that is becoming more and more hard to define as time goes on and sub-genres evolve with rapidity.
This "scene" that 1Xtra claims exists doesn't, and there is little to link the musicians. Does this signify a loss of focus from the station, or a loss in the power held by black and urban music?
1Xtra was founded in 2002, with an aim to specialise in "urban music" and provide a platform for up and coming artists from the scene. But the station has seen cuts hit the variety on offer – dancehall DJ Robbo Ranx had his show axed in June, as did D&B DJ Crissy Criss and the R&B tastemaker CJ Beatz.
2014's power list appears to show a dilution of ethos, not because of anyone's skin colour, but because of how anodyne and safe it is. Regardless of his highly credible album sales, or even his skin colour, is Ed Sheeran really the number one urban artist in the country?
There are different ways to look at the list. Either it's a clumsy compilation of names hastily cobbled together by clueless A&Rs and music execs, or 1Xtra are having to compile a list that is both populist and niche, with the "niche" aspect an ever morphing range of styles, rather than one singular genre. "20 Most Powerful Urban Artists" is a hard list to make, so why make it? There's also the chance that 1Xtra has bowed to the mainstream success that artists like Smith and Sheeran have enjoyed internationally and tried to bandwagon jump with their nominations in the hope of attracting a more mainstream audience.
Success is easy to define, power and the influence that an artist has had on others, is harder. As Wiley said: "Not taking anything away from Ed. He is sick. But black artists in England, we are getting bumped. We influence a man and all of a sudden it turns he has influenced us."