This year, there was a sense that the much maligned Brit Awards actually did get something right at last. The rapper Stormzy collected two big awards, for Best British Male and, most significantly, Best British Album, beating world-conquering mega-star Ed Sheeran in both categories, to many people’s surprise.
He is the first British rapper ever to get the latter award, considered the most important Brit of all. The hard-hitting, homegrown grime scene he comes from has been a major force in UK music since the turn of this century, blending electronic beats with a punchy, localised rap style. You can hear its influence everywhere, with American rap superstars (and past international Brit winners) including Drake, Kanye, Jay Z, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar all acknowledging its unique force. Eighteen years is a long time for grime to wait for one of its own artists to pick up the highest award the British music industry has to offer.
But the Brits diversity problem goes way deeper than grime. Across all genres, in its 31 year history, Stormzy is only the fifth black British artist to win Best Album.
In 2016, things came to a head when no black artist was nominated in any major category at all. This insulting oversight inspired a #BritsSoWhite campaign, tying in with similar campaigns in America addressing failures of cultural diversity at the Oscars and Grammy awards.
To their credit, it led to quite a bit of soul searching amongst the Brits organisers, with changes made to the voting academy to ensure it became more inclusive of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities (who now make up 17 per cent of voters), as well as creating a more balanced gender ratio (which currently stands at 48 per cent women). Last year’s shortlist was, consequently, more diverse.
But on the night, rappers Skepta, Kano and Stormzy were once again overlooked, and middle-of-the-road singer-songwriter Emile Sande (whose father is Zambian) was the only British artist of colour to take home an award. It felt like the same old story.
Which makes Stormzy’s 2018 triumph all the more welcome. His rise hasn’t come about by chance. A hugely charismatic and ambitious artist, Stormzy has really campaigned for attention in a way many of his forerunners and contemporaries have not, collaborating with pop stars Little Mix and rockers Linkin Park, participating winningly in Simon Cowell’s Grenfell Tower charity single and getting headlines for his open, talkative approach to big issues such as politics and mental health.
His debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, took the same inclusive approach to music, countering grime’s instinct for confrontational aggression with softer, deeper and more introspective sides. Not on the night though. He may have thanked God and his mum, but Stormzy was on fiery form. Theresa May got a name check although the Prime Minister was unlikely to have been impressed, as Stormzy used the Brits stage to tear into the political response to the Grenfell disaster. It was a fierce performance from the Brits star, in refreshing contrast to much of the usual vacuous showbusiness that preceded it.
A lot of people expected Ed Sheeran to sweep the awards. In the event, he was blown away by Stormzy. I doubt Sheeran will have been a sore loser, however. Last year, Stormzy (nominated in the Breakthrough category) announced himself to mainstream British TV audience by rapping fiercely alongside Sheeran. The ginger singer songwriter has done his bit for diversity and took the whole thing in his stride. The biggest selling artist in the world last year, in his performance he acted like a man with nothing left to prove.
Let’s not get carried away with the idea that by belatedly anointing a grime star, the Brits has addressed all its inherent structural flaws. It was an interesting set of awards. Alongside Stormzy, it was impressive to see such adventurous artists as Gorillaz and (in the international categories) Kendrick Lamar and Lorde being recognised. But it was still at heart a glitzy, superficial, showbusiness spectacle dedicated to helping major label artists sell more records. What were Sam Smith and Justin Timberlake doing parading their latest releases on stage, without a nomination between them? And more to the point, where were all the women?
This has been a year of women’s issues with the anger and optimism inspired by the #metoo movement, yet it doesn’t seem to have made much an impression on the BRITs, where they were once again underrepresented in terms of nominations, awards and on-stage performances. British pop singer Dua Lipa was the only woman to win an award not specifically set aside for a female. She thanked every woman who helped light the way for her but when her huge entourage took the stage, you couldn't help but think that, once again, there were more female dancers at the Brits than award winners. It’s not good enough. After Stormzy’s heroic showing, it’s time for British music’s Wonder Women to sort this mess out.