In a generation where the premise of being ‘black and proud’ seems to be at its highest zenith and black culture is now more than ever being celebrated and integrated into the mainstream, it seems an odd contradiction that colourism is still an issue that is present in so many areas of our society. In an era where a black superhero movie can break unimaginable records, black women are not only featuring on the covers of magazines rocking their natural hair styles and dark skin, but they are inspiring whole movements that push for racial diversity across fashion and make-up, right through to politics and business. Given all of that, you’d think matters of light skin vs dark skin would be more or less non existent. However, somehow in 2018 that is far from a reality. As much as ever colourism continues to dictate the success (or lack of) of many women of colour in the UK, especially amongst black women in the music industry.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing issues like colourism don’t exist or are at least slowly beginning to fade, especially if you live in London where we’re often very cocooned in our little bubble of diversity and multiculturalism and are exposed to so many images of successful black men and women. However, it’s clear to see that the age old Western ideal that the lighter skinned you are, the more appealing and therefore the more successful you become. Whilst there is absolutely no logical reasoning for this, it’s clear that it’s simply the product of a backwards mentality and institutionalised racism, that has unfortunately become ingrained in the nation’s psyche and has now permeated every corner of society, including the music industry.
Colourism has been a complicated issue to tackle in this country because of its intense complexity and the tendency for it to be brushed off as not being as serious of a problem because it’s not as straightforward as white on black racism, a dialogue we are familiar with. Colourism is a more complex matter of discrimination within one race, it is too often dismissed as not as grave of a problem or is too hastily swept under the carpet due to lack of understanding.
There has been so much conversation about racism through the lens of “white vs black” that we’ve become accustomed to thinking of racism as a linear issue, an issue of one race against another, and so the idea of there being gradients of racism isn’t as easily understood. To the naked eye, there are black women in very prolific positions in all kinds of industries that have earned tremendous success, many of them earning this success over their white contemporaries too. So whether it’s seeing Diane Abbott in Parliament or seeing Nicki Minaj win a Grammy, to someone not aware of the issue of colourism – if Beyonce is one of the most powerful women and artists in the world, then what’s the problem? This is where colourism is an intricate social dilemma because that’s often where the conversation about it stops. Really, the problem lies in – if Beyonce were darker skinned, didn’t wear a blonde weave but instead had thicker, darker, natural hair, would she be as successful? Would she be looked at by both white and black girls across the globe as the template of the ‘perfect woman’ or the universal figure of feminism? The fact that the answer to that question is “probably not”, speaks volumes as to why colourism is still an issue both in our society and in the music industry. Even her own dad Matthew Knowles has claimed the reason why Beyonce is so successful is because of her skin tone, calling out radio stations and record labels for shunning darker skinned artists and noting that no black pop stars with darker skin had reached anywhere near the same success in the past decade.
Even just this year alone there have been various moments in the UK that have brought the issue of colourism to the forefront. Maya Jama and Stefflon Don for example were caught in the heat of controversy earlier this year for their tweets that seemed to mock and ridicule dark skinned women for their complexion. Incidents like this, not only re-emphasised that colourism is a serious problem between white and black but also dominantly within the black community itself in Britain. The illusion that there is a need for any kind of tension or a differentiation between shades of blackness and the running problem of light skin vs dark skin is plainly illogical and sadly just a result of centuries worth of racism which has corrupted our minds into thinking the lighter the better. Comments like “you’re pretty for a dark skin girl”, “nah I only date lighties”, “I like mixed race boys but not too dark” or “I want to marry a black guy so I can have cute mixed race babies” are all comments I know I personally still hear way too commonly in my everyday life.
To see how colourism has filtered down into the music industry, all you have to do is look at the success of various British female artists of colour over the last few years to understand the varying shades of success. Looking at the massive achievements and crossover ability of the likes of Stefflon Don, IAMDDB, Jorja Smith and RAYE as opposed to their underrated, under-celebrated and under marketed contemporaries like Ray BLK, Ms Banks, Lady Leshurr, Little Simz and Lioness (the list really does go on). The blatant discolouration of success amongst black females in the industry is evident.
Lioness in particular has been very vocal about this during her career, blaming colourism as being one of the main hindrances to her success and the most prominent prejudice that she’s faced in the industry. It’s not the fact that she is a black woman, but the fact that she’s not a light enough black woman. During many interviews, the South London MC has been very honest about her experiences saying, “A&Rs [talent scouts] would say things like: ‘She would be better if she was light-skinned’ – and that sentence doesn’t even make sense”.
If you were for example to compare the career of Ms Banks and Stefflon Don, both of whom first burst onto the UK rap scene at a similar time (2014-2015), it’s clear to see that Steff has managed to achieve much more crossover success both in the UK and overseas and in a far shorter time frame. Not only has Steff managed to chart high in the UK Top 40 and work with some of the biggest artists in the world from Drake to French Montana, but she has also received praise from some of the most iconic hip hop artists to date including Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim. Whereas Ms Banks, although has remained equally as consistent both in her music and in her skill as a lyricist and has been recognised by musical powerhouses like Nicki Minaj, she has yet to reach the same level of commercial or mainstream success as Steff. Of course there are many other contributing factors that come into play, and it’s always difficult to compare artists as really no one artist’s journey is exactly the same, however you can’t deny the most blatant factor staring at you, being their difference in skin colour.
The same difference can be seen by how easily lighter skinned black artists like RAYE and Jorja Smith can reap the rewards from both sets of worlds, whilst darker skinned black female artists are forever restricted to just being ‘urban’. Both RAYE and Jorja have managed to have success in the urban music scene due to the their identification with black culture and their half black heritage, whilst still baring enough physical European features that allow their look to be more marketable to the mainstream too. As opposed to the likes of singers such as Ray BLK and NAO who are still considered by mainstream media as ‘urban’, ‘niche’ and ‘underground’ despite them all sharing similar aesthetics in terms of their music.
Equally, as has been a trend for decades, it seems it is still more appealing for a lighter-skinned or white singer to make music that clearly lends from black culture rather than a darker skinned artist doing it. When Mabel makes a track like “Finders Keepers” which unarguably borrows from Afro Caribbean music culture, it smashes records and skyrockets on the charts, but when Lady Leshurr makes a similar style of track like her single “OMW” which she released earlier this year, it doesn’t make the same impact (despite Leshurr actually being of Afro Caribbean heritage). This is a trend we’ve seen in music for decades, from as far back as Elvis to more present day with the likes of Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus. It always seems as if black culture is only acceptable in the mainstream and able to cross over when it’s diluted. This is the running theme of colourism in the industry today and the ignorance towards the matter is what allows it to continue to inhibit darker skinned artists from attaining the same level of success.
Whilst this issue presses on in the UK, thankfully at least it seems to be a topic that is finally starting to acquire a more open dialogue and the ignorance of people even within the black community itself is slowly being called out and challenged. Ghetts’ latest album for example Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament, arguably album of the year, explores these themes in a lot of depth throughout and brings a personal touch to issues of colourism and the constant discrimination that black women are subject to in this country. Songs like “Black Rose”, an almost open letter to his daughter, openly discusses what has now become a normalised discrimination of darker skinned black women by men and women in their own community as well as those in the wider society. Lyrics like “when she gets older there’ll be brothers same colour as her Papa not showing any interest” and “disrespecting women who remind them of their mothers” puts colourism in Britain under a lyrical microscope. Even on his more gully tracks like “Houdini” Ghetts is openly confronting the issue and is begging the question: where’s the love for our black sisters? Why don’t we as black men show the same love and respect for our black sisters? A question that frankly has not been asked enough. Ghetts’ album has been a great catalyst for opening up this dialogue again, whilst the various incidents we’ve already seen this year (although short lived and not widely covered by the media), have at least also sparked a public conversation and more awareness about colourism.
Whilst it is undeniable that there are black females achieving massive crossover success, and this should never be downplayed or under-celebrated, the fact of the matter is the ones that are at the top of the pecking order are all lighter skinned, and many darker skinned artists as a result are left in the shadows, unheard and under-appreciated.