BBC Radio station 1Xtra has voted British crooner Ed Sheeran the most important British artist in urban music—and in the process, has sparked an online debate about a “power list” that predominantly features white artists in a genre of music created by black artists.
1Xtra—which describes itself as “the UK’s leading black music station”—released its list of the most “important UK artists in the scene” on Friday. Sheeran topped the list of approximately 20 artists, submitted by radio listeners and chosen by 1Xtra DJs on variables such as “sales statistics, plus more subjective areas like the quality of music and impact across the wider industry.”
The red-headed “Sing” artist wasn’t the only white musician to make the list. Jessie J (No. 15), DJ Fresh (No. 14) and Katy B (No. 8) made the cut, as did several other non-white artists: Albanian-born Rita Ora (No. 12) and club favorite Naughty Boy (No. 7), whose parents are Pakistani. And three of the top four artists were non-black as well, with British sensation Sam Smith at No. 4 and EDM’s Disclosure (a pair of white brothers) rounding out the list at No. 2. London-based rapper Tinie Tempah was the highest ranked black artist, coming in at No. 3.
Rapper Wiley—who came in at No. 16—condemned the music station, calling its list “the saddest list in music history.” “Not taking anything away from Ed. He is sick. But black artists in England we are getting bumped,” the bestselling artist tweeted. “We influence a man and all of a sudden it turns he has influenced us.”
Music fans in the UK as well as in the U.S. voiced their opinions.
The debate follows a series of controversies surrounding the prominence of white artists in a medium pioneered by black musicians: In 2012, Adele was criticized for not being “black enough” as the recipient of two National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Award nominations. More recently, white R&B artists Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke have been subject to scrutiny, as has white duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, whose epic sweep of the in the rap categories (beating Kanye West, Drake, Jay Z, and others) at the Grammy Awards this year drew viral criticism.
“It was a categorical and poignant reminder that whilst black creations are themselves most welcome, when it comes to marketing them, a white face is preferred,” Joseph Guthrie wrote for Media Diversified. In The New York Times, Jon Caramanica wrote, “Macklemore’s success is a reminder that in 2013 it is possible to consume hip-hop while remaining at a far remove from the center of the genre or, in some cases, from black culture altogether.”
1Xtra continues to defend their list, with comment from music manager Austin Daboh: “We are a station that cares very deeply about black music. From Stylo G to Fekky these are all acts that were played, supported and guided by 1Xtra, often before anyone else cared.”
“There is definitely a wider debate to be had around the mainstream support for black music. Legitimate concerns have been raised around the pressure some artists feel to compete commercially.”
See the entire 1Xtra Power List here.