BRITs Critics’ Choice 2019: Is this really the best that British music has to offer?

Douglas Greenwood

Douglas Greenwood , who voted for the shortlist, says that this year’s line-up reveals the homogeneity of the industry behind the scenes

29 November 2018 11:28

Every December, the British, music-listening public are lambasted with lists of artists who, purportedly, are going to become the industry’s hottest things in the year to come. The announcement of the BRITs Critics’ Choice Award nominees is often talked about like it’s the most prestigious of them all. We’re often reminded that internationally acclaimed artists, like Adele and Florence + the Machine, have taken home the top prize in the past, and that whoever succeeds them has the possibility of reaching the same level of fame and success.

But after a few years of weak suggestions – 2015 – 2017 gave us three mediocre straight white men as winners: James Bay, Jack Garratt and Rag n Bone Man – quite what the prize means to anybody bar the artist and their label has become somewhat baffling, both to music nuts of the country and to many of the people who are asked to contribute to the shortlist.

This year’s list reads like a who’s who of label pushed artists who, at this point, hardly represent the best of British music. Mahalia aside, that is. She’s undeniably the most interesting artist on this list and is probably the strongest hope that we have of cracking a new RnB star next year. The Birmingham-born singer is a solid songwriter with a classic understanding of melody, who’s bound to do well in 2019, and it’s great to see four of the six artists to be nominated over the past two years to be women of colour.

However, the way these things work makes me think that she won’t be permitted to win the top prize she deserves out of this lot anyway. Jorja Smith, another talented vocalist, took home last year’s award, and the (most likely primarily white) panellists are probably hesitant to award two women of colour with the top prize two years in a row.

Sam Fender, a Northern singer-songwriter, who you’d desperately want to support if it wasn’t for his ability to dampen his immaculate, heart-breaking songs about suicide (‘Dead Boys’) with uber-cynical, holier-than-thou social commentary bullshit (‘Poundshop Kardashians’) on the same EP, looks like the year’s most likely winner. Lewis Capaldi, a Scottish lad who won people’s hearts with comical videos, affable guitar pop and a personalised social media presence, rounds out the top three. Neither of these men are particularly offensive, but in a year that had so much potential to be the most punkish and exciting since the awards began, the final line-up feels lacklustre and painfully predictable.

This year’s list reads like a who’s who of label pushed artists who, at this point, hardly represent the best of British music.

It’s worth stressing that these choices aren’t made by the British Phonographic Industry, but by a select group of music writers and influencers who, for God knows what reason, must have nodded along politely to the ‘For Your Consideration’ requests from major labels, and failed to make up their own minds by the time the deadline came around. Quite how any of them thought that artists like Sam Fender and Lewis Capaldi epitomise the rich and exciting British music scene in 2019 is beyond me.

Where are the progressive punk-rock kids like Slowthai, Jevon, Col3trane, Flohio, Octavian and Bakar? Where is someone like L Devine, an artist who has the potential to become Britain’s next huge mainstream pop act, and who also happens to be a queer woman who writes all of her own music? Where’s the lifting up of the talented artists for whom a platform like this could change their lives?

The purpose of the Critics’ Choice prize is to help shed light on an artist that we critics think deserve huge success in the coming year – not to give a stamp of approval to someone who’s already well on their way to getting that anyway.

As someone who voted for this prize (none of the artists I selected made the shortlist), it’s strange to see how homogenous and safe these choices feel; everybody had spotted them from a mile off, and perhaps that’s because they’re the least offensive options for an institution like the BPI have to deal with. The erasure of black grime, rap and punk artists from this list – despite the fact that they make up the vast majority of the British music that journalists are excited about at the moment – suggests there could be a fear of black art being construed as ‘confrontational’ at the heart of this. That reflects badly on the BPI, but it also speaks volumes about the kind of people – most likely middle-class and overwhelmingly white – who are brought in to make the final decision.

Of the 36 artists who have been nominated since the award began, two (George the Poet and Michael Kiwanuka) have been men of colour. That’s a sad statistic that stood to be rectified in 2018, a time when young black men practically shape our music scene right now.

For critics to put two guitar-toting heterosexual white blokes above them all does a disservice to all those who see the Critics’ Choice prize as a benchmark of creative excellence. We’re letting fans and artists down by elevating those already blessed with industry privilege, and leaving out those who deserve our recognition, hustling twice as hard to be heard above the noise.