It’s taken us nearly a full week to recover from BBC Radio 1Xtra’s Power List, a collection of artist names that has ruffled some feathers and blown some minds since being released last Friday (July 11). Billed as a list of “the most important U.K. artists on the current black and urban music scene” by BBC Radio’s long-running urban music station, the list included established artists like Tinie Tempah, Dizzee Rascal and Laura Mvula, but had three white artists in its Top 4, and Ed Sheeran in the No. 1 spot. Uh.
After 1Xtra completed the act of unprecedented trolling, the backlash was predictably rapid and overwhelming. London-based rapper Wiley, who came in at No. 16 on the Power List, fired off a string of critical tweets, such as “England music industry is backwards. God bless those who try tho.” Across the globe, news outlets and web sites processed and poked fun at the list, with the U.K.’s “Newsnight” asking, “How did middle-class white boy Ed Sheeran get named the most important act in black and urban music?,” and Grantland concluding that the list was an ordering of “music that black people can hear.” Instead of commenting on the dubious achievement, Sheeran has remained mum on the subject. For its part, BBC Radio 1Xtra has not, defending the list and awkwardly clarifying what it should represent.
“Every single day of the week, every single hour of the day we support black artists and other races that make black music sounds,” said BBC Radio 1Xtra music manager Austin Daboh. “I think that anyone who wants to bring race into the discussion is probably a little bit misguided.” It’s almost not worth asking what “black music sounds” are, if we’re not allowed to bring race into the discussion.
The list itself argues that Sheeran should be at the top based on the “power in what he produces & writes,” but makes no mention of his command as a black and urban music artist. In fact, the text of the Power List no longer makes ANY mention of black and urban music in its text, describing the Top 20 ranking as “the Top 20 Most Important UK Artists In The Scene from the last 12 months.” So where did everyone get the whole “black and urban” angle? Traces of the original presentation of the list still exist, such as in the wording of this news blast from the BBC, from the day the list was released. If 1Xtra had originally showcased the list as simply the top U.K. artists in contemporary music at large, the negative response would have never happened. Instead, 1Xtra posted the most confusing music list ever, likely tweaked some of the verbiage after the fact and got defensive when sane people questioned it.
The subtext of this mess is that people are really not prepared to consider Sheeran to be an “urban” artist. His sophomore album, “x,” added a smattering of soul music and thorny rapping to Sheeran’s folk oeuvre, with the slick, Pharrell-produced pop track “Sing” lingering in the Top 20 of the Hot 100 chart. Sheeran and “x” have been unequivocally successful, and one could reasonably argue that the Suffolk native is the most important U.K. artist of the year. But placing Sheeran atop a ranking that is (or, at least, was) presented as a black and urban music power list is like tossing a red-haired Molotov cocktail at the Internet. As Wiley put it on Twitter, “A man wrote for one direction so let him be the most influential artist to people like them but not us.” Whereas someone like Sam Smith, who came in at No. 4 on 1Xtra’s list, can reasonably claim to be a huge new presence in a predominantly black genre like R&B, Sheeran is still the guy who wrote for a boy band in the eyes of a veteran black U.K. artist. It’s like saying Bjork should headline Essence Fest, or that Brendan Fraser should win an NAACP Award. Sheeran’s No. 1 position on that list was doomed to be mocked from the get-go.
Look, all music obsessives have made lists of artists, songs or albums that they eventually would like to re-order, or regret altogether. I once wrote somewhere that the third best album of 2005 was made by Coheed & Cambria! Mistakes are natural, and BBC Radio 1Xtra, which continues to give urban artists a strong voice in the U.K., shouldn’t be skewered for putting 20 names in a particular order. The problem is that 1Xtra never gave its audience any acknowledgement that its list was in any way perplexing. Consider the following tweets from Twin B, a breakfast show DJ who helped finalize the list after names were submitted by fans to 1Xtra:
The 1Xtra list. NO ONE here called Ed Sheeran the most influential artist in Black & urban music. Calm down & put the banners down please.
— Twin (@TwinB) July 13, 2014
This was part of a larger, exasperated explanation in which Twin B wrote that Sheeran’s “HUGE success” was the reason he topped the list, and that this should have been immediately apparent. Twin B finished the string of tweets with this since-deleted message: “Can’t wait to do it again next year now… Some of how it’s worded obviously needs 2 be addressed though. But like, calm down… It’s Sunday.”
So calm down, everybody. Don’t worry about the exact wording of the list, which “obviously needs to be addressed.” Just accept the fact that Ed Sheeran is at the top of black and urban music, and don’t cause a fuss. After all, it’s Sunday!