DJ Ace has called for more industry support for UK R&B, appealing for “time, effort and investment” ahead of his showcase at SXSW.
The BBC Radio 1Xtra presenter is bringing his Everything R&B platform to Austin, Texas today (March 15), with domestic acts Jaz Karis, James Vickery, Bellah, Kadeem Tyrell, Shae Universe and Mnelia all set to perform.
He told Music Week that it’s high time the eyes and the ears of the business at home focus more closely on R&B.
“It’s weird that everybody can see it, except us,” said Ace.
Five years after launching his Everything R&B Tour (an initiative to give the next wave of unsigned artists a taste of gig life on the road, and develop their knowledge and industry network), he’s taken the Everything R&B brand overseas for a one-night takeover of Austin’s iconic Speakeasy venue.
“I literally just reached out, sent a few emails, and got an invitation back saying, ‘This is exactly what we've been looking for’, he explained. “I’ve been going to America for the last few years and there’s such an appetite for R&B from the UK in the States. It just seems like a perfect time to take this specific showcase to Texas. It’s gonna be an awesome night.”
The DJ also explained how he put the bill together.
“These are six artists that I've seen really putting in the work independently, doing it themselves,” he said. “They stream so well. James Vickery has just sold out a US tour, he sold out two LA dates in nine minutes but in the UK, no one knows who he is. Jaz Karis streams more than some of the biggest UK rap artists, Bellah is doing loads of great things internationally, Mnelia has got one of the most streamed records. These are artists that we should be proud of, that we don't necessarily get behind but have an international presence.”
Unsurprisingly, Ace is wary of falling into a cycle of endless talks about the lack of industry support for UK R&B. Talk is cheap, and support needs investment which he says hasn’t always been forthcoming.
“I asked a lot of people for support and I'm having to foot the bill for a lot of this because I wasn't able to get some funding or wasn't able to get a brand involved,” he said.
The rest of the funds for SXSW were raised by the artists themselves, with some help from PRS.
“There's a lot of people that talk about supporting R&B in the UK, but they don't necessarily want to put their hand in their pocket,” he said. “So I'm happy to sit in meetings, to talk and campaign but it’s more about, ‘Are people really about it?’ We'll see if they are or if they’re not.”
Ace told Music Week more about his SXSW takeover, championing overlooked talent, the BRITs R&B issue and branching out into industry A&R…
What do you want the outcome of this showcase to be?
“I want to prove what I've been saying for a long time; that our R&B artists can stand next to any R&B artists across the world. That there is a real demand to hear what our R&B artists are saying. With acting and fashion, the UK is looked to as, ‘Yo’ they got the sauce over there, that's where it is.’ But this specific genre, the UK doesn't think that we are able to export that to the rest of the world, and I'm telling everybody that is definitely not the case. I literally just got back from LA a couple of weeks ago and loads of R&B artists from the UK were out there working. We're getting so much love and attention out there from industry people, execs, fans. It's just weird that it doesn't translate over here.”
In terms of the acts playing your showcase, what are your hopes for them?
“Everybody wants to be big in the UK because this is where we're from and this is our market, but R&B artists now need to realise it's not just about being big at home, it's about really tapping into the international music market. Not just the States, you can make money doing shows in Amsterdam, or South Africa or Australia. Go and find your fanbase. Go where you’re celebrated, not tolerated. I find that there's a lot of amazing talent here that gets really frustrated with the way things are, that the UK music industry doesn't know how to push R&B. They dwell and get really sad about it, but the truth is the world is your oyster and there’s fans for you all over the world. This is just the beginning of showing that R&B artists from the UK do have international appeal. Hopefully the UK music industry will see us do an amazing job over there, then maybe think about why these artists don't get the support here that they deserve.”
There is a real demand to hear what our R&B artists are saying
Can the breakout success of FLO be a catalyst for more of the same?
“One million per cent. There’s FLO, Mahalia, even Ella Mai, a lot of people in the States didn't even know that she was British. There are so many names – Tiana Major9, Mahalia, Sinead Harnett… Cleo Sol is doing amazingly internationally as well. FLO’s [success] is great but I don't want the future of R&B in the UK to rest on FLO, I don't think that's fair. There’s a whole host of artists out there. What happens is we put it all on one artist and if that artist doesn't work then we say ‘Oh well R&B doesn't work in the UK’. That’s not necessarily the case. Globally, R&B is becoming one of the biggest music genres again.”
What would you say to the argument that UK R&B’s moment is long overdue?
“R&B was in a bad place for a little while and the conversation was that R&B is dead. So now that R&B is thriving again and the new gen in the States with [acts such as] Summer Walker doing amazing things, it's only right we look at what's going on in the UK. People don't necessarily know about the history of R&B in this country and what we've given to the world. Even when you talk to some of the real legends in R&B from the States, they mention the likes of Omar and Loose Ends, Floetry, and Mark Morrison, Soul II Soul and Jazzy B. These are all foundation members. What they've given to music is UK R&B; they've done it in a UK way, they haven't gone out of their way to be American. There's no one more British than Omar to me. You speak to Angie Stone or Erykah Badu about Omar, they know that this guy is the truth. What Craig David did was unmatched; this kid from Southampton comes out and sells all these records, takes it global. People forget that we've actually had fingerprints on R&B globally for a while.
Are A&Rs looking in the right place for new R&B talent? Or are they not looking enough?
“I don’t want to throw anyone under a bus, but they need to get people in positions that really understand the market, the genre and its cultural significance. I think if you are an A&R that’s under pressure to get results, you're not going to go straight to an R&B artist because they're not tried and tested. They don't always work. It's a bit of a risk and a gamble. There are R&B artists that are independent, have loads of streams themselves, have a nice fanbase and sell out their own shows that just need the help of a machine behind them. With R&B, you can't just listen to one song from an artist and think that one person is going to take us through, you need to hear a body of work, you need to know what they're like on stage, it's not just one banging record. In the UK, a lot of artists are getting signed off the back of one big tune that did the TikTok numbers or has gone viral. It's not about, ‘What is this person going to sound like two or three albums from now?’
Labels need to get people in positions that really understand the market, the genre and its cultural significance
The BRITs came under fire for not including a single R&B act in the Pop/R&B category. What did you make of that?
“When the Pop/R&B category was launched last year, I felt like it was an attempt to be inclusive, which I appreciated, but it was a wrong move. I felt like the backlash was loud enough that it wouldn't happen again. I spoke about it a lot on my radio show; I had Mahalia and Ella Mai on my show, they were very vocal about it. I even spoke to somebody on the BRIT board. So for it to come back this year, I think it's embarrassing. How do you club R&B and pop in the same category? Even if they have to be in the same category, surely you should have an R&B artist or two in there to go up against them. Mahalia wearing an ‘R&B isn't dead’ jacket on the red carpet was such an amazing statement because she's seen as the flagbearer for R&B in this country. I hope they asked questions like, ‘What does that mean?’ I would genuinely like to sit down with the person, or people, who decided that and understand why they thought it would make sense.”
Finally, what’s your message to the industry about UK R&B?
“The long and short of it is, the scene needs investment. We just need the time, we need effort, we need artist development to come back. I speak to more labels about their international artists than artists that are over here, which is sad. I'd love to speak to more labels about who I think is poppin’, who I think is next, and who I think deserves that push. I'm also actively trying to get into that world too, stepping into A&R projects because I'm more invested than maybe they are. It's sad that we have to catch the rest of the world up about talent that's here. That's wild to me.”
WORDS: COLLEEN HARRIS