2020 is a year we’ll never forget.
A year that stopped us in our tracks and forced us to hunker down with nothing but our thoughts, feelings and Netflix to get us through. 2020 is also the year that forced conversations around topics many people did not feel comfortable talking about.
For me 2020 is the year I used my voice. I don’t want to say I found my voice as those who know me personally know I am not shy in standing up for what I believe in. However, I hadn’t yet spoken out publicly against what I felt brewing inside me for so long in terms of the systemic sexism and racism within our music industry and what I had personally experienced.
2020 is the year I used my voice.
As the world reacted in shock to the brutal killing of George Floyd, sadly there were many of us who weren’t shocked at all. The shock was in the fact it was so easily captured on film and distributed to the world. The ripple effect of this was for eyes and ears that don’t like to acknowledge the word racism to come to terms with the fact that racism is still extremely prevalent within our world and society today. Whether it be subtle systemic racism, gatekeeping and/or the imbalance of power and how it permeates our creative industries.
I felt powerless whilst my singing voice seemed to have such power within it
Back in 2018 I had just sung my third top 10 record and my first charted credited record with James Hype on ‘More than friends’. The first two top 10 records were for Duke Dumont & Jax Jones ‘I Got U’ & Secondcity ‘I Wanna Feel’ both UK number 1s in 2014 and both session jobs.
I was becoming recognised as one of the go to singers in dance music with my vocals and writing spanning records for artists like Low Steppa, Watermat, The Bingo Players, Ferreck Dawn & Redondo, Tiesto and more. However, although I was very proud of my work on these records, my own artist career seemed to have no focus or representation at all. I felt powerless whilst my singing voice seemed to have such power within it.
When Funk Butcher tweeted, “we need to talk about black singers on dance music” it resonated deeply and I responded from the heart in frustration and sadness at my dreams of being a solo artist being constantly hindered or halted by ways in which I just couldn’t understand. Over 700 likes and 200 retweets later, my tweet and the conversation about the treatment of black and mixed singers in the industry had caught the attention of the BBC, Evening Standard & The Guardian, and it turns out my story is not singular.
Although I had a lot of fear for speaking up I knew it was the right thing to do.
There can be a stigma attached to session work
Many singers that end up in positions like I did come from low income backgrounds. They use their skill set to pay their bills whilst striving to elevate themselves and hopefully be ‘seen’. With no real knowledge of what is and isn’t acceptable and what one can and can’t ask for. With no representation at the time and notably ‘just a session singer’ as one artist/producer pointed out to me after singing many of his records.
The power players in these instances pay the bills and by way of industry standard prefer these women to be heard and not seen, and with no clear industry investment into these women the cycle stays the same. These women are the least invested in artists and creators in the industry, yet are part of so many others’ careers.
There also seems to be a level of disrespect for session singers and musicians who are some of the most hard working and incredible people I’ve had the pleasure to work with and perform alongside. Not everyone wants to be an artist beyond session work but for those that do there is often a stigma attached that if you are sessioner you’re not good enough to be an artist, and for so many creatives who don’t have available money to fund their artist development, the session route can be an excellent job whilst you learn the industry and hone your craft.
Looking at recent studies by Vick Bain & Nadia Khan Womxn in CTRL there is actual evidence that women are less played on radio, less signed and less represented over the live sector. Now let’s add women of colour (for want of a better term) into those stats and the margins are even smaller. Then when you factor in colourisms, unless those singers fit a palatable box that fits the status quo, generally light-skinned women of colour for pop and dark skinned women of colour for R&B, HipHop & Grime (formerly known as Urban) with any exception to that rule being very much a one in one out policy.
Women of colour seem to serve excellent purposes at being part of someone else’s campaign narrative but when it comes to respect and focus of those women’s voices, the industry has been largely silent for too long.
I kept hitting closed doors
I had constant requests to sing on records for different DJs & Producers after ‘More Than Friends’ landed in the UKs official singles chart, but I started to wonder how many more top 10s I would need to sing to garner some industry interest in me as an artist? I could sing, that wasn’t in question, I was talented, people kept coming back to want to work with me but no one wanted to invest in me.
Slowly over the few years I did manage to have some conversations with some A&Rs about doing a “me” record, however they were still only interested in me singing for one of their signed DJ/Producers instead.
One record I co-wrote and sang I got told I was apparently “too irrelevant” to feature on, whilst my voice and name were on a current top 10. They said the song I had co-written and sung was excellent for someone more famous to feature on, but they’d keep my voice on the record in the mix as no one could sing it like me, but with no feature credit for my work.
I kept hitting closed doors when I would mention in any way that I maybe the focus artist in the conversation.
I had performed multiple shows, and started investing my royalties into my own label and band so I could be heard and recognised as an artist in my own right. I’d been receiving high praise for my live shows and was constantly being asked why I wasn’t in a better position with label support, why I had low social media numbers and the answer was always, I don’t know?
It left me questioning why I was finding it so difficult to elevate my artist career when my white male counterparts who I had sung for were doing so well. What was I doing wrong?
As much as I had been growing myself, I wasn’t changing the industry
I ended up asking myself, why should I be running into this same wall and giving away pieces of myself, feeling devalued? So I set out on my journey to educate myself on the business side. What should a singer or a featured artist be entitled to? What is the conduct with sessions and my rights to my voice. I decided I shall no longer sing a record without my name on it unless I choose to be un-featured and I set up my label ‘Music Core’ in 2018.
But as much as I had been growing myself, I wasn’t changing the industry – although people were becoming more aware of the fact I was actually an artist and I wouldn’t be taken advantage of intentionally or unintentionally, largely thanks to my wonderful lawyer Jules O’Riordan who spent many a phone conversation explaining to me points, fees and what I should be expecting through some very hard but excellent learning periods of self management – I still wasn’t being ‘seen’.
So my tweet came at a point where I didn’t know where my options were anymore, I felt stuck in limbo. I had set up my own label, I was self investing, creating and spending, however that wasn’t really moving the needle. My second single on my label got playlisted on 70 regional radio stations and did 200,000 streams in a month, yet I couldn’t get further support from curators or introducing platforms. I couldn’t help but feel I had reached a glass ceiling and so I spoke up.
Can you open up doors to talent that may have been closed previously?
Since 2020 I have become involved with the FAC (Featured Artist Coalition) to look out for artists rights, have been a mentor for HyperTribe and The Cats Mother and am now excited to be working with the MU to arm singers with a point of reference when going into sessions. There are no hard and fast deal terms when working on a record, but there is knowledge to be had that can make sure singers know what they are getting into when heading into a session.
The industry looks to be shifting, good conversations are happening and starting to happen at a higher level too, which is so brilliant to see. But I urge companies to look at their rosters or playlists and ask themselves, is it diverse? Is there more that you can do to diversify? Can you open up doors to talent that may have been closed to them previously?
Of course not everyone will ‘make it’ but black and mixed singers in the UK music industry have been jumping through hoops for too long, excelling above and beyond to be ignored or de-valued by not fitting into ‘commercially viable’ boxes just to try and get an opportunity and I will no longer stand by and be part of that system. I stand up for change and I hope a young singer like me in future won’t grow up to have their dreams quashed by an archaic system that no one stood up to when simply put, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Find out more about Kelli-Leigh and her work on her website.
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