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  • Writer's pictureMarcas Mac an Tuairneir

Singing Into the Abyss

The BRITs / BBC Radio 1 / BBC Radio Scotland / SAY Award / SNACK Magazine

Last month’s BRITs shortlist announcement reads well on the face of it, for equalities, diversity and inclusion, with a number of musicians of colour featuring. These include Stormzy for Artist of the Year and Rina Sawayama for Best New Artist and a strong showing, as you’d probably expect, in the Best HipHop/Grime/Rap category.

LGBTQ people feature too, such as Sam Smith and Kim Petras, fresh from their GRAMMYs success with smash hit ‘Unholy’, though it remains to be seen whether the awareness that Smith brought to LGBTQ music in 2021 has borne fruit, with an uptick in nominations for other queer artists at the BRITs.

Smith may yet see slow change, if sea change was not wholly instantaneous on the LGBTQ front.

As with Petras at the GRAMMYs, one significant positive from the BRITs shortlists is seeing trans representation in that very nomination. This may nudge a door left ajar by the likes of the late Sophie Xeon for trans musicians with an eye on the mainstream, as Petras acknowledged in her acceptance speech.

Smith’s calls to de-gender such categories were echoed by The Crown actor Emma Corrin, recently, with their sights on the Oscars, BAFTAs and the big film and TV awards. It remains to be seen how female musicians and actors will fare, should this shift become commonplace, but there are warning signs in the BRITs modus operandi.

2021 did see five female artists, or co-ed acts, scoop gongs, outwith the Best Female and Best International Female categories. Ten women and female gender-diverse people found success in 2022, thanks in part to an expanded set of categories. So far, the BRITs seem to be maintaining the gender balance, in terms of statistics. However, scrapping of the female categories has led to an all-male shortlist in the Artist of the Year category, this year, as reported extensively in the Telegraph, the Times, iNews and the music press. This admonishment of women in music can only be viewed as a retrograde step – something hinted at by Adele at last year’s outing, for which she was pilloried online by well-meaning activists who clearly hadn’t thought this through.

In this, what Smith and the BRITs have so monumentally failed to grasp is that we can only serve inclusion by actually including, not removing opportunity from minoritised groups. To see both women and LGBTQ demographics adequately represented, the all-female categories need to return, alongside a new LGBTQ category for queer and gender-diverse artists.

One aspect of EDI that has been lacking from the BRITs since day one is linguistic diversity. This is a platform that has never seemed to be able to shake its London-centrism, when it comes to representation of the Home Nations. 2023 is a return to form in this aspect and, once again, Scottish, Welsh and Irish acts - the latter elgible for the International categoies - are few and far between amongst those in receipt of a shortlisting. Yet again, we are presented with a set of exclusively English-language shortlists, which utterly fail to represent the fourteen indigenous languages – such as Scots, Gaelic, Welsh and Irish – that musicians still manage to make music in, despite the challenges they face in an ever globalised and anglicised world. Consider the international categories too – big names, like Beyoncé and Lizzo – but International Artist and Song of the Year remain dominated by Anglophone America. It’s only in the Group of the Year category that any other language emerges, with bilingual K-Pop stars BLACKPINK. In short, it's a platform lost if not abused by the colonial expectation that The BRITs will only roll out the red carpet for those who approach in their own tongue.

This speaks volumes of a mainstream UK Arts and Books scene which is dominated by the English language, despite official recognition for Welsh in Wales, Gaelic in Scotland and most recently Irish in the six counties. What’s clear though is that if it’s easy to disregard English-speaking talent from anywhere beyond the UK’s domestic borders, musicians working in a language that the monolingual majority don’t understand don’t have a chance of seeing themselves make the heady heights of the BRITs. Here, we see a rock-hard English-only paradigm and a never-ending cycle, fed by record companies, media, and the commercial sector. This de facto English-only policy, to be heard as much on BBC Radio Scotland as on Radio One, succeeds in uplifting a select few singing monoglots – with an undeniable regional locus south of the Watford Gap.

The other upshot is that it locks our minoritised language musicians out of the mainstream altogether, unless - perhaps - they fit into the folk and trad box. Airplay and media coverage impacts sales, plaudits and end-of-year lists. Industry recognition feeds sales and airplay, and on it goes.

In Scotland, we can only really count on The Trads to set an example of indigenous linguistic and cultural inclusion, with folk music champion Simon Thoumire leading into the fray, through engagement with Scots- and Gaelic-interest bodies, such as Bòrd na Gàidhlig. This leaves those working through our Scottish languages within traditional, folk and roots genres fairly well catered for, but what of those who break down barriers within contemporary music? Such acts remain comparatively small in number, something undoubtedly impacted by our media, but they are nonetheless on the rise. As far as pop, rock and RnB in Gaelic and Scots, the other Celtic Nations might consider us to be few years behind, when we stand ourselves in comparison to our Welsh-, Irish- and even Cornish-speaking peers. One such is Gwenno with her 2022 Mercury Prize nod for her sophomore Cornish-language collection. You might have thought The BRITs might have taken the Mercury Prize's hint, but sadly not. We need only look to the void between indigenous language and mainstream media, to understand why this is.

TV and radio channels like S4C, TG4 and RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta have done considerable work to engage with youth culture and embed their languages in young people’s lives. This shines out of the music being made, there. BBC Radio nan Gàidheal’s new songwriting series Òran Annad may, with the benefit of hindsight, go on to have similar impact, working in concert with BBC Alba’s recent TikTok initiative Càrn, giving a platform to young Gaelic influencers. It’s a breath of fresh air seeing emergent Stornowegian rockers like Balach get such a platform, amongst others like rapper Hammy Sgìth. BBC The Social has done similar work for Scots, featuring spoken word artist Len Pennie and Iona Fyfe, with her Taylor Swift-esque ‘The Cauld’, flying high. Off the back of a hard-won media profile, largely through taking the seemingly relentless knocks and blows of social media, Fyfe’s achievement in making Spotify recognise Scots as a language in its own right was a significant step forward for minortised language recognition in music.

For now, we have to take hope from embers in the ashes.

The diversity of contemporary genre coming out of Wales and Ireland, in their native languages, shows us what could be, here: the electro-pop of Gwenno, her sister Ani Glass and Ireland’s Róisin Seóighe, the roots rock of Gwilym, the HipHop of IMLÉ and Kneecap can serve as an inspiration to Scottish artists and all who love music, but only if we choose to listen. But what of the likely reception, when there is clearly a problem around linguistic inclusion within the Scottish, Irish and UK mainstream? It took ten years for the Scottish Album of the Year Award to even consider shortlisting a Gaelic-speaking artist, largely through the prudent choice of including industry bods like Rapal’s Megan MacLennan on their advisory panel. Thankfully, this yielded a nomination for Niteworks’ ‘A’ Ghrian’, which, whilst it didn’t win out, did demonstrate the lads’ grit and determination in getting their music out there, before audiences. It also demonstrates the cumulative power and potential of a series of small victories. But Niteworks’ blend of Gaelic folktronica represents a musical export unique to Scotland, and something to be proud of, so why is it not reverberating within the BRITs’ ivory tower?

BBC Introducing Scotland is another platform where you’d be hard-pressed to hear either Scots or Gaelic. Their last Gaelic spin was from Niteworks’ heirs apparent, Valtos, on 10th of June last year, though it is great to see that an English-language cut, alongside Project Smok, has been selected as their recent song of the moment. This uncovers the dichotomy, however. Whether it’s in print, for broadcast or online, our own music media just don’t get that they have a role to play in the revolution, when it comes to linguistic and cultural emancipation in Scotland. SNACK Mag’s Scottish Single of the Year Award was a real nadir, failing to include a single release delivered through Gaelic or Scots, even on their longlist. A Gaelic-speaking artist did make the cut, though, in the shape of Isle of Lewis singer-songwriter Josie Duncan, and her sparkling electro-pop song ‘Be Around’. Josie’s Gaelic output, solo and alongside INYAL, is equally inspiring. Yet, whilst she is to be applauded, absolutely, for inverting conventions and conceptions by ploughing two successful furrows in Gaelic and English, what Josie’s oeuvre demonstrates is the very thing that has shaped the careers of Gaelic artists for decades. We have a decades-long precedent in Capercaillie, Runrig or even Mòd Gold Medallist Mary Sandeman and her eighties pop princess alter-ego, Aneka, demonstrating that our bilingualism does, on one hand, offer us a creative choice. Duncan is just the latest to demonstrate that a plural, musical world can be your oyster. On the other hand, however, in 2023 it remains to be seen whether this nomination would have happened for Duncan, if she only sang in Gaelic. The path to international acclaim is more often than not fast-tracked by the switch to the English language.

To remain faithful to Gaelic audiences, you have to remain faithful to the language, but it remains challenging in breaking into the mainstream without singing in the language of the oppressor.

Change on the linguistic inclusion front is unlikely to come without musicians, media and industry types directly challenging the linguistic status quo, however. Only then will sustainable change come, but with a diminished public profile, it is doubtful that anyone singing in Gaelic, Scots, Welsh or Irish alone will ever be able to make the likes of the BRITs listen in the way the big names might. Most stay silent, mindful of the repercussions for careers hanging in the balance, post-Covid, mid-cost of living crisis and hammered by the Tory Westminster government’s lacklustre commitment to arts funding and development.

Those singing into the abyss need solidarity. Unless artists-cum-activists like Smith are prepared to recognise language within the intersectionality they so vocally claim to uphold, the activism rings hollow, not holistic, to a bilingual ear.

An Aghaidh na Stainge

The BRIT Awards 2022 with Mastercard takes place Tuesday 8th February at The O2 Arena, London, exclusively broadcast on ITV and ITV Hub and hosted by Mo Gilligan

Speactram, my own album, released in July 2022, has been an exploration of what Gaelic pop could sound like in the Twenty-first Century. It harvests a multitude of influences across the popular music landscape, bringing the neon lights of urban settings to the Gaelic milieu for the first time. I am incredibly proud of what the collaborators and I have achieved with this new body of work. My hope is that it gives rise to not only the GaelPop genre but also to other diverse voices being heard more prominently within the Gaelic corpus.

It remains a consistent challenge getting this music played by BBC Radio Scotland, including BBC Scotland Introducing. Mainstream press coverage was scant, but you can read a great article about the album,

in the Press & Journal, here. I remain thankful to Gaelic-language and Community Radio in Scotland and Ireland, for their support.

Pick up a copy on Bandcamp.

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