You, Me & R&B: Meesha Cru-Hall revisits the controversial BBC announcement


Back in September, headlines were made when it was announced that Cheryl Cole would front a new BBC series on R&B. Two months on, Meesha Cru-Hall revisits the online pushback and looks at why it drew such criticism

It is fair to say that there have been warmer receptions to media projects than those that graced the pop singer’s R&B podcast. Could it simply have been that previous altercations came back to bite Cheryl and a supposedly ‘diversity-obsessed’ BBC?

Seeing as the listeners tuning into a podcast delving into the ‘world of R&B’ would be an expected majority Black audience or at least die-hard musical enthusiasts of the genre, it seems the BBC missed the mark by failing to select a host to match.

I can’t deny that I have accidentally caught myself bopping to the bubblegum sounds of Crazy Stupid Love and Parachute in my lifetime. But these examples are a far-cry from the raw and authentic musical artistry from artists long-rooted in the R&B genre.

Steeped in culture

It’s difficult to separate the backlash to the announcement from the origins of ‘rhythm and blues’. The genre’s blend of jazz, boogie, gospel and jump blues was ushered in by the great migration of Black Americans from the rural south to big cities further north, more than a century ago.

The Black demographic shifting further north was one part eagerness to leave behind the Jim Crow south, one part longing for opportunity. Discriminatory practices were still rampant due to segregation, but amidst this, the convergence of aspirations, hardships, and culture found an appealing sound in R&B.

Image credit: Bettman | Zola Taylor, popularly known as "The Dish", sings with The Platters' Tony Williams, Herbert Reed, David Lynch and Paul Robi perform in 1958. Even in their unique expression of sound, Black artists still had to contend with the realities of Jim Crow.

Even its initial marketing approach derived itself with a distinctly Black appeal in mind. Billboard branding heading into the 1940s meant Black-American artists were labelled under the category of ‘race music’.

As an alternative, the mainstream tag of ‘R&B’ became the new commercial moniker for African-American music.

The diversity of Black sound would eventually be acknowledged elsewhere (even if still not always embraced) but R&B as an established genre has stuck, becoming synonymous with Black expression in the arts on matters of love, race and even politics.

It’s probably true that we’re seeing more experimentation in R&B than ever before and sonically the riffs and runs that defined its sound seem to be fading away, but its imprint as the defining genre for Black musicians worldover remains intact. Lemar, Craig David, Estelle and Ella Mai are just some of the many Black-British artists we’ve seen look into the culture to breakthrough in recent times.

Knowing all of this, it’s no wonder that so many were left scratching their heads at the media giant’s decision to elect Cheryl Tweedy as the face and voice behind their BBC Sounds production ‘You, Me & R&B with Cheryl’.

Troubled past

Actress and influencer Jameela Jamil reminded us of further reasons why the dynamics of the podcast have caused the reaction it has by drawing our attention back to a violent assault over free lollipops between Tweedy and a Black toilet attendant, Sophie Amogbokpa.

Many online commentators including the actress Jameela Jamil took issue with the announcement, pointing toward a prior assault Cheryl had been convicted for.

Despite the incident, Cheryl's career went from strength to strength and her public image was largely unaffected. “Was there nobody else available who hadn’t beaten a Black woman to the ground while calling her a racial slur (and never apologised) available for a podcast about R&B?” Jamil tweeted. “Was everyone else taken?”

The Bigger picture

Cheryl’s new gig is certainly not the first time that a musical artist has taken credit where it perhaps is not due. In 2003, Justin Timberlake was accused of ‘benefiting from black culture’ after walking away with ‘Best R&B Act’ at the Music of Black Origin Awards (otherwise known as the MOBOs). Coincidentally the same year that Cheryl was found guilty of assaulting Amogbokpa, Timberlake’s triumph stoked controversy among some parts of the Black community which felt that Black talent was losing out to white artists. Additionally, his winning album ‘Justified’ embodied more of a Pop than an R&B feel in comparison to his competing nominees in the category. It led to a boycott of the award show and left a feeling of indignation amongst parts of Black Britain.

More recently, former Little Mix member, Jesy Nelson has found herself in the middle of a Blackfishing controversy. As explained by Nelson’s ex-bandmate Leigh-Anne Pinnock, the term ‘Blackfishing' can be described as “capitalising on aspects of Blackness without having to endure the daily realities of the Black experience” causing a “problematic and harmful” experience for people of colour. These types of situations are especially messy when many Black influencers today are bypassed by brands and shortchanged in comparison to their white counterparts.

"‘Black’ is simply not something we can take off and put on."

Huffington Post asked Black British women what they make of the term Blackfishing - and the set of behaviours it describes. Leonie Mills, a 26-year-old academic based between London and Accra, doesn’t agree with the term, preferring to call the desired aesthetic “exotic”, yet perfectly articulates how its behaviours can be insidious. “The ethnicities and cultures where these things stem from are continually penalised. Our aesthetics are not a trend we can decide to change.” ‘Black’ is simply not something we can take off and put on. Writer Raven Smith sums it up best in her article for Vogue: “Blackfishing is, in essence, a celebratory blackface, one that admires rather than ridicules. It is esteemed minstrelsy. As a community, we simply deserve better.”

Recent artistic endeavours such as Jesy Nelson’s ‘Boyz’ video have caused audiences to reflect on not only how black art is consumed but also who defines its messaging.

Those feelings of indignation and the perplexing issue of Blackfishing can be likened (but not entirely subjected) to what arose for parts of our community after the announcement of Cheryl’s show two months ago. Women’s rights activist, Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu tweeted, “White Privilege & Performative White Allyship stinks. You’re wilfully ignorant of the power construct of systemic racism if you don’t get why ppl bring up Cheryl Cole punching a Black woman yrs ago yet still profiting off Black spaces. Not about apology but legitimacy & credibility".

I’d have almost felt sorry for Cheryl if there’d been more love for our girl Sophie.

Meesha Cru-Hall