Monday, 15 June 2009

Can Janelle bring a new melody to the urban music scene?

In recent years, British urban artists have been flocking to the US in their droves in search of fame and fortune. But does everyone need to follow this path? Matthew Kiernan caught up with up and coming performer Melodic Janelle, who hopes to prove that you can be a success without swapping continents.

It’s been a common theme for British urban artists. Release an album or two in the UK, enjoy moderate success, but then jump ship, fly to America for the lucrative urban market, enjoy impressive results before returning firmly in the spotlight. Now though one artist is hoping to prove that that doesn’t need to be the case, as she attempts to break the mould and show that you don’t have to fly to America to be a success. And her name is Melodic Janelle.

The 21-year old R&B and gospel singer, hails from South London, and is looking to break into the public’s consciousness when her album Best Kept Secret is released in May. Until now, Janelle has enjoyed a steadily increasing amount of success. Indeed if her career path was plotted on a graph, then it would read as a progressive upward curve, peaking towards the crunch day in May. “At the moment we’re aiming to release the EP for then. We’re just looking to get something out there, and letting people know that I’m here.”

Janelle’s position is akin to thousands of other unsigned urban artists up and down the UK. A part of a generation brought up in a technological era of Channel U and Myspace, everyone and anyone nowadays can have their five minutes in the limelight if they want it. This is certainly a group of artists who are fighting to be heard. Is it any surprise then that British urban musicians are flying to America to broaden their careers?

Last year, in terms of urban music undoubtedly belonged to Estelle. But her success only came after becoming the latest artist from the UK to join the US market. Before she made the trip, Estelle was better known as a prolific rapper, but only achieved lukewarm success in the mainstream charts, with her album 18th day peaking at 35th in the UK album charts in 2004. Once in the US however, and after a collaboration with a certain Kanye West on single “American Boy”, the result was a Grammy award winning song that would top the UK charts for four weeks. And she is not the first to do this either. Natasha Beddingfield, Lemar and Joss Stone have followed suit, while in the past Sade and Floetry have made the jump as well.

For Janelle though, despite the potential fruits that the US has to offer, her priorities firmly lie with Britain. “I don’t think you have to go to America to make it. The British scene is strong, it could always be better, but people are making the breach. Tinchy Stryder, Sway, K.I.G are all doing it so it can be done.” Michelle Adabra, from, feels that it’s the problems inherent in the UK industry, which cause artists to do this. “There are countless artists that have done what Estelle has. They often have to release in America first because no one has given them of a chance here. Race is still an underlying issue here. Urban artists are signed to major labels and they are still not being given enough attention. The scene in America is bigger, they have special urban charts as there is more demand and generally people have more time for you.”

Janelle faces a difficult journey then, into an industry which appears to be struggling to be accepted as mainstream nor to match its American counterparts. The Brit Awards looked to be celebrating urban music when it introduced the urban music category in 2003 but only four years later unceremoniously dropped the gong from the event. Even at this year’s ceremony, urban music was severely underrepresented, with Estelle being the only urban artist performing live on the night. There are though still some positive signs with urban radio station BBC 1Extra now firmly established in the mainstream media and with the Music Of Black Origin music awards in its 14th year, urban artists are now well represented in the public domain.

Janelle can also take heart from the media exposure unsigned artists like herself are receiving. While the main players at the peak of the industry up and leave to the US, the British unsigned scene is strong and competition to attract the attention of record labels is as fierce as ever. Fiona McKinson is a freelance music journalist, believes that unsigned acts have never been in a stronger position, “The strength comes in being proactive. Once these unsigned acts make enough noise, the mainstream major players want to get a slice of the action. Increasingly, unsigned acts are learning to play the game. It’s quite a strong position in that it is almost cool to be unsigned as the media clamour to capitalise on the appeal of the next big thing. It’s almost like championing the underdog – the X Factor philosophy.”

While the unsigned are now becoming empowered, the inevitable comparison of the British urban scene to America, threatens to undermine the industry. McKinson, adds “Many fans of urban music here still look at UK talent as a poor relation, to the US, and for various reason won’t give British accents on an R&B song or rap, a chance. But with grime, bass line or jungle before that, British fans had something to claim as their own and be proud of. It’s a big sticking point.”

Determined to stay in Britain and avoid being enticed by the American market, Janelle needs to stand out from a highly competitive field of artists. And the signs are encouraging. Few of her rivals are likely to have a CV or passion for the industry as strong as hers. Having sung all her life in her local church, it was when Janelle was 14 she was discovered by well renowned gospel singer Noel Robinson, who has played with Chaka Khan, East 17 and Mica Paris amongst others. “It’s been a blessing to work with Noel really, as he was the one who told me to believe in myself and that I can do this. Sometimes it’s the people behind the scenes that do the most.”

Another potential perk of the US, so attractive to budding British performers, is the connections with major industry contacts. For Janelle though, things have been going well in this department already, having teamed up with an impressive array of stars. The stand out of which is MOBO award nominated reggae star Watchman. She’s also performed in some stellar venues to boot with the world famous Jazz CafĂ©, the Brixton Academy and The Bob Marley Tribute restaurant in Florida all take pride of place in her experiences. But despite these top venues, it’s her performance at a small festival, which means the most to her. “Performing at Stonebridge carnival in south London every year was incredible. I would go back and people would be singing my songs, it was amazing.”

Janelle could also take another path into the industry, albeit a risky one, which many have used before with mixed success. It’s so hit and miss in fact, that artists seem to fall into two camps, there are those that embrace the route and others who firmly shun it in favour of going alone. The bone of contention is reality television and shows like the X factor. Interestingly Janelle agrees with those who avoid the reality TV journey, although with Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke (who both have R&B roots and incidentally now in the US) winning the last two contests it can be appealing at times. “It is certainly tempting, but I know that I’m a sing songwriter as well, and if you don’t get far enough then record companies don’t have respect for you. You are just another X Factor contestant. It is more beneficial to graft from day one, and if you do and stick at it, then you’ll get respect and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

So as Janelle prepares for a busy few months ahead, what is the future of the industry she is trying to enter? Kwaku, editor of, believes there is every reason to be optimistic. “There will always be a British urban music sector. The level to which it is exposed or sustains careers of artists will depend on their will and us as consumers to support their musical activities. On the underground, there's definitely an expansion due to mix CD releases, free downloads, streaming, showcases and open mic nights, so things are improving all the time.”

It seems then that new artists such as Melodic Janelle, who are on the cusp of breaking into the industry are now in a stronger position than ever to be fully heard.

And she may not have to get on a flight to the US to do it either.