Why Ed Sheeran is a Phenomenon Unseen Among Black Acts

Never in 76 Trillion Years would Sheeran be successful if he were Black

He’s pasty, awkward, hairstyle is like wtf, and one of the most popular artists on the planet right now.

I’ve been ignoring Sheeran like Black folk ignore their medical issues…for years.

But now…now…like a cancerous growth, I can’t ignore Sheeran anymore.

Everytime I open my laptop and go to a music site I’m faced with Sheeran. He’s got 8 songs on Billboard + Twitter Trending 140 (I didn’t even know such a list existed). He’s announced a 59 date North American tour (mostly arenas). He’s crashing the British Midtables.

Sheeran is not going to go away, he’s only going to get bigger.

And, as much as I try to fight it, my Blackdar can’t help but to go off. It’s been beeping since the first Brit “sensation,” Lily Allen, exploded Stateside eleven years ago.

Despite not fitting the modern criteria for what a “star” is in America, Ed Sheeran continues to win the love and affection of Black and white audiences.

Yet, that love and affection does not exist for the Black equivalent (artist). The last time a Black artist didn’t have to look out of a model casting call was the 70s.

So let’s unpack this shit. The phenomenon that is Ed Sheeran.

Black people…if you say you’on’t know who Ed Sheeran is…cool. I totally understand. I asked my young bulls if they heard of him and outside of his appearance with The Weeknd on “The Darkside,” it was a pretty staunch, naw. Like I said, I myself, tried to deny his existence. That only led to the shock and awe of seeing Pharrell make constant cosigns of dude.

Because of my ignorance, I decided to take a crash course in Sheeran — take his catalog from knowledge to born — from + (plus) to the recently released ÷ (divide). I spent the entire day walking and listening to all three albums (and subsequently coming up with another article).

But you know me. I ain’t writing no damn music review and this is not about if Sheeran is talented or not. He has to have a modicum of talent to be moving all those units.

This is about image, what is accepted, and, as we touched on here and here, the constant double standard when it comes to Black & white talent. To talk about that, I need to swing you back to the 70s.

The first thing that we have to talk about is the affect that images have on the psyche of human beings.

There’s not a halfway informed person alive that hasn’t heard of the Clark Test where young Black children time after time chose the white doll as the intelligent doll or the beautiful doll and the Black doll as the dumb and ugly doll. The Dittmar, Halliwell, & Ive study also went into detail about the affect that dolls have on young girls and how they view their bodies.

I have a degree in Mass Media Arts, and, while all of us who have that degree focused on various concentrations (Radio/TV/Film, Journalism, Public Relations, etc), we all had to take classes that focused on the affects that media has on the psyche of those who consume it.

This was in the 90s. Now, whole fields have opened up to study what constant connectivity is doing to us and how we relate to others.

I said all that to say…this ain’t no lightweight stuff. We talk about it in passing or as sidebars into conversations that have less meaning but the images that we consume and the words that surround those images have serious implications into who and what we are. Okay? Ok.

It almost goes without saying, especially when it comes to women singers (and even rappers), that most of them could easily be models. From superstars like Beyonce and Rihanna, to up and coming stars like SZA and Justine Skye, these women are strikingly beautiful. Talented, yes. But absolutely (classically) beautiful.

Although there are fewer male superstars than there once was, the majority of the men meet a certain aesthetic too (though less so than the women).

By and large, you will find few overweight superstars. If they have messed up teeth, it’s only because they haven’t had them fixed yet.

Now the 70s…and really leading up into to the 70s as well…but in the 1970s, if you were talented, nine times out of ten, you would be successful. And this is no disrespect to any of the people that I mention, because again, we’re talking about “CLASSICALLY” beautiful….which could be an essay unto itself…but in the 70s many of the people who were megastars (in our world — see: One Hit Wonder? According to Who?) would NEVER be so in modern times.

Actually, we can swing that over into the 80s as well.

I don’t think it mattered WHAT an artist looked like. Missing teeth? No problem? 400 lbs? No problem? You wear your clothes too big or too small, you don’t know how to match your clothes, short, tall, bad skin — none of it mattered.

If you could sing, you’re in there. Eddie Murphy even had a joke about it back when Eddie Murphy made jokes. “Just sing,” Eddie laughed, and that was enough.

Again, this is no disrespect to Peabo Bryson, Lou Rawls, Bobby Womack, The Force MDs, Full Force, or LTD — I’m not even singling them out per se, they’re the first artist that came to mind when I thought “no way would they be celebrities in these modern times.”

As talented as Luther Vandross was, even he may have not made the modern cut.

Of course, we all know the turning point — Music Videos. Once the Music Video went from being a novelty to a necessity, the look of the artists began to change as well. Singers needed to be visually appealing, this is across most genres (Rap still got a pass).

This is the world that brought us Madonna, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, Al B Sure, to name a few. Artist who had A talent but that wasn’t necessarily what their appeal was. None of the above listed artists were going to blow you away with their vocals.

As we entered the 90s someone who could blow you away with their vocals was filing a lawsuit. That someone is Martha Wash and her story is indicative of where we were headed.

The Weather Girls

After my freshman week at Clark Atlanta University where we had to wear a CAU Orientation T-shirt and CAU bike cap…at least it resembled that…but after that week, the freshman from CAU, Morehouse, Spelman, & Morris Brown had a unified celebration.

Ours was at Six Flags Over Georgia.

The lines were long but the mood was festive and we Black folk, as always had our own thing. That thing centered around the song “Everybody, Everybody.”

Whether we were on the Georgia Cyclone (roller coaster) or the Log Jamboree one group — in the case of the Georgia Cyclone, the front, would go “Den Den” (imitating the opening faux-horns) and the back of the roller coaster would shout out “OW!” And we continued that back and forth until either the ride was underway or we reached the part where that keyboard kicked in.

“Everybody, Everybody” holds a special place in my heart.

Martha Wash has a different memory:

I don’t believe this shit is happening again, I called my manager and said, ‘I just heard myself on TV in a video.’ Martha Wash

That’s right. That video was for “Everybody, Everybody” and if you were a video junkie like I was then, you remember the site of the gyrating Katrin Quinol doing what we thought was singing the Black Box lyrics but in actuality, she was lip synching.

Martha Wash was also heard on C&C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now!”

It was as if she was the Black person of the 50s, and these super thin models were the white faces that record labels used to place on album covers. Her voice was good enough for the record but her face and body were not. Just think, eight years prior, Martha Wash was one half of The Weather Girls and had a hit with “It’s Raining Men,” one of the few Black videos that they played on Teletunes and other video shows.

Meanwhile, back in 1990, Charles Shaw was experiencing the same thing — only difference was, allegedly, he knew. Shaw recorded a Grammy Award winning album worth of vocals for producer Frank Farian and watched as hired models Rob (Pilatus) and Fab (Morvan) — bka Milli Vanilli — lip synched their way into the minds and hearts of the world. We know how that turned out.

A shift had occurred. Image was becoming more important than talent…and no one seemed to care.

Ok, we’ve arrived.

I wrote about Adele before, here. I mentioned how I have all of her albums but still remained unimpressed. As I watched her sweep the Grammy’s — a disgusting sight — I got a call from my brother Sayyed Munajj who was entering me into a conversation with he and his wife — Jill Scott vs Adele.

For the next hour and a half I built a Tom Cruise against Jack Nicholson You-Can’t-Handle-The-Truth case. And just like in A Few Good Men where Jack incriminates himself, Adele said time and time again that Beyonce was the true winner of each award.

Had they not both been up for Grammy’s I would never mention the two in the same breath. They do two different things. The closest comparison to her is Jilly from Philly.

So ask yourself…self, why is Adele more popular than Jill Scott? Is it her lyrics? I’on’t think so. Jill can make me reflect on my entire adult life in a song. Is it her voice? Astagfirullah! You shouldn’t even think such things. Neither have super model builds…but Adele is…gasp…if you ain’t notice…she’s white.

Tyrese foot-in-the-mouth Gibson had one thing right. Adele will play on the large pop white stations…and the Black Vs and Hots and Power stations show her love. Jill might not even play on the majority of Black stations nowadays.

Enter: Ed Sheeran.

Like I said, I listened to his albums from knowledge to born, from “The A Team” to “Save Myself.” And I was entertained. Despite what some reviewers say, I found his lyrics thought provoking and approachable (when lyrics are too poetical my mind drifts in between the chords). While I hated his faux raps, they were still serviceable.

And I can SEE his approach as I listen along. He’s in his mid-20s which means he grew up with a smorgasbord of music. It sounds like it. Some songs are folksy (which I prefer from him), some are pop rock, others, like “The City” & “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” have that beat boxy Justin Timberlake sound. I get it. I could see why people liked his first album.

I was surprised at how many songs I knew on that second album. Holy makerel. I probably was exposed to at least eight of the sixteen songs most prominently that Pharrell collabo, “Sing,” “Nina,” “Tenerife Sea,” & “Thinking Out Loud” (lawd they played that one into the ground).

By the end of my walk through the Northside, I was on to the newest latest album, divide, which wasn’t even a week old. Ok, on this album I could see he was going Peter Gabriel on us and mixing “world” sounds. He hung out in Ghana with our brother Fuse ODG whom we mentioned here and produced “Bibia Be Ye Ye.” I get it.

I breezed through that album. So, three albums, 48 songs, 3 hours and 12 minutes of music. One day. And my assessment. He’s pretty good. Definitely a good songwriter. Nice melodies. Please don’t rap. Please. But all and all, I can listen to his music and I have a lot more respect for him as an artist.

Then I think about his position in the Pop Universe.

And my only thought is What The Fuck?

He has zero magnetic attraction, his music is hardly the stuff of arenas like U2 or U2 light, Coldplay…have you watched his performances? Just Google it.

Everything about this man is plain and ordinary. Some would celebrate that and look at as a win against the industry but if anything, it’s the opposite. Sheeran like Adele is like Hollywood releasing Deadpool in the Winter, it’s counter-programming.

Furthermore, Atlantic Records put in the extra effort to further cultivate Sheeran’s every guy persona while doing aggressive marketing tactics like releasing two singles at the same time — one geared for the “urban” market and the other for the more “conventional” one.

The label has done little to nothing to alter what Sheeran already brought to the table. No matter how many units a Black act sold prior to signing to a label, rarely is that same hands off approach applied.

We formed a strategy that made sense for him as an artist, retaining the intimacy and DIY flavour of what he’d done while introducing more people to his music. Ben Cook, president, Atlantic Records UK

Not to mention, the world is overflowing with Black men and women that can sing, dance, write incredible lyrics, play multiple instruments. But instead of doing that, they are helping you from call centers or bagging your groceries.

Even performers that are actually out there don’t get any real shine. Mostly because they don’t have that “look.” Again, no disrespect, but why isn’t Gallant one of the most popular artists right now? Why hasn’t Ledisi become a household name?

Don’t you dare say talent.

If Sheeran were Black, not only would you have never heard of him, he probably would have given up on singing a long time ago. Sheeran has often said that his role models were the singers that were not “conventionally” attractive, the focus was on their music.

A Black artist growing up in the 70s and early 80s could look at the acts that were popular and see themselves. These artists weren’t perfect. They didn’t look like they lived in a gym. (Who was going to the gym in the 70s and early 80s?) It was their talent. That’s what you would see. You could aspire to that. But now, the average Black child doesn’t see anyone that looks like them. Everyone is so damn perfect.

That’s what Ed Sheeran does for young white boys (and Adele for young white girls). They make that less than stunning boy feel that if he’s talented, he can make it…and not just make it, become one of the biggest stars in the world.

Sheeran sings about his hard times getting to where he is and how he’s kept his closest friends close. He talks about falling in love and having his heart broken. He sings about his mother. This is something to aspire to. So I can’t knock him or the hope he provides for all of the “regular” (white) people.

In that regard, he’s like a 70s R&B singer — a normal, flawed, person of middling looks with enough talent and will to become successful. But that’s where it ends.

At some point, Black folk are going to have to take a step back and look at what the Record Industry has been serving up to us. We can’t be mad when Adele wins awards or we find out that Ed Sheeran’s one of the biggest artists in the world without questioning how they got to be so big and why so few of our artists have done the same.

We’re going to have to look and ask why we, Black people, love Adele so much (many would say her lyrics) and ask, “why don’t more of our people still write lyrics with meaning and feeling and why don’t we support the ones that do?”

And it’s never about the artist. Art is not a competition but when you see the double standard that’s constantly applied, the slights that Black musicians have to constantly suck up, and the industry’s way of objectifying us not just for their own sake, but making us view ourselves the same way, it just gets to a point where you have to say enough is enough.

The worst part is we take the bait hook line and sinker. Because the last time we allowed a Black equivalent of Ed Sheeran to be large, Soul Train came on Saturday mornings, the Big Wheel and Green Machine were vying for our attention, and the only rap we cared about was birthday wrap.

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