Musicians are regularly featured in film and television, often as a tool to access an established and loyal fan base. Evidently, the decision has little to do with their merits as actors as generally these artists are given lead roles on their debut. However, once in a while, a musician will come along and transcend expectations with performances that redefine their legacy and have a lasting effect on entertainment culture as a whole. For instance, I’d argue for a lot of people, Elvis is both an acting and music legend.
However, unlike the days of Elvis, black people are now given the credit for their creations (for the most part) and in turn, the frequency of black musicians in film and TV has increased, with some great examples like Tupac in Juice or some not so great examples like 50 Cent in everything! And I like Power as much as the next guy but I swear since “Get Rich or Die Tryin” 50 Cent has not played any other role but himself. Don’t @ me!
With that being said, this is not a trend that has been overlooked in the UK, with our own collection of musician/actors, so in this article, I’ll be discussing 5 black UK musicians and rating their acting careers, however short-lived they might be, from worst to best. The criteria for my ratings will be simply based off 3 things: what I think of their work (in my expert 23 y/o opinion), what critics thought and the effect of their work/career on the culture. Let’s get into it!
Michael Owuo Jr aka Stormzy is the young breakout artist that rose to fame in 2014 after the release of his ‘Wicked Skengman’ series and more recently, he became the first rapper to win a Brit Award for Best Album of the Year with his gritty yet soulful work on ‘Gang Signs and Prayer (GSAP)’, Stormzy’s debut album.
Stormzy’s music career in and of itself has done a lot for black UK culture as his popularity showcased black UK culture as more than just street culture, with Michael portraying himself has equally a family oriented, religious young man and therefore making us more three dimensional to those outside our culture.
His acting career is however limited to a small role in the 2015 romantic drama short ‘Handle with Care’ and of course his supporting role as street thug ‘Yardz’ in 2016’s Brotherhood. This was certainly a typecasting as at that in Stormzy’s career, he was embodied as this ‘Wicked Skengman’ persona with his breakup single ‘Shut Up’ giving us a general idea of how he wanted to be delineated. In terms of his performance in Brotherhood, it was, as expected, not the best and it does not help that at the time he was 23 referring to himself as a younger, and this is Stormzy, a guy that has looked about 30 since he was 16. However, the strength of the franchise, as well as the values that Stromzy stands for earns him a place on this list.
4. Jordan ‘Rizzle’ Stephens
Jordan Stephens is a member of hip-hop duo, ‘Rizzle Kicks’, whose eclectic brand of skar/hip-hop fusion entertained us in the early 2010s. With hits like ‘Mama Do the Hump’ and ‘Down with the Trumpets’, the duo displayed a fun diversion of UK rap from the gritty competitive beginnings of grime and instead taking more influence from the reggae and rocksteady roots of UK music like acts such as The Police. This success was short-lived and although the group is still together, they have both gone on to solo ventures, both releasing music separately and both even acting, with Harley ‘Kicks’ Sylvester putting on a surprisingly emotional performance as the villain in ‘The Guvnors’.
However, the reason it is Jordan on this list is because of his appearance in 2016’s Star Wars prequel ‘Rogue One’ which was one of my favourite films of the year. He plays Corporal Tonc, a member of the rebel squad on the suicide mission to steal the plans to the infamous Death Star. My bias for the story and its depiction might play a part in this entry but nevertheless, Jordan displays the raw emotion of his character in this high-pressure situation and dies heroically after mounting a solo assault in order to reach a communications tower. It is also always nice to see young black British men in big-budget US films i.e. The John Boyega Effect so I hope to see him in more projects.
3. Raleigh Ritchie
Jacob Anderson aka Raleigh Ritchie is a rapper/singer-songwriter whose debut album ‘You’re a Man Now, Boy’ released in 2016 gandered him a lot of respect in the music world. He was also featured on Stormzy’s ‘GSAP’ album on the song ‘Don’t Cry For Me’. Anderson got his big break with the song ‘Let Me Know’ recorded with Plan B that was featured on the soundtrack for ‘Adulthood’, the predecessor to Stormzy’s movie debut ‘Brotherhood’.
Anderson’s acting and music career have always gone hand in hand, moving to London in 2007 at 17 to launch his music career and a year later being featured in ‘Adulthood’ both for music and as an actor.
He played the role of Omen, the younger brother of the central character ‘Sam Peel’, very convincingly, especially considering this was his acting debut. He’s best known for his role as the castrated soldier ‘Grey Worm’ in the massively successful TV series ‘Game of Thrones’, with this role and Anderson’s performance needing no explanation. He will remain a cultural icon for this role, as well as the multitude of roles that he continues to receive, with a recurring appearance on UK crime drama series ‘Broadchurch’ and his recent casting in 2018 Nazi zombie movie ‘Overlord’.
Ashley Thomas aka Bashy is a respected actor who used to be a well-respected grime artist with songs like ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ and ‘Kidulthood to Adulthood’ which was the featured track for the ‘Adulthood’ film. I’m noticing a trend around this franchise… Nevertheless, Bashy, to many people, remains one of the godfathers of UK rap. His single ‘Black Boys’, which propelled Bashy to the national consciousness, was received with an onslaught of racist reactions online which only united people in support of Bashy. Consequently, many artists featured on the track like Skepta, Wretch 32, Akala, Big Narstie and many more.
Additionally, Thomas has had a very fruitful acting career, with appearances in many UK street gang films like ‘4,3,2,1’, ‘Brotherhood’ and ‘Shank’ as well as mainstream TV shows like ’24: Legacy’, ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Salvation’. He exemplifies the epitome of the power of young UK talent, both as a reflection of his accomplishments in the music and acting world but also as a role model to young black British creatives. Although the argument could be made with many of these entries that the typecasting of young rappers as ‘the tough black kid’ could have an adverse effect on the portrayal of black youth in media, Bashy (and the others) shows that through your experiences you can tell a story and raise awareness nationally and even globally to a reality that many people can’t relate to on face value.
1. Ignatius Sancho
My final entry for this list might be an artist that most of you are not familiar with, although many artists today benefit from his legacy. Born on a slave ship in 1729, Sancho was orphaned at an early age so he was sent to Greenwich, England where he worked in captivity. John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu, was impressed by his intellect and encouraged him to read, lending him books from his private library. Eventually, Sancho escaped to the Montagues where worked as a butler from Mary Montagu in 1749 and this is where he flourished by immersing himself in music, poetry, reading and writing. By the late 1760s, Sancho was considered as a man of refinement and had become accomplished, composing music and writing two plays.
In 1766 at the height of the debate on slavery, Sancho wrote a letter to Laurence Sterne asking him to use his writing to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade and Sterne’s response became an important part of 18th-century abolition literature. Additionally, Sancho was a financial independent householder which made him eligible to vote in the parliamentary elections of 1774 and 1780, therefore, he was the first person of African descent known to have voted in Britain. Upon his death, Ignatius Sancho also became the first person of African descent known to have an obituary in the British press. For all of this, Ignatius Sancho has to receive the pole position in this list as he embodies the power of art and culture in increasing diversity, not only in the arts but throughout the UK.
Music and acting are very similar in that they connect people of all backgrounds, people who although share very different experiences, are all connected by human emotion. This is what art is all about. However, the key difference between the two are the barriers to entry. Anyone can pick up a mic and gain a following in this day and age but not everyone can be in a movie. This has opened up the film and TV industry to institutional and cultural bias which is no surprise.
Minority diversity in the film and television has continued to be a prevalent issue, with the 2018 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report of the top 200 films and up to 1,500 shows showing 13.9% of film leads and 18.7% of broadcast show creators were minorities, which represents a decrease and no change from the previous year respectively. Ironically, the same report also found that diverse content made on average more at the box office and got higher ratings.
But we’ve come a long way and the popularity of urban music is definitely contributing to the equal representation of black people working in film and television, either through allowing audiences to connect to and digest urban culture or even the transitioning of singers and rappers into actors. Thanks for reading and for hip-hop and grime album reviews, check me out on Youtube at “The Hot Box” (link).