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Free stuff.“Black and asian kids only listen to hip-hop and R&B.” It’s this kind of cultural myopia that Chris Ofili’s Freeness project sets out to debunk, showcasing unsigned black, Asian, Chinese and Caribbean talent and circumventing the narrow confines of the music business.
Freeness is an umbrella organisation for a number of like-minded endeavours: Charlie Dark’s Blacktronica and the CDR nights run by Gavin Alexander and Tony Nwachukwu, where artists with no release deal can hear their tracks played in a club. It’s headed up by Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili, who’s quite clear on what the project isn’t. “It’s not a talent competition. And it’s not hierarchical. We’re not trying to say what’s good and bad. We’re just trying to open it out as wide as possible.” Accordingly, Freeness toured the UK earlier this year, trawling clubs for unsigned talent.
Freeness organiser Chris Ofili, Blacktronica's Charlie Dark, Samia Malik.
Similarly, Charlie Dark set up Blacktronica after negative experiences with his band Attica Blues. “What I really enjoy after having been in the industry for 15 years is seeing young people performing. There’s nothing like hearing the record you made in your bedroom out for the first time.”
The DIY ethic isn’t new. Grime MC, Sway, is currently generating buzz for his self-produced, self-promoted tracks while indie urchins like Arctic Monkeys and The Others have built devoted “know-every-word-at-gigs” fanbases, by posting dozens of mp3s online before releasing a single. What is different is the deliberate sidelining of the biz - thousands of CDs are being made available and all the tracks can be downloaded gratis. Says Ofili, “It takes away that slightly sticky side of the industry, which is revenue. It means creativity isn’t reduced to ‘I can’t do that because I won’t make money and won’t get signed’.”
Ben and Areikei of Benjenius, Freeness live, artist Selina Hall of Krush.
It’s clear the project is a real labour of love for all concerned. And at a time when most records in the UK are released by three multinational corporations, surely independence and diversity should be cherished? The showcase at London’s Cargo sees protest songs in Urdu, Zimbabwean folk along with, yeah, UK hip-hop and R&B. Introducing a 15-year-old close-up magician, Charlie Dark sums it up: “It’s not all hoodies and baggy pants, you know.” Enough said.
You can get Freeness from observer.guardian.co.uk/omm and karmadownload.com.
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