Sheffield’s Music Scene Is More Diverse Than You Think

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It would hardly be controversial to claim that Sheffield’s music scene is held back by certain stereotypes. The ‘indie’ connection is entrenched, and has been perpetuated far too often in the media. But you don’t have to look hard to see that Sheffield’s music scene has changed dramatically in the past decade.

We approached three emerging Sheffield artists to get their take on the issue. Each one of these artists brings different, and fresh perspective on the subject. They demonstrate that Sheffield’s music scene is more diverse than people think.

Otis Mensah

Otis Mensah is an alternative hip-hop artist and Poet Laureate of Sheffield

More often than not, when people talk about ‘diversity’ they’re talking about fulfilling quotas. It’s things like, ‘how diverse is the music board?’ or ‘how diverse are our employees?’ When people talk about diversity, I don’t think they’re truly thinking ‘we want to be diverse because we believe in equality.’ More often than not, ‘diversity’ means ‘we need more people of colour in here so we don’t look racist.’ Often it’s about giving off an appearance of tolerance.

Institutional racism within the music industry inhibits diversity from flourishing. Most people believe there’s no problem. But if that was the case we wouldn’t even need to talk about diversity. Everyone would have equal opportunities.

When I think about ‘diversity’ and inequality in music, my mind jumps to the way certain music has been robbed of its cultural credit. I think about artists who have had their music mimicked and culturally hijacked, to be sold on as somebody else’s, to profit somebody else. By no means do I believe that music should be exclusive or inaccessible. It’s beautiful the way music breaks down cultural barriers. But it’s sickening how, time and time again, we see music and culture appropriated.

The most obvious example is Elvis. He stole from blues and yet he’s ‘the King’ of rock n roll. It’s because corporate America had the power to market someone who fitted their racist model and they decided who ‘the King’ – the originator – of that music was. But people don’t talk about how they would film Elvis from the waist up, saying that he was dancing like a black person. We forget the racism that went into popularising certain icons within pop culture. I feel we haven’t solved these things yet. We haven’t given credit to the people who deserve it. We’re still playing a pretending game in many ways.

More often than not, ‘diversity’ means ‘we need more people of colour in here so we don’t look racist.’

Fundamentally, this is about education. We’re all guilty of accepting what’s been fed to us by mainstream media and the dominant cultural narrative. We take the easy option, instead of educating ourselves – because it’s hard, and because you don’t feel you need to do it to enjoy the art. So often, when consuming art fed to us by mainstream media, we become lazy. We don’t want to do that extra toil to find out where it came from.

Another problem we come up against is about what it means to be British. People often have a preconceived idea of Britishness, ignoring the fact that this country is made up of people from different backgrounds. These diverse people are British culture.

The same thing happens in local music scenes. When people think of Sheffield, they think of Arctic Monkeys or Pulp. They, perhaps, think of someone white. They might imagine someone playing the guitar with a fashion sense influenced by Brit rock in the early 00s. But that’s not necessarily what it means to be a Sheffield artist.

Is Sheffield’s music scene more diverse than people think? Inherently, yes. It’s just that the gatekeepers of perception have unintentionally, but nevertheless ignorantly, fed the narrative that Sheffield artists look and sound a certain way. And people tend not to question this initial conditioning.

There are so many artists that don’t fit that mould who are shaping Sheffield’s music scene and British culture more broadly. Artists like K.O.G, Franz Von, Steve Edwards. People who live in Sheffield and are part of the scene in Sheffield. We have to start giving artists their due credit – and not just using them to fulfil quotas.

sheffield music scene gina walters

Gina Walters

Gina Walters is the lead singer of Before Breakfast and leader of Neighbourhood Voices choir

Something happened to the Sheffield music scene when the Arctic Monkeys hit the national airwaves in 2005. After that, the expectation of what it meant to be an artist or a band from Sheffield completely changed.

It hit me for the first time when the incredible Hey Sholay were on Lamacq’s Roundtable years ago – circa SoYo Live Monday night gigs. I was furious when someone on the panel said ‘you can’t be from Sheffield and sound like that!’

For this reason, I’m even reluctant to link my band, Before Breakfast, too strongly to Sheffield. I wonder if other bands – for example, Slow Club – have the same concern.

Since the rise of the Arctic Monkeys, many have tried to convince the rest of the country that Sheffield is more than Mardy Bum. My old band Screaming Maldini contributed to a Guardian Guide article on this issue in 2013. The response was muted, to say the least.

There’s nothing wrong with the Arctic Monkeys. In fact, I have a fondness for their music. But why have we let them define this city’s ever-changing and vibrant music scene? It got to the point where Lamacq, apparently, would only have my Neighbourhood Voices choir on his show if we sang our Arctic Monkeys arrangement – ‘because it’s just so Sheffield.’

Maybe it’s the lack of a music college, like Leeds and Manchester have. Maybe it’s the lack of a decent mid-sized live venue (please, someone buy Walkabout and make it our Albert Hall). All I know is I’m ready for change.

Lamacq, apparently, would only have my Neighbourhood Voices choir on his show if we sang our Arctic Monkeys arrangement – ‘because it’s just so Sheffield’

The stereotypes have persisted, and for years bands and artists have made music under the shadow of the Monkeys’ success. And they’ve dared to sound nothing like them. Sheffield bands like Renegade Brass Band have torn up venues like the Tuesday Club with their 13-piece funk-hip-hop outfit. Sadly, they don’t play often in Sheffield these days.

Most importantly to me, the women of steel have been composing, creating, and gigging. Alongside our band Before Breakfast we have the likes of Tsarzi, Teah Lewis, Emily Stancer, Sarah Mac, Captives on the Carousel, Neighbourhood Voices, Air Drawn Dagger, Niamh Kavanagh, Caroline Francess, Banjo Jen, LIO, Rhiannon Scutt, The Seamonsters, and an amazing singer called Amy who I met for the first time the other week.

Neither of us had heard of each other, despite both making music in the city for years. That speaks volumes to me. Encounters like this reveal that Sheffield’s music scene is much bigger than it seems. As musicians, it’s easy to work in our own little bubbles and imagine there’s no one else out there. These bubbles should probably overlap into one bigger bubble. I’d like to see what happens then.

Sheffield is bigger than one band and one sound. There’s so much going on. You just need to listen closer.

tsarzi sheffield music scene


Sarah Sharp is the psych-folk-pop singer also known as Tsarzi

I never meant to stay in Sheffield. I came here to housesit for a friend of a friend in the summer after I moved out of London. It was an itinerant year, full of doubt and possibility. I had a dodgy old acoustic guitar my brother had lent me, and £5 left of a student overdraft that should have been cancelled years before.

The plan, as much as there was one, was to hunker down for a month, take some time out, then move to a Proper City – probably Manchester. I knew that I wanted to carve out a creative life for myself, and that I wanted to do that somewhere that wasn’t London. After years in the capital chipping diligently away at various projects, I had little to show for it except financial insecurity and chronic insomnia. 

The trick was to find somewhere that was cheaper and calmer, but still dynamic and connected. As a Southerner ensconced in the security blanket of the M25, I had had limited exposure to the North. My understanding of Sheffield was the Full Monty and Sharpe. It would always hold a special place in my heart as the birthplace of Pulp, but I was keenly aware that things only really took off for them once they decamped down south. Meanwhile, Alex Turner’s machine gun syllables, mimicked by posh lads across the land, articulated nothing so much as a geography of contempt, a caustic topography delineating a desperate yearning to escape. It seemed like everyone from round here was defined by their need to get away.

So I never intended to stay. It was an interlude – a place to recuperate, a place to take a breath – but not a place where anyone with even a hint of ambition would put down roots.

Spoiler alert: the ‘plan’ did not go to plan. I started playing the open mics not long after I arrived, mostly to get out of the house and to build up my confidence, as I was still very new to songwriting. Within a month I already felt so much part of a community that it seemed nonsensical to leave. The open mics became gigs, became bands – in time, became records.

I never intended to stay. It was an interlude – a place to recuperate, a place to take a breath – but not a place where someone with even a hint of ambition would put down roots.

Since being here, I’ve played in folk bands, synth-pop bands, poetry-music fusion projects, and honed my own peculiar style of lyrically driven eccentric pop. I’ve released my debut album and forged connections with all kinds of brilliant artists. I’m constantly amazed at the uniqueness of talent here, at its diversity and the unpredictability, at the things people are trying out, at the scope of imagination. There is a relentless curiosity that drives the arts scene forward in new and unexpected directions and breeds collaboration across genres.

I honestly believe that I couldn’t have written the songs that I have done anywhere else. I don’t think I would have been able to develop my own style. There’s a sense of honesty that’s valued here, an invitation to be as peculiar as you need to be to get at what you’re trying to say. In Sheffield, the most important thing is to come as you are. I learnt very quickly to drop the pseudo-cool defences I’d learnt in London, divesting them like a coat I hadn’t realised I’d been wearing. Taking it off, I was able to get on with the real work.

This summer will be my fifth year here. That’s longer than any consecutive time I’ve spent in any other city – not just London, but New York as well. I was living a different life there, admittedly, a very academic life. But when I did embark on my creative journey, for a long time I held on to this pernicious myth that nothing important happens outside of these elect bastions of culture. Art is geographical. It can only occur in certain locations.

There’s a sense of honesty that’s valued here, an invitation to be as peculiar as you need to be to get at what you’re trying to say. In Sheffield, the most important thing is to come as you are.

This myth still pervades, I think. And if I hadn’t happened, by a series of accidents and random choices, to end up in Sheffield, I think I would probably still be buying it too. Sheffield remains an anomaly on the map of Big Cities. It is often left out of tour schedules. To a greater extent, the Arctic Monkeys are still its most famous export – and their cocksure disdain, threaded through with that unmistakable accent, has become a caricature through which people recognise the city without really understanding it. Jarvis Cocker has said in interviews that when Pulp became famous he donned the role of Northern oik to a certain extent, playing up to a preformed idea of what a person from Sheffield should be, for all the media darlings who’d never before seen one in the flesh.

In many ways, any underestimation of Sheffield’s creative scene is a part of the larger problem of the North-South divide, which, despite the valiant BBC crusade to Salford, is very much still a thing. I spent many years in London among media folk and, trust me, we were twats. Regional accents were a novelty. We loved them, but thought less of them.

Really, it should be no surprise that Sheffield has such a vibrant creative scene. It is a town of oddballs and obscurity. We have the hills and the streets, half city, half country. On one end we are folk, on the other, techno, and everything in between. We are an assortment of all shapes and soundwaves.

I could not have predicted ending up in Sheffield. It came to me as an unexpected lifeline in a terrible year where everything was up in the air. But staying here has become the best decision I ever made. The collaborations I have worked on in the past four years, the songs I have written, the sounds I have created, would not have been possible in another city. On the outside, that may seem surprising. But from the inside, it makes perfect sense.

Read more: 18 Black British Singers You Should Know

Artwork: @sallystrongart

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