O, my Marley and my Cole long ago! The young blacks cannot sing

Recently I spent a rather relaxed evening at the Music of Black Origin (Mobo) awards held at the London Arena. A huge and imposing space, it was packed. I had also a personal interest. My eldest son, Darcus, is an A&R person (talent scout) at Island Records. His mother was a blues singer. He grew up in a house where popular song filled the air, from "Abide With Me" through Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and then reggae and that great "hymnster", Bob Marley.

A single ticket for the night cost £350, with champagne on top. I was fortunate, because Channel 4 was broadcasting the ceremony and I could edge in on my commissioning editor's generosity. But in the world of popular song - and I incorporate in this term the hymn, the ballad, rock'n'roll, calypso, reggae, the lot - I am no rookie. My father was a pianist, an organist, a chorister and a lay reader at the church next door to where we lived in a small Trinidad village. My mother and the maid had beautiful voices. In her better moods, my mother would burst into song, with wonderful phrasing. When she was finished with, say, "Mona Lisa" by Nat King Cole, my father would comment in a whisper. "Boy," he would say to me, "your mother can sing." And in the church, my pores would open when the congregation, led by the choir, sang the hymn "Through all the changing scenes of life/In trouble and in joy".

These were special moments which illuminated my sentiments about popular music. I did not know the difference between A and A flat, but I could recognise a chord and the augmented version. You pick this up along the way.

I once asked my son to sum up in a few words what he thought his work was all about, and he replied: "You've got to go live to survive." He meant he was inherently opposed to corporate packaging, to lack of talent being concealed with lots of antics.

I tried my best with the current crop. I did not want to be like my father, who dismissed what my teenage group followed - Elvis and Chubby Checker and the rest of them - though he would sometimes qualify his criticism by saying that "he/she could sing".

Young Zoe, my daughter, buys countless teen magazines and CDs, and we fight daily for the remote. Her preference is always MTV, morning, noon and night. She has moved on from the Spice Girls and exists on a diet of Destiny's Child and so on.

All her songsters were on parade at the Mobo awards, and her predictions were right. She chose almost 95 per cent of the winners. I made a huge effort to be drawn to the performers. These young black artists dominate the charts and they have freshness and verve - there is a carnivalesque resonance to their performances, a complete abandon as opposed to the artistic intensity that informed the old music of black origin. But their voices are weak, they lack range and the sounds they emit come from their throats, not their guts. They are not singers. They scream into the mike. They lack the art of phrasing. I was puzzled. Religion informed the popular music of black America and the Caribbean. We had the work song, the war song, the sad song. I kept nagging anyone who would listen with the question: "From whence did this lot come?"

In the end, I got the answer: stage school. They are actor/dancer types. They have stormed the studios, been skilfully packaged, the children of corporate manipulation. Forget power, quality and range of voice. That belongs to the past. Apart from R Kelly and Beverley Knight, I suffered all night.

If you had watched on Channel 4, you would have seen, time and again, an MC, infected by the second rate, screaming into the mike: "And the winner is . . ." Then you would see a video, with half-naked men and women, and hear ill-fitting voices, shouting words over a cacophony of sound and shouts of approval from their supporters. I turned to a friend and told him that, if Bob Marley were to appear at this minute, the entire audience would fall silent and listen to every single nuance of voice and melody. Since Bob, we have come to a full stop.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A nation in panic