How R&B hurts black artists

The term R&B comes with critical limitations, and black artists pay the price.

May 31, 2017

“Recommend play my song on the radio/you too busy trying to find that blue-eyed soul.”

So begins the Weeknd’s “Reminder,” from 2016’s Starboy. Those lyrics perked my ears up the minute I heard them. They were a reminder that even in an industry where some of its biggest stars are Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar and Drake, some black artists, even ones as successful as the Weeknd, feel maligned by the continued prioritizing of white artists.

It’s an issue I’m further reminded of when I watch, now on the rare occasion, NBC’s The Voice. In 2011, The Voice was a fresh, exciting challenger to Fox’s long-running and increasingly musty American Idol. The concept of celebrity judges blind to the appearance of the contestants, reliant only on disembodied voices as the tool to seduce a “chair turn,” was thrilling, at least initially. But as the Voice grows long in the tooth, a pattern has emerged during the audition phase; one where the judges are particularly appreciative, marvelling even, of artists who sound “soulful”—a term once almost exclusively associated with black voices—but are not black. Of course the phrase “wow, you’re not black” is never used, but the coded language around it is often clear, and the pleasure these judges take in discovering a “novelty” is palpable. This shouldn’t be a shocker coming from an industry that has long used labels such as “pop” and “blue-eyed soul” to describe white artists dabbling in R&B and soul while, most importantly, differentiating them so as not to be undermined by black rooted genres’ and the societal, and industry, limitations that come with it. America’s history of music labelling, particularly its early segregation between “race records” and white commercial records, is one whose shadow still lurks decades after its transformation into R&B.

In the 1920s, records became something the masses could get their hands on. Country, folk and jazz were marketed to white audiences, while blues, avant-garde jazz and gospel—labelled race records/race music—were made by and for black artists. White music executives assumed that black music and artists would not appeal to white consumers, which is why the distinction of “race music” became a standard practice in the business.  Yet, unsurprisingly, race records didn’t stay secluded to black culture for long. Not only were their successes tremendous in the black community, but the immense talent and flare of black artists quickly reached beyond black music listeners. White audiences’ attraction to the “devil’s music” couldn’t be denied, and white music moguls saw the money and followed it. By the 1940s, “race music” as a genre had faded, opening the playing field for black artists. However, conversely, that meant black music began to be appropriated on increasingly commercial levels.

Today, in the six degrees of separation music world we live in, if one artist actively copies another’s style, all you have to do is read the YouTube comments to see that the public isn’t having it. But that wasn’t the case in past, when the pilfering of black music, and then the white-washing denial of its roots (think of rock n roll) was both commonplace and par for the course. Prior to the 1950s, when black music began to attract attention by white listeners and artists, it wasn’t unusual for white artists to hang out at black nightclubs studying popular black style, movement, and sound; eventually reshaping it into a tamer version to sell to white audiences. That sort of changed in the 1960s and 70s, when discovering, celebrating, and covering black sounds was setting the music world on fire (think Eric Clapton covering Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”), and black artists/bands were being embraced by blacks and whites alike. Eventually. white artists became more forthright about acknowledging the black performers that inspired them. Yet, even as many white artists acknowledged where their sound came from, its original black roots, they still profited in ways—financial or otherwise—that the black artists that inspired them could never imagine. The 1960s saw the term “blue-eyed sou,l” aka “white soul,” blossom. White artists who’d begun successfully performing a soulful style appropriated from black artists, became big business, and were actively promoted by record labels—The Righteous Brothers and Tom Jones were some of blue-eyed soul’s earliest stars. But what couldn’t be white-washed was that blue-eyed soul was the bastard of black music. Thus, while the term race music was officially killed off, it was replaced by R&B, a term which had circulated since the 1940s. R&B stands for rhythm and blues and includes soul, blues, funk and gospel elements. In its evolution, what has been called R&B in any particular decade has been as varied as the artists that make the genre famous—from Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson; Whitney Houston to Beyoncé. Nonetheless, the categorization of R&B also freed white artists to practice blue-eyed soul without being sullied by suggestions of race, though there are always exceptions to the rule.

The late 70s saw the emergence of legendary R&B songstress Mary Christine Brockert, aka Teena Marie, aka Lady Tee. Signed to Motown and co-signed and mentored by iconic bad boy Rick James, Marie was nicknamed the Ivory Queen of Soul; she was white, of Portuguese descent. Marie could sing many R&B divas under the table, and was admired by both white and black listeners, quickly making her an icon in the R&B scene. She poured as much into the black music scene and culture as she took from it, making her success in the black community one that was mutual. Today, she’s viewed as legendary because of it. Marie’s relationship with black music was creative, and built on her admiration for the sound and culture, not around appropriation.

And then there’s Justin Timberlake, celebrated for his R&B stylings (often produced by prominent black producers Timbaland and Pharrell). Timberlake enjoys carte blanche to sell his brand of R&B in the pop world, whereas many black artists are marketed in the urban R&B category, a smaller market on an international level. And while many white and black music fans, including myself, enthusiastically embrace Timberlake’s sound, his appropriation has not gone unnoticed.

In 2016 Timberlake faced a social media backlash after actor and activist Jesse Williams’s BET Humanitarian Award acceptance speech. Williams’s speech addressed appropriation head on: “We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us. Burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil. Black gold,” asserted the ER actor. Timberlake sent a supportive tweet, gushing about being personally inspired by the speech. But in the age of the social media clap back, an astute fan tweeted Timberlake back inquiring if he was ready to apologize for his own appropriation of black music and style. Timberlake’s defensive replies caused greater backlash, which he then tried to squash with predictably vague apologies.

This is nothing new. Other white artists have received dubious industry accolades in historically black genres that seem humorous to say the least. Kendrick Lamar losing the 2014 Best Rap Album Grammy to Macklemore was curious to say the least. Macklemore already feels like a nonfactor in the genre; I had to Google the controversy to even remember Macklemore’s name. Drake, meanwhile, recently complained about his album being called rap when he sang on most of it. And unlike Timberlake, for black artists who practice a fluid genre style, genre labels often make getting recognition for other elements of their sound and their music to broader audience an uphill battle, if not an outright struggle. Let’s not even get into genres such as rock, country, and punk, which still raise an eyebrow when a black artist claims it as their own (or re-claims the genre, in terms of rock).

“If I was white and blonde and said I went to church all the time, you’d be talking about the ‘choral aspect.’ But you’re not talking about that because I’m a mixed-race girl from south London.”

Experimental provocateur FKA twigs, a British artist of mixed-race, is often branded as alternative-R&B, when in fact R&B plays a very minimal role in her overall sound, which notably defies categorization. In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, FKA twigs’s “Fuck R&B” reply when asked how she felt about comparisons to Beyoncé and other R&B heavy female artists resonated with many artists of colour.

“When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre,’ explained FKA twigs. “And then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer. I share certain sonic threads with classical music; my song ‘Preface’ is like a hymn. So let’s talk about that. If I was white and blonde and said I went to church all the time, you’d be talking about the ‘choral aspect.’ But you’re not talking about that because I’m a mixed-race girl from south London.”

Like many contemporary artists of colour changing the soundscapes of music, FKA twigs continues to take her sounds to indefinable spaces. So does the Weeknd, whose latest offering morphs from R&B to new wave to punky pop, while sexy collaborations with Lana Del Rey affirm that he is a musical chameleon. So while the term “race records” now rusts in the relics, its successor, R&B, warrants its own amount of critical side-eye to assure that it accurately describes their sound. Otherwise, it’s just a coded term lobbed onto artists of colour that ultimately oppresses them both creatively and financially .

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