Monday, May 4, 2009
Deploying A Little Negro Spirit: When White Artists Go Black
I'm continuing the conversation from last week where I evaluated the use of Black gospel choirs to elevate the songs of non-Black artists. I haven't decided whether it's an all-out appropriation, some appreciation or callous apathy on their part but I suspect it's a tradition that will continue. It will continue because some of us don't have any cultural or racial pride and think of ourselves less than. Except when we're validated by others (esp. whites). Even if that means we abdicate our musical heritage to anybody who shows an appreciation for early Aretha Franklin. We forget it's the use of a music borne from pain, suffering and survival from experiences unique to African-Americans and part of our never-ending (but lax on acknowledging) contributions to the good ol' USA.
Which brings me to the second conversation in this series about white artists who appropriate their version of the Black (American) experience and sell it back to us. Now the question that needs to be asked is why are those artists given a blanket credibility and support when we won't even support actual Black artists who aren't putting out what I'm calling XXX Porn & Warfare set to a beat? I think I already answered my question but I'm putting it out there for consideration anyway.....
I recall when Amy Winehouse's 2nd CD "Back to Black" was released and people were falling all over themselves to declare it the best thing since sliced bread. Now bear in mind that I actually like Winehouse - as well as her 1st CD "Frank". I lived in the UK when "Frank" was released so I was already familiar with her as an artist, but hardly anyone knew who she was Stateside. The 2nd CD got this huge push by her label and suddenly she was on every trendy/cool/buzz list.
I expected it from pop music media but I hadn't expected her to get so much unfettered love from "urban" media. I wondered if a large promotional budget had something to do it. Just so that we're clear this isn't about Amy per se, but the anointing of her as some sort of musical genius when she hadn't done anything remotely original. What really irked me were the fools that had the nerve to compare her (vocal stylings) to Lauryn Hill - who is a VERY IMPORTANT ARTIST as far as I'm concerned, if the genius label were to be denied. The comparison to me felt as if it was a direct challenge to say that Winehouse was somehow better and that really bothered me. Now I wasn't that into the Fugees believe it or not - and Ms. Hill deployed too much vocal pressure for my comfort. As a classically trained singer I could hear the strain to her vocal folds from use of the glottal stop.
Yet her debut solo album (yup LP) still holds up so well more than a decade later. Watch the X-Factor video and it could be played today. I still can't believe L-Boogie was in her early 20's singing about RECIPROCITY. I believe that has gone over the heads of many Black women and we need to revisit that song and take it to heart TODAY.
Back to Amy - who was very cleverly packaged and being foreign added to the exotic nature of her music - which is a retooling of Black music from the '60s. As clever as it may be considered it's still a devoid of the heart and soul of what made the original music so great. Any approximation is but a copy no matter how nicely it's been packaged. I was also troubled by her chaotic personal life being made fodder for the press, one for her own safety, but secondly because I felt it was being used to sell more units. There were underhanded jokes tying her to Whitney Houston and her own struggles with drugs as if the dysfunction was appropriate. Note the requisite use of Black backing musicians and guests to add that credibility factor - but only in contrast to when it pertains to white artists.
Justin Timber(fake)lake is another artist who was benefited greatly from his Black alliances. With him there's an added twist in that Black males in the industry wanted to work with him and sought him out to expand their own influence as tastemakers. He's used Black male choreographers, songwriters, producers, et al to craft his sound and image. It's when you evaluate his relations with Black female artists in the music biz that you see the advantages afforded him as a white male.
I have two words for you: Janet Jackson. Her career has NOT been the same since that Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction while he's gotten off scott free. I'm still pissed off about it and I'm not even that big a Jackson fan. I can easily spot the hypocrisy though and know that if it had been Madonna and Kayne West for example she would've gotten flack for her association with a Black man but her career wouldn't have been so negatively impacted. As I featured the "Like A Prayer" song in my first post, that video was considered controversial for many reasons but there was never any question about who was in charge. When Pepsi got complaints about her frolicking with a Black male saint she laughed all the way the bank.
Now I could go into more history of soul music, the discrimination, the way it was derogatorily called "race" music, the emergence of Motown and "blue-eyed" soul but that would require several detailed posts and there are numerous books that lay it all out if you take a Music History course. Suffice it to say this "going Black" wasn't invented in the past few years by a handful of 20-something artists.
Back in the day you had the Righteous Brothers, Buddy Holly and Elvis were castigated for singing Ni**er music and radio was very segregated. Of course if you paid attention to the movies Dreamgirls (itself an appropriation of the Motown history with the Supremes) or even Cadillac Records it touches on the practice of white artists who remade the soul records of the day and not credit the artists or pay the writers. That's the tip of the iceberg by the way.
Even the all-hallowed Beach Boys ripped off Chuck Berry. Sing along to Surfin' USA and realize it sounds just like Sweet Little Sixteen - and why. It was outright thievery that they had to be sued and years later forced to pay the man for his work. Led Zeppelin liberally borrowed from blues artists...as did the Stones and even the Beatles. So why are these white (male) groups held in the highest regard and paid handsomely when so many of the musicians they "gave tribute to" died broke and forgotten? Things that make you go hmmm.
I'll wrap this up with an aside that there are white artists whom I believe have the appropriate knowledge, respect and musical chops to stand on their own merits. They just happen to make soulful music. Hall & Oates, Teena Marie, Michael McDonald and even Robin Thicke. This list isn't meant to be all-encompassing. These artists are not trying to spray on a fake tan and claim to be "one of us" - nor should they.
I have just been troubled by this most recent emergence of white artists, particularly from the UK who are young and have the benefit of skilled marketers at their disposal. Cough **Duffy** Cough. The Police was retooling reggae to an international audience 20+ years ago and are still widely respected. I may listen to these newer artists' music but with an awareness of the struggles of the actual Black artists who may be trying to compete in the same genre but are NOT getting the full court press roll-out. I have to be selective in who I decide to financially support by purchasing their products or seeing them live.
You know for every Adele there's an Estelle who had to move to the US and get her name attached to US rappers like Kanye West to get adequate label interest. At some point even she lamented about it. She was justified because Winehouse had been nominated for a Music of Black Origin Award against other artists who were in fact of Black origin. Like who you will because music is subjective, but be aware of where it came from and who's reaping the rewards of previous generations' sacrifices. It's why rock and jazz aren't considered "Black" anymore and why some idiot frat boy wannabe like Asher Roth can rap about how cool it is being white and lazy and get away with it. Once we've given away our heritage and legacy and what will we have left?