Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Now That Michael Jackson Is Gone Is Black Music Dead?
I think with the passing of Michael Jackson that black music is official dead, but I posed it as a question because I'd like to get lots of feedback on this. Of course there will continue to be black artists releasing music. Many of those we consider legends are still with us. There are quite a few artists moving through the ranks who are special. What of future generations though? I posit our time of dominance has left with the spirit of Michael Jackson.
The specific contributions of African-American's musical legacy from r&b, blues, to jazz, to Motown, to rock, to techno were significant. What is going to replace it? What is its continuation? If something doesn't adapt it dies. No offense to those who like or release rap and hip-hop but with its original preponderance for sampling others' work it's not an entirely "pure" form, it's a hybrid. If you have to use someone else's compositions for the core of your work isn't what you're creating more of an homage to that prior work than doing something significant on your own? Of course sampling isn't left exclusively to hip-hop anymore, but that's what made it a popular device. Since the composers of those sampled songs weren't originally paid until a white songwriter sued a black rap artist, one could also say music was being legally stolen until these licensing agreements were ironed out. With the well-documented history of black artists being ripped off by white artists who would re-record an entire song and release it with no recourse wasn't it ironic when black artists did it to each other?
If anyone wants to prove me wrong I will gladly recant when the next huge pop star is a cultural phenom, an accomplished musician and someone who’s able to write and produce music without complete reliance on others. They won’t be praised as being beautiful by the sole existence of light/white skin, they won’t be known for shaking their body parts in a video, they won’t steal songwriting credits, they will have something important to say that we know we can review in 20 years where it will still have relevance. They won’t be a derivative of a copy. They won’t sound like anybody else. They will be “ours” and we'll get to share them with the rest of the world. When we have such an artist coming up let me know.
Now this is no offense to all of the artists currently releasing music this doesn’t apply to. Some people don't care. They use Autotune and wear $400K chains. They are not thinking of the long-term damage to the collective because they are making a quick buck. Some are simply not able to do that because that's a really high bar. Of course I'd also add much of what passes for music across all genres has greatly reduced its quality quotient. So it's bigger than soul music. Talents like Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington, Marvin Gaye, Donnie Hathaway, Luther Vandross and so many others set the world alight with stars that dimmed too soon.
I have a problem with quite a few contemporary artists who are being elevated and topping the charts right now because of the poor quality of their music and their callous get rich quick schemes. Some call it branding. I call it sell as many products as you can because your music stinks. The audiences are so used to mediocrity that they place some of these newer artists in the same category as the greats. They do not hold a candle to them. Still if you have a desire to entertain and the chance to do so who’d turn it down? These record labels are factory farms of mass breeding trying to produce as much from the cow until it drops so they can throw out the carcass and move onto the next one. They could care less, but they used to. Of course they were also interested in exploitation but that’s why you have to careful. It’s a business not play acting.
There are quite a few innovative artists making music. There are even more who have not had the opportunity because the gatekeepers loathe to invest in quality. Or they’re DIY and will remain on the periphery. I think it’s unfortunate but this is where the audience comes into play. Accepting the poop with whipped cream on top still means there’s you know what on the bottom.
There's also a hierarchy in existence where males still dominate the power positions. Black male producers have been allowed to extend their light/white skin racism by elevating these lighter/whiter female artists who are usually only marginally talented. If I was one of these artists I’d take the opportunity though but being pretty to look at doesn't guarantee record sales! See one contrast would be Quincy Jones who though he has chosen that in his personal life, musically he has long elevated and promoted black music. He’s worked with a variety of artists true, but always took care to treasure the AA musical heritage. His work with MJ was some of MJ’s best of course. He heralds back to the time when people took the time and effort to learn to read music and pick up an instrument and master one. There won’t be videos on YouTube where a random person discusses how they heard his beat on Apple’s free music program GarageBand.
As I discussed in my Deploying A Little Negro Spirit series, many of us have abandoned our cultural touchstones. Some still protect theirs. You don't see a host of white artists taking over reggae. It could happen as anything's possible but it's likely to be rejected. Collaborations are allowed but turning over the keys has not happened. I can't say the same for other genres being as cherished or protected. That's no one else's fault but our own.