Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Deploying A Little Negro Spirit: When Black Female Artists of Substance Are Ignored

This is the fourth conversation in a series where I discuss race, culture, appropriation and the abdication of African-American touchstones due to devaluation of our unique perspective and shame.

Right now as I write this there's a fight going on between the RIAA, radio broadcasters and the public. Only we don't realize what's at stake and who's fighting for what, but when the dust settles we may be regretting our collective lack of participation. The RIAA is the lobby group for the record labels and distributors. You know, the majority of white men with all the money. They're the ones suing 12 year olds for downloading music files. They also claim to be working in the interests of musicians, but in my opinion the fox doesn't look out for the best interests of the hen house.

The irony is Rep. John Coyners introduced the Performance Rights Act legislation calling for a royalty to be paid to those performing on records. The United States has been woefully behind the times by not paying this fee when every other country in the developed world does so already. There are fees already being paid to songwriters however. So the argument is that Aretha Franklin isn't getting a cut when she sings Respect, because she didn't write the song but Otis Redding does. This doesn't take into account that there are usually contracts involved paying performers a flat fee for their services and other forms of compensation.

So of course Al Sharpton has to weigh in on this and is in opposition. The counterclaim is that these fees will wipe out the few Black broadcasters left as they can't afford to pay an additional airplay fee and that it will hamper the ability of radio to play artists who aren't on major labels. Bye bye local music. This will also be a blow to internet radio and kill any new plans to work around the huge conglomerates that own radio now. If you'll recall when Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 it allowed companies to own multiple media formats in one market. So one company could be guaranteed a majority (and a monopoly). Clear Channel was born...and Fox News. Yeah such fun for us all.

Government agencies have such a long track record of doing the right thing - not! The last time I checked there was an indecency fine imposed by the FCC that nearly wiped out a local station when they were fined for playing Sarah Jones. It's a mess and there's no guarantee that the fees collected will ever actually go to those that performed. Right now artists signed to a typical label are locked into a contract that isn't generated in their favor to begin with. Also being that there are only 4 record labels right now, multinational corporations have an uncanny ability at cooking their books in favor of...themselves surprise surprise. By the way I really liked John Gorman's perspective on this.

So what does this have to do with appreciating Black female artists? Why it's the staying on top of the games being played, knowing who the players are and what their agenda is. The good thing (in theory) is that when these songs are played the performers will get some money. It may be a few dollars here and there but it's something. We know how shady the music business is and how Black people have traditionally been at a disadvantage. So if the playing field is littered with mines we need to know how to sidestep them to get what we want.

Right now I want there to be an appreciation for all Black female artists. I want the return of the female MC to the forefront of the industry. I want female producers and songwriters. I want a woman-centric perspective and one that uplifts. Again we had artists who were doing these things. They may not have been the biggest sellers or being promoted well, but they were in the mix. Now there's absolutely no balance. So this isn't about looking back at the past at what was, it's about looking ahead to the future of what will be. We've got to get back to creating - and use a lot more business savvy now. The great thing is that technology has blown the lid off many of the gatekeepers, obstructionists and selfish few who'd like to keep all the keys for themselves. We have a lot of work to do so let's get busy!

So to refresh our memories this is what's at stake:

1. Only certain types women are being signed to record deals
2. The disappearance of the female MC who isn't male domination oriented
3. The oversexualization of women (Sapphire/Jezebel imagery)
4. The disappearance of the all-Black female group
5. On a personal note I find a lot of artists boring - we need more creativity
6. As mentioned by another blogger we need the resurgence of the Black Arts Movement

Also I thought we should reflect on some of the fierce women we've had like Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Gwen Guthrie, Phyllis Hyman, Angela Bofill, Melba Moore, the Pointer Sisters and Stephanie Mills. All of these women were unique and offered something different. We could look in a mirror and see an image that often reflected our own looks or someone we knew. Being polished is one thing but demanding an artist look like a racially ambiguous, size zero, 17 year old is something else entirely.

Again, this comes down to having an appreciation for African-American heritage and our contributions without shame. Also honoring the unique beauty of the entire phenotype spectrum. I admit my mother listened to these artists and I didn't have the appreciation for them that I do NOW. Especially now that a lot of them are gone. Disco music had its hedonistic tendencies but it called for women expressing their needs and expecting them to be met. That was VERY threatening to male pecking order.

If you had to name a superstar Black female recording artist who's come out in the last 5 years who would it be? Rihanna? She's sure looks pretty in front of the camera, is tall and statuesque but she's not a great singer. I will give her props for moving herself out of the predominantly black ghetto of hip-hop and R&B. Her team's decision to promote her as a cross-over artist made her career. That and a haircut. For all of that effort though I still see her having a certain shelf life. I'm not even gonna talk about that ex-boyfriend of hers.

This music was created at a particular time and depended on particular circumstances. Even if these songs were written by men they had empowering messages for women. They discussed an even exchange and to leave if the man wasn't doing his part. What happened to that message?! If the music reflects the culture it stems from then we should be able to see that sharp decline in quality that exists today. We can turn things around if we want to.

I have many examples of a variety of artists in my archives. I'm going to add a few more that aren't posted. Think of it as a nice trip through memory lane:
Looking ahead at a current artist we can support NOW: Choklate who's new album drops today! Go get it. 
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