Who’s the king of R&B music right now? It’s no longer R.Kelly. Though he seemed to have the midas touch back in the 90s and early 00s, his career hit the skids after those child-sex allegations. It’s not D’Angelo. After two classic albums, like those boys from Jodeci he seemed to self-destruct. It’s not Usher or Ne-Yo. Those guys are off making funny European house/pop music with David Guetta. No in 2013 the king of R&B is …………..Justin Timberlake.
Jay Z gave him the stamp of approval by appearing on ‘Suit and Tie’, the first single from his new album, and you know that J only hitches his cart to winners (previously collab-ing with R.Kelly, Pharrell and most recently Kanye West). Sales of JT’s new album The 20/20 Experience broke one million sales after just a few days in circulation.
And who is the R&B Queen to join Justin on the throne? Its not Beyonce or Rhianna. The music they are making these days could not be described as R&B. Its not Brandy or Monica. It’s a long time since they argued over who’s boy it was. Mary J Blige used to be called the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, but she seems more interested in acting and commercials than singing these days. (Maybe that’s why Obama jumped over her and went straight from Aretha to Beyonce to sing at his inauguration?) Maybe its Adele. Her vocals could certainly be described as soulful, and she’s sold more units than any other female artists in 2012 (her Grammy-winning “21” topping the U.S. album sales for two years running, selling 4.41 million units in the States alone). And there are plenty other soulful white girls
que-ing up behind her like Duffy, Joss Stone (and not forgetting the dearly departed Amy Winehouse).
There have always been white R&B singers ‘given a pass’ by the Black audience. Going back to artists like Dusty Springfield and Teena Marie (the first white artist signed to Motown) in the 60s and 70s, to Hall and Oates and Lisa Stansfield in the 80s, to Jamiroquai, Jon B, and Robin Thicke in the 90s and 00s. They even had their own sub-genre called ‘Blue-Eyed Soul’. But the difference now is that the white artists producing soul out-number the Black ones! When I listen to shows on the radio purporting to be playing new R&B I’m left confused. I hear hip-hop, I hear dance music, but I don’t hear much R&B. Those formally prominent R&B artists who I mentioned in the intro seemed to have either disappeared from the scene or have moved onto a new style of music in order to try and stay relevant, leaving it to the white artists to continue flying the R&B flag. There are cultural critics who argue that the mainstream audience might have an audible preference for Black music, they have a visual preference for white faces. That would explain the long standing tradition where white artists have greater success covering songs by Black artists than the originals enjoyed. But that is not the thrust of this blog post. I am asking why Black audiences and artists seem to be abandoning the music?
As usual, this is not a new phenomenon. They say that Black artists innovate, whilst white artists imitate. Going back as far as the Blues that was pioneered by Black artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and then speeded up by artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard who evolved it into Rhythm and Blues, but it was only when taken up by white artists like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley that it morphed into Rock and Roll and became a worldwide youth culture.
Then by the 60s Motown, Stax and Atlantic records had come along and turned R&B into ‘Soul’ music. In the era of Civil Rights, America’s ‘Coloured’ people wanted to ‘move on up’ and integrate, and this feel good Soul music was the perfect soundtrack. The Blues reminded them of poverty and segregation of the South and was abandoned by the America’s Blacks. The architects of the Blues were struggling to get an audience until the white artists of the ‘British Invasion’ like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones cited these Blues legends as their inspirations and heroes. Artists like BB King and John Lee Hooker have gone on record as saying that they owe the longevity of their careers to the patronage of people like Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. It was a similar process in Jazz with the African-American genius’ of the genre being neglected in their own country and having to move to Europe to get the respect and recognition they deserved.
So back to present day R&B. What should fans of soul music do? Should we accept that this music is now of the past and part of our glorious tradition like the Blues, or should we fight to wrestle it away from these johnny-come-lately white artists who in decades to come will be looked upon as the standard-barers of the music? Well one thing we could do is support those artists who in the face of public indifference and mediocre sales are still trying to make soul music. Artists like Anthony Hamilton, Robert Glasper, Eric Roberson, Jill Scott, John Legend, Raphael Saadiq, Gregory Porter, Musiq, Bilal, Maxwell, Dwele, and Raheem Devaughn to name but a few. And perhaps we should actually thank these white artists for keeping the music alive when Black music radio and audiences seemed to have abandoned it.