Race music is a term from this country’s sordid past. Before the industry came up with the more acceptable terms for describing music made primarily (though not exclusively) by black artists, genres such as blues, gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues were known as race music. The term was used to tell the larger society that the music made by black artists was less legitimate in traditional western standards because it was more – how can I say this – primitive. That was always garbage. Most of these artists – like their white roots music playing counterparts – didn’t have formal music training. However, people like Scott Joplin were well versed in the western musical tradition. But it didn’t matter if you were Scott Joplin making his fortune by selling sheet music of original compositions such as “The Entertainer” or a Mississippi delta bluesman, it was all race music to the establishment.
That designation in Jim Crow America made it possible to isolate and marginalize the performers with one hand while stealing their art and their money with the other.
So it’s easy to understand why the term race music – like a certain other magic word that got tossed around like wheat in a less enlightened time – fell out of favor. However, just as some in the music industry sought to repurpose the N-word, the multi-cultural band led by Robert Johnson (an ironic name for such a project as this) and Glen Mauser seek to rescue the phrase race music from its sad history. The two named their band rAcemusic, and the outfit’s new project is called As One. Long time Soultrackers have seen me ask this question in different ways on numerous occasions: what exactly is black music? A lot of folks still call rock ‘n roll “white folks’ music” – blissfully unaware of the money that such views take out of the hands of black artists who wish to traffic in a musical style that was originally a sub-genre of the blues and R&B.
So, does that mean that a black man can’t sing rock music? If so, somebody better tell Johnson, who does a pretty good job on tunes such as “Time Is Right.” Yes, the influences of the black church can be heard in some of the flourishes that Johnson adds to his vocals. However, from the driving bass line to the howling guitar solo, “Time Is Right” is a cut that a lot of rock fans would recognize and embrace. And how could a white guy go so hard on the one as Mauser does on the straight funk jam “I Found Love?” Of course, the belief that white guys can’t play funk would be news to artists like Dennis Coffey. Johnson displays his vocal dexterity on this track as he lets loose with vocal improvisations that draw from jazz (skatting) to gospel (using all of his vocal range from tenor to falsetto).
rAcemusic’s willingness to ignore these less obvious but still present boundaries are just two sacred cows that Mauser and Johnson slay. They also lay waste to one of my favorite targets: the belief that lyrics don’t matter in R&B as both the rock and R&B influenced tunes on As One feature solid song writing. For example, a cut such as “Loner” shows how lyric and melody can work together to set an attitude. The song tells the story of a man who searches for companionship and understanding. The composition makes allusions to James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World,” and that mournful and repetitive bass drives home the song’s sojourning theme.
People can yell to they turn blue in the face that these racial based music boundaries are meaningless. On As One, Mauser, Johnson and the other members of rAcemusic prove once again that showing is often better – and infinitely more entertaining – than telling. Highly Recommended.
By Howard Dukes.