L. Michael Gipson: Soul Music is no longer black and white or Black vs. White

Critical Matters: Why’d You Make My Brown Eyes Blue? Eh, Soul?

By L. Michael Gipson

Critical Matters: Why’d You Make My Brown Eyes Blue? Eh, Soul?

By L. Michael Gipson

From Elvis Presley and Pat Boone to Michael Bolton and Joss Stone, plenty of credible cases have been made to call white artists out on cultural appropriation and just bad mimicry all done for a major payday. Since the beginning of R&B there has been deservedly righteous anger about this bad business of exploiting black artists, their style and, of course, their music, and then—with the collusion of labels and radio—strategically cutting them out of the action. Generally, the mimicry artists are broadly met with grumblings and derision in the black community. Occasionally, an artist is allowed to breakthrough and crosses over as beloved to black audiences and black radio, such as Teena Marie, Dusty Springfield, Average White Band, Rare Earth, Boz Scaggs, Rick Astley, George Michael, Lisa Stansfield and, more recently, Adele.

During earlier eras, the racial animus made sense, since black artists were locked out and ripped off or were out marketed and out spent by labels supporting white artists promoting what had traditionally been considered black music. Sometimes those artists were even singing the exact same song to greater sales, from Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” in the ‘50s to Billy Porter’s “Love Is On The Way” in the’ 90s, later sung to greater success by Elvis and Celine. But, that was then. With the diminishment of radio, the declining importance of a major label deal and so many more avenues available to black artists to get their music heard, is it time to end the knee jerk dismissal of non-black artists performing soul, R&B, and jazz?


With the rise of hip hop, Europop, and techno derivatives, there have already been reports of R&B and soul’s demise. Largely this charge has been made by major label R&B acts like The Dream and Bobby Valentino who’ve seen declines in their sales, a phenomenon that isn’t unique to R&B -- just ask any country or hip hop star. The charge is without merit as long as a disproportionate number of the rare platinum sales are still black R&B acts and as long as new material and products are created and released every day by independent soul artists of all stripes. At sites like SoulTracks, Singersroom, SoulCuts, GrownFolksMusic, and SoulBounce a consistent stream of talent of all races, creeds, colors, nationalities and even sexual orientations  roll down an assembly line with bonafide R&B/soul products, mostly from small and/or independent record labels with varying degrees of distribution and marketing outreach. Some of these artists aren’t signed with—or released by—anyone but their own entrepreneurship, thanks to democratic seller platforms like Bandcamp and CDBaby and publicity tools like Soundcloud, YouTube and ReverbNation.

Internet and satellite radio shows, podcasts, and subscription services like Pandora and Spotify have also provided emerging and present channels to reach the public, circumventing the still dominant but less important terrestrial radio and major label behemoths that can still guarantee exposure to millions but not necessarily millions in sales, not anymore. This has meant that with the exception of an equal number of club venues for live performances, black R&B/soul artists have at their disposal many of the same tools being used by many indie rock bands to gain fans, fame and fortune. The boot is officially off their necks.

There is good reason for reticence. In addition to the history of economic sore spots, there has already been the loss of rock music to white musicians (and audiences) and the perceived loss of jazz to both Asian and white performers who were inspired by the Coltranes, Davises, Ellingtons, and even the more recent Young Tenors of the ‘90s (Hargrove, Carter, Redman, etc.). And in a perverse twist, more than one black rock artist has found himself having to justify why he should be allowed to perform music originated by his forefathers. In jazz, some non-minority musicians have gone far enough to challenge whether new young black jazz musicians even have the skills to play their ancestral songs, one of the only original music forms ever founded in America. Accordingly, there are fears that the same thing could happen to R&B and soul, particularly as black audiences move on to whatever new genre they improvise, innovate or originate.

Given the democratization of these recording and distribution systems loosening the reins on who gets what capital and marketing resources, the flood of black-performed R&B/soul entering the marketplace, and the broadening boundaries of what qualifies as R&B/soul—from Southern soul to electro soul—you’d think there would be less of a cultural vise grip on what is authentic soul and who gets to perform it without the stringent litmus test of decades past. And yet, whenever a talented white boy or girl comes to try-out for the Black Music Team, I am bound to hear some responses that go a little like this: “Who is that? Oh, wow, they can blow! Whaaaaaaat? They’re white? That’s a white boy/girl? Wow, they are really catching up, huh? *sigh* Dang, we can’t have anything to ourselves anymore.”

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