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What's the deal with so many white music artists singing black music? Why do white artists who sing black music get better promotion than black artists? Why is R&B music now synonymous with Hip-Hop?
These are some of the hot topics that often come up in private conversations with my industry associates and colleagues. I will attempt to shed some much needed light on these delicate, sensitive and somewhat controversial issues.
To really understand the phenomenon of white music artists singing R&B, you should begin with an examination of the motivation and purpose behind the establishment of black music divisions at record companies in the 60s. While the success of Motown as a black owned operation has been well-documented and highly publicized, many of the competing record labels of that time lacked the personnel to adequately exploit the abundance of musically talented black teens.
White owned record companies shrewdly appointed black music executives who were more in tune and in touch with black music (and the black artists that created and performed it), to help interface with them. This was, after all, a time when race relations were tentative and strained.
Many record companies and radio stations took note of the increasing popularity of R&B music among white teenagers and attempted to preserve racial barriers by denying them access to it. Their denial constituted a potential economic problem since the music industry (like most industries) thrives on supply and demand. Their solution: provide their darling teenaged kids with a "white" alternative; someone who "sounded" black and performed "black" music, a la Elvis Presley, whose popularity was soaring. It wasn't uncommon for records in that era often to have two different versions - a white version and a black version - which was serviced to the appropriate audience.
In the 70's, the push toward equality and peace gave birth to a more gregarious and unified music industry. Top bands like Sly & The Family Stone, Tower of Power, Earth Wind & Fire, and The Commodores emerged and enjoyed success throughout the 70s, but many lacked crossover appeal and forced black music executives to search for other viable options in order to save their jobs. One option was Disco - the hot novelty genre.
Disco was more than a new genre; it was a cultural release from the lingering social anxieties and racial tensions of the 60s and emerged as the dominant format because of its mass market appeal and universal acceptance. The music industry eventually sobered up from the lecherous activities and rampant drug abuse of the disco era in 1979, just in time to endure the worst financial year of its existence.
With slumping record sales and a gluttony of music acts that were signed to perform disco songs, the R&B music community returned to its soulful roots and searched desperately for an answer to rectify the problems that plagued it. The answer wasn't written on the wall, but it was found in the album "Off The Wall" by Michael Jackson, which helped to transition successful R&B music back into a more "Pop-friendly" format that was comparable to R&B in its last heyday of the Motown era.
While Michael captured the hearts and imaginations of white America with his unhuman dance moves, there were plenty of black music pioneers upholding the funky values and virtues of black music as we we marched into the techno era of the 80's. R&B music seemed to undergo a much needed resurgence.
The R&B bands of the 70s started to downsize in personnel as more emphasis was being placed on solo acts (a la Michael Jackson) and vocal groups. For the R&B music artist, the advent of technology superseded the need to be backed up by a band, ushering in the producer era which R&B music is heavily predicated on today.
It was also at this time that many record companies began merging and restructuring, which resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs for black music executives who were worked in the black music divisions.
Shortly thereafter, we witnessed the birth of "blue-eyed soul" as white music artists who were performing R&B music begun to receive heavy and steady financial backing by their record labels. Hall & Oates enjoyed unprecedented success in the early and mid-80s and proved to be a litmus test for the acceptance of white artists performing R&B under the guise of Pop music.
While Hall & Oates may have raised a few eyebrows in the R&B music community, eyes were opened widely when George Michael, a former member of Pop teen group Wham!, won a Grammy for the best "black" album in 1989. It was the first time in history that a white solo music artist topped the R&B charts. The R&B music community was outraged as veteran black music artists Freddie Jackson and Gladys Knight denounced the political voting practices of the Academy that renders the nominations.
While the award was well-deserved in terms of record sales and radio airplay, the color lines of who qualified as a "black" music artist had been re-defined. When the smoke cleared, the music industry in general, and R&B music community in particular, would both be changed forever.
As we stood on the doorsteps of the 90s, more black music executives lost their jobs as record companies continued the trend of merging, restructuring and downsizing in an effort to diversify their business interests and increase their profits.
Rap music was (finally) being fully embraced as a commercially viable genre and record companies moved quickly to cash in on it. The appeal of low investments, and (potentially) high returns, constituted a major shift in business practices at record companies, and black music artists found themselves jockeying for position on the revamped priority lists of their now predominantly white music executives. After all, Rap was already achieving a high level of "underground" sales with DJs and word-of-mouth serving as its primary means of promotion.
All the record companies needed to do was to bring it to the surface and supply their distribution and marketing resources. Since much of the music was already recorded, they could also circumvent many of the recording costs as well. While the music industry made an overt and deliberate attempt to position itself to supply what appeared to be an insatiable demand for Rap music, it lost sight of the distinction between R&B and Rap.
R&B music lovers helplessly watched as orders came down from white music executives to incorporate elements of Rap music into R&B songs to make them more competitive with Rap, since Rap music artists posed a clear and tangible threat to the record sales of R&B music artists.
At the time, Mariah Carey and Color Me Badd were enjoying newfound stardom that came (once again) as a result of white music executives pushing a novelty agenda of white music artists performing R&B music. Both of the aforementioned acts were initially viewed (by black audiences) as alternatives to their black competitors (Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men respectively), but with such strong marketing and promotional support, both Mariah Carey and Color Me Badd were able to establish their own identity at a faster rate.
Today, the trend continues with white music executives diligently marketing and promoting white music artists such as Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Joss Stone, Anastacia, etc. singing R&B. Some insiders say that the music industry continues to deliberately and intentionally find alternatives to black music artists to service to white audiences. Industry insiders say that Britney Spears is essentially a white clone of Janet Jackson; emulating her Pop/R&B format, choreographed dance moves, and calculated sex appeal.
It's suspect when newcomers like American Idol's Elliot Yamin are quickly embraced and heralded as "great" R&B singers when juxtaposed against longtime R&B survivors like Brian McKnight, Joe, and Anthony Hamilton.
While some will argue that it's not a simple matter of black versus white since since some of the artists mentioned in this article are not "white," but are of different ethnicities or even part black. The fact is that the widely held opinion in the black community is that if you don't look black (possessing obvious African American features), then you are not. You are something else other than black; and "white" becomes a reference to, or a description of, an undetermined racial category.
The new business model of the music industry has created new opportunities for black entrepreneurs, but many of them lack the financial resources to take advantage of them. As a result they are often forced to participate in the production of Rap music, or R&B music with Rap production as they try to manufacture or supply product and artists that will enable them to embark upon partnerships and joint ventures with the same record companies that dissolved their black music divisions in the first place.
History and research show that the music industry has continued to systematically reduce the role of the black music executive, as they are fired and laid off with greater frequency (and less justification) than their white counterparts. Many of those who remain are often relegated to the now dispensable role of liaison, gatekeeper and hand-holder for troubled Rap acts in this new Hip-Hop era. A far cry from a time when they were once responsible for finding, developing and supporting premier black music artists who created some of the greatest music that we now view as the soundtrack to the this country's history.
Those songs are still the choice of middle-aged Americans who tune into oldie radio stations across the country that have adopted "Classic Soul" as a new format. Where does that leave R&B music artists of today? They are left to compete or join forces with Rap artists since they have been lumped into the same "Urban" or "Hip-Hop" music category.
The formulaic use of R&B to inject a commercial element into Rap music has contributed significantly to the fusion, and confusion regarding the distinction of both genres. This can be traced back to the 80s when R&B acts such as Lakeside, Confunksion, and Teena Marie had huge hits with songs that incorporated Rap ("Fantastic Voyage," "Electric Lady," and "Square Biz"), R&B music embarked upon a trial marriage that turned out to be a permanent one.
R&B is now used to bolster the talent level perception, black audience appeal, and record sales of white music artists in every genre. Even Country (a genre that is guarded by a closed-knit circle of protective white executives), borrows heavily from R&B.
Country is a genre that is ripe for infiltration by conventional R&B artists, but unlike R&B music - which has become a community genre with no one race retaining the inherent rights to perform it - the likelihood of that occurring is slim because of the unquestioned and unchallenged exclusion of other races.
The significant issue in white R&B music artists versus black R&B music artists can be narrowed down to one question: who gets the greater commitment and promotion from their record companies to service a larger audience of consumers?
When one considers the commitment level, dedicated resources, and promotional opportunities which are more abundant for white R&B music artists, and that blacks only account for 15 percent of the population, and that white music artists inherit a larger audience to begin with, understanding the green side of white R&B becomes much easier.
Gian Fiero is a seasoned educator, speaker and consultant with a focus on business development and music/entertainment industry operations. He currently teaches at San Francisco State University where he conducts courses on Music Industry Career Planning and Publicity/Public Relations. His affiliations include National Association Of Record Industry Professionals (associate director); CLA (speaker); West Coast Songwriters (consultant); The Muse's Muse (producer of the Muse's Muse Awards); and SBA (business advisor).latin music download