Play that Funky Music, White Boy
Black music, white music... time to face the music!
Have musical roots really been "stolen"? Or is it even possible for any particular group to "own" a genre?
As a modern society, we are certainly aware of the fact the culture is not copyrighted and no one group can stake claim on the creating, singing, playing or loving of a particular kind of music. The fact that music and entertainment unites the world speaks to its power. But for some reason there is something particularly intriguing about powerhouse pipes coming out of a little white person. “Blue-eyed soul” has been around for quite some time. Though the term, describing white artists who performed soul and R&B in a style that is raw and expressive similar to black soul singers, was coined in the 60s, the concept of white singers covering black music has been around for decades. “Hound Dog,” originally covered by Big Mama Thornton in 1953, was a #1 hit on the R&B charts for Thornton, but it was Elvis Presley’s 1956 performance on the Milton Berle show that put the song on the map. Elvis Presley rose to national fame with his sexually charged and controversial performance of "Hound Dog."
Historically, white singers have had much success as purveyors of black music. The Bee Gees had much success as a soft rock act of the late 60s but they became more widely known when Barry Gibb’s falsetto gave everyone “Saturday Night Fever” at the helm of the disco scene. The Righteous Brothers, Dusty Springfield, Tower of Power, Tom Jones, Bobby Caldwell, Teena Marie, Boz Scags, Michael McDonald, Hall and Oats, Simply Red, Rick Astley, and a slew of others have made folks take a second listen with their strong R&B influenced vocals. We are now ushering in a new crop of funky white folks whose souls are stirred by, well, soul. Our world is increasingly more multi-cultural. Genres of music today are so widely mixed and it is evident that each influences the other in some way. Historians of black music will easily argue that most, if not all, music is derived from, or at least tinged by, black music. There is no denying that one cannot be helped from feeling the infectious hold that hip hop and soul music has. And if you are blessed enough to have the pipes to sing it, black or white, what the hell can stop you? The issue is not so much with the appreciation or singing of the music but with the recognition and compensation for performing it. There’s no denying that artists like Pink have the chops to belt out a song, but when she was specifically marketed as an R&B artist, even she took pause. She later reinvented herself on her following albums with a harder rock edge. White artists who are able to perform urban music have that “X factor” that the music industry loves. They have the talent to rock the mic, kick a mad beat box, and belt out powerhouse vocals while possessing the universal appeal of Eurocentric beauty.
The original female vocalist of famed hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas was versatile and eclectic black musician Kim Hill who “vibed” with the Black Eyed Peas’ avant garde hip hop approach. She was dropped by Interscope Records in 1999 out of fear that her “music wasn't black enough.” The Black Eyes Peas’ breakout album was their third, Elephunk. Released in 2003, it was the group’s first album to feature the vocals of their new chanteuse Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson. From Elephunk came "Where is the Love?," a single featuring not only the vocals of one white vocalist, but Justin Timberlake as well. It became the Black Eyed Peas’ first major hit, peaking at #1 in the UK for six weeks where it became the biggest-selling single of 2003.
At the 2002 Grammy Awards, Alicia Keys won a record-tying five awards while the seven-times-nominated India Arie went home empty-handed that evening. While it’s known that Keys is bi-racial (mother is white, father is black), her look more closely resembles what’s touted as Eurocentric beauty. There certainly have been other lighter skinned artists like Mariah Carey (also bi-racial) who suffered a 16-year Grammy drought who haven’t fared as well as Keys at the Grammy’s, but in a year where the competition was so stiff between Keys and Arie, it raised eyebrows towards Arie’s shut-out. Though there is no beef between Keys and Arie (both profess to be fans of the other), blogs blew-up with speculation of color preferences in the industry.
White UK singers Joss Stone and embattled Amy Winehouse were both nominated for 2007 MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Awards. Amy Winehouse, who was nominated for four awards, took home the top honor of best UK female. With domestic issues that rival Whitney Houston’s “Bah-bay Brown” drama, Amy has managed to parlay her troubles into a body of work that reflects the deepest blues that would make even Etta James shake her head in empathy. Platinum-selling, three-time MOBO Award-winning British R&B artist Craig David had controversy follow him when he was shut out of the 2001 BRIT Awards. When David (the most nominated artist of the evening) failed to win any of his six nominations, industry politics was blamed. Several luminaries of the British music scene chimed in, including Sir Elton John, calling David "England's best vocalist".
In the U.K., the leading proponents of black music are white DJs. David Rodigan has had significant input in the reggae scene spanning over 20 years. Of his contribution, a "Dainty Crew" interview said “He is an inspiration to up-and-coming DJs regardless of creed or colour as he’s a prime example that the colour of your skin makes no difference when it comes to being a skilled DJ and having love for the music, the people and the culture.” British hip hop DJ Tim Westwood has been accused of abandoning his top-ranking private school upbringing for more urban slang and swagger. He was thought to be the inspiration for “Ali G,” the satirical over-the-top gangsta rap caricature created by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Despite that criticism and controversy, Westwood was immersed in the underground music scene for years, is one of the early broadcasters and promoters of rap music, and is now one of Radio 1's longest-serving broadcasters. DJ Tony Blackburn began as a singer and later championed soul music working as a DJ, becoming the first voice to be heard on BBC Radio 1 when it was launched in 1967. He, along with Westwood and Rodigan, are least 50 years old, having spent over 30 years in the business and are considered to have “paid their dues” in the industry.
Is it fair to provide record deals and present honors to white R&B and hip-hop artists only after all black artists receive their just due? Probably not. If we held true to this, the flip side might have never showed the world baseball player Jackie Robinson, golfer Tiger Woods, hockey player Anson Carter or tennis players Venus and Serena Williams. The difference, though, is that sports are much less subjective than music. The European origins of games like tennis and golf came out of recreation. The creation and inspiration of early black music is so rooted in the reflection of pain and injustice, that to have white performers emulating a rawness and passion that their ancestors didn’t experience in the same way, doesn’t necessarily feel genuine to some listeners. And to earn accolades, top honors and top dollar harkens the days of yore when black artists got the shaft at the hands of a white-dominated music industry.
What is at work is marketing, promotion and the audience’s acceptance of the media engine. New school crooners like Justin Timberlake, Jon B. and Robin Thicke have clearly shown they can hang and that they have talent. They also continue to pay homage to the black soul singers who have influenced their style. We can’t begrudge them the opportunity to embrace and champion the music that will never leave us. But we should always be mindful that for every superstar, black or white, who has an A&R music rep going to bat for them, there is a struggling artist that may not have that narrowly defined “X factor” of the moment to propel them to stardom. As an audience we still, even in this age of technology, have the power to create and uphold our deserving music icons.