L. Michael Gipson: Why’d You Make My Brown Eyes Blue? part 2

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This is similar to the response one might get if describing an exceptional minority candidate to a bigot who thought whites had the corner market on a uniquely skilled profession…like say electrical engineering. Given the preponderance of white girls and boys who can now “blow” by black audience’s mystical musical measuring stick, it’s also a hopelessly outdated sentiment. Like a Republican believing only he knows the hardworking “real America,” this type of myopia is also a little insulting to the legacy of disciplined Black musicians who earned their spots as exceptional performers through practice and hard work. They didn’t win some  “soul” lottery by genetic default; they worked at their craft and became a force in a niche market.

After all, music is still a skill as much as it is a talent, and is one that can be developed. Melisma, also known as riffs and runs, can be taught and studied (and in fact have been a hallmark of classical vocal training since opera began). So can volume, power, phrasing, modulations, tempo swings and “bending” notes—the elements of traditional soul singing. It seemed that audiences really bought into the notion that soul was something innately black, born exclusively of racial and gender pain, struggle, oppression, and slavery DNA, instead of the heartfelt, emotive singing that can be born from any human’s truth and lived experience. It’s time to bury this unscientific idea, since it only serves to minimize black artistic achievement to-date and limits the musical possibilities constantly being presented by white singers and musicians who, quite frankly, have been muddying these waters with great talent for quite some time.

Increasingly, as some black artists have jumped ship to pop, dance, trance, dubstep, electronica, and even country—expanding their own musical boundaries into areas denied to them (see artists like Lianne La Havas, Laura Mvula, and Darius Rucker for examples), there have also been a number of white artists who have retained and expanded upon the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic traditions of R&B and soul to dizzying effect — and not all of them ear-bleeding mimics.

For every dismissible over-singing Anastacia and Christina Aguilera diva or under-singing Mayer Hawthorne and Jamie Cullum hipster there is a Lewis Taylor, Marc Broussard, Mamas Gun, Jennie Laws, Jamie Lidell, Alice Russell, Tuomo, Daley, Jon B., Daniel Merriweather, Elliott Yamin, Diane Birch, Matt Cusson, Mycle Wastman, James Morrison, Swing Out Sister, Quadron, Kristina Train, Alex Nester, The Pepper Pots, Amy Winehouse and, of course, Robin Thicke. There is an emerging legion of quality artists who deserve a fairer hearing from a diverse audience which moans about the lack of good soul music, much more than the stigmatizing and too easily dismissed “blue-eyed soul” label allows.

It’s not as if most are likely to be embraced by white mainstream radio either. Adele, Michael Bolton, Michael McDonald, Hall & Oates and Steely Dan are the crossover exceptions, not the rule. Predecessors like Teena Marie and Bobby Caldwell, who couldn’t place their face on their album covers for fear that black audiences wouldn’t embrace them, also seldom were received on the Top of the Billboard pop charts or given the prominent spins on white radio stations, the kind that allows an R&B artist to crossover to mainstream success (it wasn’t just Blacks who were boxing artists in with suppositions of “authenticity”).  There are dozens of instances of white artists who had the goods, but had to work twice as hard for black acceptance and found themselves faced with a peculiar brand of reverse racism at white radio stations who perhaps thought those voices weren’t meant for “race records.” The paradigm is tired and I imagine quite frustrating for white artists who clearly appreciate black music, pay homage and give credit to its origins and do their part to support other black and white soul & R&B artists alike. Black artists who’ve borrowed heavily since the ‘90s from Asian themes and sounds (e.g., Dru Hill, WuTang Clan, too many Bad Boy songs) and Middle Eastern scales (e.g., Faith Evans, Carl Thomas, Lalah Hathaway) have never had to jump through nearly as many hoops; nor have Latin artists like War, José Feliciano or José James who’ve borrowed from black music traditions been charged with cultural appropriation despite there being clear financial benefits to their cultural appreciation.

Moreover, R&B and soul are no longer Black and White or Black vs. White. As Southeast Asian performers like Ebrahim and Sid Sriram come on the scene with undeniable talent or R&B singers Jay R and Charice flip the script from the Philippines, multi-ethnic /multi-racial bands like Australia’s Electric Empire roll up on the legacies of 70s soul stars of old. Japan has long had a cadre of Japanese soul and jazz singers and musicians who eschew the J-Pop that dominates their scene to lay claim to their version of neo-soul, soulful house, and classic R&B, including Misia, Sowelu, Soulhead, Shuya Okino, Toshinobu “Toshi” Kubota, and Crystal Kay, among others. Even the Motherland is starting to get in on the action with artists like Lira who push past the confines of “World Music” to just be an R&B artist. Like hip hop and jazz, R&B/Soul is global. What began as nearly all American music — as music born of the fields and the slums, undeniably out of the Black experience — now is an expression of the global, human experience. It’s time we act like it and give all artists a listen based on their talent (or lack of talent), not their color.

By L. Michael Gipson


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