Edited by Azizi Powell
The other day I happened to hear Sam Smith's song "Stay With Me" when that song came up on Pandora. I looked that song up on YouTube [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pB-5XG-DbAA] and admit that I was surprised to learn that the vocalist is a White Briton. That got me thinking about what makes a song and a singer "soulful". My short answer is that it's both the song (its structure, tune, and lyrics) and how the vocalist sings (delivers) that song.
I believe that music is universal and regardless of race, ethnicity, and/or nationality people can have the talent and skill to sing (and play) any gender of music and should be allowed to do so, as long as they are respectful of religious mores. However, I'm aware of and concerned about the impact of America's (and other Western nations') history of appropriation of Black art, and I'm concerned about the impact of institional racism on the marketing, support, and lack of support of Black recording artists vs White recording artists.
These points and others are addressed in the excerpts from three (non-pancocojams) blog posts about the subject of White people singing Soul music.
The content of this post is presented for sociological and cultural purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
SELECTED BLOG POSTS AND COMMENTS
These quotes are presented in chronological order based on their publishing dates online.
Blog Post/comments #1
From http://www.blogher.com/node/17417 "When white people make black music" - Contributing editor Carmen Van Kerckhove, March 29, 2007
"Yes, that headline is meant to be provocative. Who counts as "white"? Is there such a thing as "black" music? There are no easy answers to any of these questions, of course. But lately I've seen quite a bit of discussion on this topic, particularly when it comes to so-called "blue-eyed soul."...
What do you think? Are white soul singers given more exposure because they're seen as novelty acts? Are record executives pushing black soul singers to be more explicitly sexual? Is it an act of cultural appropriation for a white person to sing soul or R&B music?"
The Lavatory Lady Jun 13, 2007
"First off, I agree that music is universal. If we were never allowed to cross the lines based on color, would there have been a Marion Anderson, Leontyne Price or Jessye Norman (black opera singers). What about Charlie Pride (black country musician, no i'm not kidding)? Should we say that Bob James can no longer play jazz piano because he's white?"...
Mar 30, 2007
..."Obviously labels think it's easier to market a white girl who sings soul because the stereotype is that white women can't sing like that. Instant gimmick. Gimmicks sell."
musgrrl Jul 9, 2007
"I think this is something that black people have worried about for some time now. It's a shame that we have to worry about such things in this day and age. It's not fair to the artist who just wants to do what they naturally love to do, but at the same time, black people remember the days when race records existed and white versions of songs were recorded to sell more records. I think the executives could have race on the brain when they push white artists that have a soulful sound because they think they will sell more records to white people.
I hate that all of this exists. I wish we could just listen to an artist and appreciate their music without thinking about an underlying problem such as this."
Blog Post/comments #2
[quotes continues on page 2]
"Critical Matters: Why’d You Make My Brown Eyes Blue? Eh, Soul? " By L. Michael Gipson [no date given, earliest commenter date is November 19, 2012]
"L. Michael Gipson: Soul Music is no longer black and white or Black vs. White
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? ...
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...
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. "
I reformatted this excerpt by adding a paragraph spacing for what I think is greater reading clarity.
Animated Cartunes, Works at Animatedcartunes, November 20, 2012
"I've always been aware of and subscribe to the philosophy of music being one of the universal languages. If you are good in a genre I appreciate, I support you regardless of appearance. You can't however deny that more often than not "being white" affords these musicians opportunities not offered to their black counterparts of equal or greater talent... I can never diminish the talent of a skilled white practitioner or question their motives to create music of this genre but I am troubled by how people with influence and resources are so willing to champion the cause for them over their black counterparts. It is disheartening.
Randall Grass, General Manager at Shanachie Entertainment Corp., November 20, 2012
"good piece, L. Michael...a topic with many interesting angles...things have come a long way but still have a ways to go I think..a few random observations: a lot of people don't realize that Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" was written by white guys--Lieber and Stoller. Otis Blackwell, a black man, wrote some of Elvis' biggest hits --for Elvis. Chuck Berry's first hit "Maybelline" is a re-write of a country tune, "Ida Red" by Bob Wills. Sam Cooke crossed over pop in 1957 AND owned his own masters. I think black rock artists today have an uphill battle for acceptance--more so than in the rock 'n' roll era..."rock" and "rock 'n' roll" are different things...
In the end as Duke Ellington said there are only two kinds of music, good and bad, and in the newly multicultural world you reference, the old racial categories have broken down substantially."
Chris Mann, Works at Juggling left brain and right brain, November 21, 2012
"Masterful stuff Mr G - I wish I'd written it. For years I've been annoyed by the patronising term "blue-eyed soul" but I guess even that term acknowledged something soulful in the music.
I have a particular love for soul and jazz radio and the idea that soul, jazz and radio itself are on the decline saddens me. But your article comes round to the idea that none of these things are really disappearing - just changing."...
Anthony Stevens , Founder/CEO at VibeTribe World, March 17, 2013
"Soul music IS Black and will ALWAYS be Black. If you can't hear the difference between a soulful Black singer and a white performer who is trying to sound Black, then that's on you. The white male power structure is ALWAYS busy trying to marginalize ANYTHING we're doing and THEN try to take it over ultimately. First, they said our music was "Devil" music. Then they started TRYING to emulate it. This behavior from the white boy is NOTHING new. He's been trying for YEARS to sound like us but simply CANNOT! So now, he's conspired to stop US from singing with Soul so that he can compete with us in OUR music style and ULTIMATELY leave US unable to get work doing OUR music"...
Blog Post #3
From http://www.vibe.com/article/opinion-sam-smith-and-myth-blue-eyed-soul "Opinion: Sam Smith And The Myth Of Blue-Eyed Soul" - Michael Arceneaux, Posted September 15, 2014
..."Anyone who buys into the idea that white artists who fall under the umbrella of “blue-eyed soul” are being more true to the art form than many contemporary Black acts, and thus are attaining more success, are being willfully obtuse.
Jazmine Sullivan recently released a beautiful, soul-wrenching record in “Forever Don’t Last.”* I can confidently say that there’s no chance in hell that pop radio will play it. They would if Adele released it, though. A similar case could be made about any Sam Smith single and [insert R&B artist who can actually sing’s name here].
There are so many acts doing quality, soulful music, but the benefits they reap for it waver – mostly on race. You can sing along to Adele and Sam Smith and enjoy them, but now more than ever, we're reminded that some listeners aren’t willing to do the same about their Black counterparts."
*The only addition that I made to that comment is the asterisk, so that I could post a link to a video of the Jazmine Sullivan record that the blogger mentioned: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHLw2hARwd8
Here's a link to Sam Smith - Stay With Me (Live) ft. Mary J. Blige [at the Apollo Theater, Harlem (New York, New York) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqqOZbMWesI
I like that performance, but don't know whether I like it better than Sam Smith singing it alone. I also found that video's YouTube viewer comment thread interesting reading in a sociological sense, not only because of the comments about Sam Smith's race and sexual orientation, but also because of the number of commenters' opinions about Mary J. Blige's singing. Those comments range from "She messed up that song" to "She took that song to a whole 'nuther level, even though you could tell that she held back from singing as powerfully as she usually does." (I'm paraphrasing of a number of comments).
Unfortunately, since this is YouTube comment threads, a number of comments were racist, homophobic, and/or contained profanity.
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