Media Friday – Singing With Soul [IBARW Edition]

Estelle is a rapper/singer/producer from across the pond who you mightknow because of her song “American Boy” featuring Kanye West.

I love her recently released album Shine I think it’s amazing but here’s the thing she’s nowhere near as heavily praised as some of the other “neo-soul” artists that have come out of Britain – Amy. Winehouse, Duffy, Adele. The difference is of course that all of those are white women who get cred for having throaty voices and singing “soul” music. There is a huge disparity in the way that the Music Industry treats white soul singers as opposed to black soul singers like Leela James, Jaguar Wright, Lina and more.

Estelle brought up the disparity herself in the Guardian, about Adele and white soul singers in general she says:

“She sounds like she heard some Aretha records once, and she’s got a deeper voice – that don’t mean she’s soul. That don’t mean nothing to me in the grand scheme of my life as a black person. As a songwriter, I get what they do. As a black person, I’m like: you’re telling me this is my music? Fuck that!”

And while I will say I have Winehouse’s and Adele’s albums I always feel uncomfortable listening to them, there’s a cultural appropriation happening that really bothers me. This is not to say white folks can’t sing soul, one of my favorite soul acts is Robin Thicke but there’s a way in which his music crosses the line to cultural appreciation instead of appropriation. It’s hard to explain but when he sings and performs it feels different, like he knows and cares about the community he’s interacting with as opposed to just caring about profiting from them. But Estelle hits the nail on the head, when listening to Winehouse, Adele and Justin Timberlake I can’t help but think – “As a black person, I’m like: you’re telling me this is my music? Fuck that!”

15 responses to “Media Friday – Singing With Soul [IBARW Edition]

  1. I hadn’t heard of her or this song since I don’t listen to the radio, but this is pretty cool! Her voice reminds me of dandelions.

  2. There’s a couple of things. Like, who is the person performing for? If you see someone performing alongside black artists, in black venues, and not as “Oh, yeah, and here they are opening for me” but really as a participant, that’s being part of the community.

    The appropriation is that the sound, the style is taken, but it’s not taken as being part of the community. One thing Adam Mansbach pointed out that I felt earned him my respect (paraphrased but pretty close), “When hiphop was first happening, as a white person, if you wanted to participate, you had to respect the people and the scene. You had to actually be part of the community. Now, kids can watch hiphop on MTV or BET, and bite the style without having to actually participate in community”.

    There’s also the fact that the crowd that the appropriators pander to don’t feed back into the source community. You can hear the same crowd listening to Bobby Caldwell, Average White Band, George Duke and Najee at a concert- you don’t see white boy band fans showing up at New Edition or Boyz to Men concerts.

    It’s really the same issue when we talk about spirituality and appropriation- the person who is really down, who is an outsider, will point you to the source, instead of playing themselves off as the shit.

  3. This is a continuation of the loooooooong problem of American media appropriating/repackaging black music and songs for “mainstream” ie white radio and TV and record releases – it seems to me like there has to be a connection between stuff like the only acceptable black stars being those who are very light, have straightened hair, and then further minimizing their actual appearance to make them (supposedly) more marketable and less threatening to white audiences…

  4. Well, we couldn’t take the chance that someone might mistake black people making black music for black people, right? POC, as people and cultures, only exist for white consumption and service, right?

    Anything else would be threatening, irrational, militant, and demanding special rights.

    You know, like equality.

  5. So here’s another way to look at it.

    I listen to a lot of genres but what I enjoy right now is punk and noise. I could attempt to stumble around town and find a hiphop club with actual black people (gasp!) which is hard because I don’t know of many venues outside of the ones that are published in the newspaper. That would be great, except sometimes I want to listen to noise, but then I have to be in a sea of white people. I’m not sure if it was this blog or another blog where the discussion about race and music went, but I feel like I shouldn’t be pigeonholed into some genres just because that’s what someone else dictates. At the same time, genre seems to indicate what kind of audience I will have to put up with, and I’ve been to shows where the audience has dampened my enthusiasm for the performer. What then?

    (btw I’m brown, just so you know.)

  6. Meep-
    I’m not saying people can’t listen to whatever they want, hell my favorite music style was Riotgrrl for years. But there’s a difference between actually being part of the community that makes/enjoys/contributes to that music versus someone who is stealing it and commodifying it for sale all the while denigrating the culture it comes from.

    Since we live in a white supremacist society, when the oppressor decides to sing the music of the oppressed while still perpetuating the same white supremacist culture that’s when I have a huge problem. I mean I have a problem with any artist that is adopting cultures without participating/having respect/knowing the culture they are taking from but it gets even more sinister and complicated when the intersectionality of race comes into it. Plus there is a long history of black artists being stolen from and left destitue and homeless while white musicians stole their songs. The most famous example of this is Big Mama Thorton who originally sang “Hound Dog” but dies without credit as Elvis re-did it and stole any airplay her version was getting. So this practice of white artists singing music that has such close ties to the African-American community also plays on that history a lot.

  7. bankuei-
    the person who is really down, who is an outsider, will point you to the source, instead of playing themselves off as the shit.

    This sums up the phenomenon perfectly.

    bellatrys-
    like the only acceptable black stars being those who are very light, have straightened hair, and then further minimizing their actual appearance to make them (supposedly) more marketable and less threatening to white audiences…

    There is a strong connection here, especially when we see that all the “acceptable” black musicians who get a lot of radio play or black actors who get roles are all light-skinned – Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Halle Berry, etc.

  8. Until I looked over at another blog, I couldn’t remember the exact bell hooks essay. Just that it was from the book, Black Looks. The commenter, Haley, linked to this http://stevenstanley.tripod.com/docs/bellhooks/madonna.html

    Basically, I’m just reminded of the essay because–at least to me–culturally appropriated music, from any culture, tends to comes off as a hollow, even offensive, imitation that ends up benefiting one group of people above others. Culturally and monetarily. They’ll throw money and props, deals and respect towards the shams and imitators but not to the genuine.

    And sometimes they’ll even accuse the genuine of imitation, e.g. “Macy Gray is trying to sound like Amy Winehouse.” or “Amy Winehouse/Elvis/Justin Timberlake came before Macy Gray/Big Momma Thorton/Usher.”

    True stories/quotes! >.<

  9. I *just* saw an article about a neosoul act (black, and possibly from the UK) who were coming in *as if on the coattails of Amy Winehouse* (according to the article). So – yeah.

    Thanks for the video. Great voice. Good song. And I liked the video a lot. I mostly listen to world music, and I get a window into alt-rock via my kids, so I really appreciate the video links you put up. Did I mention that Hawaii has a limited selection of radio stations? Understandably, but nevertheless it’s difficult to keep up with a wide range of musical happenings.

    Have you heard of Paula Fuga?

  10. Juan-
    Thanks for the link to that essay! I read it years ago and had lost the link for it.

    “Macy Gray is trying to sound like Amy Winehouse.” or “Amy Winehouse/Elvis/Justin Timberlake came before Macy Gray/Big Momma Thorton/Usher.”

    Seriously?
    I can barely see straight after reading that hot mess. The very idea that these white artists are “more real” than artists that have actually grown up surrounded by the community and it’s astetic their whole lives. Not to say white folks can’t grow up in the community but let’s be real none of those listed above did. Also I loathe how much “street cred”/publicity these white artists get for performing music connected to other communities. The praise just completely ignores the history of theft from brown folks all along and tries to make it seem as if these artists are all about the community.

  11. Kate-

    *as if on the coattails of Amy Winehouse*
    Le sigh…I can’t stand it. This stuff just drives me crazy and ignores the fact Estelle (and similar black artists) was actually doing this kind of music back in 2002/2003 when Winehouse was focused on a more jazzy sound for her album Frank.

    I can understand the limited radio, shooty the radio in the Bay Area just plays the same songs day after day. If you want to listen to internet radio I really recommend Pandora, very good and you alter the station according to your tastes.

    No, I’ve never heard of Paula Fuga, who is she?

  12. There’s a local Hawaii sound that is the laidback Hawaii music blended with reggae, only its own thing/version/whatever. Paula Fuga is a young artist/musician who is getting well known, at least locally, anyway, although I think she may be getting some play on the Mainland.

  13. Oh yeah, very seriously.

    That and other personal ‘horror stories’ have made me rather tight lipped to many when talking about music. Not just to white folk (okay, mostly) but people in general.

  14. Kate-
    Thanks for the heads up I’ll check Paula Fuga out when I get home tonight. I’m always up for more indie music especially as most popular music becomes more and more homogenized.

  15. Juan-
    Not just to white folk (okay, mostly) but people in general.

    I get that, I really do there are certain folks that I just do not get into anti-oppression stuff with. Of course this means they never really become that close to me but that works out because I don’t really want someone with no social consciousness close to me.

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