From Robin Thicke to Mayer Hawthorne: Has R&B become a white man’s game?
From its inception, R&B has been a fusion of many different types of music – jazz, funk, pop, rock and roll, soul, reggae, and gospel. One thing has always been constant in R&B, and that is the topic of love.
Whether it is the pain of love, the yearning for love, or the joy of love, love has always been the central theme. The best R&B artists in our history are the ones who are able to speak to each of those feelings in a personal way, to the point that you feel their emotions coming through their music.
I remember going through a bad breakup with a girlfriend in college, and I mean bad. The pain was horrible! I wasn’t eating, sleeping or paying attention in class. I basically spent two to three weeks after my breakup in my dorm room listening to Anthony Hamilton’s “Can’t Let Go,” Al Green’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” and Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor.” (Sad I know, insert your tears here.)
On the flip side, months later, I entered into a new relationship and I remember heading to class smiling and listening to Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Worth,” Musiq Soulchild’s “Teach Me” and the Temptations’ “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” among other songs, on a regular basis – you couldn’t shake my happiness!
I give these examples to show that R&B has always served as the “soundtrack to our lives” (hopefully I’m not alone with these cheesy stories) and we emotionally connect to the music and its message of love. No matter the color of your skin, you have experienced love in one of those forms and we now have a diverse artist base that is able to convey that message.
The new hue of R&B
Steve Stoute, the Founder and Chairman of brand marketing firm Translation LLC, wrote a book in 2011 titled, The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture The Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy. The focus of this extraordinary book is on how our cultural and demographic lines have been blurred largely due to the influence of music. No longer can we distinguish “black music” from “white music.” Good music is considered good music, no matter the genre.
Blacks are consuming music outside of rap and R&B while whites are consuming music outside of pop and rock n’ roll. This convergence of musical genres has led to a transformation of our cultures and societies like we have never seen before. You go into the room of an 18-year-old white male from suburban New Jersey and the room of an 18-year-old black male from South Jamaica, New York, chances are you will find the same music, clothes, websites, blogs, and language being spoken.
No matter the race, our lives are more interrelated than ever before. This fact is clearly evident within the R&B genre.
A genre that was created by black artists and has historically been dominated by black artists now counts three white artists as the top acts in the space. Robin Thicke’s highly anticipated album Blurred Lines was released on July 30th and is expected to quickly climb the charts. Justin Timberlake’s platinum The 20/20 Experience sold 980,000 copies in its first week. Up-and-coming artist Mayer Hawthorne just released his fourth album, Where Does This Door Go, on July 16th to great critical and public acclaim especially with younger African-American listeners.
In addition, we can’t leave out the English sensation that is Adele who took the world by storm in 2008 with her debut album 19, which went double platinum in the U.S. and her blockbuster follow up 21, which has become one of the best selling albums of the decade.
Some say that not having black artists at the top of the R&B genre threatens the legacy of the music. Some have said that this is evidence that R&B is declining and heading in the wrong direction. I totally disagree with this notion.
When asked who their influences are, Thicke, Timberlake, Hawthorne, and Adele have all named a mix of Steve Wonder, Etta James, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson and other African-American artists.
Although their skin color may be different, they are of what I call the “Motown lineage.” They are cut from the cloth of that same love music. Whether its Timberlake’s “Mirrors” or Robin Thicke’s “For The Rest Of My Life,” Hawthorne’s “Her Favorite Song“ or Adele’s “Hometown Glory,” you hear no color, you only hear the soul in their voices. Soul food and soul music have one thing in common: you can’t fake it and if you try, people will notice and call it out.
I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke participate in the BET Awards’ R&B trailblazer homage performances. They are carrying on the R&B tradition in an authentic way and that is what is most important. They all have a serious reverence and appreciation for the history of R&B. I would argue that they may have more of an appreciation for the R&B tradition than many black R&B artists who have strayed from the core essence of R&B for a more cross-over sound, audience, and dollar.
We saw the same transition within jazz from the 1960s-1980s, when many black jazz artists moved into rock n’ roll. Ultimately jazz became a genre dominated by white artists.
Diversity means better music
We have also seen a surge of white artists in the rap genre. Mac Miller, Macklemore, Machine Gun Kelly, Iggy Azalea, Kreayshawn, Riff Raff, and Yelawolf have all made a splash, while some have become serious contenders to be staples in the game. Many of them have brought different topics and approaches to the genre that have now been widely embraced. Macklemore created a song called “Same Love” which supports same-sex marriage. Mac Miller has rapped openly about growing up Jewish and the Holocaust. Both artists have also become models for artists who are looking for mainstream success while staying independent and not becoming beholden to major labels and 360 deals.
Like in any board room meeting or industry, having diverse voices and points of view in music is a positive thing that will ultimately lead to better, more well-rounded music for the “soundtrack to our lives.” In the words of Sonia Sroka, SVP of Multicultural Marketing at Edelman, “Diversity enhances and embraces everything that we are all doing and what we are all about.”
Diversity is cool. Music is cool. Love is cool. We should embrace and enjoy all three.
Rashad Drakeford is a sports & entertainment marketing consultant based in New York City. Follow Rashad on Twitter @RDrakeford.