A few days ago I was listening to some new music via iTunes Music and came across a really awesome sounding band performing soulful, blues inflected folk music. As I listened to song after song on their debut album, A / B, I wondered where this band could be from that they had such an amazing bluesy sound. The lead vocalist had an authentically gritty and soulful voice. What rhythm and blues band could have produced this sound that has been missing from my ears for so long?
Well, the band’s name is Kaleo and they hail from, of all places, Iceland. They are a blue-eyed soul band with a classic southern blues sound. Kind of like Amos Lee, or more classically, Etta James or Sam Cooke. The biggest difference being that all 4 members of the band are white.
This got me to thinking about a conversation that has been consistently present in the public’s consciousness for decades really, but that has come to the forefront of race conversations that have been taking place in our country as of late. The conversation about cultural appropriation in music has been going on at least since the 50’s and definitely during the 60’s when Elvis and Janis Joplin, among others, put their own spin on blues and soul.
Once again it was prominent when Robin Thicke, a hugely successful artist in the RnB/Pop arena who made a mistake of essentially biting the hand that fed him. Thicke launched a preemptive lawsuit against Marvin Gaye’s to keep them from suing Thicke & Pharrell Williams for copying his song, “Got To Give It Up” which his hit, Blurred Lines very closely resembled.”
It recently was pushed to the fore of mainstream again after actor/activist Jesse Williams delivered a powerful and eloquent acceptance speech for the Humanitarian of the Year Award at the 2016 BET Awards.
“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.” (Time)
In a move that reeked of poor judgement and underlined his lack of self-awareness, Justin Timberlake took to Twitter to praise Mr. Williams’ speech as inspiring to which a Twitter user replied, “So does this mean you’re going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet too?” In what was another show of poor judgement on Timberlake’s part, he chose to respond with a condescending and dismissive Tweet, “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.”
Regardless of how insulted, offended or slighted he might have felt, I don’t think it was in Mr. Timberlake’s best interest to respond to that Tweet AT ALL. His best possible answer, would have been silence. At least then, perhaps, one would think perhaps he is taking in this information and thought about what has haunted him throughout his career. Certainly, he has worked with some of the best producers in the industry to obtain the sound that we so identify with his music. Be it, Pharrell Williams or Timbaland, he has had guidance from the best black producers that r&b fueled pop has had to offer so in that way I don’t think that he has committed a disservice to “black” music. But what has he given back to black music in return?
Now there are quite a few white artists that have been able to perform and record authentic r&b and done so to great success. And the best ones recognize and are sure to pay homage to their influences. Singers like Joss Stone, Duffy and Marc Broussard have helped bring a retro-soul styles to mainstream pop.
Amy Winehouse was one of the best songwriters and performers to come along in a LONG time when she released her 2nd album in the US back in 2006. Her massive success was due in large part to Mark Ronson, an English DJ & record producer, and her borrowed backing band, The Dap Kings. The Dap Kings were actually part of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, a group so dedicated to capturing the authentic sound of ’60’s style soul that they actually recorded out of a studio they built entirely of vintage equipment. It’s no wonder that The Dap Kings, made up of African American men, were able to capture exactly the kind of sound that the white Winehouse & Ronson were looking for and had runaway success with it. The problem of course is that they were doing so with Ms. Winehouse, NOT their lead singer Sharon Jones herself an African-American woman. Never mind that Ms. Winehouse’s sound was authentic and came from an honest place, it could be argued that she not only appropriated the sound, but she even stole the band too. But Amy Winehouse always gave credit where it was due in recognizing the Dap Kings, and they, along with Ms. Jones, were able to use their success with her to tap into bigger opportunities.
Another white English soul-singer that is seeing a huge level of success is Adele. Adele to me is authentic in her sound and in her style. There is nothing forced or fake about where her soulful sound comes from. She has been HUGELY successful and yet not many other black artists are making any attempt to successfully emulate her or Ms. Winehouse’s sound. The exception being Andra Day who has gained quite a bit of success writing, singing and performing in a similar 60’s soul vibe made popular again by Winehouse and Adele.
I hear a lot of rumblings about why aren’t people making black singers singing r&b as successful as they have made Adele since there are those just as talented. To them I say most of the singers you are talking about are NOT doing what Adele or Amy Winehouse do. They are producing music for a very specific niche audience. A black audience and they are gaining success with that small target audience. But they are also not recording music with an authentic throwback to classic soul and funk which I think audiences are hungry for. I don’t consider Adele to be appropriating the culture because right now, no one else is doing what she does and she recognizes who her influences are and she offers homage to them every chance she gets.
This brings me back to Justin Timberlake. He has apologized for his Tweets and offered a defense of his behavior. I offer that Justin’s is perhaps the worst kind of appropriation in that he has not only stolen the sound that many of his black contemporaries are working with, but then, he has the nerve to show further disrespect by waving his privilege around in defense of his right to steal that sound. His apology, while seemingly sincere, falls flat, just like his half-hearted apology after Nipple-gate. THAT is something that will continue to haunt him for a long while.