When the Robert Glasper Experiment dropped the album Black Radio earlier this year, the in-your-face interludes and songs featuring Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), Erykah Badu, King and others discussed the state of music—particularly Black music. The song collection’s interludes clearly emphasize that today’s music scene is lacking the innovation, substance and creativity that is possible to bring to music fans of all forms—from hip-hop and R&B to funk and jazz. But, you didn’t need to listen to Glasper’s CD to have an opinion about the state of Black radio. Everyone seems to have an opinion of what is wrong about today’s music scene, and SoulTrain.com decided to highlight five of the top points made by voices across the spectrum about the state of today’s Black radio scene.
Lyrical Content is Lacking
In March of this year, archivist Reuben Jackson of the Smithsonian’s Duke Ellington Collection was interviewed by The Angle Show, an online docu-series, and asked to share his opinion about the state of Black music. He said all in all he was hopeful, but he did have concerns about songs with lyrics that didn’t do anything to uplift, instead focusing on the negative. “I do worry, with some of these songs that are beating like hammers, pushing them further down… I grew up in a time when a question of image was important. So I’m not a fan of showing that being black is like a one-way highway…Words are powerful whether lyrics or a song or as a rapper, it’s no small thing.”
Too Much Pop, Not Enough Soul
As today’s reigning soul singer, Adele, who won numerous Grammy Awards and accolades, paints what is becoming the most common face of popular soul music—white, female and British. Before her was Amy Winehouse. Black contemporaries—from Fantasia and Jasmine Sullivan to Jennifer Hudson and Chrisette Michelle–have not had record-soaring sales of their music in comparison, and have moved away from mostly R&B to a more middle-of-the-road pop sound for their soulful voices. In March, producer/recording artist The Dream bluntly stated in an interview with The Guardian that the face of soul music today is not Black people. He said, “… now the Blacks in America are responsible for the pop records, and everybody else is singing soulful records,” says The Dream. “It’s weird to me. We’re pigeonholed …”
Lack of Social Consciousness
Numerous soul artists have used their music to address social issues. Whether singing about war, poverty, or race, current artists are still making songs with a message. They may not be making concept albums where the entire album centers around one (à la Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life) but some artists make a point to include one socially conscious track on their albums, like hip-hop’s David Banner. Last month in an interview with SoulTrain.com, David Banner told us, “I can have as many messages as I want to, but if the music doesn’t sound good and if it’s not jamming they won’t bother. Dope concepts, dope beats, dope rhymes: I’ll stick to that until I die.” And Banner stays committed to that goal—with his recent mix tape release in May that addresses a few meaty topics—including the perception of Black people in mass media—the beats are dope, the rhymes are hot. But, at what cost are artists focusing on the beats over the message?
Limited Pool of Artists to Replace Lost Legends
This year alone we lost singers Whitney Houston and Etta James. Don Cornelius—while not a singer, created one of the largest platforms for soul singers with his show Soul Train and subsequent award shows. Legendary soul singers have passed away in the dozens—trailblazers like Phyllis Hyman and Nick Ashford, to innovators like Rick James and Teena Marie. Many of our legends have been lost to health and old age, but most have been lost to tragedy due to drugs or violence. Last year, singer-turned-music mogul Perri “Pebbles” Reid told Singersroom.com in an interview that she would love to see the industry get back to having a greater care for artists.
“I would just like to see from the industry a better and a bigger focus on the overall wellness of artists. I think we need to get back to a place where we have more of a hands-on approach,” she said.
As we lose our legends, who are the contemporary artists fit to reach legendary status? As singers who start as R&B, funk and hip-hop artists become pop artists performing club music, who will sustain what we know as Black music?
Harder for Black Artists to Get Promoted by Label and Played on Radio
Rapper 50 Cent, in a recent interview with MTV, was very vocal about his recent struggles with getting his new music released this year, despite his history of top-selling albums. “When you say Lady Gaga…her records go to Top 40 and crossover radio immediately. You can’t really compare to any artist that would be considered a pop artist or a white artist.” 50 Cent blames his label Interscope for not adequately promoting his new work and marketing him to radio stations.
What is your opinion on the state of Black radio?
-Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman
Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is an award-winning writer based in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Follow her on Twitter @KhadijahOnline.