Someone asked me last week if I thought American R&B was dead. Record sales have been declining for American artists who categorize themselves as the music genre’s front-runners. In fact, few major mainstream R&B artists, with the exception of Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Usher, are seeing an increase in album sales as their careers expand. For most of the American Soul family, there is a fight to stay relevant, charting and modern enough for our generation.
Reminiscing about the days when R&B ruled the Billboard Hot 100 with steady releases by Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, SWV, Xscape, Aaliyah and Ginuwine, we’re reminded that modern American Soul is being forgotten. The artists are either fading into obscurity or seeking to revamp their careers by plastering techno beats onto their song tracks.
Yet, while American Soul artists have given up a bit of their shine to equally talented pop stars like Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, British Soul has usurped the global audiences that have historically supported our R&B singers.
Our generation’s embracing of British Soul artists began in the 1980s with our love for the music of Sade, George Michael, Lisa Stansfield and a fresh R&B duo, Soul II Soul.
“Back to Life” and “Keep on Movin” by Soul II Soul opened the door for many British acts to become popular among American R&B audiences, and the success of British artists continued throughout the 1990s with releases by The Brand New Heavies and Beverly Knight.
Truth be told, British Soul has survived largely due to the contributions of Black American Soul artists. Performers from across the pond, like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, have traditionally borrowed or stolen songs from Black American Soul artists. Their entire popular music landscape is rooted in records made famous by Little Richard, The Shirelles, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.
Today, there is a modern “British Invasion” happening in America, which is seeing the explosive record sales of artists like Amy Winehouse, V.V. Brown, Duffy, Estelle, Leona Lewis, and Marsha Ambrosius of Floetry. British artist Jay Sean’s “Down” was one of the biggest songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart in 2009 and Taio Cruz followed suit, becoming a multiple chart topper in his own right.
Perhaps the most revered singer-songwriter to recently emerge from the British Soul scene is Adele. Her latest album, “21,” has already become Soundscan’s biggest selling release of 2011. Propelled by singles “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You,” Adele captivated American R&B audiences as well as a large portion of listeners from other musical genres as well.
American Soul artists are even beginning to heavily cover British Soul–listen to John Legend’s amazing reworking of “Rolling in the Deep.”
While there is no question that Adele’s album is amazing, I wonder why it has gotten more recognition than Keyshia Cole’s “Calling All Hearts” or Faith Evans’ work of genius, “Something About Faith?”
Do British Soul acts write and sing better songs than American Soul performers? Should Jill Scott or Raphael Saadiq take a back seat to Joss Stone or Tinchy Stryder? Is there even enough room for American R&B to survive alongside Amy Winehouse and Adele?
There are still some remarkable American artists who are unwilling to relinquish their Soul roots. Jennifer Hudson, Monica, John Legend, Fantasia, Eric Benet and Faith Evans have all released albums recently that were just as phenomenal, if not superior to their earlier works. They are still holding fast to the idea that R&B will re-emerge as America’s chosen genre, as it was in the 1990s.
To answer the thought-provoking question about R&B being on its deathbed, I’ve realized that Black American Soul music has been the driving force for our social and spiritual emancipation–from the earliest records of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday to the legendary songs of James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Even Hip Hop has incorporated Soul music into its sound, with releases in the early 1990s by Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, TLC and SWV.
American R&B is not dead.
It’s simply regrouping and waiting for audiences to love American R&B once again by supporting the artists who have shaped the sound of Soul around the world. It also calls for newer artists to rise, allowing the best performers of our generation to become legends while younger singer-songwriters grab the microphones, riding into the next chapter of Soul music.
James B. Golden, MPA, is a Los Angeles-based music journalist. He has previously edited the Hip Hop Think Tank academic journal and Kapu-Sens Literary Magazine. Golden was a music columnist at Say It Loud!, the San Fernando Valley’s Black newspaper. He is the author of a Hip Hop poetry collection entitled “Sweet Potato Pie Underneath the Sun’s Broiler.”