Fade to White: Black artists share the spotlight again (47164)

The American Music Awards, which airs Nov. 24, usually serves as a preview to the Grammys. This year, only two of the three nominations for Favorite Male R&B are White (Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake); the third is Miguel. And one out of three of the nods for Favorite Male Rap/Hip Hop is White (Macklemore & Lewis). The duo of Macklemore & Lewis is also nominated for Favorite Album (Rap/Hip Hop) against Jay Z and Kendrick Lamar.

On the Pop side, only one Black artist is nominated, and that is Rihanna for Favorite Female Artist. No Black artists are nominated for New Artist of the Year, Favorite Pop Artist or Single of the Year.

Once a Disney diva, Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana) is rapping nowadays and using music producers who are typically considered urban (such as Planet VI); and in late October, the second most added song on urban (Black) radio was Robin Thicke’s “For the Rest of My Life.”

“A lot of people wanted to try to make me the White Nicki Minaj,” Cyrus explained in tvguide.com about her change in musical direction. “That’s not what I’m trying to do. I love ‘hood’ music, but my talent is as a singer.”

So, with all those facts in evidence, the natural question is are White artists taking over Black music? Before you answer, heres a little history. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Black artists were rarely seen on the front lines (headlining big shows, on TV), except in their own communities. And even then, performances would be at smaller venues and clubs.

However, many White artists sang Black songs as if they were their own: Pat Boone, Bing Crosby and even Elvis Presley, to name a few.

Soul music, or race music as it was often called, began to seep onto radio through trailblazing White DJs such as Alan Freed, Wolfman Jack and Dewey Phillips. And as time went on, Dick Clark and Ed Sullivan began inviting Black artists to perform on their hit shows.

It was just a matter of time before radio stations in major markets began not only playing Black music, but also dedicating their whole format to the music. By the 1980s, stations such as WBLS-FM in New York, WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and WBMX-FM in Chicago were leading in the ratings with a format that exclusively played Black music.

Enter the 1990s, and the format was now called “urban.” Hip hop, Soul and R&B music were hot, eating up the Billboard charts. The Black format got so big that record labels had Black music departments; and Billboard magazine as well as other trade publications and the awards shows created separate categories for Hip Hop or Rap. Next came another format, called urban adult contemporary (ac), that played “softer” Black music, such as the Isley Brothers, Toni Braxton, Eric Benet, Brian McKnight etc., but basically no Rap.

Industry observers note that Black music became so popular that it became Pop music and was played on several other traditionally White formats such as adult contemporary or Top 40. But the Black formats–urban and urban ac–remained as dedicated outlets for Black artists.

Once a lot of Black artists were also being featured on the Top 40 Rhythmic format, aka Pop (a few years into the new millennium), most of the Black music departments at the major record labels were folded into the Pop departments. Some say that those Black artists who made it to the Pop side watered down their music and made it “less Black” to appeal to that mixed audience listening to and buying music.

Today, there are several non-Black artists who have virtually taken over the Soul/R&B charts. These charts have traditionally been stacked with Black artists. But that began to change. This year alone, both Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake have made major appearances on the Soul/R&B and urban (typically a format that plays a lot of Hip Hop) charts, while holding their own on the Pop charts as well.

Now the question is raised: are there not any Black artists as good as Thicke and Timberlake anymore?

Who’s to blame?

“It blooms from the production and producers,” says Tommy Henderson, a former executive at LaFace Records and now an artist consultant and manager. “The Black artists need to find that perfect blend of R&B/Pop . . . because the record buying public is majority White. It is what it is . . . and Black artists love to give their music away anyway, courtesy of mix tapes.”

Certainly there is more than a grain of truth to Henderson’s theory on producers and production. Note that nearly all of Timberlake’s “ The 20/20 Experience” CD was produced by iconic Black producer Timbaland.

And as for Thicke, he has been quick to add Black artists as guests on his songs, including Pharrell Williams and T.I. on the smash hit “Blurred Lines.”

Henderson goes so far as to imply that Thicke took the basis of his hit song from another hit song of R&B legend and African American Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up”. “Thicke needs to admit,” Henderson contends, “that he lifted from Marvin Gaye . . . ain’t nothin’ blurred about them lines . . . he gotta give it up.”

Gaye’s estate, in fact, is entangled in a lawsuit against Thicke, accusing him of exactly what Henderson is saying. It’s an interesting case that perhaps is an example of history repeating itself. Fifty years ago, Chuck Berry went after the Beach Boys when the iconic group released “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Berry contended that the summer hit sounded too much like his “Sweet Little 16.” In the end, Berry was awarded partial writing credit, which came with cash from royalties that he still receives to this day. (Publishing rights last 100 years.)

Jerry Rushin has been around the radio and music industry for decades. He recently retired from running three of Miami’s top radio stations, including heritage Black station WEDR-FM (99Jamz).

Although he is not pleased with the lack of Black artists at the forefront these days, he contends that this just might be history repeating itself.

“This is some kind of aberration that takes place every 20 to 25 years or so,” Rushin says. “In the 1960s, you had the Righteous Brothers, then came AWB (Average White Band), Wild Cherry, a weak Michael Bolton, Michael McDonald, Simply Red, etc.

“Of course, most recently, it’s Justin T. and Robin T. The current ones are smart enough to hook up with Black artists to help their Soul/R&B credibility. Keep in mind R&B has been so watered down in recent years, it just ain’t the same anymore.”

Paul Porter, co-founder of the web sites Industry Ears and CEO/founder of Rap Rehab, says the trend of White artists taking over Black music charts is nothing new, and it may just come from those who pull the purse strings. “R&B has been on life support for almost a decade. While the Timberlakes and Miguels are nice, I find the amount of support that core R&B artists are getting from the majors is laughable.”

Marsha Washington George, the author of “Black Radio: Winner Take All,” has been heavily involved with the NBPC (National Black Programmers Coalition) for decades and says she has mixed emotions on the trend.

“When the industry lets our music get taken over by calling it Pop, it took away something that Black Americans started. Record companies’ greed changed the whole scope of a thriving entity, and they won, as they shut down Black artists and repertoire (A&R) divisions and laid off seasoned, talented agents and consultants. For today’s entertainers, they are of various nationalities and have found themselves loving our soulful being; therefore, they’re entitled to be called a Favorite R&B Artist. However, I must admit, that we must make sure that African Americans are not completely ousted and are included in something that their ancestors rightfully created and thereby should be given awards for their creativity as well. If we sit back and let it happen and don’t say anything, Black music will become one of those clichés of ‘what ever happened to . . .’?”

Maybe, says one music industry exec, Black artists themselves are partly to blame. “It’s the same as when White artists took over Rock and Roll and Blues … same thing is happening, and to Rap, too,” says Steve Riley, A&R executive with SMG Global Network/Universal Music Group. “Part of the problem is Black artists don’t educate themselves to the business side of the music business.”

It’s not their fault

“Music entertainment is music entertainment. Most people don’t care what color the artists are,” declares Harry Lyles, an industry consultant and owner of the online music trade Urbaninsite.com. “We live in a new day and time. Things are exposed more so today than ever.”

Dion Summers, who is the director of urban programming for XM/Sirius Satellite Radio, says the artists aren’t to blame, and that there are Black artists out there blazing new trails. “Let’s not be so quick to label J.T. as the one purely responsible for bringing Soul back. While his effort is commendable and his current album is a sure classic, we must also look to recent works from Fantasia, Miguel and Frank Ocean as examples of artists who’ve redefined soul for the newgeneration.”

Adds Summers, “It’s an exciting time for Soul music. We’re nearing the kind of R&B resurgence that we’ve seen in the 1960s and 1990s.”

A win-win?

Black producers are as prevalent as ever. Tricky Stewart, who started the production company Red Zone Entertainment with his brothers in Atlanta about 15 years ago, initially was active with Black artists only. Today, he produces Country artists and Pop artists as well. In fact, he was a key player in the success of 2012 “American Idol” winner Scotty McCreery–who is a Country artist. His production credits also include Jennifer Lopez and Justin Beiber.

As mentioned earlier, Timbaland produced Justin Timberlake’s entire CD and Planet VI has recently worked with Miley Cyrus, Cody Simpson, Pussycat Dolls, Jessie McCartney and Beiber, among other Pop artists.

Henry Haynes, who is a contributor to Yahoo Voices, wrote in his blog, that not only is the trend nothing new, it’s also good for everyone in the long run (July 7, 2013): “White and non-Black Hispanic artists have been capitalizing on Black music forms seemingly forever. But in our racially-charged society, White artists can often reach audiences that are out of range for Black artists. When White artists do well with Black forms of music, it’s good for everyone. A rising tide lifts all boats. The Beatles covering Motown songs greatly aided Motown in becoming ‘the Sound of Young America.’ The success of the Rolling Stones helped Black Blues artists gain greater recognition.

“Pharrell Williams and T.I., who are featured on ‘Blurred Lines,’ are making a ton of money, as are the Black artists appearing in Miley Cyrus’ video for ‘We Can’t Stop.’ It is a win-win situation for everyone.”

Dave Tolliver, who has been successful as a part of R&B group Men At Large, and as a solo artist, disagrees. He says the trend of White artists doing Black music takes away from real Black artists trying to break into the business, and even those who have already been out there.

“I can’t say they are taking it over, but on some level, they do get unfair favor over Black artists on the Black stations,” said Tolliver. “We have to reach a certain chart position before we even get a chance to be on the Pop stations or the TV shows. Rap is a totally different situation, but for R&B, we are getting screwed. There aren’t enough spots as it is for real Black artists, but as soon as J.T. our R.T. drop one, it’s in heavy rotation. That’s a spot for Joe, Brian McKnight, Tony Terry, Donnel Jones, Rude Boys and me, who all have new music. Am I bitter? Hell yeah. Give us our genre back and our slots. We work too hard to have to fight like we do.”