The Green Side Of White R&B
by: Gian Fiero
What’s the deal with so
many white music artists singing black music? Why do white artists who sing
black music get better promotion than black artists? Why is R&B music now
synonymous with Hip-Hop?
These are some of the hot
topics that often come up in private conversations with my industry associates
and colleagues. I will attempt to shed some much-needed light on these
delicate, sensitive and somewhat controversial issues.
To really understand the
phenomenon of white music artists singing R&B, you should begin with an
examination of the motivation and purpose behind the establishment of black
music divisions at record companies in the 60s. While the success of Motown as
a black owned operation has been well-documented and highly publicized, many of
the competing record labels of that time lacked the personnel to adequately
exploit the abundance of musically talented black teens.
White owned record
companies shrewdly appointed black music executives who were more in tune and
in touch with black music (and the black artists that created and performed
it), to help interface with them. This was, after all, a time when race
relations were strained and tentative.
Many record companies and
radio stations took note of the increasing popularity of R&B music among
white teenagers and attempted to preserve racial barriers by denying them
access to it. Their denial constituted a potential economic problem since the
music industry (like most industries) thrives on supply and demand. Their
solution: provide their darling teenaged kids with a "white"
alternative; someone who "sounded" black and performed
"black" music, a la Elvis Presley, whose popularity was soaring. It
wasn’t uncommon for records in that era often to have two different versions –
a white version and a black version – which was serviced to the appropriate
In the 70s, the push toward
equality and peace gave birth to a more gregarious and unified music industry.
Top bands like Sly & The Family Stone, Tower of Power, Earth Wind &
Fire, and The Commodores emerged and enjoyed success throughout the 70s, but
many lacked crossover appeal and forced black music executives to search for
other viable options in order to save their jobs. One option was Disco – the
hot novelty genre.
Disco was more than a new
genre; it was a cultural release from the lingering social anxieties and racial
tensions of the 60s and emerged as the dominant format because of its mass-market
appeal and universal acceptance. The music industry eventually sobered up from
the lecherous activities and rampant drug abuse of the disco era in 1979, just
in time to endure the worst financial year of its existence.
With slumping record sales
and a gluttony of music acts that were signed to perform disco songs, the
R&B music community returned to its soulful roots and searched desperately
for an answer to rectify the problems that plagued it. The answer wasn’t
written on the wall, but it was found in the album "Off The Wall"
by Michael Jackson, which helped to transition R&B music back into a
more "Pop-friendly" format; a la Motown.
While Michael captured
the heart’s and imaginations of white America with his unhuman dance moves,
there were plenty of black music pioneers upholding the funky values and
virtues of black music as we marched into the techno era of the 80s. R&B
music seemed to undergo a much-needed resurgence.
The R&B bands of the
70s started to downsize in personnel as more emphasis was being placed on solo
acts (a la Michael Jackson) and vocal groups. For the R&B music artist,
the advent of technology superseded the need to be backed up by a band,
ushering in the producer era which R&B music is heavily predicated on
It was also at this time
that many record companies began merging and restructuring a move that resulted
in the loss of hundreds of jobs for black music executives who were worked in
the black music divisions.
Shortly thereafter, we
witnessed the birth of blue-eyed soul as white music artists who were
performing R&B music begun to receive heavy and steady financial backing by
their record labels. Hall & Oates enjoyed unprecedented success in the
early and mid-80s a litmus test for the acceptance of white artists performing
R&B under the guise of Pop music.
While Hall & Oates may
have raised a few eyebrows in the R&B music community, eyes were opened
widely when George Michael, a former member of Pop teen group Wham!, won a
Grammy for the best "black" album in 1989. It was the first time in
history that a white solo music artist topped the R&B charts. The R&B
music community was outraged as veteran black music artists Freddie Jackson and
Gladys Knight denounced the political voting practices of the Academy that renders
While the award was well
deserved in terms of record sales and radio airplay, the color lines of who
qualified as a "black" music artist had been redefined. When the
smoke cleared, the music industry in general, and R&B music community in
particular, would both be changed forever.
As we stood on the
doorsteps of the 90s, more black music executives lost their jobs as record
companies continued the trend of merging, restructuring and downsizing in an
effort to diversify their business interests and increase their profits.
Rap music was (finally)
being fully embraced as a commercially viable genre and record companies moved
quickly to cash in on it. The appeal of low investments, and (potentially) high
returns, constituted a major shift in business practices at record companies,
and black music artists found themselves jockeying for position on the revamped
priority lists of their now predominantly white music executives. After all,
Rap was already achieving magical "underground" sales.
All the record companies
needed to do was bring it to the surface and supply their distribution and
marketing resources them. Since much of the music was already recorded, they
could also circumvent many of the recording costs as well. While the music
industry made an overt and deliberate attempt to position itself to supply what
appeared to be an insatiable demand for Rap music, it lost sight of the
distinction between R&B music, and Rap music.
R&B music lovers
helplessly watched as orders came down from white music executives to
incorporate elements of Rap music into R&B songs to make them more
competitive with Rap, since Rap music artists posed a clear and tangible threat
to the record sales of R&B music artists.
At the time, Mariah Carey
and Color Me Badd were enjoying newfound stardom that came (once again) as a
result of white music executives pushing a novelty agenda of white music
artists performing R&B music. Both of the aforementioned acts were
initially viewed (by black audiences) as alternatives to their black
competitors (Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men respectively), but with such
strong marketing and promotional campaigns, both Mariah Carey and Color Me Badd
were able to establish their own identity.
Today, the trend continues
with white music executives diligently marketing and promoting the novelty
agenda of white music artists such as Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera,
Joss Stone, Anastacia, etc. singing R&B. Some insiders say that the music
industry continues to deliberately and intentionally find alternatives to black
music artists to service to white audiences such as Britney Spears, who was
presented as an alternative to Janet Jackson, and Nelly Furtado, who draws
similarities to Erykah Badu, you decide.
While some will argue that
its not a simple matter of black versus white since some of the aforementioned
music artists are not "white" but are of different ethnicities or
even part black, the fact is that the widely held opinion in the black
community is that if you don’t look black (possessing obvious African American
features), then you are not. You are something else other than black; and
"white" becomes a description of an unknown racial category.
The new business model of
the music industry has created new opportunities for black entrepreneurs, but
many of them lack the financial resources to take advantage of them. As a
result they are often forced to participate in the production of Rap music, or
R&B music with Rap production as they try to manufacture or supply product
and artists that will enable them to embark upon partnerships and joint
ventures with the same record companies that dissolved their black music
divisions in the first place.
History and research shows
that the music industry has continued to systematically reduce the role of the
black music executive. Many of those who remain are often relegated to the now
dispensable role of liaison, gatekeeper and hand-holder for troubled rap acts
in this new Hip-Hop era. A far cry from a time when they were once responsible
for finding, developing and supporting premier black music artists who created
some of the greatest music that we now view as the soundtrack to the this
Those songs are still the
choice of middle-aged Americans who tune into oldie radio stations across the
country that have adopted "Classic Soul" as a new format. Where does
that leave R&B music artists of today? They are left to compete or join
forces with rap artists since they have been lumped into the same
"Urban" or "Hip-Hop" music category.
The formulaic use of
R&B to inject a commercial element into Rap music has contributed
significantly to the fusion, and confusion regarding the distinction of both
genres. This can be traced back to the 80s when R&B acts such as Lakeside
and Confunksion had huge hits with songs that incorporated Rap ("Fantastic
Voyage," "Electric Lady," and "Square Biz"), R&B
music embarked upon a trial marriage that turned out to be a permanent one.
R&B is now used to
bolster the talent level perception, black audience appeal, and record sales of
white music artists in every genre. Even Country (a genre that is guarded by a
closed-knit circle of protective white executives), borrows heavily from
Country is a genre that is
ripe for infiltration by conventional R&B artists, but unlike R&B music
– which has become a community genre with no one race retaining the inherent
rights to perform it the likelihood of that occurring is slim because of the
unquestioned and unchallenged exclusion of other races.
The significant issue in
white R&B music artists versus black R&B music artists can be narrowed
down to one question: who gets the greater commitment and promotion from their
record companies to service a larger audience of consumers?
When one considers the
commitment level, dedicated resources, and promotional opportunities which are
more abundant for white R&B music artists, and that blacks only account for
15% of the population, and that white music artists inherit a larger audience to
begin with, understanding the green side of white R&B becomes much easier.
Gian Fiero is a seasoned
educator, speaker and consultant with a focus on business development
and music/entertainment industry operations. He currently teaches at
San Francisco State University where he conducts courses on Music
Industry Career Planning and Publicity/Public Relations. His
affiliations include National Association Of Record Industry
Professionals (associate director); CLA (speaker); West Coast
Songwriters (consultant); The Muse’s Muse (producer of the Muse’s Muse
Awards); and SBA (business advisor).