Can the white girl sing soul? Yes, as long as we pay for it

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

HE MU­SIC in­dus­try has a long and in­glo­ri­ous past when it comes to the sub­ject of race. The term “cover ver­sion” – to take just one ex­am­ple – ac­tu­ally means “to cover up the race of the orig­i­nal singer”. It was in­vented when early black rock’n’roll songs were cov­ered by white artists, the think­ing be­ing that the song would sell more to a pre­dom­i­nantly white record-buy­ing au­di­ence if it was sung by a white per­son.

Just as black mod­els rou­tinely com­plain that they are rarely fea­tured on the front of glossy fash­ion mags, so black mu­si­cians re­port that they have to work un­der dif­fer­ent bud­gets, and all too of­ten find them­selves be­ing mar­keted to a black au­di­ence only.

In its first two years of its ex­is­tence, MTV played videos by, at best, a hand­ful of black artists. This colour bar was only re­vealed years later when Michael Jack­son’s record la­bel, CBS (now Sony), re­vealed that the only way they could get MTV to play the Bil­lie Jean video was to tell the chan­nel that if it wasn’t played, they would not give them the clear­ance to play videos by other big-name CBS acts (Billy Joel, Bruce Spring­steen, and so on).

Re­ceived wis­dom tells us that Elvis “stole” black mu­sic and made it palat­able for a white au­di­ence. That’s All Right was orig­i­nally dis­missed by white DJs as a “black” record, but when it was pointed out that the singer was white, it be­came a mas­sive ra­dio hit.

It’s a com­plex is­sue: for ex­am­ple, when Ray Charles first re­leased a coun­try mu­sic album,

he got it from both sides: from white peo­ple for “steal­ing” their mu­sic, and from black peo­ple for record­ing “red­neck mu­sic”. To­day, there are still reg­u­lar ar­gu­ments about the Mobo (Mu­sic of Black Ori­gin) awards. Is Amy Wine­house el­i­gi­ble? How can you quan­tify to what ex­tent a song is “of black ori­gin”.

The trou­bled sub­ject of race and mu­sic was given a fresh air­ing last week by Estelle, who is cur­rently high in the UK and Ir­ish charts with Amer­i­can Boy. She feels that, as a soul singer, she was largely over­looked in her na­tive UK, and it was only when she moved to the US that her ca­reer took off.

Re­mark­ing on two other Bri­tish soul singers, Adele and Duffy (who, let’s face it, haven’t ex­actly been starved of pub­lic­ity), Estelle re­marked that their mu­sic wasn’t true “soul”.

“It’s hi­lar­i­ous. I’m not mad at them,” Estelle said. “I’m just won­der­ing: how the hell is there not a sin­gle black per­son in the pub­lic eye singing soul?

“Adele isn’t soul. She sounds like she heard some Aretha Franklin records once and she’s got a deeper voice – that doesn’t mean she’s soul.”

Asked to de­fine “soul mu­sic”, Estelle said: “I guess it is mu­sic that you feel in your heart and your ex­pe­ri­ence. You can’t ex­plain it; it just gets you. It’s in the lyrics, the melody, the beat – you can’t pull it apart. They keep try­ing to tell me in the me­dia what soul mu­sic is and I’m like, we know what soul mu­sic is.”

By “we”, does Estelle mean black peo­ple? If her point is that Adele and Duffy were given far more op­por­tu­ni­ties – in terms of ra­dio play, TV ex­po­sure, and so on – than she was, then she is cor­rect. In a pre­dom­i­nantly white record-buy­ing coun­try such as the UK, the white ver­sion of “soul” will al­ways sell bet­ter. It’s mar­ket­ing de­mo­graph­ics re­duced to its crud­est ex­pres­sion. If, how­ever, she is, by im­pli­ca­tion, stat­ing that only soul mu­sic per­formed by black artists is some­how “au­then­tic”, then she is re­turn­ing to the hoary old “can the white man sing the blues?” ar­gu­ment. Al­low­ing for the fact that there is at least as much racism in the mu­sic in­dus­try as there is in any other walk of life, the sim­ple truth is that the white man and the white wo­man can sing the blues and/or soul as much as the record-buy­ing mar­ket al­lows it. And at the mo­ment, that mar­ket is buoy­ant.

Estelle: feels that she was largely over­looked in her na­tive UK

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