*LOS ANGELES, CA – The 21st Century White Negro…The Erasure of the Soul and History of Rhythm and Blues. In 1957, Pulitzer Prize winning author, playwright, journalist and essayist Norman Mailer, wrote his seminal treatise, The White Negro: Superficial Reflections of a Hipster.
Within his manifesto, Mailer outlined how young people rejected the social mores of the era, spurned conformity and aligned themselves with the so-called “dangerous rebels” within the African American culture.
Hipsters morphed into the phenomenon of the White Negro by imitating African American’s style of dress, era-centric lexicons, dance moves and music. Cultural appropriation isn’t a recent development, African Americans have been frustrated by the unabashed “stealing” of their cultural identities by Whites for decades.
Mailer’s timeline of this blatant African American appropriation begins from a benign interest in the jazz era, to its meteoric rise in the 1950’s. He said “so it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro,for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries. But the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz, and its knife-like entrance into culture.”
There’s no denying that African American culture is rich and able-bodied. African Americans are cool, hip, jovial and fun-loving. Our food is rich, our history is varied, our swagger is undeniable and our music is an inviting melodic siren. So it should surprise no one, especially those of us within the Black diaspora, that this hypnotically theft-worthy music is so coveted by those who are seduced by its magic. It sparkles and shines brightly like a rare multifaceted white diamond. However, no matter how beautiful and tantalizing it is, it’s not anyone’s to arbitrarily take. It belongs to the rightful owners and it appears that the ownership has been ignored. There’s an extremely thin line between loving a genre of music and paying homage to it, and flat-out larceny.
Since the 1950s are referenced, lets take a look at one of the most famous blue-eyed soul bandits of the 20th century and that’s Elvis Presley. For as long as anyone could remember, Presley was draped in the garments of music royalty. He was anointed the “King of Rock & Roll” and that title is still bandied about even-though Presley left the building 40 years ago. Everything about Presley screamed African American appropriation; his wardrobe, his swagger, his gyrating hips and the songs that shot him into an unprecedented stratosphere in Rock & Roll. One of his biggest hits “Hound Dog”, was snatched from the repertoire of African American blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Her version of the song stayed at #1 on the R & B charts for 7 weeks and sold approximately 2 million copies in 1953. Three years later, along comes Elvis Presley and his version overshadows Thornton’s and the rest as they say, is history. But Thornton was thwarted again when her song “Ball ‘n Chain” was released by Janis Joplin in the late 1960s.
Many African American artists of this epoch were eclipsed by White artists absconding with their songs and never giving credit where credit is due. The self-professed “Architect of Rock & Roll” Little Richard, has been notoriously vocal about how African American artists were treated and literally relegated to second-class musical status. Little Richard is factually influential in shaping rhythm & blues as well as having a direct determinative factor in the lives of singers and musicians across different musical genres. Another great African American musician of the 1950’s is Chuck Berry. Berry is a guitar and musical virtuoso, with such hits as “Mabellene, Johnny B Goode and Roll Over Beethoven”. It has been noted often that Berry “refined and developed rhythm and blues into the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive, with lyrics successfully aimed to appeal to the early teenage market by using graphic and humorous descriptions of teen dances, fast cars, high school life, and consumer culture, and utilizing guitar solos and showmanship that would be a major influence on subsequent rock music.”
Yet with the popularity, and not just with African Americans, of their music rivaling and in many ways exceeding that of Presley’s, neither Little Richard nor Chuck Berry enjoyed comparable accolades, awards, media attention, financial opportunities or airplay. Even now with both inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, their displays pale in comparison to that of Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and other White artists and musicians with equal success, and sometimes less. The plight of the African American singer and musician is painful, frustrating and defies reason. The same fate befell soulful crooner Nat King Cole. His career started in the 1930’s, and the 1940’s is when he scored his first mainstream hit with 1943’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right”. He was one of the first African Americans to host a TV show, “The Nat King Cole Show” that made its debut in 1956 on CBS, and all throughout the remainder of the 50’s, Cole continued to compile successive hits. He too is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame relegated to a lamentable display, not worthy of his talent or success.
Then you have singers and musicians who are mere footnotes in music history such as Big Joe Turner, Louis Jordan, Hazel Scott, Frank “Sugar Chile” Robinson, Ruth Brown, Ethel Waters (the people who remember her, associate her with films, but she was a very successful jazz singer in the 1920’s), Betty Carter, Ivie Anderson (Duke Ellington’s chanteuse during the 1930’s), Fats Waller, Little Milton and a host of others who have been forgotten because of the passage of time and the indifference some people feel about preserving their legacies.
Let us fast forward to today. Legends such as “the Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Patti LaBelle, the late great Luther Vandross, the late “Maestro of Love” Barry White, Freddie Jackson, Anita Baker, Mary Wilson of The Supremes, and throngs of other R & B royalty, aren’t fairing much better with their careers and legacies either. With the enormous body of work these artists have compiled, the ones who are still with us will record new music and most pop radio stations won’t play it, even some of the R & B stations won’t put their music on their playlists…shocker! While pop music’s White icon’s such as Madonna, Barbara Streisand (when she wants to do a concert),U2, Paul McCartney, Sting, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode and The Rolling Stones, are continuing to command millions to play large stadiums, with much of their music on rotations across pop music platforms and some R & B platforms as well.
How do we process the fact that celebrated African American artists, whose music was the sound of multiple generations, are reduced to playing small venues; casinos, supper clubs, bars and fairs, while also not being paid a fraction of what they should be considering they have some of the most recognizable hits ever made? Far too many of our famed African American artists have lived in poverty and died penniless and destitute because of how the system is rigged against them being able to ply their trade on a fair and equitable playing field. To anyone who loves music, this is unacceptable.
Current African American artists such as Beyonce’, Rihanna, Tyrese, Tank, The Weeknd, Chance the Rapper, Usher and Mary J. Blige are successfully recording music, and though the big juggernauts like Beyonce’, Rihanna and The Weeknd are being played across multiple mediums and pulling in millions for their concerts, there’s a caveat; they are paid considerably less than their White counterparts considering they have achieved global super-stardom. But where they are truly feeling their “Blackness” is when it’s time to hand out awards. Each year at The American Music Awards and most glaringly, at the most coveted of all music awards, The Grammys, African American artists are being pigeonholed into one genre, R & B, whether their music is R & B or not.
The major awards such as Record of the Year and especially Album of the Year, will primarily be awarded to a White artist, case in point; Adele beat out Beyonce’ at this year’s Grammys and even SHE was stunned by her own win. The last African American to win Album of the Year was Herbie Hancock in 2008 and that was in Jazz. Only 10 African American artists have won in that category since its inception in 1959. As a side note, Stevie Wonder won Album of the Year 3 times in 4 years. Even in the R & B categories, African Americans consistently have hurdles to overcome because for the last decade, White artists and rappers namely, Macklemore, Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke and Iggy Azalea, have been cleaning up in that category as well. African American artists are literally being erased from a genre they perfected and created, and the soul of rhythm and blues is on life-support.
That is why now, more than ever, it is important to preserve the glorious history of rhythm and blues with the building of a museum. The R & B Hall of Fame Museum® will be an all-encompassing educational experience for people of all walks of life. It will house collections borrowed and created for the various displays; preserve and educate visitors about the diverse aspects of rhythm and blues. More importantly, the museum will herald the mostly unsung and forgotten rhythm and blues artists with interactive displays, video anthologies, holograms and tours, much like the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History in Washington, DC.
For additional information regarding the R & B Hall of Fame Museum® and details on how you can help make the dream become a reality, visit the website: http://rhythmandblueshof.com/ or contact Lamont Robinson at: (313)266-9635.