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Music Has No Race
Author: BobR    Date: 2015-02-11 11:56:12

The music business is strange. It is an industry where an artist (or - generally - a team of artists and technicians) create music, which is then copied to meet demand and sold. There are no singular "one of a kind" pieces of work - the very nature of it is that it can be duplicated exactly. A well written song or concerto is replayed and re-recorded through the years by various other artists who are touched by the original composition.

In modern music, though, success and recognition is often add odds with the originality of the work, and the skill of the performer. Talented musicians watch in despair as less talented and creative-impaired contemporaries capture the attention of the fickle music-consuming public, and become wildly rich and successfully. Being attractive and willing to dress provocatively certainly helps.

Which is why shows like the Grammys must be taken with a certain grain of salt. So much good music never floats to the top, while cult of personality provides instant publicity for what becomes "pop" music. This is why old farts like me often look and listen to the nominated songs, artists, and performances and think "Really?... this is the best of the best?".

When Kanye West nearly reprised his Taylor Swift debacle (and in fact later on did), he claimed that Beyonce's album was better than Beck's. Never mind that Beck is a multi-instrumentalist who writes, performs, records, and produces his own songs, and Beyonce is essentially just a singer and a dancer (although undeniably talented and very good at what she does). For Kanye to claim that Beck doesn't respect artistry in music is absurd, laughable, and a bit sad. Perhaps Kanye should remember that what appeals to him in music, and what he considers talent may differ from what others (those who voted for Beck) consider worthy of recognition.

As an echo from the Oscars, there also seemed to be hint of racism, that a white guy was chosen over a black woman. Unlike the Oscars, however, the Grammy nominations and final votes are cast by members of NARAS. Anyone in the music business can join NARAS and vote. The Grammys are truly honorifics bestowed by peers upon peers. If an artist or their music makes it to "the finals", it's because the artists you hear on the radio and see on TV are the ones that put them there.

The whispers of racism in the music business are absurd - music has no color. The music business was one of the first racially-integrated industries in this country. Musicians didn't care about the color of the person playing next to them, as long they could play. The same went for recording studios and people selling records. When a musician hears new music or styles they haven't heard before, and it touches them in some way, they want to learn about it and try to play it, and it ends up becoming part of their unique voice.

The Rolling Stones discovered the music of old blues musicians and loved them so much, they recorded a number of their songs on their early albums. They took notes and tried to emulate some the things they heard. There are those who say they "stole" the music of these old blues men, but at the same time they brought them and their music to new ears who never would have heard them. The Stones and other bands like them were cheerleaders for this music.

And so through the following decades the color barriers elsewhere were not found in music. White musicians played blues and funk, black musicians played rock and roll, and became opera and country singers. The music lovers didn't care about the race of the musician, so long as they delivered the goods. The Swampers in Muscle Shoals were a bunch of white southern guys playing with black singers, and no one cared nor knew the difference - just ask Aretha Franklin.

When rap first gained popularity, the possibilities were endless as much as the styles were varied. The styles ranged from Public Enemy to Run DMC to the Sugar Hill Gang to the Beastie Boys. I personally was never really much of fan (preferring singing), but Public Enemy and Outkast and the Beasties still appealed to me for various reasons. It seems a shame that for the most part it's been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator for commerce's sake, just like numerous other musical movements before and after.

Still - rap is style of music that was long considered "black" (or "urban", if you prefer). Perhaps that's why there was so much gnashing of teeth over Iggy Azalea's nomination. She - being a white Australian - was doing Atlanta rap, and many saw it verging on a minstrel show:
“The New Classic” doesn't feel like a collection of rap songs so much as a cartoonish performance of race. It’s heavy on gloating and boilerplate tough-talk, nearly all of which lacks humor or a distinctive point of view.

As for her delivery, it’s a needling imitation of a black Southern voice, with syllables that twang in the wrong direction and vowels that curve into sour shapes. It’s pantomime devoid of personality. An empty white echo.

As a musician myself who loves funk and soul (but can't play it worth a damn), I understand trying to emulate those whose music you admire, whether it means appropriating the dress, the style of singing, of posing or dancing, and of songwriting. I will give Iggy Azalea the benefit of the doubt. I don't think she was trying to rip off the black Atlanta rap culture - I think she loves it so much she wants to be it.

The real problem with her being nominated (in my view) is that she does it so badly. I've seen and heard her only a few times, and it was enough for me. She's annoying and hard to listen to. I have to wonder what contemporaries of hers in NARAS liked her enough to not only get her initially nominated, but to get her into the final vote.

As it turns out, a different white rapper won best rap album, and not for the first time. I haven't heard anyone complain about his "ripping off black culture". I don't hear about it when another musical abortion - Justin Bieber - does the same thing. It makes me wonder - is it okay when a guy does it?

I'll say it again - music has no color. Race is a human construct that seems an antiquated notion. It certainly has no place in music, as music knows no boundaries. We may all dance to the beat of a different drummer, but as long as we dance, it doesn't matter. Who created what doesn't matter - what matters is who does it well and with heart. Let's reward that and erase the false lines that limit and pigeonhole and divide us all.

29 comments (Latest Comment: 02/11/2015 23:33:21 by livingonli)
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