WHITE FACE, BLACK GENRE
Why Did Joss Stone Sell More Reggae Albums Than Any Black Artist in 2015?
Joss Stone was crowned Billboard’s Reggae Artist of the Year, highlighting the whiteness of pop consumer tastes. Music fans should take stock of their biases.
Billboard announced Tuesday that British soul singer Joss Stone is their Reggae Artist of the Year, and the “accolade” sparked widespread scoffs and criticisms on social media. In a year when race, appropriation, and white privilege have been constant points of national conversation, one of the country’s biggest music media platforms continues to rub salt in the proverbial wound of the Black music-buying public. As black commentators have only gotten more adamant in drawing attention to the industry’s penchant for celebrating white faces in black genres, Billboard has delivered an impressive litany of Caucasity-informed faux pas that fly in the face of good taste and judgement: its head-scratching Greatest Rappers list, a borderline-insulting Greatest R&B artists list, its ongoing commitment to legitimizing Iggy Azalea, delivering the single whitest music-related awards show in a season overstuffed with them and now—it’s crowned the most unconvincing soul singer in pop as reggae artist of 2015.
It would be a mistake to reduce this conversation to simply criticism of a frivolous year-end title. Billboard’s accolades are sales-based—Stone’s reggae debut, Water for Your Soul, sold 29,000 copies—but that’s what should be scrutinized. When white artists are routinely outselling black artists in virtually every genre, it seems fair to believe that white consumers are more inclined to buy albums by white artists—aside from Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, most of the best-selling albums of the past 18 months have come from white pop acts like Taylor Swift and One Direction. Stone’s Water for Your Soul parked atop the Billboard Reggae Albums chart for eight weeks this year—and it’s also Stone’s seventh album to chart on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, debuting and peaking at No. 6.
The mainstream tends to ignore the variety of Black music until a white face dabbles in it.
For so long, reggae has been treated as a niche genre by mainstream America. Bob Marley tees can be spotted from Providence to Portland, but the marketing of Marley’s martyrdom didn’t lead to reggae artists becoming superstars in America. Acts as diverse as the Police and UB40 stormed the U.S. charts with reggae-tinged pop, but actual reggae stars like Capleton and Chaka Demus and Pliers mostly found love on late-night Black radio and at block parties. Today, R&B that isn’t drenched in hip-hop’s aesthetic has now become virtually a niche genre—despite British crooners like Sam Smith and Adele climbing the charts and enjoying critical acclaim. Lauded for his retro sound, Smith’s 2014 debut album In the Lonely Hour sold 166,000 units in its first week. Almost exactly a year later, Leon Bridges’s acclaimed brand of throwback soul made for 38,000 units sold. If these multiplatinum superstars are simply giving the populace the kind of sincere music it’s been yearning for—why does this approach only seem to yield big numbers for white singers who provide such music? Shouldn’t Leon Bridges be “the Sam Smith of 2015?” Despite its scope, black music is pigeonholed. We download rappers’ mixtapes and pretend that no other genre of black music is still thriving.
And Stone enjoying commercial success in a genre she happens to be visiting this week indicates that record buyers are willing to accept her genre-hopping. As Billboard accolades and awards shows highlight the whiteness of pop consumer tastes, music fans should take note and take stock of their biases. And recognize that those biases permeate every facet of how music is marketed and managed. Joss Stone has traditionally been categorized as a “neo soul” artist, having initially arrived in the early 2000s when that particular designation was still trendy, but she’s recorded music ranging from funk to rock to vintage soul to reggae. John Mayer parlayed pop sensibilities into early 2000s superstardom before showcasing an affinity for blues guitar that injected his persona with a bit of artistic credibility; and after releasing the blues-informed soul-pop of Continuum, almost immediately shifted to a Neil Young-ish rustic aesthetic and country affectations. Black pop stars may not have the same kind of room to breeze through genres without jeopardizing commercial appeal or fan backlash. Can a black singer ride “traditional” music to multiplatinum glory or even take an extended hiatus to return to blockbuster sales numbers?
Even black superstars of yesteryear are being routinely obscured.
In another bit of recent news, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its 2016 inductees. Despite what was supposedly a more diverse voting process designed to reignite diversity in a Hall that was becoming increasingly old and white, this year’s class turned out to be—very old and very white. Classic rockers Deep Purple, Chicago, Cheap Trick, and Steve Miller Band all got the nod. With the exception of gangsta rap godfathers N.W.A, every nominee is the kind of band white guys who grew up on ’70s FM guitar rock would probably love. Janet Jackson, Chic, and Chaka Khan were all overlooked this year—making it rejection No. 10 for Chic—indicating that voters are pushing back against acts they don’t deem “rock” enough. Despite its somewhat limited title, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has become a shrine to popular music of the last 50 years. So what does it mean when Madonna is inducted in her first year of eligibility but it’s taken Janet so much longer to even get nominated?
The mainstream consistently fails to canonize black music—particularly non-hip-hop of the last 30 years—and we are at a cultural impasse. Joss Stone outselling every reggae artist and Nile Rodgers being routinely rejected by the Hall of Fame aren’t directly related, but they are both indicators of a cultural problem. The lack of recognition for black contemporary talents and black musical icons of the ’80s and ’90s proves that Black music is either invisible or disposable to too many white consumers.
So Billboard can announce whomever as the whatever of 2015—it doesn’t mean much in and of itself. But those numbers—those consistently troubling numbers—should give everyone pause. Black art does not need white approval or validation—it has been great and will always be great. But with so many white artists leveraging black culture for visibility and acclaim and so much contemporary black culture demanding to be heard; don’t be surprised if a few famous black faces stop agreeing to appear at shows where they are routinely sent home empty-handed. We are more than capable of celebrating ourselves.
We’ve always thrown a better party anyway.