A hell of a lot has happened since the birth of R&B, so isn’t it only natural that, as other genres are born and developed, new music gloms on to the old to create something even newer and more multi-faceted?
Our Youthful Editorial Ward Sits in as NARAS Discuss the Future of a Key Genre
by Samantha Hissong

Wednesday, The Recording Academy held "a Grammy conversation" on the current state of R&B at the West Hollywood Soho House. The evening was hosted by Quddus and included five panelists.

Music Journalist Gail Mitchell, singer-songwriter/producer Liv Warfield, Grammy-winning producer LaShawn Daniels, eight-time Grammy nominee Ledisi and four-time Grammy nominee and Transformers, Fast and the Furious actor Tyrese Gibson attributed their inspiration to classic R&B and soul artists, including James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, Donny Hathaway, Tina Turner, Sam Cooke, Jodeci and Earth Wind & Fire

And the issues were probed: Will new R&B artists be heard? Will people take a chance on them? Will urban alternative artists find a way to bridge the gap between what was and what is? Is the playing field uneven between black and white artists? Is there a place for R&B in singles-driven music and a society that has been hypnotized by EDM music that can, at times, sound like a garbage truck in reverse and an extremely diluted version of what rock once was? 

And will someone grab me some Xanax and a cup of coffee, because my head is fucking throbbing?

There was a consensus over the fact that R&B is a dying genre. "A lot of albums are sounding like mix-tapes because they’re working with 20-30 people," Gibson said. "The labels and radio need you to have a rapper at the beginning and end of a record, but it was never Teddy Pendergrass feat. Kurtis Blow. Now, it’s about who’s featured and/or who produced it. It’s an R&B record; it shouldn’t be about ego. I want to hear an artist’s story, a message, even if it’s just over the thump of a guitar."

The panel was also concerned that R&B would meet the same fate as jazz. I love jazz.Of course, I was one of those weird girls with a buzz-cut that would hang out in a record store on a Friday night looking for Dizzy Gillespie LPs, and no, I’m not that emo chick from Empire Records. That being said, it really has no home at modern radio, sadly.

Daniels believes that often decision-makers don’t fight for a John Legend; such an artist scraps his way through. He stated that the reason Legend is now being heavily described as a contender for multiple nominations and even wins was because he performed on the Grammy telecast, then shot to #1 at iTunes next-day and went up 800 spins at radio. Then those people started to care.

"There are a lot of players, but not enough coaches," explained Gibson." "There aren’t a lot of Clive Davises and Ron Fairs who’ll mold the beginning, middle and end of a career." "Berry Gordy took his younger artists in a room with older ones and made them feed off each other," agreed Daniels.

Mitchell, Daniels and Warfield each mentioned the increase of indie acts out there right now; Mitchell gushed over seeing Foreign Exchange at the El Rey. They’re being nominated for Urban Alternative, which is a category that SVP Awards Bill Freimuth has stated he’d love to see get recognition, since they recently defined alternative music, not just as a branch of rock, but as "recordings that take as a starting point any existing musical genre or combination of genres, and expand and redefine the boundaries of those genres."

But will a group like Foreign Exchange be able to beat out something like Vampire Weekend or Nine Inch Nails?

The problem with the swell of indies lies in whether or not a major label will find these artists and be willing to take a risk on them. "It’s about artist development. Sam Smith gets the development he needs," Warfield said. "Indies don’t and they want us to hurry up and get it done."

This of course stirred the race pot. In recent years, More than a few of my peers would define R&B by artists like Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke and Sam Smith. Of course, these artists know how to write great R&B records, but it would be ignorant not to admit that controversy arises when white artists seem to dominate the top of these charts.

"It’s not a level playing field," said Mitchell, who mentioned that no solo black artists had reached the top of the Hot 100 last year. Instead there were acts like Macklemore and Robin Thicke. This year, though, artists like Pharrell and John Legend have changed that.

"It’s not about race. It’s about genre," Gibson said. "There’s a huge demographic difference, but we can’t say that the Grammy belongs to the black people because we started the genre." At the same time, isn’t it kind of outrageous to see black artists bypassed in a genre that they started?

Contrarily, Quddus reminded everyone that Beyoncé had just reached the top of the Forbes list. She and Jay Z "represent the possibility of what can happen," said Gibson. "Her last album proved that the lake is standing still until you throw a rock in it."

There’s also the issue of the album. R&B is music that tells a story, and traditionally it just makes sense in full-length method of listening.

I personally think all music should be made and appreciated this way. Then again, I like to sit still for long periods of time, preferably nursing a tumbler full of scotch.

Gibson said "you need to create a world where each song is spiritually connected to the next," and Ledisi claimed that when she listens to an album, she doesn’t want to get bored by the third song. But Mitchell questioned if that was an old-school thought process. "I have an 18 and a 20-year-old. They don’t want to listen to a whole album. They get two or three singles and they’re done."

This white girl in the corner was clearly no expert on the depths of R&B, but I couldn’t help but relate the discussion to other genres that have faced similar questions.

At my core, I’m a rock girl. From Tom Waits to Tom Petty, Leadbelly to Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Iggy Pop, The Smiths, The Cure, X, Nirvana, Guns N Roses, Radiohead and on, I love rock and roll. That being said, all of those aforementioned acts are worlds apart.

Also, that music does not exist today, plain and simple. Bleachers has a fantastic single that’s #2 on the Alternative radio chart, but is it rock? The same could be said for a lot of phenomenal acts like Big Data, Lorde or Coldplay even. KROQ had Avicii, a DJ, headline their last Weenie Roast.

Isn’t there a danger in defining R&B too narrowly, given that genres need to evolve in order to stay vibrant?

Who’s to say that an artist like Pharrell isn’t a unadulterated R&B musician? He did co-write "Blurred Lines" and performed with Robin Thicke, after all. And what about The Weeknd or Frank Ocean for that matter?

A hell of a lot has happened since the birth of R&B, so isn’t it only natural that, as other genres are born and developed, new music gloms on to the old to create something even newer and more multi-faceted? I think all genres are forced to adapt at some point or another.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll take a dimly lit room, a smoke and Ella Fitzgerald’s "Black Coffee" or Etta James’ "I’d Rather Be Blind" over the majority of options about today. But, you can’t ignore the fact that when you Google "famous R&B singers," the first artist that comes up is Beyoncé, followed by Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige, along with Alicia Keys, R. Kelly, Usher and Trey Songz.



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