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BLACK MUSIC MONTH: SYLVIA RHONE ON THE VOICES, THEMES AND IMPACT OF R&B

Epic Chairman Sylvia Rhone has played a significant role in the modern history of R&B, as noted below. We asked her to discuss some of the most important artists in the genre and the evolution and social impact of this resilient form.

How would you characterize the current state of R&B?
R&B has made a significant comeback with the success of artists including H.E.R., SZA, 6LACK, Summer Walker, Ella Mai and others. We’ve seen it continue to rise in music consumption, exemplifying the diverse cultural styles and musical subsets the genre has to offer, prompting DSPs and radio to take more risks. Our artist GIVĒON, who’s an example of R&B’s broad spectrum, has had an unprecedented global effect across all platforms. 

Whom do you consider the R&B greats?
There have been so many seminal artists over the years who have not only influenced music but also the cultural, artistic and political landscapes: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone, The O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Parliament-Funkadelic—the list is endless.

They blazed a path for the groundbreaking artists who’ve inherited the mantle, including Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Whitney, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Usher, John Legend, The Weeknd, TLC, Mariah Carey, Jodeci, Maxwell, Miguel, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo and many, many more. Every one of these trailblazers impacted the mainstream, but on their terms, which is the signature of any great artist no matter the genre.

How do you feel the music has exerted its influence on American society? 
I am the product of an era that produced revolutionary change, and music was at the center of it all. R&B was in many ways the highest form of cultural expression, impacting multiple social movements including the civil-rights legacy, Black power, the antiwar movement, feminism and the new sexual and gender awakening that was transforming the country.

Nina Simone’s In Concert album was one of the first to shine a light on racial inequality with the song “Mississippi Goddam.” Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On amplified the civil-rights struggle in ways political discourse could not. Artists like War and Sly and the Family Stone had a great social impact. Richie HavensSomething Else Again broke through to a generation listening to Dylan. Gil Scott-Heron’s album Small Talk on 125th and Lenox had a profound effect on revolutionary themes inspiring young people, like the song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Stevie Wonder also put his stamp on social progress with groundbreaking albums including Music of My Mind, Talking Book and Innervisions, bringing social justice issues into the mainstream and galvanizing a generation.

Which professional experiences in the form stand out for you?
Working with Gerald Levert from the beginning of his career was a turning point not just for me but for all of R&B. LeVert was one of my first signings at Atlantic, and Gerald went on to become such an influential R&B force—a prolific artist, writer and producer who collaborated with so many other great R&B artists.

I’ve been fortunate to work with a diverse group of R&B and soul stars throughout my career, spanning the spectrum of the genre, including En Vogue, Tracy Chapman, Anita Baker, Tamia, Brandy, India.Arie, Roberta Flack, The System, Keith Sweat, Akon, Kelly Rowland and so many others.

What are some of your earliest personal R&B favorites?
Aretha Franklin, Prince, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Stevie, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles … When I look back, I realize the records made by these artists and their peers unleashed the breadth and promise of urban culture and Black consciousness like no other art form in American history.

 

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