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APPLE MUSIC'S ALAYSIA SIERRA: CURATING R&B

Alaysia Sierra holds the title of Head of R&B at Apple Music, so you can be damn sure we’re going to shut up and listen when the L.A. native agrees to bestow some wisdom. Responsible for an array of influential playlists like R&B Now, Breaking R&B and Brown Sugar, the programmer is an avid and open-minded evangelist for the genre whose early enthusiasm for an artist (as was the case with Summer Walker, GIVĒON and others) can lead to big streams and play a significant role in career momentum.

What do you consider the primary characteristics of R&B?
R&B isn’t monolithic; it has range, encompassing jazz, gospel, blues, funk, hip-hop and everything in between. I, personally, try not to put it in a box. However, I think you know an R&B song by its intention and through its structure and vocal arrangement but mostly by how it makes you feel. R&B, especially today as it evolves, isn’t always soulful, but it is always going to make you feel something. It demands a response, sometimes physical, like dancing, but always emotional. It’s the rhythm that makes you move and the blues that makes you feel.

How big a role does it play in contemporary music culture?
R&B is everything. It has influenced everything and will continue to. Our biggest pop stars are influenced by R&B; hip-hop is influenced by R&B; country is influenced by R&B… It evolves as we continue to lift up emerging talent, as R&B gets the same resources as hip-hop and pop and as we continue to embrace R&B internationally. R&B in Africa is on fire (Omah Lay, Tems, Elaine, CKay), Latin R&B (Kali Uchis, Paloma Mami, LATENIGHTJIGGY), U.K. R&B (Jvck James, Tiana Major9, Jorja Smith)…

Which artists in the music’s history do you think have proved most vital and enduring?
Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson

What can you say about the role of R&B and soul on social activism?
As far back as slavery, Black music has been a form of resistance. Soul at its foundation is rooted in activism. It has always powered African-American social movements. Gospel, blues, jazz—these are all forms of Black expression tied to the Civil Rights Movement. I immediately think of Nina Simone, Odetta, Gil Scot-Heron, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Max Roach. Key R&B/soul protest songs include Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and “What’s Going On,” Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody”…

What R&B albums would you say have had the biggest impact on you, personally?
So many, but the first that come to mind are Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince’s Purple Rain, Anita Baker’s Rapture, Marvin Gaye’s I Want You, Mary J. Blige’s My Life, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Erykah Badu’s Baduizm, SWV’s It’s About Time, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Faith Evans and Brandy’s self-titled albums…

How has the genre proven meaningful in your life?
As the Head of R&B at Apple Music, I’m all in on pushing R&B to the forefront. It’s not only my job to see that R&B continues to grow and we spotlight what R&B has given us, but also to be a resource for artists who’ve been a part of or will be a part of the continued evolution of R&B. The most meaningful experiences for me come from seeing an artist like GIVĒON or Summer Walker or Victoria Monét—who all approach R&B in their own way—go from their first song or the beginning of a defining moment in their careers to being some of the most influential names in R&B.

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