dialoguing on “alterna-black”

So I was having an email exchange with a good friend of mine about what i'm calling "alterna-black" artists. These are folks that are offered up as alternatives to the dominant face of corporate black music.  We are told in many ways that they are "better" simply because they are different.

This exchange problematizes this notion.   I had planned to blog about this whole thing, but I think this email exchange gets at all the major points relating to how I feel about the way we (black folks) consume our own art.

Note: This is long!  Enjoy though. Comments welcome

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From: Friend
Sent: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 11:33 AM
To: Tyler
Subject: jennifer hudson's

album drops today.

COULDN'T

CARE

LESS.

I'm not really a fan. I'm all up in my Jazmine Sullivan still. But J-Hud got a good Washington Post review, that said the biggest and only downfall was the evidence of Clive's heavy hand not allowing her to sit firmly enough in one genre to develop a musical identity. Not surprising. Let me know what you think if/when you get your hands on it.

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From: Tyler
Sent: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 11:37 AM
To: Friend
Subject: RE: jennifer hudson's

I heard it.  It’s Whitney 1985 almost to a tee.  Which sucks beyond belief.  He literally sees her as the next Whitney Houston (ruined by whiteness in the same way it seems).  It vacillates between pop schlock and unconvincing insulting nods to “urban” R&B.

She needs Ray Ray to lace her wit some soul.  Or maybe one of the Soulquarians.

The album is unmitigated garbage.  There is not ONE redeeming element to it (outside of Spotlight).

Clive is evil.
 
I’m actually uninterested in most of these new chicks, Estelle, Leona, Duffy, Jazmine.  I’ll take Yahzarah, Sy, Joi and Lina over them any day.  I love my black folks in the diaspora.  But why is alterna-black music only cool if its from across the pond? 

Do.not.want.

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From: Friend
Sent: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 11:42 AM
To: Tyler
Subject: RE: jennifer hudson's

Your critique of the album is why it will probably be a hit. I just read a couple more reviews – the (white) critics LOVE it. They're positively fawning. Frankly, I've never been interested in her, but I had no idea Clive was doing his whitney thing with her. They're so different vocally.

P.S. Don't talk about my jazmine. We haven't seen a voice like her hit "mainstream" in forever. she's interesting, a great songwriter, and staying true to her roots. she's been on the philly circuit since she was a kid. how can you like chrisette michele and not like jazmine? her album blows Chrisette out of the water in almost all elements. I think you're going through something right now TL and taking it out on the few promising mainstream acts that are out there. Don't make Jaz suffer.
 

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From: Tyler
Sent: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 11:52 AM
To: Friend
Subject: RE: jennifer hudson's

Chrisette felt very honest to me. We can quibble about whether or not she is, but she convinced me.  The main criteria for me with an artist is if I buy what they are singing.  If I feel it.  When Chrisette sings I feel it.  Deeply.  She communicates emotion.  I think in our zeal to “learn how to sing properly” we sometimes lose that quintessential black ability to communicate emotion (regardless of the notes). 

Its possible Jazmine’s music exists for a different purpose.  I think that’s fine, but then for me she feels inert, passionless (even though her voice is gorgeous).  Though I haven’t heard the whole album so I’m willing to concede the single choice is shitty. 

It’s kind of like how I feel about Jill and D’Angelo and Musiq.  They are talented, but their artistic choices feel artificial and pretentious, such that I feel locked outside the “coolness” of their “blackness” as opposed to being invited to the party.

I don’t know.  I sorta feel like reactionary “alterna-black” artists are just as artificial as black pop artists.  I need to feel it.  I just don’t very often with most corporate artists (be they pop or alterna-black), because it feels like no matter what they start from the image and make the music conform to that.  I could be wrong, but that’s how it feels.

Side note – I may blog on this “alterna-black” thing.  I’m intrigued by it.  It literally came up as a phrase as I’m emailing you, but in my head it makes perfect sense.

Anywho, that said, I think that most of these artists are talented in the sense that they can actually sing.  But that is really only half of it for me. I need to feel it.

Like Estelle.  The one single, Wait A Minute, KNOCKS, but she herself doesn’t move me on the album.  I want to support her because she’s a dark-skinned sister and that is hard enough. But the music doesn’t move me at all.  I bought the album though.

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From: Friend
Sent: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 12:28 PM
To: Tyler
Subject: RE: jennifer hudson's

(Agreed on Estelle. The CD is collecting dust in my care. It's what I call a pigment purchase.)

Maybe because I've seen so many Jazmine Sullivan live performances that make me "feel it" that I disagree with your assessment of her  and get more than just the voice from her music. Of course, we can't argue over what we each actually feel from different artists. That's obviously based on our own tastes.  But on the overall point, I agree with you that if it feels gimmicky – a la Jennifer Hudson – then I don't support. And coming from a gospel background, I too rely almost entirely on feeling. So I'm also with you on that. But with regards to some of these newer more pop-py artists – the BLACK ones – I've sort of taken a different approach lately.

Of course I will always support my underground artists – Joi, Amel, and Yazharah could fart on a track and I'd pay top dollar for it – but I've  seen a sort of underground elitism recently that denigrates the art of mainstream artists by virtue of them being mainstream and having a similar image as those less popular alternative artists. I could see if they were artists created  by the industry – this Making the Band, Backstreet Boys type of artificiality. But most of them were doing their thing on a live circuit, considered alternative and underground before they got picked up by Someone. Then when they get on, we assume that their art is less authentic and "feels different" because of the hoopla around their image. If Joi was all of a sudden on the cover of 10 magazines and E! Fashion Police said they loved her "originality" and Diddy decided to promote her, her core fans would be disgusted and all of a sudden her swag would feel overprocessed, uninspired, and cliche. That wouldn't be her fault. That would be a result of the process, which has turned her into a product.

And that's how I feel about artists like Jill, D'Angelo, Musiq, and a select few out of this new crop. They are doing them and have been long before pop culture's fascination with "neo-soul". Their art isn't reactionary – pop culture is reactionary towards their art. For me it doesn't become reactionary until I see the quality of the work actually diminish and the lazy, mindless, clones that come after – spawns that the trends produce. I saw a dramatic dip in quality from Jill. She annoys the hell out of me now. But I didn't necessarily see that with D'Angelo – except for with the crack – and am looking forward to him getting himself together and putting out something new. I mean think about it – Erykah Badu was so hyped and jumped on my mainstream media – her image, her head wrap, her incense…I believe that the only thing that kept her feeling authentic was her personal life, personality, and a willingness to acknowledge how wack everyone was for hopping on it. If she wasn't absolutely crazy in real life and we never heard anything from her outside of her album and the magazine covers with the head wraps, I think we would have written her off as cliche long ago too.

So when I see musical potential, as I do with Chrisette, Jazmine, and, to a lesser extent, Janelle Monae, I support and hope for the best. As long as they don't become white washed, I'll stick with them for an album or two. Because we might see actual growth from them over the long haul. Perhaps some of the concessions that they've made to radio-edit their voices and their single selections will push them to a place and a fan base that allows them to have their cake (mainstream success a la Neptunes) and eat it too (the freedom to earn a living, keep a broad swath of fans, and tour independently a la N.E.R.D.).

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From: Tyler
Sent: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 12:43 PM
To: Friend
Subject: RE: jennifer hudson's

I think you are dead on here. 

I think in some ways, I may be reacting to the hype.  I’m willing to concede this point.  I also though think that some people do suck regardless of whether they get put on or not. 

I think what I am trying to get my head around is the way the industry makes choices about what it sells.  Like, if there were black people in the room at record labels would they really choose an Estelle over a Sy?  And why?  Does it say something about how colonized American blacks are that we only accept alternative black music if it comes from unlikely sources.  I had a whole conversation about this with a buddy of mine in New York, who is so Euro-obsessed.  He actually said to me that black artists from the U.K. are better.

And so I wonder.  Do we think this because we don’t hear Joi, or Lina or Yahzarah, or Jag or other talented women with complicated, three-dimensional public identities enough?  Or do we just not recognize what is so great about them because we buy into this notion that Black Americanness is fixed and we “know it’, nothing more to say?  Is Black Americanness not all that interesting when it complicates our understanding of what Black Americanness is?

I think the love of a Jill Scott has a lot to do with her talent, but also a lot to do with the familiarity of her themes.  The strong black woman.  Bedda at Home, right?  I don’t think this is necessarily “wrong,” but it does get at what I think is so frustrating about how black music is sold, consumed, and understood. 

Black Londoners are others to us, so it makes sense that they would sound “different” and that that difference is “cool” “unique” and “interesting?”  When in many ways, they are so similar because the experience of Blackness throughout the diaspora has such fascinating similarities and commonalities (not to mention that Black American music is the most copied thing on the planet).

I definitely think our generation of Black folks has bought into what hooks talks about in her essay “eating the other” where she says “the commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling.”  Essentially, we ‘other’ our fellow black folks in the diaspora.  I wonder if it’s because we’ve assimilated white understanding of what is “good” or if we truly see UK black folks as something so very different from us.  I think it’s both on some level.  So this is interesting to me, even as it contributes to further marginalization of radical American blackness.  I think that worries me more than whether or not Sy is better than Estelle or vice versa.

I definitely don’t dislike most of these artists, I’m mostly just bored because in many ways it’s not all that different from what we got here.  We are just told it is.  I do think its important to resist the dominant narrative (esp. since it’s created by white folks), but like you said I’m willing waiting to see more from them all.

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