In this episode KC, Chris, Tash, Leisha, Shelby and Julius discuss the reaction to Beyonce’s “Formation” video and Super Bowl halftime performance, why the police are having a negative response to it, Kendrick Lamar’s performance at The Grammy Awards and more.
Music: AbJo – Tomorrow’s World
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In this episode KC and Chris are joined by KJ and Lady J from the Welcome 2 The Village podcast. They discuss Robin Thicke cheating on Paula Patton, celebrity relationships, what happened to R&B, the new black barbie, images in music and more!
You probably already have an idea as to where this article is going, so let me get one thing out of the way before I get to the point: I don’t hate all RAP and all Hip-Hop. The positive side of the music of Tupac Shakur has left an indelible impression on me, likewise the music of Saul Williams, and much of what artists Talib Kweli, Common and some others have to offer. I remember being a young teenager and floating away from my adolescent angst to the reflective notes of Lauryn’ Hill’s “To Zion,” then dancing in my mirror to the rhythm of “Doo Wop,” also off the “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” CD. I used to scan the radio to hear Aaliyah and Timbaland’s “Are You That Somebody,” (kept it on repeat when I finally got the CD–remember when it was still about buying the disc?) and I’ll be quick to admit that I was a pretty big TLC fan as well. I went through a definite Outkast phase, and have listened to my share of Jay-Z, Dr. Dre and so forth. I certainly know what it’s like to like and love RAP and Hip-Hop, and I don’t want to sound like those who revile it without ever understanding the appeal of the music. I was a kid of the ’90’s, a teen of the 2000’s, and it’s hardly difficult for me to remember how attached me and my peers were to the sounds of our generation.
Having said all this, I was listening day in and day out to Sam Cooke long before I ever remember hearing Ginuwine. And as much as I may have liked The Roots, it’s hard to remember them while you’re blaring Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. In terms of vocal talent, it’s hard to compare singers like Beyonce and Mary J. Blige to the likes of Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday (anybody want to put Rihanna and Nicki Minaj up against Aretha Franklin and Patti Labelle?). Obviously people are still aware of the great Motown era groups and artists like The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smokie Robinson, and of course I could mention the soulfulness of Al Green and the burning sounds of James Brown. If you dig deeper and go back further of course, you return to the days of song masters like Johnny Mathis, the pioneers of Rock and Roll such as Little Richard, and artists such as Sarah Vaughn and the unforgettable Nat King Cole, for both of whom competence on the piano was a natural part of their musical arsenal (Nat King Cole was a great Jazz pianist well before he was widely known as a vocalist).
The list of great black singers and musicians from times gone by goes on forever, of course, but it get’s thinner as we come to our modern age of American music, until finally we arrive now at the point where real musicianship starts to look like a lost art. A big part of the reason for that is technological, and that in a couple different respects. On the one hand, with the advent of multitrack recording and drum machines in the ’70’s and 80’s, (along with all manner of synthesizers and artificial musical effects) it became increasingly possible to make music without the hassle of including musicians. So then comes disco, techno, and ultimately House, Hip-Hop and modern Pop. With the advent of these musical forms came the decline of, yes, musicianship generally with respect to popular music, but also a near elimination of the element of live recording in music. You may never have thought about it before, but consider the fact that in the entire history of recorded music all the way through the late seventies, everything you bought on a record or heard on the radio was a live recording of a live performance. There was no other way to make music. Consequently, musicians had to be very good. The tornado that was Jackie Wilson didn’t fake a note of “Say You Will,” didn’t redo a single phrase of the recording. He had to know how to breathe, how to sing the whole song flawlessly. The musicians in the James Brown band didn’t have the luxury of coming to the studio one at a time, recording their tracks by themselves so an engineer could paste them together later. They needed to be fluent in the art of playing together. But in my time an artist like Ashanti can be a plausible singing star because the burden of making quality recordings was not on her.
Of course there is another aspect of the technology dynamic that renders musicianship an optional quality, and that is the nature of our modern media and the importance of image. To be attractive has always been an asset for performing artists, but in the grand old days of American (and Afro-American) music it was not a necessity. Nancy Wilson was beautiful, of course, but that was coincidental…most people who heard her music didn’t know what she looked like. There were no music videos, certainly no Youtube, and unless an artist found his or her way to the Ed Sullivan show or later on to Soul Train or some such venue like that, people either knew their faces from their album covers or not at all. Nowadays attractiveness is almost prerequisite to fame and with female singers particularly. Beyonce is a legitimately talented dancer, and capable of giving a halfway decent vocal performance, but her body is every bit as important to her success. Likewise Ciara and the afore mentioned Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, whose public images are emblematic of the degree to which the “music” industry has been so overtly sexualized…and just how little any of it has to do with music as an art unto its own. I readily admit this is a problem with American music in general. But it is one that hurts the black community even more given the fact that music has long been the most powerful export of black culture…
There is an ominous phenomenon growing rapidly within black culture today. To be honest, it is no phenomenon, and while it is still growing rapidly, it is already a problem that seems almost too huge to tackle. Allow me to explain.
Here’s a picture of Beyonce from back in the days of Destiny’s Child:
Here Beyonce and her group mates look like Nubian queens, goddesses in matching leather outfits. Beyonce’s hair appears to be a natural brown, the same as her eyebrows. Her hair and skin are nearly the same color, both of which brown. To put it simply, she looks black. That should make complete sense…because she is.
Now let’s take a look at Beyonce on her newest album, entitled “4.”
Let’s play this like one of those megatouch games you see at bars, where you have to point out the differences. For one, the skin tight leather dress has been replaced by a cleavage-friendly feathered throw. That’s not what we’re looking for however. There are two other differences that I find disturbing: her new skin and her hair. Beyonce looks like a white pop star, plain and simple. This lightening of her skin seems intentional, it being so prominent on this album cover. Her hair and skin are nearly the same color, both of which are not brown. Beyonce’s blonde hair is nothing new, but on this new cover, draped over her pale shoulders, it looks exceptionally disconcerting.
Ok, you get it now. Beyonce was once black, and now appears to be white. So what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that Beyonce is one of the most popular, respected, and admired black females of our generation. Beyonce, and other famous black female pop stars of her caliber, are mass media representations of black beauty. Thousands of young black girls look up to her, wishing one day they could be as talented, as glamorous, as beautiful as her. So it both saddens and infuriates me that women like Beyonce, who are well aware of their roles in the black community, still take steps in the direction of putting whiteness on a pedestal and kicking blackness in the sand.
As I said before, this is no not truly a phenomenon. There is nothing new about this sort of appreciation of whiteness and depreciation of blackness. Back in 1929, a light-skinned Harlem Renaissance author named Nella Larsen wrote a short novel entitled Passing. The novel follows Irene, a black woman from Harlem who reunites with Clare, an old childhood friend. Many years have passed since the two last saw each other, and upon reuniting it is revealed that Clare, who is half white, is “passing” as a white woman. She hides her blackness so well that she is able to marry a rich, racist white man. The perception of beauty in conjunction with skin color is a major theme throughout the novel, proving that even back in the late 1920’s black women were struggling with this issue. Now, over 80 years later the issue has not been resolved.
In 2009 Chris Rock began scratching the surface of the “white is beautiful” topic with Good Hair, an excellent documentary about what black women go through just to have perfect locks. Nearly all of the women interviewed for the documentary made the same statement: That the ultimate goal in treating and styling black hair is to make it look as straight and luscious as white hair. Chris Rock brings light to the topic through his satire, but the truth revealed by Good Hair is nothing funny. This October a new documentary will once again reopen the white beauty topic for discussion. Dark Girls: The Story of Color, Gender, and Race, is a revealing exposition on the perceptions of skin color, and how those perceptions affect women of dark complexion. According to the official website, Dark Girls “pulls back our country’s curtain to reveal that the deep seated biases and hatreds of racism – within and outside of the Black American culture – remain bitterly entrenched.” The trailer for the film, which you can watch for yourself below, is gut-wrenching. There’s a moment where a black child is asked questions about beauty and must point at cartoons with varying complexions to answer. When asked which girl is prettiest she chooses the lightest of the identical cartoons; when asked who is ugliest she chooses the darkest. When asked who’s the smartest she again chooses the cartoon that looks white, but when asked who is dumbest her finger slides directly to the darkest girl, without hesitation. Already visible at such a young age, these are the perceptions black women spend their lives fighting. It surely doesn’t help that Beyonce looks like Ke$ha and Rihanna’s hair looks completely unnatural. For more information on Dark Girls, visit the official website, which is linked below.
Ben Badio is a jack-of-all-trades. A recent graduate from the University of Central Florida, Ben has a healthy obsession with technology, a grand knowledge of music, and a passion for writing. You can read more about him here and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you watched Beyonce’s performance at the Billboard Awards and wondered who the two b-boys with the afros were, look no further. You were just baptized into Les Twins land.
(If this video jumps to the 5:00 minute mark, rewind it to 4:00 to catch Les Twins in action)
Twenty-two year old twins Larry and Laurent Bourgeois are natives of Sarcelles, Val d O’ise, France and have been dancing since the age of two. Though they are challenging to tell apart, their personalities come through in the differences in their dancing styles. Larry is known for his amazing footwork and high energy, while Laurent is best distinguished by his challenging “impossible” dance moves. Les Twins are a part of a larger dance crew in France called Criminalz Crew and have particpated in several dance competitions, including World of Dance and Battle of the Stylez.
I discovered Les Twins about a month ago and must give Beyonce her props for giving them great national exposure. We should see them making more appearances stateside from now on! Here are a few clips of Les Twins that made me fall head over heels for their dancing. I must warn you: they are addicting and you will want to watch them more than once!