In 1978, an 18-year-old musician was about to sign his first record contract with Warner Brother Records when, according to then Warner Brothers Vice President Larry Waronker, the musician turned to Waronker and said, “Don’t make me black.”
The young musician was Prince, a rare talent who would avoid the record industry race record traps that had ensnared so many African American musicians before him. The history of American popular music is rife with examples of black artists and musicians such as Ruth Brown, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Curtis Mayfield, and others, who were not given the opportunity to garner sustained mainstream success. Prince’s insightful edict was not a rejection of his own blackness. Instead, it was an acknowledgement of the ways in which the record industry ghettoizes black artists and who the industry believes black music’s intended audience will be.
In B. Lee Cooper’s 1989 article, “Promoting Social Change through Audio Repetition: Black Musicians as Creators and Revivalists 1953-1978,” Cooper leans heavily on aspirational language of utopian racial harmony to suggest that the few black artists who were afforded crossover music success on Billboard’s Top 100 Chart indicated greater equity in how black music was promoted. In the article Cooper explains that although 1950s black R&B artists fell victim to white artists covering their songs, by the 1970s, covers of black R&B songs performed by black artists regularly charted on Billboard. Cooper frames black R&B covers as a type of “audio repetition” in which black R&B singers responded to the theft of opportunity that was denied when white artists covered R&B songs. He discusses the ways in which songs such “Hound Dog,” a hit song initially released by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in 1953, became a massive hit when Elvis Presley released his cover in 1956. Or, as another example, how Little Richard recorded racy “Long Tall Sally” in 1956 and the white balladeer Pat Boone released a cover later that year that reached #8 on the Top 100 Chart.
Cooper aptly notes that the white covers of these black tunes deprived black artists of potential income and performance opportunities, but he reverts to a simple position that the pervasive practice of white covers was intended to serve “as indirect acknowledgements of the musical quality and sales attractiveness of original black material by white artists who were supported by more sophisticated record marketing approaches and public distribution resources.”1 The end of Cooper’s statement, unfortunately, could not be truer. White artists were almost always given more marketing support and access to mainstream (read: white) audiences than provided to black artists. This is the entire reason the record industry created “race records” as a category. Race records represented a specialty market where music by black artists was promoted primarily to black audiences and rarely to white audiences. (Every black music chart since has served the same function, regardless of its title.) What was true in the rest of American society was true in the music industry: separate was never equal. Cooper opts to not interrogate why black artists aren’t supported in the same way as white artists, a position that Prince keenly understood to be a myopic record industry practice that limits both the resources allocated to black artists to produce great music and their subsequent market potential.
Here, I believe it is incumbent upon popular music scholars to continue to question the constructs we employ to conduct our analyses. What Cooper’s work investigates is the process of “crossover,” which is the practice of music (often by non-white) artists transitioning from a specialty chart such as “jazz” or “hip hop” into the “pop” mainstream. The barometer for mainstream success then, actually rests on white audience preference. Cooper concedes as much when he explains that the other reason white covers were necessary was because white artists would often modify the lyrics of R&B songs to make them less sexually suggestive or explicit. However, he assures the reader that the practice of crossover and the changes required for a song to cross over are purely informed by musical preference, leaving no room for the influence of racial or sexual prejudice.
Unfortunately, history presents a different narrative.
America and American popular music has been obsessed with African American culture since the immense popularity of the 19th-Century minstrel song. That preoccupation is rife with equal parts praise and repudiation. In 1953, Cleveland radio disc jockey, Alan Freed, held the Moondog Coronation Ball. It was a concert that many credit as the beginning of the rock and roll era, that featured a bill of popular black R&B artists. Freed had previously played classical music on the radio and switched to R&B music once his show’s sponsor, Leo Mintz, noticed R&B’s increased popularity among white teenagers.
But the backlash to white youth’s embrace of R&B was made plain by white parent and community groups. In 1956 the New Orleans Citizens’ Council published a placard that read:
Help Save the Youth of America
DON’T BUY NEGRO RECORDS
(If you don’t want to serve negroes in your place of business, then do not have negro records on your juke box or listen to negro record on the radio.)
The screaming, idiotic words, and savage music of these records are undermining the morals of our white youth in America.
Call the advertisers of the radio stations that play this type of music and complain to them.2
The record industry is staffed by people, and the people employed in the record industry are not separate from the larger American population. The timeframe of Cooper’s study is from 1953-1978, which encompasses the entirety of the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. The music industry was not exempt from practicing the same racism that exists in broader American society, nor was it immune from the same tumult that insisted America move out of the shadow of Jim Crow.
In his analysis of black popular music crossover, musicologist David Brackett notes that the ways in which the record industry and Billboard segregates music (and by extension audiences) dictates which music will become mainstream and maintains R&B’s marginality. The record industry’s lack of promotional, distributing, financial support insures that “R&B recordings never had a chance of reaching as broad an audience [as pop music] (1994).”3 Perhaps because of public sentiment similar to the one expressed on the Citizens’ Council placard, the recording industry did not promote black R&B artists to white mainstream audiences. That choice was not coincidental, it was a planned and calculated practice that penalized black artists for the color of their skin and presumptions about the potential of their music to reach wider audiences.
Perhaps these concerns would be a mere historical observation except that black R&B artists are still systematically sidelined and relegated to race-centric charts that make crossover success improbable. In 2017, when R&B singer Syleena Johnson interviewed Grammy Award-winning R&B singer Stephanie Mills about the state of black R&B singers in the industry, Mills replied, “I think they want R&B, they just don’t want it from us. They want it from Adele and Justin Timberlake . . . But they don’t want to show the respect of where it comes from.”
One can infer the antecedent to “they” to mean either the record industry, white mainstream audiences, or both, but her charge about the erasure of black people from crossover R&B music continues to be a point of concern for black R&B artists. Consider the career of Ledisi, a New Orleans born, classically-trained, soul singer virtuoso who has released nine albums, been nominated for multiple Grammy Awards, and has consistently topped the Adult R&B chart but has never broken the Billboard Hop 100 chart. Multi-Grammy Award nominated and more pop-oriented R&B singer Sza consistently peaks the top of Billboard R&B charts but has never broken the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Their experiences are far from anecdotal, however. In recent years, even ubiquitous artists such as Beyoncé and Rihanna rarely reach the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. One of the structural causes is that the Billboard formula still incorporates radio airplay and R&B music rarely gets played on Top 40 radio. Even Billboard acknowledged the ways in which this continues to penalize R&B performers.
The challenges black R&B artist face come into sharper focus when comparing black artists’ performance on Billboard’s R&B/Hip Hop Airplay Chart and Pop Songs Airplay charts.4 A 2018 Billboard article interrogates the downward trend of R&B crossing over from the R&B airplay chart to the Pop Airplay chart. According to Billboard the average number of R&B songs that crossed over between 1993-2005 was 27 per year, but between 2006-2016 that averaged dropped to just 16. The author accurately notes the reason there is not more R&B crossover on Top 40 format stations is because radio programmers are not including it. The author’s conclusion is tellingly blunt, “This suggests a biased restraint on rappers and R&B singers, who could reach the biggest pool of listeners available on radio if they were put into heavy rotation by pop programmers.”5
The record industry’s ongoing commitment to excluding R&B artists from pop music promotion leaves another concern for how we study black popular music specifically. The framing of the study, one that focuses on the smattering of music that charts and registers on pop music charts tells an incomplete story of black music. Thus, I am left asking, what are we saying when we frame our analysis of black music primarily through the lens of what crosses over?
Cooper’s study focuses on songs that crossed over and found success among white mainstream audiences. He argues that the increase of covers of black R&B songs by black artists is a type of “conservative” approach to music making as opposed to a more creative one. The conclusion he draws is that this “revivalist” approach is a sign of commercial success in that this type of audio repetition is the key to black artists finding white mainstream success. But there is an extraordinarily high cost to centering on only on black covers that gained white mainstream success in the 1970s. His study also left the influential, groundbreaking late 1960s/1970s soul music era unexplored. But, this is music that as ethnomusicologist Portia Maultsby says, was built on black aesthetics and black nationalism.6 If we were to take a similar approach in a contemporary study of black popular music, the analyst still may miss the diversity of black artists that Daniel Caesar, Migos, Toni Braxton, and Cardi B represent. Even as we seek to understand black music’s profound contributions to American music, we should also center what black music means to black communities.
At the close of the article, Cooper gives hip hop a mention as a continuation of revivalist practice when he mentions how in 1988 The Fat Boys covered Chubby Checker’s 1955 hit song “The Twist.” It was fortuitous foreshadowing to how hip hop would become a global music that created unparalleled opportunities for a new generation of black recordings artists and industry executives. Yet, even those changes wouldn’t eradicate the systemic racial bias that keeps black artists from consistently being valued equally to their white counterparts.
But I, too, would like to close this article with an ode to hip hop.
Perhaps one of the greatest examples of promoting social change through audio repetition was found in the 1989 Public Enemy song, “Fight the Power,” where Chuck D places Public Enemy in a long lineage of Black bands and culminates with a refrain that reverberates from Black music’s history and ever into its present.