Should white people make black music?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Yes, that headline is meant to be provocative. Who counts as “white”? Is there such a thing as “black” music? There are no easy answers to any of these questions, of course. But lately I’ve seen quite a bit of discussion on this topic, particularly when it comes to so-called “blue-eyed soul.”

L.A. Times music critic Ann Powers recently wrote of Joss Stone:

If there’s one fault on “Introducing,” it’s that Stone’s comfort level with that tradition remains too high. Throughout the album, she sings in a voice she learned from those soul albums; the lilt of coastal England never surfaces. Crafting a new self from beloved popular cultural sources, Stone is very much of her generation; it’s her sincerity, her refusal to see that identity as artificial, that singles her out.

That led Salon’s music blog, Audiofile, to ask: Does Joss Stone sound too black?

But isn’t the argument that only certain types of people have the “right” to sing certain types of music hopelessly reductive? Should only poor white people play punk music? Do Northern-born blacks have less purchase on the blues than those born in the South? Can someone from California honestly play bluegrass? The truth may be distasteful, but scholars and critics like Nick Tosches, Eric Lott and Greil Marcus have shown that, for better or worse (and I firmly say it’s the former), popular culture is one long story of cultural alchemy. Call it exchange, call it theft, call it what you will, but without the interplay between cultures, our world would be radically different.

Oliver Wang, writing on the blog soul sides, recently asked this about Amy Winehouse:

What I want to say right now is that it does bear the question: would Winehouse seem as intriguing if not for her British + Whiteness? Coincidentally, I recently interviewed none other than Sharon Jones, who rightfully deserves recognition as the pioneering retro-soul singer for our era, and though she had nothing negative to say about the woman who’s currently touring with the band she normally rocks with, Jones did note that she finds it disappointing that she’s never enjoyed the same level of media attention as a lot of these new soul singers coming out of the UK (most of whom, notably, are young, handsome/pretty and White).

Tia and Toya from the blog Black Girls Like Us, remarked on the marked difference in lyrical content between white soul/R&B singers like Elliott Yamin and Thicke, and black soul/R&B singers like Omarion or Usher:

My problem is that it seems to me that mainstream labels are encouraging white artists who do soul music to be able to sing about love while they are encouraging black artists to sing about anything but love…I turned on the radio to 101.1 The Beat to find every R&B ballad I heard outside of Marques Houston’s to be about infidelity and love gone wrong. EVERY SINGLE ONE.

However on the same station I can hear [Justin Timberlake] sing this:

Because, I can see us holding hands
walking on the beach our toes in the sand
I can see us in the country side
sitting in the grass laying side by side
You can be my baby
Gonna make you my lady
Girl you amaze me
Ain’t gotta do nothin crazy
See all I want you to do is be my love

Then IN THE SAME song you hear T.I. say this ignant ish right here:

I’m patient, but I ain’t gonna try
You don’t come, I ain’t gonna die
Hold up, what you mean, you can’t go why?
Me and you boyfriend we ain’t no tie
You say you wanna kick it when I ain’t so high
Well, baby it’s obvious that I ain’t your guy
Ain’t gon’ lie, I feel your space
But forget your face, I swear I will
St. Barths, same bullet, anywhere I chill
Just bring wit me a pair, I will

What do you think? Are white soul singers given more exposure because they’re seen as novelty acts? Are record executives pushing black soul singers to be more explicitly sexual? Is it an act of cultural appropriation for a white person to sing soul or R&B music?