Recent years have been good to musicians, particularly musicians of color. We witnessed the internet-shattering Lemonade album from Beyoncé, SZA’s rise from Tumblr fame to mainstream acclaim, and so many other notable artists gaining well-deserved recognition. But there’s a problem I’ve been noticing when it comes to black artists: we’re placed in a box. Specifically, a box defined by four main genres: Hip-Hop, R&B, Rap, and Urban. Of course, on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this—these genres were born from black people’s unique culture and historical experiences. But, when it’s the only thing mainstream media is willing to recognize us as, that’s an issue.
Case in point: FKA Twigs. When I first heard her music, I was blown away. Odd beats, strange visuals, and a sound that is psychedelic and spoken word all mixed together. Only one person popped in my mind that had a similar enough sound: Björk. And personally, I have no idea what genre Björk classifies as. But her music is amazing, and I’ll listen to it until my ears bleed. And, when it came to FKA Twigs, people felt the same; according to her, people who first listened to FKA Twigs’ didn’t know what they were listening to—in her own words, her fans would marvel, saying her music “[wasn’t] even a genre.” Until her race was revealed half a year later. Then, it became quite easy to categorize her. Another R&B singer.
The same thing happened to The Weeknd. During his SoundCloud days, Tesafaye’s sound was praised for its synth beats and haunting vocals that would give Roland Orzabal a run for his money. And then, as he became mainstream, he became classified “alternative” R&B. Dawn Richard—former member of Danity Kane—has released some amazing music under the moniker D∆WN. It’s electronic, synth heavy, and much more at home in the EDM genre with artists like Tiësto, Crystal Castles, and Benny Benassi. But, like with everyone else, she is promoted as an R&B singer. Which would be fine if all these artists called themselves R&B singers producing R&B music. But they don’t. They never created these labels for themselves. The media did. And that is wherein lies the problem. The problem of under-representation in different music genres, the problem of stereotypical perpetuation of black culture, and the problem of plain and simple ignorance. I bet you if Daft Punk had taken off their helmets and revealed beautiful melanin skin, they would be instantly dubbed as the best new Hip-Hop duo in “Electronic R&B”. A bit of a sardonic assumption I’ll admit, but I think I get the point across.
Beyoncé herself was side-eyed and given so much grief over her “Daddy Lessons” performance at the CMT Music Awards. And why is that? It’s not like there’s never been any black people in country music. Darius Rucker anyone? (Not to mention where country music comes from in the first place.*ahem ahem*) “But! But!” You indignantly shout. “Beyoncé’s not a country musician!” So what is she? I personally think she’s an amalgamation of many genres—Pop, R&B, Indie and—in Daddy Lessons’ case—country. That’s part of why Lemonade was such a smash hit. Beyoncé’s music touched upon important narratives of the black experience, while transcending the confines of racialized music genres. This is how she was able to switch from soulful “Freedom” in one track, to twangy “Daddy Lessons” in another, to catchy “Formation” in the next. And this is why she was able to reach so many people across so many music genres. And everyone else should be allowed to do it too. You don’t see Katy Perry being dubbed as the next hot trap artist just by rapping one verse on a song. Nor do people shelve Justin Timberlake or Justin Bieber into “urban” sections because of their particular sound.
Black people are so multifaceted, it’s a shame to limit them to only so many genres. We are in rock, indie pop, Americana, EDM, and “Björk land”. Give us a chance to expand our talents beyond our perceived status quo, and be astounded at the surge in representation in historically “white” music genres. Take away our labels, and let us define our music. And please—unless we say we are—don’t call us R&B, Rap, Hip Hop or Urban as a default. Because if you didn’t know what we looked like, odds are you probably wouldn’t. Still don’t believe me? Listen to these 7 black artists down below, and try to see if you can lump them all in the exact same genre. I dare you.😉
6. Seinabo Sey