10_21_2020_BlackPlight

From Prince to Whitney to Nicki: The Plight of the Black Pop Star

How does one exist as a Black pop musician when pop is predicated on whiteness?
Duanecia Evans Clark
illustrated by Duanecia Evans Clark
New York, US
October 21, 2020, 3:49pm

Unpaid Royalties is a series about the myriad ways that the music industry exploits Black artists—and what's being done to change them. Read more here.

When Lizzo ascended to the upper echelons of popular music’s ranks, it was supposed to be the kind of victory everyone could get in on. She graced the cover of nearly every magazine, from Allure and Elle to Vogue and, most recently, Time, propped up as a beacon of inclusion and a symbol of cultural progress. As the mainstream media and music apparatuses applauded (both her and themselves), the response among some Black listeners was little more than lukewarm, with her most vocal detractors suggesting she was cheesy, too extra, or even outright pandering.

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It was, of course, Black listeners who championed her through her debut EP Coconut Oil and laid the foundation for her rise. But as the sticky fingers of capitalism creeped in, what once felt transformative suddenly felt performative.

“Yeah, there's hella white people at my shows,” Lizzo told Rolling Stone earlier this year of the criticism. “What am I gonna do, turn them away? My music is for everybody.” It’s an ethos that mirrors the musical history of her hometown, Minneapolis, which traffics in a ubiquitous, fluid style that was key to the success of, most notably, Prince, but also Morris Day and the Time and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, all of whom forced marketers and consumers to reconfigure their ideas of Black music. These artists made work that laid waste to manufactured distinctions between genres like rock, funk, R&B and electronic music.

How does one exist as a Black pop musician when pop music has been defined to exclude parts of you?

Yet whatever the music sounds like and whoever is listening has no bearing on the fact of who Lizzo is, and who she is is a Black woman. “I’m making music that hopefully makes other people feel good and helps me discover self-love," she said in the same story. "That message I want to go directly to black women, big black women, black trans women. Period.”

There’s an existential dilemma that swirls around nearly all Black stars of her caliber, who make the kind of music she makes: They come to be marginalized in a manner that creates an ambient conflict between identity and expression. This is underscored by the industry’s (and, indeed, the country’s) original sins of capitalism and racism. How does one exist as a Black pop musician when pop music has been defined to exclude parts of you?

The confusion draws some of its power from the ambiguity of what pop even is in the first place. There’s pop as quantity, in the shorthand for "popular" sense, and then there’s capital-P Pop, the sonic quality and style. The latter usage is the more opaque—a shape-shifting term that expands and contracts as the artists deemed pop stars keep putting out new music, but that also bears its own distinctive characteristics. The critic Craig Jenkins, astutely observing the sameness of the era’s pop at the end of 2017, summed it up as “‘indie’ flourishes—fluttering horns, folk-pop–indebted guitar licks," along with "fat synth lines" and "drums that nod either to the hand claps and finger snaps of epochal post-millennial Cali rap hits like 'Rack City’ or southern trap beats.” Despite its amorphous nature, or even because of it, there is a uniformity to this music.

Pop’s resistance to easy definition stems from the music industry’s long history of sleight-of-hand marketing, one that intentionally obscures the lines of sound while using categories like “race records” and "urban" to amplify those of race. Thus, the prevailing narrative of modern pop music is that it's simply R&B music made by white artists. There’s no denying the breadth of songs for which that logic applies, from the 90s boy band street-corner balladeering of the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, to the "urbanized" posturing of Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande, to the blue-eyed soul of Sam Smith and Adele. But it neglects those releases that land outside of such a neat classification.

Pop remains, perhaps, music’s most racialized space—one that brings race front and center by asking you not to see it at all.

At its essence and most simple, pop is a hybrid genre; its makeup in any one era is an amalgamation of the popular sounds that define that time. In the past decade, pop has taken most of its cues from electronic and dance via the powerful influence of EDM (and wasn't that really just the final financial frontier of the decades-long theft of dance music?), along with hip-hop (namely trap), and, as always, R&B (especially that of the 80s). But despite the racial roots of such a mixture, today’s pop doesn’t align with Black expression in the popular imagination; its bubbly neon production, escapist tendencies, and chaste, unburdened attitude are at odds with the hypersexual and aggressive stereotypes that tend to inform the white gaze when it comes to Black music. Such elements are also particularly troublesome in the Black Lives Matter era, not least due to the simultaneous, contradictory expectation that popular Black art—especially that of Black women—must also perform its politics explicitly.

Today’s effervescent pure pop, say Lizzo’s “Juice” or MNEK’s “Head & Heart,” carries with it the legacy of the "sonic color line," the notion that racial cues exist audibly just as they do visually. Pop remains, perhaps, music’s most racialized space—one that brings race front and center by asking you not to see it at all.

Pop is meant to be neutral, much the way whiteness exists as a state of false neutrality—a default, the center from which all things evolve or devolve. Of course, that is neither true of race nor the music. Like the construct of whiteness itself, pop takes bits and pieces from other sonic markers and sands down their edges in the name of palatability, removing them just far enough from their origins so that it seems unique unto itself. Its connection to Black music’s history is illegible by design, so a Black performer entering that sonic space becomes disconnected from their people. (Think: Jason Derulo, the rare Black artist introduced as a pop star, as opposed to an R&B singer, but who initially struggled to connect as such. “Everyone thought he wasn't black, whatever that meant," the singer’s manager, Frank Harris, told Billboard in a 2014 interview. "That he was a corny kid who lacked swag and coolness.")

A self-fulfilling prophecy emerges: if pop is a blank slate that white musicians have been predominantly allowed to fill, then pop music comes to be defined by the sounds they most comfortably and consistently inhabit. Everything else gets pushed to the periphery: It’s a feature not a bug that the phrase “pop star” doesn’t evoke an artist like Roddy Ricch, who spent 11 weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100 this year, or why the term “pop music” doesn’t evoke a rap song (i.e. “The Box,” the single in question). This continues to create an insurmountable predicament for the genre’s Black artists—particularly those for whom traditional R&B and hip-hop designations do not fit—and it dates back to some of music’s most recognizable figures.

This tightrope act is one that has followed Black pop stars through time, with some of the biggest—from Jackson to Prince to Jimi Hendrix to Whitney Houston—facing similar scrutiny.

As Greg Tate put it in a 1987 essay about Michael Jackson and his relationship to race, there's a "fine line between a black entertainer who appeals to white people and one who sells out the race in pursuit of white appeal.” This tightrope act is one that has followed Black pop stars through time, with some of the biggest—from Jackson to Prince to Jimi Hendrix to Whitney Houston—facing similar scrutiny. In each case, the prevailing narrative of their careers was one of race transcendence, because that is what pop demands—in spite of the impossibility.

In the 80s, the idea of crossing over, as Tate was referring to, was used explicitly to describe a non-white artist who “crossed over” to white audiences. It’s a phrase that’s (thankfully) rarely used openly today, but the concept remains—frequently as a way of describing artists who abandon their sounds of old in favor of what’s popular. In Usher’s shift from R&B chart-topping records like “Nice & Slow” to electro hits like “DJ Got Us Fallin In Love,” Ne-Yo’s move from multi-platinum singles like “So Sick” to splashy clubland jams like “Let Me Love You,” or Alicia Keys’ shift from it-girl R&B releases like “Fallin’” to anthems like “Girl On Fire,” a portion of their original listening audience was alienated. The leap to poppier frontiers brought side eyes from longtime fans who, at best, saw these creative evolutions as not creative at all and, at worst, saw them as cynical cash grabs, an exercise in trading in one cultural audience for another, more lucrative one. (It does little to help when an artist like Pharrell, for example, advances an idea of “new Black” just as he reaches his peak pop moment with “Happy.”)

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But few of the modern era have caught as much flak as Nicki Minaj. At the beginning of her ascent, she was poised to be rap’s next big thing—an agile but compelling lyricist molded in New York’s roughneck tradition who could spar with the best of them. She made good on that promise and continues to be a showstopper on nearly every track she touches. But she’s always had a theatrical, Gaga-esque kind of pop in her sights, even as admirers of her rhyming prowess chose not to see it.

The world of pop, in its everything and yet nothing state, requires participation in a game that is predicated on stripping Black artists of their identity in order to render them hypervisible and disappear them at once.

Beginning with her 2010 debut album, Pink Friday (with tracks like “Check It Out” and “Super Bass”), and peaking on its follow up, Roman Reloaded (with its slew of quirky records, including lead single “Starships” and “Pound the Alarm”), fans who insisted on keeping her in a pure rap box were miffed by her forays into the bubblegum world of pop. Minaj came to exist in a perpetual state of tug-of-war, where questions of authenticity collided with her own aspirations as well as fans’ desire to lay claim to her. For Black artists, “crossing over” into pop fallaciously suggests that one has made a choice about who one’s people are—a predicament not shared by their white peers, no matter how much those peers dabble in hip-hop or R&B.

Further complicating the matter is the rightful suspicion Black people feel when watching white people watch us, especially in arenas where they claim dominance. The world of pop, in its everything and yet nothing state, requires participation in a game that is predicated on stripping Black artists of their identity in order to render them hypervisible and disappear them at once. “To be the only black man white women could desire was to become a new kind of invisible man, accepted as a cipher, not a real person born into a black community," Ann Powers writes of Jimi Hendrix in her book Good Booty. And though five decades have passed since Hendrix’s death, Black artists with mass appeal—"mass" here, like "mainstream," denotes white audiences—continue to function as caricatures onto which those who consume them can project whatever they need.

This tension has become a defining element of Childish Gambino's career arc, with the artist publicly wrestling with his identity—his feeling of being an outsider, the tokenism he’s come to resent on early records like Camp and in his standups. “He’s vented about black people to white audiences, and white audiences have loved him for it,” the critic Justin Charity observed in a juxtaposition of Gambino and Kanye West. Both, Charity argues, are complex figures who “enamor black audiences and white audiences alike, while alternatively pushing and pulling against both groups.” Conversely, Normani, who knows all too well what it is to feel cast out in pop, has chosen to lean in. “I’m gonna make whatever I do black,” she told Cosmopolitan last year. “You’ll know that I’m a black girl, even if it’s on the quote unquote whitest record ever.” That this even needs saying is tell.

Due to the manner in which pop music has been constructed and marketed, its Black practitioners (and Black fans of pop) become stateless. Top 40 radio has long insisted on whitewashed programming, though it purports to be an objective representation of what's popular. An artist like Beyoncé, despite being one of the biggest names in the world, hasn't received generous pop radio airplay for the better part of a decade, and it has only dwindled further as her music takes Blackness more and more into its center. Elsewhere, award shows tip their hand in their determination of who lands pop nominations and who lands nods in other genre categories (see: The Weeknd’s recent Best R&B VMA for his Max Martin-produced “Blinding Lights,” or the racial breakdown of the Grammys Best Pop Vocal Album nominees over the past thirty years). It's probably no coincidence that Rihanna's 2016 album Anti—a rejection of her own commodification after years spent largely traveling the way of the pop princess—was at once her most culturally acclaimed album and her least decorated.

Considering the long racist history of the music industry as a whole, vocal Black audiences aren’t wrong for their disinterest, or at least their skepticism, in engaging with a pop apparatus that has so often stolen its "cool" from the community, only to attempt to sell it back to the world for mass consumption. Historically, the things intended for “everyone” have tended to mean things for white people; thus it's hard, even, to find the language to discuss Black pop stars on their own terms, because so much of what's associated with pop music has become shorthand for white or white-adjacent. That's the thing about a systemic issue that runs as deep as racism: It swallows everything in its path. It muddies what gets released, who hears it, the way it gets heard, the very politics of taste. Perhaps most insidious of all, though it isn't Black artists' burden to bear, it often blurs the lines between who is using whom—and for what.