The History of R&B Music

Legendary musician and producer turned filmmaker Kashif Saleem has embarked on a cinematic journey to tell the rich history of rhythm and blues music and its impact across the globe. With over 70 million album sales to his credit and years of producing commercials for well-known American brands, Saleem is the perfect person to helm the directing duties for such an important project. The History of R&B Music will be a ten-part series exploring the origins of the art form and highlighting the vast contributions of musicians and music industry veterans throughout the past few decades.

EBONY recently sat down with Saleem to delve into the making of his documentary and the importance of documenting the history of Black music in this country.

EBONY: What compelled you to pursue making a documentary on the history of R&B music?

Kashif Saleem: It’s been a project that has been in making for about six years. I was thinking about it and planning and strategizing for it. My initial inspiration for doing this project is that R&B is such a great form of music. There were so many people that didn’t seem to have a whole lot of information about the music. During my career, I’ve always lived between the intersection of art and education. So – it was a natural fit for me to do this documentary after seeing documentaries on the history of jazz, rock and roll, and classical music. I felt compelled that someone had to produce a documentary on the history of R&B.

EBONY: How many artists, producers, managers, and engineers are you planning to interview for this documentary?

KS: We already have a couple hundred interviews done. Our interviews go beyond the people who created the music. It’s also about the core people. It’s about the stylists and limousine drivers. They all have their own special stories about an artist. Some of those stories you won’t get from the artists or managers because they’re sanitized. We’re capturing interviews with old school yard friends and barbers, too. In addition to all the other people you mentioned before, we’re going beyond that and getting real, true stories.

EBONY: Who are some of the more prominent names to be featured within it?

KS: The stories about the artists are just as important as the artists featured in the documentary. Jody Watley, Howard Hewitt, Freddie Jackson, Melba Moore, Howard Johnson, Kenny Gamble, Jerry Greenberg, the former president of Atlantic Records, Larkin Arnold, who signed Michael Jackson after he left Motown and executive produced, Thriller just to name a few. The list goes on and on. We have all the greats.

EBONY: Has it been difficult tracking down these legends for the project?

KS: It’s still an on-going process. In some respects, it has been difficult, and in other respects it hasn’t been difficult because the music industry is such an incestuous business. As you meet people, those people know other people, and they have their own stories. The hardest one was Little Richard. It took me a while to track him down.

EBONY: This is going to be a 10 part mini-series. What is the projected length for each mini-series?

KS: One hour each. Some parts may be an hour plus.

EBONY: For the past 50 years, R&B music has been the soundtrack to America’s societal history from Motown to present day. In your viewpoint, how has R&B music transformed not only American popular culture but the world?

KS: R&B music has changed the way we thought about love. In the 1950s, there were doo wop songs. In the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, songs were about coming home to your girl, conveying our social conditions and finding a way out of them, empowering women, fighting against the status quo, and the good, bad, and indifference toward love. Hip hop, funk, smooth jazz, disco, and dance were all borne from R&B music. We learned to express our love, and through R&B music, we were able to frame it.

EBONY: What has been your approach to the project?

KS: My approach to the project has been to gather as much footage as I can, and to identify the most pertinent stories that are applicable to the vast subject matter of rhythm and blues music and its influence on world culture. I’ve had to talk to all kinds of people. Rhythm and blues music isn’t just a black thing. It’s been a diverse cultural expression. Ahmet Ertegun was the president of Atlantic Records and he was from Turkey. Arif Mardin worked with Atlantic and Warner Bros. Records as a producer and arranger. He was from Turkey as well. Clive Davis was a young Jewish guy from Brooklyn. Also, there are the blue-eyed soul artists. We have to make sure that the story of R&B isn’t just a black thing. It’s touched every corner of the globe.

EBONY: When will this documentary be finished and released to the public?

KS: I have another year-and-a-half of filming and editing. It should be released by late 2015 or early 2016.

EBONY: Why is it important to uphold the proud legacy of R&B music and maintain its validity into the future?

KS: It is important to know your history, so you know how to move forward. Obviously, rhythm and blues music really requires a certain proficiency and musical talent. If we don’t hold on to that, sooner or later the powers that be will define what R&B is. For example, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, Adele, and Robin Thicke will take over and say this is our music. We can’t let that happen. They’re very talented people, but we have to keep the legacy right where it belongs. We have to keep the history documented in a way, so that it’s not told twenty years from now, and we’re omitted from the story. When I say we, I mean African Americans. R&B music has been one of America’s most incredible exports. If we’re going to hold on to what is ours, we have to be able to identify and prove that it’s ours. This doesn’t have racial overtones. People may come at me and say I’m speaking racially. No. I’m not. I’m speaking factually.

EBONY: What are some of the main goals you wish to accomplish with this documentary?

KS: What I hope to achieve is to identify, document, and elongate the true legacy of rhythm and blues music. I want to be able to convey how it has impacted us from a cultural, political, and social perspective. My goals are to tell the true story of R&B music, give the proper credit where it belongs, and I want people to engage and think about the songs that are most important to them from an entertainment and personal development perspective. I want them to think about those songs and lyrics and why every time they hear them something moves in their spirit. This is what this whole thing is about.

Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @iamchriswms.