When Nicki Minaj released her sophomore album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded earlier this year, the criticisms that she had veered her “Starships” too far out of orbit into the pop galaxy nearly threatened to overshadow the success she has had in arguably single handedly reviving mainstream interest in femcees. The backlash was the first major memorable controversy of the 21st century over an African American recording artist’s crossover appeal. The debate raged over whether or not Minaj deserved to still be considered hip-hop, itself a misinformed argument since hip-hop regularly hits the pop charts. What the mainstream media failed to investigate was the state of contemporary Black popular music, thereby placing the commentary concerning Minaj within a large framework to analyze how Black popular music has both devolved and evolved in its journey from spirituals to hip-hop. As part of African-American Music Appreciation Month (formerly known as Black Music Month), EBONY.com convened three of the nation’s foremost cultural critics: Greg Tate, Nicole Fleetwood and Mark Anthony Neal to offer their views on everything from the shift in musical taste through the advent of hip-hop, how traditional Black genres of music such as jazz and funk are being forsaken for mass appeal and consumption, the double standard women of color face in pop music and more.
EBONY: Before we can look at the present or future of Black popular music we need to look back. What are some of the similarities or differences you find between Black pop of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s with today’s pop music?
Greg Tate: I’m a ‘70s baby and in my generation we listened to everything based on whether or not we were feeling it. It was a much more creative time in terms of radio. I think what happened though was there was this period around the blossoming of hip-hop where that generation really got into just only listening to hip-hop with the exclusion of everything else. I think that generation is very restricted in terms of their listening diet. But really, the history of pop music is that the audience that the industry is interested in changes about every five years. So you’re talking about this limited period where one kind of music or one generation is going to dominate and define what it is.
EBONY: When some people compare yesteryear and today’s pop music, there is an argument that there was greater substance and skill level back then.
At the end of the day, the critics aren’t slowing [Nicki Minaj] down. She clearly has more lovers than haters in her camp, which is why she’s a pop phenomenon.
Mark Anthony Neal: I can’t say that because pop music by definition is an arena where you don’t find substance. We think differently for Black artists within that context because there have been so many examples of Black artists doing more serious work that rose to the forefront in a pop music arena. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is one of those examples. I think if there is a difference it’s that you don’t have enough of a balance anymore. But even that balance isn’t as troubling anymore because you don’t have to listen to the radio to find serious Black music anymore. With digital culture you’re able to access people in ways you weren’t able to 25 years ago. So yeah the balance has kind of left the mainstream but I don’t think serious Black artists are losing because of that. They simply have different arenas to sell and provide for their music.
EBONY: Some would argue that now is the best time to crossover since so many artists of color are pop stars. Do you think this is the best time for people of color in pop?
GT: It depends on the measure of scale you’re going to use to assess that because I would say no based on the caliber of musicianship that we’ve had in the past. On the other hand, if you talk about popular music since the end of World War II to the present it has expanded exponentially. A lot of it has to do with the way in which music has been distributed through the development of new media. From the late ‘40’s into the early ‘50’s, television is not a factor in the marketing and development of music. But then television and radio becomes very relevant by the ‘60’s. Then you get to a place by the end of ‘60’s where there is the creation of teenagers as a consumer group that matters. The audience that’s for pop music now is probably ten times what it was in the 1970’s, 1980’s or even 1990’s.
EBONY: In the quest to crossover many artists aren’t using genres typically associated with Black music such as funk, soul and jazz. Are these genres suffering as a result of that abandonment?
Nicole Fleetwood: It’s definitely not a good thing. I think that in some ways the music industry is becoming more conservative instead of supporting