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.
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 some of the traditional music genres and also experimental genres that are emerging. I think you have those genres happening more on the local scenes since they are not receiving the kind of support that they need from the industry. So I think in many ways more and more people are feeling alienated from the commercial music scene because it is becoming more formulaic and conservative.
EBONY: One way that the industry supported independent artists in those genres was with the Urban/Alternative category at the Grammy Awards. That category has since been cancelled. What does this mean for independent artists making music that isn’t pop?
MAN: The Grammy Awards really don’t matter. They’re industry awards and they tend to tribute industry favorites from major labels. Black artists have never needed that kind of affirmation in order to reach their audiences. They’ve only ever needed that type of affirmation to crossover into larger audiences. I think the desire to crossover now is very different than what it looked like for Berry Gordy in the 1960’s when crossing over was about validating Black musical culture in certain kinds of ways. I don’t think these generations of artists are pressured with that validation project the way previous artists were.
EBONY: With that statement we can turn our attention to some of today’s controversial pop stars such as Nicki Minaj. She has received backlash for being too “pop.” Are people wrong for being mad at her and accusing her of that?
NF: I think people compare today’s Black musicians with the kind of training and skill set of earlier Black musicians who have especially got their training in the church, went through rigorous training and performed in front of multiple audiences before they emerged on a more national scene. I think people look at Nicki Minaj and Rihanna as not having the same credibility and training that’s part of the emergence of Black musicians. But I would never call them sellouts. It’s like well what are they selling out to? I think that’s a very limited way of looking at their success.
GT: I think it’s interesting because I have friends of the hip-hop generation and they just hate the idea of Nicki Minaj. There’s nothing they like about her. They’re just not impressed and I think that’s genuine. I wouldn’t consider it backlash. It’s just critiquing because these are the same people who didn’t like Nicki Minaj before she blew up. I think it’s the nature of the beast that you’ll attract negative criticism for anybody who becomes extremely successful in American life. That’s based on people just getting sick of a certain artist being shoved down their face and overexposure. At the end of the day, the critics aren’t slowing her down. She clearly has more lovers than haters in her camp, which is why she’s a pop phenomenon.
EBONY: Do you think there is a double standard for a woman like Nicki Minaj crossing over into the pop market as opposed to a male?
NF: I want to refer to James Baldwin with the burden of representation that’s put on Black celebrities. I think that burden is even more intense for Black female celebrities to represent a certain respectability or kind of modesty. Black pop stars like Nicki Minaj and Rihanna are quite sexually explicit with their videos, fashion sensibility and lyrics. I think it’s really an in-your-face type of performance that especially an older generation is very uncomfortable with. For example, in Nicki Minaj’s song “Stupid Hoe,” she uses all of this kind of tired language of talking trash about Black women. I think people in the public are uncomfortable with that kind of dance.
EBONY: So who is really mad at today’s Black pop when it seems to sell so well? Is the backlash coming from special interest groups, communities or is it all a construct of the media?
NF: We can say there are some communities of music listeners and urban communities where hardcore fans of certain music traditions see them as becoming way too popular or too over saturated. So I think in that way it would be coming from the ground but at the same time I think their [pop star] handlers as well as media producers like to generate controversy. Everyone benefits from that controversy because there is more consumption of media.
EBONY: For those communities that are angry at the state of Black pop it bears noting that White artists also get backlash for going “pop.” But do you find with Black artists there is a greater intensity in the resentment? Historically we’ve had so much stolen from our culture so does that fear add heat to the fire of our backlash?
MAN: Yeah, I say that’s a historical narrative. It’s the Elvis effect that we’ll create music and some White artist will come and steal it. I think what’s been different about the last 15 years is that the mainstream crossed over into Black music as opposed to Black music crossing over into the mainstream. I would make the argument that the thing that we actually identify as pop music today really has its roots and foundation in Black music over the last 15 years or so. When we saw the rise of the boy bands of Backstreet Boys, N'Sync and 98 Degrees it was clear that their producers and handlers were repackaging them in a way that we thought about groups like New Edition 15 years before them. When you think about all the work or production that producers and songwriters like Full Force did in terms of creating a sound for these crossover artists, its clear that what we identify as this pop sound moment is rooted in Black music over the last 20 years.
EBONY: So where do we go from here? Is the issue concerning the state of Black pop even worth debating since things appear to be so cyclical in the pop arena and always shifting or is it still valid to continue examining Black pop?
MAN: I think this is a generation where we’re talking about young folks under 24 who just process music very differently. I'm sitting there with my 13 year-old daughter and she’s listening to a whole range of artists on Pandora. She’s not thinking about this in any racialized way. I think that’s what pop music is supposed to be; a fantasy space where we’re not concerned with all of these issues.
NF: I think Nicki Minaj and Rihanna are both of a tradition of Black popular music and they are also bringing in other influences. Rihanna isn’t bound by the Black American aesthetic. She brings in her Caribbean heritage, rave culture, this new millennial multiracial gathering and different subcultures. Even Nicki is playing with plastic, looking like a doll, and Japanese anime. They’re using different cultural traditions and practices that are not just within a Black music tradition. So I think they are both pushing the boundaries of how we understand Black music and what’s a Black pop star in the 21st century. In that way it will be very interesting to watch what they’re doing to think about how we understand race in the 21st century.
Souleo Enterprises, LLC is the umbrella company that creates, produces and curates media content, events, exhibitions and philanthropic projects by founder, Souleo. Presently Souleo Enterprises, LLC is creator/producer of the adult LGBT, financial literacy and arts programming for the New York Public Library taking place summer 2012 seen here.