The debate about the reasons why purveyors of what is broadly (and often lazily) categorised as 'black music ’ have fared less well than non ‘ethnic’ creators has raged long and hard for many a year. Some cite racism, whilst others claim that fiscal imbalances, or social divisions are the central cause. However the simple truth is less complicated, but perhaps even more unpalatable. This is because the real problems began when people started using the term ‘black music’.
Please allow me to simplify.
There are a substantial number of people who swear that Elvis Presley was the King of Rock n Roll. However Chuck Berry (and his fans) may well hold a very different view. Bo Diddly’s influence on the Rolling Stones’ music is well documented and incidentally Little Richard would quite like his ‘Ooohs!’ back from The Beatles please. There are many others who also owe much of their distinctive sound and style to what is referred to as ‘black music’. The sounds of groups such as The Shoals rhythm section are widely regarded as some of the greatest ‘black music’ ever recorded, yet significant numbers of members of these bands were not black, so should this disqualify their creative contributions?
‘What you won’t do for love’ was recorded by both Peabo Bryson (an American black man) and Bobby Caldwell (an American white man), and surely no-one with a beating heart and functioning brain could possibly doubt that Caldwell’s version oozes quality, elegance, sophistication and class. Does the colour difference matter? Not to me it doesn’t. Why should it?
I expect you can probably tell by now that I view this whole ‘black music’ saga with a measure of weary disdain.
I therefore sincerely believe that any attempt to label such a rich and vastly complex body of work as ‘black’ is pointless and altogether misleading. Perhaps what may be more relevant is that once the decision was made to create a category entitled ‘black music’, parallel decisions quickly followed suit. These would have been around marketing the music differently and how much to spend on promotion. And in my opinion, this was when the real problems first started, especially here in the UK where there are only 1.9 million black people, which makes up 3% of our population. And any business strategy that only considers 3% of the marketplace could justifiably be perceived as underselling its potential.
From this ‘separation’ came the development and co-existence of two industries, and it is widely accepted that this division was to the mutual benefit and detriment of both. Many black artists were given smaller budgets to record their music; less money to promote it and fewer personnel to support the marketing of it to the wider world. Some of this imbalance can be explained by endemic racism perhaps, but even more of it due to absolute business lunacy.
In the ‘good old days’ many record companies, radio stations and sales outlets were run like small fiefdoms. Big decisions about the potential saleability of artists and creative output were often made by people who were singularly ill equipped, or unqualified to do so.
The Beatles never denied the extent to which black artists influenced their music. Yet there is a man (who shall remain nameless) who declared that The Beatles ‘would do nothing in the music business’ – believing that four white boys from Liverpool had no business messing with that sort of material. Was he a racist? Or did he just spectacularly misread the likely public demand for The Beatles sound? In truth, nobody really knows why they became so incredibly successful.
‘Black music’ is impossibly difficult to define. So why do even bother trying? Instead, why don’t we just listen to a body of work and then decide whether we like it or not and whether it resonates in our souls?
It could be argued that most of the music I’ve made over the years would be described as ‘urban’ or ‘black’. When I produced Bobby Womack (who undoubtedly possessed one of the finest voices the world is ever likely to hear) he marvelled at the fluidity, creativity and soulfulness delivered by the pianist on the track. Bobby didn’t baulk when I told him that the musician in question was a tall, gangly genius named Graham Harvey, a white guy.
When I choose musicians my only consideration is their talent – not their race. And most listeners don’t care either. ‘Good enough’ or ‘not good enough’ are the two essential measures that should really matter.
The wider technological opportunities afforded to us today enable us to create then present music we believe in, to a vast and sophisticated global audience who are well qualified to be able to make up their own minds. Largely sidestepping the cultural barriers placed in front of us by misguided marketing executives, or by some in our communities who unwittingly hold music back by ghettoising it.
I strongly doubt that deciding whether an artist is black or white are the two most pressing criteria. And for that we should all be very grateful.
Errol Michael Henry is the founder of record label and digital music distributor i2musicmarketing.com