One of the Black community’s greatest gifts to the world is an astounding list of genres and artists who have changed the way we all listen to music. Without genres like the blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, Afrobeat, calypso, reggae, roots music, rap and hip-hop, The western world might still be doing the waltz. But there has been a significant drop in the popularity and influence of R&B over the last several decades. Where R&B artists used to be chart-toppers, now they are virtually invisible on the charts as their record sales have plunged. They no longer even have much of a presence on Black radio. So what happened to this previously dominant musical genre?
Some of the most successful R&B artists now are white — names like Justin Timberlake, Adele, Robin Thicke. In 2013, Billboard‘s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart was topped by a white artist 44 out of 52 weeks — including 37 straight weeks, January to October, where it was topped by either hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis or Thicke. These artists are allowed to explore actual R&B music, producing lush tracks filled with musicality that evoke a previous era of R&B music. So Timberlake’s enormous success, while perhaps well-deserved, inherently speaks to the limitations and pressures placed on Black artists in comparison to the artistic freedom granted to white artists. It forces us to question whether Timberlake, if he was Black, would be given the latitude to explore pop, funk, rock, soul and R&B, all while blending retro elements with futuristic sounds, or if he would be pressured by label bosses to conform to the same watered-down, generic pop standard so many one-time R&B artists now call home because “that’s what listeners want.” By comparison, consider that in the Billboard issue dated Nov. 23, 1963, when Black artists were still struggling to break out of being viewed as “race” music, just under half of the Top 10 on the Hot R&B Singles chart were white acts.