Stephanie Mills recently stopped by TV One’s “Sister Circle” and had something to say about the current state of R&B. According to the legendary singer, the music industry has turned their backs on Black R&B artists for white artists who sing the same type of music.
“I think they want R&B, but they don’t want it from us. They want it from Adele and Justin Timberlake and those people. Kenny Lattimore had a wonderful album [but it didn’t get a lot of attention],” Mills told hosts Quadd Webb-Lunceford and Syleena Johnson, who’s also a well-known singer.
Of course, Mills isn’t the only Black R&B artist with this outlook, Mary J. Blige does as well, despite her being in the music business for 25 very productive years.
“It’s hard for a woman to do anything, but when you’re Black you have to fight,” she told the Los Angeles Times in September. “I fought, although I was hearing it was over for me. But I kept going, because I felt in my spirit there’s more to do.”
Mills, for her part, grew to fame in the late ‘70s and early ’80s after scoring hits like “What Cha’ Gonna Do with My Lovin,” and “(You’re Puttin’) A Rush on Me.” Blige became the voice of an entire generation after dropping albums like “What’s the 411?,” “My Life” and “Share My World.”
But it’s not only the veteran Black R&B singers who’ve said they feel less appreciated these days, it’s also newer artists like Tinashe.
After the 24-year-old caught a lot of backlash for her comments on colorism, she spoke candidly about the challenges she’s faced due to being Black. In short, Tinashe said that her music isn’t able to exist outside of urban music realms, which she called unfair.
“When it comes to Black women, people want to put you in these almost race-driven musical genres,” she explained. “[Our] songs automatically become ‘urban’ or ‘rhythmic.’ I was creating music that didn’t necessarily fall into what people [considered] Black female music and there was push back.”
Tinashe also said that fans are choosing male artists today more than ever, which is another reason she and some of her peers haven’t thrived like they’ve expected to. Some may disagree, however, seeing that other singers of color such as Solange, SZA and Jhené Aiko have ultra successful careers.
“For some reason, people are consuming male-based entertainment on a much greater scale,” said Tinashe. “You look at the pop charts and there are no Black women. And it looks like that on rhythmic and urban charts. Perhaps it’s a subject matter issue? Maybe it’s the gatekeepers? I can’t put my finger on it.”
In fact, the Los Angeles Times reports that in the past decade the only Black female artists to score a No.1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 and top album charts as a lead artist is Beyoncé, Rihanna and Mariah Carey.
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Some male R&B singers have talked about feeling pushed aside because of skin color as well, like Tyrese. Before he was making headlines for having a series of very public meltdowns, the “Fast & Furious” star held a show and protest in front of iHeartRadio’s headquarters in Los Angeles.
Even though his 2015 album “Black Rose” hit No.1 on the Billboard 200 chart and sold 83,000 copies in its first week, Tyrese said a lot of stations wouldn’t play his music because he’s Black.
“When I think about Sam Smith, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, when they’re singing R&B soul, their songs are being played on all formats of radio, including urban radio,” he told TMZ. “We don’t say because they white they should only be played on the white stations. If I’m No. 1 my song deserves to be heard by the world.”
The R&B artist The-Dream also touched on discrimination in the music industry during an interview in 2012.
“It’s called rhythm and blues; they just took the blues out of it for so long,” he told The Guardian. “What’s crazy is that Blacks can’t do soul records anymore. We love Adele singing it, but Beyoncé singing it? No. The tempo’s too slow, gimme the club hit. Now the Blacks in America are responsible for the pop records, and everybody else is singing soulful records. It’s weird to me. We’re pigeonholed over there.”
Hector Hannibal, who’s the program director for the Howard University-owned station WHUR in Washington D.C, weighed in on the topic and said race isn’t always a factor when it comes to white R&B artists being heavily supported.
Hannibal also said that he’s received a lot of R&B tunes from artists who aren’t Black, and if the songs are solid there’s a good chance he’ll put them on air.
“I love it when artists like the Stephanie Mills of the world releases music,” he said. “Sometimes you will have artists who are outside of the norm doing some really good things, and we will play them. But it’s not because I’m looking for that. I’m looking for R&B music most of the time, and every now and then something falls in my lap that sounds really good and people really like it.”
In addition, Hannibal said that a lot of artists who aren’t Black stick to R&B and other styles of urban music out of sheer love and appreciation, and they should be given the room to do that.
“With everything else that this beautiful Black music culture is, it’s admirable and something worth endeavoring to do,” he stated. “It’s an art form and no matter what kind of artist you are, you appreciate music. Someone is paying tribute to a grand music style, so if you’re white or Asian or what have you and you can pull it off, there’s no rules that say you can’t.”
Hannibal also pointed to the fact that singers like Mills and Lattimore are in the middle of a changing industry, where album sales have dramatically decreased and record labels are being way more judicious on how they’re allocating promotional dollars.
“I played a single off of Kenny Lattimore’s CD, and perhaps it’s one of those situations in terms of [the] bigger-name-rule. The bigger name gets a bigger slice of the pie,” he explained. “If it happens to be a Justin Timberlake that’s white, we’ll immediately assign the racial thing, but Justin has sold a lot of music. He’s done a lot. He’s much more mainstream and that has a lot to do with it … There’s a lot more than just the Black, white thing.”
“I would love for Kenny Lattimore and Stephanie Mills to have that sort of success,” Hannibal added. “But they’re not mainstream, and the industry has changed dramatically and that bodes against them.”