Sardonic Sistah Says

Observations… Ruminations… Ponderances… & Rants from Another Perspective

The Color of Music

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Last week while watching the season finale of SYTYCD I pointed out the former Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger to my husband.  I didn’t have to draw too much attention to her since his eyes was glued to the screen as she performed, but I had him take note of her ethnicity.

“With her maybe Asian America can finally get a pop star,” Then as an after thought I added, “Well, after Don Ho.”

A few years ago there was talk that Jocelyn Enriquez might be able to get on pop radio, then after that it was Coco Lee who was going to be a Pop Princess.  Both of them failed miserably. Amerie might ascend to that throne but African Americans are claiming her too tightly to let the moniker of Korean American performer (or Blasian) come into play.  As the internet brings us closer to cultures and peoples around the world race requirements are becoming lax.  Hip hop, pop, and rock have traveled the world over and are coming back to us with fresh new sounds.  Most of the new music that I have been waiting to drop this summer (M.I.A, Kenna, Zap Mamma) are artists who step outside the box and dare to be funky.

But then, creating a sound that most people don’t expect to come from you because of the color of your race has its drawbacks.  Mostly, people don’t know how to label you.  Where would one put Kenna?  He’s black but sounds similar to a lot of alternative rock bands.  A few years his debut cd had critical acclaim but his odd sound (think David Byrne meets Bootsy Collins) was hard to promote in a music industry where black men are mostly seen mugging for the cameras. 

The group Re-Tros has a similar problem of being unable to be pigeonholed.  A few months ago when they played the South by Southwest music festival in Austin and this month will be winding down their North American tour. The band, with its unique sound and hard driving beats, is still thought of as a novelty act that most likely won’t make it into the mainstream in the west.  Why?  Because the group is Chinese.

According to music exec who spoke with PRI’s “The World”, Re-Tros sounding a lot like western bands which is their downfall.   Rock music isn’t indigenous to their culture and suggested that adding elements of Chinese music might help to garner them a solid western fan base.

Just a few weeks ago the same thing was noted about Asian American acts/artists. 

Natalise’s manager, Andy Goldmark, said that Asian-Americans have lagged behind not because of discrimination but because they have yet to create their own popular music sound the way African-Americans and Latinos have.

“Asian-Americans have tended to follow what’s going in the pop world rather than use the Asian-American path to invent new things,” said Mr. Goldmark, a songwriter and music producer and a former vice president for talent at Jive Records.

He said many artists are beginning to find their voice and are incorporating Asian instruments into their music or writing lyrics that address issues like how Asian men feel about Asian women who date Caucasians.

So basically, artists like Re-Tros, Harlemm Lee, Toshi Kubota and other talented artists of the Asian persuasion can get recognized with airplay but only if they pimp their culture through their music.  In this case it’s not the content of their character (or that beauty of their sound) but the color of their skin. And these confinements aren’t always applied to white artists.  Eminem can do rap, be considered high up in the rap pantheon of 90s rappers like Tupac, Dre, Snoop and Suge.  People didn’t stop grooving to Jon B’s sound just because they discovered he was missing some crucial melanin, and although peopled were miffed at first with Fergie joining Black Eyed Peas they still give her props. Hell, Paul Wall and Robin Thicke may be joining Teena Marie to get the honorary black pass.  So why can’t Asian crooners and spitters slip in the same way their white counterparts do?

Perhaps it has to do more with race than we like to acknowledge.  For years mainstream pop has always been hard to penetrate.  It’s the foundation of music history in the U.S.  When artists like the Isley Brothers and Fats Domino couldn’t get airplay on white owned stations they were sad to see white pop versions of their songs making it to the top.  It wasn’t the music but the faces the music was springing from.  Elvis Presley ripped his whole routine from Mr. Entertainment Jackie Wilson.  Jimi Hendrix is arguably the father of Rock as we know it, but how many faces are associated with rock today?  Living Colour was back in the early 90s and Lenny Kravitz does today but he still has a hard time getting more people to listen to his music.  Even blacks have bought into the hype with many of us unlikely to buy his music.  A few years ago he appeared on the cover of Essence magazine to remind us that he is, indeed black and he makes music with soul so why don’t we buy his CD?  We laughed, not caring how nappy or big he or Ben Harper wear their afros because they aren’t making black music.  Lines of demarcation are drawn thick in music.  We are used to black people getting funky, Hispanics rocking reggaeton and whites being the more fluid of the groups getting in where they want to get in.

Slowly it will change.  The big record companies will have to mix it up to survive, especially if a lot of younger listeners are ripping their singles from free music sites.  Soon it won’t be who can sell more CDs between 50 cent and Kanye because CDs will be a thing of the past. 

But for now, the smart money’s on Kanye.


Written by rentec

22 August, 2007 at 6:02 am

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