“Negroes can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features...” Frederick Douglass
While driving my teens in the car, I turn over the reins of music programmer to them as they navigate through the thousands of songs available for streaming via my paid Spotify account.
From Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé to Jennifer Hudson and Jay-Z, we take turns picking songs while I play the sample or song that influenced today’s hit. I find great pleasure sharing my musical knowledge by playing Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” after Drake’s “Hotline Bling” or Evelyn Champagne King’s “Love Come Down” and “I’m in Love” behind J Hud’s “I Can’t Describe.”
Whether it’s Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson “borrowing” from the Gap Band’s “Oops Upside Your Head” for “Uptown Funk” or the heavy influences of “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye heard in Pharrell and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the legacy of black music is solid.
I shook my head with amazement when I heard Tyrese proclaim that he was “bringing R&B back,” leading the way with “Shame” from his Black Rose album.
I kept saying, “Where has it gone?” I struggled with the notion of someone bringing back a genre that never departed while lacing his track with interpolations that he “borrowed” from the 1980 Atlantic Starr hit “Send for Me” and echoes of Bobby Womack’s 1981 R&B hit “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.”
The question of black music’s survival is undeniable. The ability to claim it with this boldness rests with the ones who not only love the sound but acknowledge it as a major part of our culture—under the same umbrella where I would place soul, barring the notion of blue-eyed soul.
Alongside soul, rap/hip-hop, blues and gospel, R&B is the additional component that we’ve called black music for decades. Whether it wore the moniker of soul or race music, it is OURS! And it’s still HERE!
I spent more than 20 years marketing a who’s who of artists such as BeBe & CeCe Winans, Regina Belle, George Benson, Nicci Gilbert, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Rahsaan Patterson, Raven-Symoné, the Brown Sugar soundtrack and more. My success led to me being appointed to launch the first strategic marketing department at a major record label: MCA Records, now Geffen (under Universal Music Group). However, I soon realized the marketing director was allocating funds to other departments like sales, promotions, publicity and new media with none allocated to execute my own ideas. So my desire to expand the market share between the artists and new product lines encouraged me to partner with brands, ad agencies, media conglomerates, electronics and fashion/beauty.
The outcome evolved into a career brokering millions in entertainment deals for Ashlee Simpson, Blink 182, Common, Mary J. Blige, Shaggy, Sheryl Crow, The Pussycat Dolls, The Roots, as well as partnerships with the NBA, NFL, NASCAR, the Orange Bowl and more, not to mention the development of the relationship between Interscope and Monster Music that resulted in the record-breaking Beats By Beats By Dre’ headphones deal.
However, my greatest incentive for developing this department and enhancing my education was to avoid being pigeonholed and break through the stereotype that “black” people could ONLY work in the black music department. Yet I continued to market a few marquee black music artists because I did and still believe that we understand the culture best.
The Frederick Douglass quote at the top of this essay supports this notion and resonates with me when reflecting upon the African-American executive in today’s music industry. No one can portray us better than we portray ourselves. This is a culture that we live.
It does not matter that the name “black music” was changed to “urban music” to make it more acceptable to media partners and the general market. Or to convince “others” that they can market or promote OUR artists and music as well or better than us. We have an innate ability and understanding that can neither be taught nor bought. If African-American executives could be bolder in their declarations that they know this content and the audience that keeps the major record labels in business, the overall industry would have a greater understanding of their value and the music—regardless of the dissolution of black music divisions.
We don’t need the inner workings of corporate America to tell us where or how to express our gifts of creating music. This has never been the case. And we don’t need to ask for permission to develop these same works of art any more than we need to request a pass to be who and what we are.
It is up to the artists as well as the music executives to work together to maintain the respect and value of the art alongside the cultivators. With the integration of technology and digital media, it’s important that we understand and grow with the times to protect our assets and maintain our relevance. This supports our cultural stance and narrows the digital gap.
Whether it’s R&B, rap/hip-hop, gospel or soul, it is up to us to preserve the legacy of the music and the work behind it. This expertise must be interjected to mentor and teach Generations X, Y and Z; to prevent the arts from being taken for granted.
The same mentality that convinces one that all music should be free—that purchasing songs is unnecessary—supports the idea that the beat, rhythm or complete hook of a song can be placed in a new song without paying licensing fees and homage to the original songwriter(s). We support the music to support the artist and the craft. It is an acknowledgment that it all has value.
And this value contributes to our ability to keep black music alive. No one takes something with which you were born unless you turn over your birthright. This is our birthright.
This figurative and literal process would be cultural suicide and not an option for people who have worked so hard and come so far to share an incredible art—an art that is unmistakably the foundation from which the rhythm, the beats and the core of the melody have been dissected. To maintain the respect of this flavor that will never dissolve, it is the responsibility of previous generations to share the knowledge and origin of the latest hits as well as explore music from the past with younger generations.
This is one of the roles that also should be played by younger artists and executives. With the loss of music and arts in our public schools, it is a disservice for today’s recording artists to fail to publicly acknowledge the influences that help make this music possible.
So when listening to music, whether or not its origin derives from R&B, hip-hop/rap or even gospel, I believe it is my duty to remind the young minds, in my presence, that this is the continuation of a brilliant art that not only tells our stories but continues to cultivate a masterful and melodious history in song as well as the work behind the scenes that makes it all possible. Neither can be separated from the other.
Marilyn Batchelor is a music marketing expert based in Los Angeles. Also an ordained pastor in the Methodist church, she holds degrees in theology, marketing and journalism. She’s completing a PhD in Religion & Public Policy at Claremont Graduate University. Batchelor is also a longtime supporter of The Living Legends Foundation Inc. and other key music and entertainment organizations.