Refocusing Our Anger
In Our Lamenting the State of Soul Music, We Must Direct Our Anger Where It Belongs: The Music Industry
by Rann Miller
When I think of Black music, my mind takes me many places.
I think of the spirituals of my enslaved ancestors, who sang to sustain their souls and forge their freedom. I think of the creators of rock and roll, whose creativity was appropriated for white profits and the consumption of white audiences. I think of jazz, one of the greatest gifts Africa ever gave to America. I can’t help but think of my favorites… Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Carmen McCrae… My mind then drifts to jazz fusion. I think of Miles again… but also Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Ramsey Lewis, Patrice Rushen, Grover Washington Jr., Dexter Wansel…
But before I arrive at those places, my mind takes me to rhythm and blues; the music I was raised on. When I ponder on the soul of Black folk, my mind takes me to car rides with my dad where I was introduced to That’s The Way of the World. My mind takes me to my uncle’s bedroom as a teenager where he introduced me to Roy Ayers and Ubiquity. My mind takes me to my grandfather sitting on his favorite chair as James Brown is playing. I travel back in time to my grandmother playing the Mighty Clouds of Joy as she straightens up the living room.
That’s the thing about soul music; it’s not a specific genre. Whether jazz, funk, R&B, gospel… it’s all soul music. You can’t necessarily articulate what it is, but you know it when you hear it.
You know it when you hear Aretha rock steady. You know it when Ray Charles tells you that the night time is the right time. You know it when Donald Byrd cautions you to think twice… when Patrice Rushen tickles the Fender Rhodes as she speaks of the love she’s reminded of… when Don Myrick plays his solo to “Reasons “and Philip Bailey asks, “He plays so beautiful, don’t you agree?”
… and the soul feels good.
You feel the soul in soul music from how you’re hit by the message in the music, then how the music makes you groove, and lastly how the groove moves you. The music feels so good, in fact, that many folks lament the current state of Black music today—critiquing the state of R&B and continuously criticizing the state of hip hop, which has become more passé than refreshing.
I get it. The soul music of the 60s, 70s and 80s is a golden age in the history of music—the 1970’s especially, in my humble opinion. It’s why there is a market for the group Soul Sonic. What Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak have captured in their music is the essence of why we love soul music; the groove, the musicianship and the message. In many ways, their Grammy win for song of the year—Leave the Door Open—validates the desire for a soul music revival.
Their cover of Con Funk Shun’s Love Train is superb, by the way. However, in our desires for a return to a triumphant past, we miss the greatness of our present and the possibilities of our future.
Traditionally, we aim our disgust at the artists. I understand why. They are the creators; the poets, the spoken word aficionados, the master storytellers through song. Some artists are amazing at their craft and others aren’t artists at all. But we can say the same thing for music acts of any era. What ails us is our outlook.
A capitalist society is comprised of capitalists (those who exploit for profit), workers (those who are exploited for profit), and consumers (those whose consumption is predicated on the exploitation of workers—whom they tend to be). Consumers are so caught up in the joys of their consumption that when the “joy” is removed due to a lack of production or a lack in the quality of production, they blame the workers while the capitalists go largely unblamed.
Rarely do consumers think about the strain capitalists put on workers, compromising production and the quality thereof.
When it comes to soul music today, no matter the genre, it may be easy to critique the artists, but we should aim our vitriol at the corporations that facilitate the state of music as we know it. For example, there are numerous takes that R&B is dead. But that’s not because of piss-poor R&B music. Rather it’s because music labels don’t prioritize R&B music; not in the ways we’re used to. Money isn’t funneled to develop artists or promote them—I am specifically referring to Black artists. Instead, “tried and true” acts are promoted, while newer acts get little to no attention.
Then, there is the industry appropriation of R&B where folks like Adele and Sam Smith are promoted faster and louder than Jasmine Sullivan or Lucky Daye. As I mentioned earlier, that’s the history of Rock & Roll. That history has fomented a cultural meaning-making within whiteness that explains why Elvis continues to be revered; with a movie no less. Thankfully, Ray Charles told the world about Elvis, but I digress.
These are issues that industry power brokers can fix. However, the reality is that Black music is under assault. Truth be told, it’s always been under assault. But Black music isn’t about who we are to others. Black music is about who we are to each other.
From traditional African music came spirituals. From spirituals came ragtime. From ragtime came the blues and jazz. From the blues came rock and roll, then rhythm and blues. From jazz came funk and fusion. From funk and R&B came rap music and hip hop. All of that is soul music and it’s through the music and its birthing of new forms over time that we relate to each other.
So, as many of us lament the racial capitalism that drives the music industry, as it does every industry,— we (fans of soul music) we must see and feel the soul in the music we have today. We see it and feel it in the artistry of Jasmine Sullivan, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Adi Oasis (formerly Adeline), Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spaulding, Mono Neon and Kamasi Washington. We can still return to the past, with many of our favorites still performing like Anita Baker, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, and my beloved Earth, Wind and Fire. But when we only look to our past as a rejection of our present—as a result of the social structure’s exploitation–we do harm to our future. Let us return to the music and collectively struggle against the capitalist forces who aim to destroy Black music, and greater, Black people.
Because that’s what soul music is all about… the Black Freedom Struggle.
Rann Miller is the director of anti-bias and DEI initiatives as well as a high school social studies teacher for a school district located in Southern New Jersey. He’s also a freelance writer and founder of the Urban Education Mixtape, supporting urban educators and parents of students in urban schools. He is the author of the upcoming book, Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids, with an anticipated release date of February 2023. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.