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Is R&B Under Siege? Tyrese, Sam Smith And The Genre's Identity Crisis

Colorization and categorizing hasn’t been kind to R&B in recent years, but is that a good or bad thing?

Back in July, when it was confirmed that Tyrese’s new release Black Rose had successfully become the new No. 1 album in the country, a slew of inquiries emerged from the voices of music journalists: How? Who? What?

SPIN’s explanation was that it was a slow sales week. Forbes suggested that it was likely due to the success of Furious 7, the film in which he recently starred. Few praised the music, or claimed that this accolade was well deserved. The confusion likely stemmed from the fact that we’re not used to seeing an album sell so well without attention from mainstream radio (outside of a handful of hip-hop acts, at least). Black Rose sold 83,000 copies in its first week — a massive amount for an independent artist these days, especially when their singles aren’t generating Top 40 airplay. Where his music has seen relevance is on urban adult contemporary (AC) stations, like those that make up Billboard’s Adult R&B chart. “Shame,” the second single from the album, has spent forty-one weeks on the chart, and was finally bumped from the No. 1 spot — by Adele’s “Hello.”

During interviews around the time of the project’s release with Diddy’s REVOLT and Power 105’s The Breakfast Club, Tyrese was extremely vocal about how he sees the current state of R&B; namely that R&B singers are “insecure” about their inability to reach mainstream radio, and that only white R&B/soul artists are able to garner airplay from both urban AC radio and mainstream Top 40 stations. This assertion has been been furthered recently by a number of other prominent black vocalists. Tank expressed the difficulty that black R&B artists have in getting their work green-lit, specifying that it often takes “six, seven months to build up one record,” while white R&B artists have had multiple Top 10 singles at one time. Jazmine Sullivan confirmed that she believes there is some injustice in “how black soul artists are received,” and K. Michelle claimed that she doesn’t believe Adele’s “Hello” would’ve had the same success had it been sung by a black woman. In addition to Adele, Tyrese and his counterparts have pointed to the success of other white singers in the genre, such as Sam Smith, Justin Timberlake, and Robin Thicke.

Regardless of whether or not one believes that what these artists are offering is traditional R&B music, they have each been shown a significant amount of love by R&B and AC stations. In addition to reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Adult R&B chart, Adele’s “Hello” also topped the Hot 100 for seven weeks. Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” held the Adult R&B top spot for thirteen weeks, and simultaneously peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100. He also won a BET Award for Best New Artist. Justin Timberlake has had tremendous success on both charts throughout his career; most recently his two releases of The 20/20 Experience rendered a series of songs that hit the Top 10 on both (“Not a Bad Thing,” “Suit & Tie,” and “Mirrors”). Robin Thicke has only had three Top 40 hits in his career, but each of them have had a tremendous amount of success on AC stations as well (“Lost Without U,” “Give It 2 U,” and “Blurred Lines”).

So, it would seem that these claims hold up. But are white artists really the only ones able to simultaneously appeal to both audiences?

Through my survey of Adult R&B chart hits from the past few years, I found that over an eighteen-month period leading up to Tyrese’s new album, the top three was made up of only twenty-three different songs. Out of those, only eight have successfully crossed over to the mainstream and reached the Hot 100’s top fifty spots. They are as follows: The Weeknd’s “Earned It,” Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk,” Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s “Love Never Felt So Good,” John Legend’s “All of Me,” Pharrell’s “Happy,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and Miguel’s “Adorn.”

So here’s something. If we’re counting Mark Ronson as the lead artist of “Uptown Funk,” and Justin Timberlake as the lead for “Love Never Felt So Good,” we find that half of those eight are by white R&B/soul artists. That is certainly a high percentage, and it means there has only been one song by a white artist in the past two years that has performed well on AC stations and not on mainstream radio. That song belongs to Robin Thicke, whose song “For the Rest of My Life” reached the top of the Adult R&B chart but couldn’t break into the Hot 100. Why is this an anomaly, when it’s the norm for so many non-white R&B artists?

“In this day and age, there are a plethora of things that need to be done to hedge your bet and try to survive,” said Nullah Sarker, the Creative Director for Lava Music Publishing. “R&B, in order to be successful in the conventional sense, needs to be pop… it needs to be not only consumed, but supported by a ton of consumers.”

Sarker mentioned the ascent of Charlie Puth, the featured singer on Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again,” whose previous single, “Marvin Gaye” featuring Meghan Trainor had initially struggled to generate airplay. But, after “See You Again” hit number one — aided in part by the buzz and media attention surrounding the Furious 7 film and Paul Walker’s untimely death — “Marvin Gaye” began to work its way up the charts.

“Now, yes, he is white, but I truly think, much like in Tyrese’s case, that there is a bunch of good music out there that just needs to be heard by enough people, and spread by association with trending pop culture consumer connections. How does an R&B song or artist become popular? As far as I can see, not only for Tyrese but other successful black R&B artists, they have to hit the streets, and leverage as much as they can — whether it be features, movies, or fame, and essentially hope for the best.”

Critics looking to dismiss the idea that race plays a factor in which songs are able to find success on pop radio have few examples to cite, but they do exist. John Legend’s “All of Me” reached No. 1 on both charts, as did Pharrell’s “Happy.” But perhaps most surprising is Miguel’s “Adorn,” which seems to be as alternative an R&B cut as any discussed here, and yet it still managed to break into the top twenty.

Looking for more insight into this issue, I reached out to Rob Markman, the Artist Relations Manager at Genius.com and the host and creator of Red Light Special, a fantastic weekly podcast dedicated to R&B music.

"In 2015 there are fewer places where traditional R&B artists can go to promote and showcase their music,” Markman said. “When hip-hop and R&B stations start to tighten their rotation, while simultaneously including more pop songs, a ton of deserving R&B artists are getting left in the cold. And the R&B artists that are making it into rotation are mostly singing about the strip club and one night stands. There needs to be more balance and more songs about love, songs that artists like Tyrese, Rico Love, and Miguel are singing. That's why I started Red Light Special; to provide a space for R&B artists to come and focus on their music."

The other factor at play in this struggle for airtime and airplay has to do with genre designation. As the worlds of hip-hop and pop have continued to collide, so too have those of pop and R&B. Many black artists that have been labeled as R&B acts are making music that draws as much (if not more) influence from pop than it does from the roots of R&B and soul music, and yet their work continues to be categorized as R&B. For example, back in 2010 the well-known Norwegian production team StarGate produced songs within several months of each other for Rihanna and Katy Perry. Both songs (“Only Girl” and “Firework”) became massive commercial successes. Both had similar compositions, similar reliance on synths, and BPMs within two beats of each other. Perry’s song was classified as “dance-pop,” while Rihanna’s was frequently listed as R&B. This distinction definitely had something to do with her prior work, but in this case it really appears just to be a designation that is automatic, based upon her skin color. It reflects an understanding in the industry that if a black artist isn’t rapping (and thus isn’t making hip-hop), it must be R&B or soul.

Many artists working in this climate today have taken notice of this, including Rico Love, whose recent album Turn the Lights On is commonly considered an R&B project, though its sound and influence actually has more in common with pop releases. I spoke with him in order to get a sense of an artist’s perspective on the issue.

“Everybody says to me that you have one of the best R&B albums of the past year,” said Love. “And my album is not even R&B. I don’t consider it that. I feel that it’s only labeled R&B because I’m black.”

Through his efforts in marketing his own music, as well as the work he’s done with countless other black vocalists as a songwriter, Love has become highly aware of the double standards that have become deeply ingrained into the music industry; differences that are reflective of greater issues that exist in society as a whole.

“I really don’t like that we even have to call it crossover radio. If Justin Bieber puts out a new pop song, it’s just a record. For a black artist, it’s a crossover track.” He likened this to how youth of color have to be told that they can be anything they want in life. It’s not something implicit, similar to the opportunity for an artist of color to have their record on mainstream radio.

Tonight (Feb. 15), the 58th Annual Grammy Awards will celebrate the year’s best work in R&B, and upon closer examination of their categorizing, there seems to be quite a bit of this genre-confusion at play. At last year’s Grammy’s, albums by Chris Brown and Pharrell (which were both heavily influenced by pop music) were only featured in the R&B category, while albums by Sam Smith and Miley Cyrus (which were both heavily influenced by R&B/soul music) were only featured in the Pop category. What was the basis for these decisions? What made them choose to host Usher’s “Good Kisser” in R&B, and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” in Pop? In this year’s nominees, the only song in a Pop category where the lead performer is not white and not a rapper is The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” But yet “Earned It” can be found as a nominee in the R&B field. Again, a question that doesn’t seem to have an easy answer.

What all of this has contributed to is an increasingly confused consumer base. A genre spanning from the traditionalist sounds of icons like Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye that has lost its sense of identity, and in the process is being watered down.

While part of the solution to this is fighting for equal representation of black artists on pop radio, this strategy neglects the fact that much of the most quality work being made today doesn’t really belong there in the first place. Back in August, Jill Scott’s latest offering, the phenomenal, critically-acclaimed Woman, quietly took the No. 1 spot on its way to impressive sales numbers. This album — like the work of many of the best writers in hip-hop, rock, or any other genre — was clearly made without radio in mind. It wasn’t part of the creative process, as it evidently also wasn’t while Kendrick was creating To Pimp a Butterfly or while Kamasi Washington was making The Epic (which was criminally robbed of a Grammy nod). These albums are much more catered toward the fans that have a deep love for the genres they each work in, and are much less interested in how many teenagers will discover it through the iTunes music charts.

This is not to say that there isn’t something incredibly problematic about songs with similar sounds by artists of different backgrounds having wildly different outcomes. It also isn’t to say that we don’t need to address the fact that black artists are influenced by and create music that expands beyond hip-hop, R&B, and soul — and should be treated within the industry as such. But sometimes, as is true for Tyrese, and Jazmine Sullivan, and Jill Scott, and so many other black artists — not hearing your music on Z-100 can also mean that you’re doing something right. That what you’ve made is too powerful, too smart, too poetic for a radio DJ to add it to their queue right after Justin Bieber. That what you’ve made, like much of the best music in this world, isn’t actually meant for everyone.

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Mark Barboy

Interview: Suave House Founder Tony Draper Links With Celebs Like 2 Chainz, G Herbo and Nick Cannon To Feed Their Cities

The harrowing COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately disrupted Black communities across the United States with cities like Chicago being among the hardest hit. Throughout the year, artists from the city have stepped up and held socially distanced food drives and PPE donations across the city’s South and West sides. With his deep ties to Chicago since the early 90s, Suave House Records founder/entrepreneur Tony Draper, alongside NBA veteran Ricky Davis, made the Chi’ their next stop as part of the nationwide Feed Your City Challenge this past October 17th at the Pullman Park Community Center.

The chilly, yet bright and sunny Saturday saw hundreds of people drive through the parking lot of the complex, receiving groceries from the many volunteers, gathered from across the city. Masked up with PPE in the trenches with the civilians were local natives and celebrity supporters like Chitown’s Grammy winning producer/music executive No ID, rap star G-Herbo, new rapper Queen Key, NBA star Jabari Parker to media/music entertainer Nick Cannon. Draper and Davis were handing off items and loading boxes of farm-fresh produce and meats in the trunk of cars, and offloading the 95,000 pounds of food to feed 7,000 residents. While they were not in attendance, Common with Jhene Aiko and Social Justice Collective donated funds for the free groceries.

“You can’t lead the people until you feed the people. We’re out here in the community in a real way. People always talk about what’s going on in Chicago and these are the things going on in Chicago. Positive things for the community during a time like this. People coming together and it’s a wonderful event,” said Cannon.

For Draper, bringing the Feed Your City Challenge to Chicago and being able to pull it off successfully was crucial because October 17th, marks the 24th anniversary of the death of one of Chi’s most influential DJs, Rapmaster Pinkhouse, who passed away in 1996. “It feels like myself and my partner [Ricky] Davis coming to Chicago and partnering with Common, No ID, Jhene Aiko, Nick Cannon, G-Herbo, Jay Allen, [local FM radio] Power 92 and Pat Edwards was a sign from God that it’s meant to happen on this day. Even though Pinkhouse is gone, he’s still influencing the south side of Chicago and he’s still sending us blessings. We had to pull it off, we had to,” Draper said with conviction. 

Meanwhile, Power 92.3’s DJ Pharris, DJ Nehpets, DJ Commando, DJ Amaris and Hot Rod were on the 1s and 2s while Parker, Hot Rod, G-Herbo, and community activists Joey G and Nico Naismith played basketball with the kids. A nonprofit Hoop Bus was set up with a small hoop with Black Lives Matter symbols and the names of victims who were killed by police officers. 

G-Herbo, who has been volunteering his time to the kids of Chicago throughout 2020 says that events like this are important to build and strengthen Black unity across the city. “It’s beyond just being able to feed and provide, it’s allowing people to feel unity in the city. This is the city coming together and a lot of important and powerful people coming from the city, all walks of life coming together for a positive reason and that’s what it’s all about.” When asked if this event defied the stigma of Chicagoans not being unified, Herbo exclaimed, “Absolutely! We unified right now and it’s only gon’ get better, so we’re just trying to lead by example and make this normal. This is not just an event, this gotta be the normal for guys like myself and for the city.”

And the people who showed up to receive their free groceries were more than appreciative. Takara, a mother from the Southside of Chicago says that while she found out about the food drive at the last minute,“It’s a lot of food out here, a lot of good people out here and it’s something that we need. Events like this are very necessary and it’s filling the need for families who can’t feed their children during these times. I wish I could have volunteered and done something more, but we need this.”

In a one-on-one with VIBE, the legendary Tony Draper talks about his connections to Chicago, the importance and impact of the Feed Your City Challenge, the role celebrities play in activism, and more. 

VIBE: Earlier you shared that Oct. 17th was also the day that Rapmaster Pinkhouse passed away. For the younger readers who might not know who Rapmaster Pinkhouse is, could you share who he was and why he was so important to Chicago?

Draper: For young people that don't understand how music was heard back then, there was no social media [in the early 90s], there was no Instagram, so you had to get your record to the hottest person in the city. That person had to make a decision about whether it was good or not. And if that person touched your record in Chicago, that person would spread, it was automatic. That’s what happened to a young Tony Draper with 8Ball & MJG’s first albums. He put his hands around it and he exposed it to the Chicago market. Every time I think about Chicago, I always think about Pinkhouse. Pinkhouse was the main reason why I even came to Chicago.

Talk about that. What was Chicago like for you when you first came here?

Coming to Chicago was a very interesting moment for me because when I came, I had my hat cocked a certain type of way and I didn’t know the rules and regulations. And he told me, “Tony, man you gotta keep that hat straight (laughs). And I kept it straight ever since. So, for me, doing my journey as a young Black man from the inner city, raised by a single parent, establishing Suave House at 16 years old, seeing what I went through to establish [the company], and make it a force to be reckoned with. That was an accomplishment, but also I wanted to touch people I knew understood the music and understood where I was coming from and the importance of a young Black man that was a true, independent CEO and giving me the avenue to get my music heard. I’m from Memphis, raised in Houston, but Chicago is Suave House’s biggest market to this date. They supported everything Suave House did and I wanted to bless them [with the Feed Your City Challenge], the same way they blessed me.

With the conversation within the music business revolving around Black Lives Matter and supporting Black communities, what do you think it’ll take to get many of these CEO and executives from the major labels to support these communities like what you and many of the artists have been doing across the country?

I think they have to be involved with people they’re not comfortable with. Stop giving money to these organizations you think is giving the money to Black people, because they’re not. Nobody is holding these organizations accountable. Do business with somebody that has their finger on the pulse. A person that you know is in the music business that has been very successful in the business. Like right now, the Feed Your City Challenge, we’re in our ninth city. We’ve had eight of the top music artists host these cities without funding from the parent companies. [The artists] are giving the money themselves. Jhene Aiko gave money herself. Nick Cannon, himself. Rick Ross, 2 Chainz…Pee from Quality Control. 

Pee was on vacation in Mexico and he took a private jet back to Atlanta just to attend Feed Your City in Atlanta. He didn’t have to do that, but he did because he cares about where he’s from. He cares about the area. He wants to take [talent] from the area, but he also wants to give back to that community. See, white people want to come and exploit your community, but don’t want to build a library over there, never build a basketball court, never build anything. When an artist is dead, they say ahhh aahh ummm. If you wanted to demonstrate good character, you would have said, ‘I made a lot of money off that artist. Let me do something for that community as a token of appreciation for birthing that particular artist.’

I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before.

And you’ll never see it unless I do it and I am going to do it. That’s why I’m in Chicago. I’m going to every city that has blessed me and fed my family because every time I feed myself, I feed my family, my loved ones, it comes from my fans. My fans gave me the opportunity by buying my records. I had a dream, I had a drive, but without the opportunity, you might not have heard of Tony Draper. So, I’m always appreciative of people that have helped me, that’s why I want to help them. I’m in the best place I could ever be in my life. I’m 49 years old, I’m successful, I’m good. Bro, you want to know what makes me happy? Giving to somebody else. There’s another star out there that’s hoping and praying that they could get an opportunity and if I could give them that opportunity, I’ll give it to them. I don’t relish in the attention; I relish in the accomplishment. Let me help somebody. And if I help them and they become successful, they don’t owe me a quarter. I won’t sign them to a management deal or nothing. I just want you to acknowledge it and pass it on. See, we got to learn how to pass it on.

With the timing of this event brought on by the pandemic, how do you feel about it all?

I think it was God’s mission. With COVID that’s really unfortunate, a lot of people lost their lives during this pandemic. A lot of people have lost their jobs, their homes, their properties. My heart goes out to them. But if me and Ricky Davis can put a smile on a mother’s face, a father’s face and feed their children, that’s all I need. I remember me and my mother going to churches and food banks, walking with free government cheese, powdered eggs and we was happy. We were so happy, smiling and grateful. I think without that, I don’t think we would have made it to the following week. So, I’m always thankful for everything God blessed me with. I don’t think I’m special. I think that I had a plan and I stuck to my plan and made it happen.

Suave House has had a lot of artists who have always been outspoken about social and political issues, [similar to like an] Ice Cube recently. Considering that, and what you’re doing with these artists for the Feed Your City Challenge, do you think that the role of the celebrity today is to get in front of these issues or to fall back and support the people who're already doing the work?

I think it’s a choice. For me, I’m not a city official, I’m not a politician. I’m more comfortable with doing and getting my hands dirty on the ground. If I was in Chicago building houses for people, I would actually be there. I wouldn’t [just] send no money or send a crew there. I would be there. That’s how I feel blessed. I feel blessed by actually talking to the people and them seeing me out there distributing groceries. I feel good when a person drives up in their car and they pop their trunk and say ‘Draper?! You putting groceries in my car?!’ And they may be happy about ‘Space Age Pimpin’’ or ‘I’m So Tired of Ballin’’ or whatever, but just the mere fact that they were happy about me putting groceries in their car meant more to me than anything else. I think it’s a choice you make as an individual.

For a lot of people, some celebrities end up causing harm because their celebrity and actions might overshadow the actual issue.

You know what though? Without you being a celebrity, you might not be heard. So why not use that platform to be heard? I think LeBron James is phenomenal. I think Ice Cube is phenomenal. You don’t have to agree with him, but you have to respect him for speaking his mind and trying to get something for Black people. Nobody else did it! Nobody else took the initiative to write a Black America contract and present it to both [Biden and Trump] camps. So, I think that was a phenomenal move, whether I agree with it or not, it was still a phenomenal move. We got to stop with all this goddamn talking and do some action.

Draper and Davis’s Feed Your City Challenge will be arriving in Compton, California as their next stop on November 21.

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T.I.

Interview: T.I. Talks Activism, Verzuz Battle, And His Desire To Produce A Biopic On His Life Before Fame

Although Tip "T.I." Harris has earned some very respectable stripes as an emcee for his successful rap career, the self-proclaimed “King of the South” moniker really began to take true form once he stepped into his community activism calling. He’s acted in blockbuster films opposite Denzel Washington, Paul Rudd and Kevin Hart, but his willingness to speak truth to power has shown an unwavering commitment to being on the good side of history, as opposed to choosing silence to secure a spot on the good side of Hollywood.

During this recent conversation, Tip talks about his upcoming Verzuz battle with Jeezy, politics, the Trap Music Museum, and his desire to make his TV/film directorial debut.

Be sure to check out his newest album, L.I.B.R.A available on all streaming platforms.

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Ziggy Marley's First Time Voting In America

No more long talking from politicians. Today, the people have their say at the ballot box. Judging by the number of voters who showed up early this year, the 2020 election is going to smash all records for voter participation. With a deadly pandemic, wildfires, floods, economic pressure, and a struggle for survival playing out from the tweets to the streets, the stakes have never been higher.

If you're reading this right now and you haven't voted yet, it's not too late. Get up get out and let your voice be heard. As Samantha Smith recently discussed on her IG Live, this year's election is too important to sit out.

Snoop Dogg will be voting for the first time this year—and he's not the only one. Ziggy Marley voted for the first time this year also and documented the process on social media. "I decided to vote and I wondered to myself why," Ziggy wrote on his IG. "Then I thought about those who came before, the price they paid. In part, I am voting in honor of them and to honor them, to not belittle their many sacrifices and struggles with my high jaded righteousness and indifference. Many brothers and sisters from numerous backgrounds and origins marched, bled, and died to give people like me basic rights in 🇺🇸 , the right to be treated like a human being, the right to vote."

As the eldest son of the Robert Nesta Marley aka the King of Reggae, Ziggy is part of a mighty musical legacy, but his father is more than a musical legend.  The new film Freedom Fighter—part of the 75th anniversary series "Bob Marley Legacy"—examines Marley as a symbol of human rights with a voice more powerful than any politician.

Ziggy has continued his father's musical mission as a solo artist and part of the Grammy-winning family group Melody Makers. His 2018 album, Rebellion Rises opens with a song entitled "See Them Fake Leaders," leaving no doubt about his views on the institutions of government. Still, Ziggy remains engaged in the political process, doing his part and encouraging others to do the same.

"Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis, and others thought, 'Voting rights? Civil rights? Who cares? What difference will it make?'" Ziggy wrote on IG. "Just imagine what the world would have looked like now if not for their sacrifices. Go ahead, imagine it. Can you see it? Well, what do you think?"

"To be clear voting is not the end-all," Ziggy Marley added. "It is a small piece of a puzzle and just one of the tools in our toolbox that we must use as part of a larger effort to bring positive beneficial changes for all people. The work must continue at maximum effort after elections regardless of the outcome." Ziggy emphasized that he was not voting for a party or a person for an idea. "Even though we have differences we can be better human beings, more united human beings, more loving human beings, equal human beings, just human beings. The politics will come and go left right and center but still through it all the humanity that we must show to each other is not negotiable."

Ziggy voted by mail this year, but for those of you standing in line today to exercise your right and let your voices be heard, Ziggy curated a special playlist for Tidal's "Hold The Line" campaign. Music to vote by—from Ziggy and Bob to Fela and James Brown, not to mention Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine.

Ziggy Marley’s new album, More Family Time, is out now on all music streaming platforms.

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