Raise your hand if you knew about K. Michelle back when she was dropping mixtapes with Mary J. Blige-inspired titles and sang about whooping her abusive man’s ass and smacking the shit out of a hater? Now, do me a favor and stop lying. There were only about 12 of us around back then and I remember every single one of their names.
As talented as K. Michelle is, if not for Mona Scott-Young and her most popular Negro telenovela, Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta, K. Michelle’s ascension as the millennial Millie Jackson likely would’ve never happened. Sure, a great voice coupled with pain-centered subject matter often is a golden ticket to success in R&B, but it’s by no means a guarantee.
Indeed, K. Michelle had trouble finding an audience and that was only further complicated by the problems she faced with her then record label, Atlantic Records, who didn’t appear to know exactly what to do with her. While K. Michelle may currently be banging on Keyshia Cole’s window with a “Girl, I’m coming for your spot!” without reality television, she may have ended up like Shareefa. (No shade, Shareefa. “I Need A Boss” and “Cry No More” remain staples on my iPod.)
Likewise, the same K. Michelle was aided by reality TV, numerous other R&B singers can currently thank the medium for their newfound relationship with relevance.
Take K. Michelle’s rival, Tamar Braxton, who spent more than a decade chasing her dreams of solo success only to find it after rolling her neck profusely to the amusement of WeTV viewers. For those of us who bought her debut album, Tamar, way back in 2000, we knew what a talent she was. Not many cared, though, and they had no inclination to, until they actually got to know her by way of a weekly television series.
Others, say, KeKe Wyatt, Lil’ Mo, or any other member past and present of TV One’s R&B Divas can say the same. Even when it comes to acts arguably past their prime, a la SWV, reality TV has allowed them to reconnect with their fan bases if not build all new ones.
Interestingly enough, Toni Braxton was vocal about her hesitance to do reality television – worrying that it might’ve further devalued her star, particularly after filing for bankruptcy a second time. Those fears are understandable, but in hindsight, Toni Braxton can now boast of being on a hit television show for a fledgling cable network. That has afforded her the chance to routinely promote herself and her projects – including new music – on various major media outlets.
More often than not, once an artist gets their chance, they secure whatever bit of success they can muster and then ride off into the sunset or whatever Tom Joyner cruise booking they can get. Some aren’t even that lucky. Word to R&B Divas, Atlanta or Los Angeles.
While I understand reality TV – particularly with respect to representation of Black women – is a touchy subject, I’ve long wondered why very few note that it’s been damn good overall to R&B singers for several years now. So much of the conversation (to my annoyance) is told through the context of “You’re ruining the race, you’re embarrassing Barack, Michelle, Claire & Heathcliff,” “Stop fighting!” and “Sophia didn’t die so Oprah could live in a world with Joseline Hernandez.”
Yes, it can be problematic, but it hasn’t been all bad – especially in this instance.
As someone who loves R&B and has loathed how recent industry trends – label consolidation, the decimation of Black radio, the overall lack of artist development and seeming patience for Black acts to build an audience – I’ve appreciated how much reality TV has benefitted artists in a genre with so many disadvantages leveled against them.
Granted, it hasn’t been perfect for every artist. In some cases, you can see exactly why a particular artist hasn’t enjoyed as much success as they have in year’s past. Or in Kelly Price’s case, behave in a way that makes you question whether or not you want to support her monetarily again. Still, it’s given them all a national platform that was otherwise not available to them.
More importantly, it’s allowed Black female singers in particular to have the sort of three-dimensional representation their labels could never provide for them. This happened because they literally get to be themselves on camera. Their talent will speak for itself, but whether or not we feel any connection to them is based on their own personalities. To that end, though I understand the debate about reality TV and representation will continue (for the most part, argue amongst yourself, kids), I think there’s room for a bit of nuance.
Michael Arceneaux is from the land of Beyoncé, but now lives in the city of Master Splinters. Follow him at @youngsinick.
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