The music of black artists – and especially that of musicians producing outside of the mainstream – has historically been mislabeled. It all stems from who gets to term what in our societies, or what linguist Roland Barthes would explain as: who gets to convey a specific meaning that underlies language. In 1969, Amiri Baraka and other black art critics considered this problem in the fourth issue of their magazine “The Cricket”, in which they came to the consensus that the genres attributed to black music limited our understanding of the musicians’ intent and rendered the tradition of their music and the history and psychologies that informed it invisible.They even went about re-labeling Jazz Trippin’ because, according to them, the word ‘Jazz’ was not of black fabrication but was instead a term attributed to the music by white critics. It is highly likely that the first jazz musicians, of whom we have no record, would have named their music another way. In his book “The Face,” Nigerian writer Chris Abani tells us that in Western culture, names of people are nominal, and in West African culture, names of people are phenomenal. R&B is a name given to urban black music by a white A&R called Jerry Wexler, and Hip Hop (the hip, the hop, the hippity) was introduced to the world by a group put together by Sugarhill Records that had not participated in Hip Hop proto-music and proto-culture (that was, by the way, also the culture of latinos and latinas and other minority groups who lived in disenfranchised New York City.) Does black music intend to produce genre? The practice of separating music into distinct genres, where an aesthetic falls within one of these genres, is certainly cultural and is not so in every culture. Producing genre is a great way of commercializing one’s music. The best-known history of the development of black music is one that walked hand in hand with the establishment and growth of the commercial recording industry. Blues musician Mamie Smith produced the very first relatively mega-selling album by a black person, “Crazy Blues”, which sold at 100,000 copies, after which came the plethora of black music that everyone knows today. However, few people know of the songs sung by Africans newly-arrived in Haiti, Cuba, Brazil or the rest of the Western Hemisphere. What we do know is this: black rural music and black urban music after the emancipation of slaves came to be known as a whole host of genres that are great for selling music. To quote the great blues musician RL Burnside: “I always wanted to sell out, but I just didn’t know how.” The issue persists today. Given that for many we now live in a ‘post-racial’ world, the subject is almost no longer up to debate. Let’s take Abra’s music for example. Abra is an English woman who produces genial R&B music outside of the mainstream. The self-proclaimed “darkwave duchess” is signed to a small label in Atlanta: Awful Records. She is considered by most (of all races) to be “indie” along with other black artists who choose to be “different” and walk the financial walk. To most she makes indie R&B, though technically, as her music is not produced by a major label, it is independent. However, contemporary “indie” is much more than its dictionary definition; its actual definition in American language corresponds to a whole scene with a particular history with both an economic history and a social history that is not the black community’s. Should a black woman’s music produced outside of the mainstream be considered indie or, due to a lack of productive criticism, is there no label for it? That’s the question to ask one’s self. The answer is that her music is, for the meantime, undefined. The reception of Abra’s music and its being associated with indie culture calls into question the very notion of genre. Her two releases Rose and BLQ Velvet are essentially associated with a sub-genre that has a largely unquestioned catastrophe of a name: PBR&B (Pabst Blue Ribbon & Blues). The subtext of the PBR&B is “lifestyle” and “fashion”, or white youth (though races are doxas, racial self-identifications in the USA are at the heart of youth cultures.) Indie technically connotes ‘independently produced’, but indie’s understood definition is “belonging to said cultural category “indie” led by a complex white nomenklatura.” Instead, Abra seems to be a black cultural idealist in a world without the cultural geography to promote or even cater to black idealism. Her music is black existential music (i.e. it expresses a true self), and given the society in which she produces, black existential music is by nature political and its function is to rally others to respect herself. Her music is committed to lyric and to feeling, as is any political rally. Her music’s resonance, which suggests faith in the ideology that her music vehicles, makes her idealism feel special. The titles of her albums – Rose and BLQ Velvet – express identity. Her chanting “I want love, yes I want love”, or that she’s got no “fucking chill because love is a drug” have not run amuck like Beyonce’s chanting does, but it spellbinds because of its sincerity. Her lyrics are doors to a unique experience: that of being constructively against the way things are by singing, dressing, dancing, and anything else that one can apply one’s self to. Indie is way off of the mark. The lack of cultural institutions that cater to black identity, mentality, and a complex version of community and pleasure in an interracial way make it so that Abra is not singing along with a city or sub-culture; she is only potentially leading a population towards a sub-culture or culture of respect. Unlike the Rolling Stones, the Beatles or The Velvet Underground, there is no city (London, Liverpool, New York respectively) that is both the main inspiration and the playground for her music. The truth is that Atlanta does not extend itself far enough to accommodate Abra as Kim Gordon was accommodated in New York. The praxis of leading a population into sub-culture or culture through commercial music is a child of the 1960s. It is a sanctified role in the black community and those who have a significant cultural impact while being black are made myths of. It is a praxis that evolved during the Hip Hop era when not only was the black intellectual the leader but the musician was considered more than a singer of “soul” or of “funk” but a political poet. With Hip Hop came a forum for cultural and political language to people of every race. Today’s black musicians persuade all listeners about blackness as we can only hope that Abra does. Her music shares the political (broad term) conviction of many indie songs: “I do it for my viewers out there”. Her use of the word ‘viewers’, as opposed to ‘listeners’, is important to note. Viewing is very important in a world that punk – a movement that stresses producing alter-visuals – has changed tremendously. Guy Debord, one of the thinkers at the foundations of the punk movement, named this “A society of the spectacle”, where real social life is replaced by images, advertisements, etc., that shape society and the thinking of a society’s individuals by falsely representing social life. For a black person, fighting against a spectacle society is not necessarily being punk but using punk heritage to fight against erasure. One’s senses and one’s humanity is often pushed aside and musicians are often left to staging their anger or their quote-unquote “understanding”. Along with alter-visuals, Abra responds to all of this with ultra resonant expression of feeling and of love. In the end, her music is an aesthetic triumph and that’s what’s important. Just groove to it, the wise woman on a patio said. It is also an undefined existential triumph. Abra excels at expressing her self, however hard it is to pin down a black self. There is such thing as the art of singing but there is also such a thing as the art of song; a singer’s song that is a masterpiece is both great at the art of singing and the art of song. Many singers have the art of singing down, and the proliferation of choirs and music schools makes it so that many singers can sing. However, not many singers can – either working alone or with others – craft a great song or a great album. Such a talent is close to something like the novelist’s talent. A great song can do exactly what a great novel can do: plunge one into more than just commercial expression, into intimacy that will inform, all the while haunting one with questions for moments to come. Such a talent is a political talent. Each and every single one of her songs is something like a novella of hymn, notable lyric and feeling that offers a listener a narrative musical world. To what end? Therein lies the questions of the all-important musical category.
Mislabelling black art and the limitations of indie as a genre