Normani performing at the VMAs https://www.youtube.com/user/MTV

Pop culture is often derided as frivolous or meaningless, when its accessibility is precisely what makes it such a useful tool to reflect on our society. That being said, in recent years consumers and creators alike have been more open to discussing the inequalities that are rife in the music industry, with topics like cultural appropriation becoming hot-button issues. Another notable pattern is the myriad of ways in which black popular artists are treated differently by record labels, chart companies, critics and the general public.

Two decades ago the barriers which continue to hold back black artists were a lot less visible. Backed by a booming pre-streaming music industry, which could fund futuristic music videos and innovative production, and R&B reigning supreme as the most popular genre, a generation of black pop stars thrived in the ’90s and early 2000s. R&B-leaning pop music had appeal both in the mainstream and on the so-called ‘urban’ charts, with various performers from that era such as Beyoncé and Aaliyah are still relevant or influential today. This is perhaps why so many contemporary black artists continue to pay homage to aesthetics and sounds from that era. But as the ’00s came to a close and EDM became the dominant style influencing pop, these starlets faded from the limelight. The strong legacies left behind had a negative effect on any artists who had come of age on that ‘urban pop’ sound and were now trying to break into the mainstream.

“The reality is that the expectations placed on black popular artists come from all different directions”

In the past decades, few other black women performers in popular music have been able to thrive without premature and incessant comparisons to Beyoncé or Rihanna. This forces black women into a mould they might not fit into, while also putting singers a few years into their careers on par with seasoned performers, setting impossible expectations.

In 2014, Tinashe had presented herself as a real contender to replace the vacuum left by Rihanna’s hiatus from music and Beyoncé’s ascension to iconic status. That was, at least, until Elle Magazine ran the headline ‘Watch Out, Beyoncé, here comes Tinashe’, unnecessarily pitting the two against each other and permanently damaging her legacy. In addition to various label missteps which attempted to box her into an outdated niche, this essentially left the now 26-year-old performer’s career stalling.

In the present day, this pattern is being repeated. Normani, former Fifth Harmony member and budding star, exploded onto the VMAs main stage with her debut single Motivation this summer in a clear attempt to vie for the pop crown. But everything from her curated ‘perfect’ aesthetic to her dance moves has provoked some fans to label her a Queen Bey copycat. While she, like many of her peers, gushes over Beyoncé and her influence, she has been careful to assert her own artistic identity, noting in an interview on the Zach Sang Show, “I’m excited to see what it is that I have to offer as well.”

“The insistence that all black music be considered R&B or rap, no matter how eclectic or experimental, not only limits black artists’ exposure to broader audiences, but also their artistic expression.”

The reality is that the expectations placed on black popular artists come from all different directions, including from black music fans that want to see themselves represented in popular culture as authentically as possible. As far back as 1988, Whitney Houston was infamously booed at that year’s Soul Train Awards for this reason: her pop sound and polished public persona was perceived by black audiences as “not black enough”, and in fact many performers who reach pop royalty are often accused of selling out or pandering.

Lizzo is the latest of many artists receiving this criticism with her hip-hop style often being dubbed corny. Just as Houston was, Lizzo has been aware of her fan base’s demographic for a while, and said in an Instagram caption that she believed her music “wasn’t reaching black people and it was breakin [her] heart.” The consistent connection between black genres such as hip-hop and R&B with edginess, brooding and frosty detachment often denies upbeat, peppy and corny music from being considered truly “black”, especially because pop music and the aesthetics that accompany are often seen as soulless for those same traits.


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Black artists can’t seem to win, with the critiques they face cutting both ways. Lizzo’s sleeper hit ‘Truth Hurts’ at the time of writing has spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, earning it the record as the longest #1 by a female rapper, despite the song being quintessentially pop. Billboard’s categorisation of Lizzo in this way is particularly troubling in a context where there are those who also sing and rap but who are white, such as Post Malone, and they are not bound exclusively by ‘rapper’ or ‘singer’. This is even more insidious, as Pitchfork contributor Briana Younger notes, because “white artists can assume the pose of ‘other’ by embracing certain sounds – rap to achieve edginess, R&B to project tenderhearted soul – without necessarily sacrificing privileged positions in pop,” and that flexibility is not afforded to black artists. The insistence that all black music be considered R&B or rap, no matter how eclectic or experimental, not only limits black artists’ exposure to broader audiences, but also their artistic expression.

The truth is that black artists in pop will continue to face pigeonholing and stereotyping, since by definition success in this genre requires appealing to the masses, and being part of a minority puts you at a disadvantage. Regardless, there is a flurry of ambitious young performers ready to take over the music scene in the years to come, aware of the challenges their predecessors have faced and ready to push past the limits of genre.

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