White Washing Black Artists to Make Them Appeal to White Audiences
by G. Brown
In the five years since her voice faded from the music world, the work, life and death of superstar Whitney Houston are just as intriguing to fans as when she was alive. Though much has been said and written about Houston, one thing is undeniable–her talent was colossal. The voice that shattered Guinness World Records as “the most awarded female act of all time” bellowed such No 1 hits as “The Greatest Love of All”, “I’m Your Baby Tonight”, “My Name is Not Susan”, and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” was beloved by fans worldwide. Her flawless vocals never met a challenge she couldn’t tame. Guided by the steady hand of her music Machiavellian producer Clive Davis, Houston’s career took off from her first record. While Houston was barely out of her teens when fame came to blow the doors off her life, nothing about her success was luck, fluke or coincidence. Even her “cross over appeal” was charted carefully.
Huffington Post has an engaging article about Whitney Houston’s career which by design pitched the Black songstress to White audiences. The article examines the engineering of Houston’s career through two new documentaries about the singer that premiered at the recent Tribeca Film Festival. Huff Post says one of the docs titled “Can I Be Me”…” touts Houston as the first black woman to debut atop the pop charts. Read critically, that’s a euphemism for the effort by Davis and his Arista Records team to make her palatable for white America. As the documentary tells it, Arista didn’t want a female James Brown. The label aimed to bury the New Jersey native’s “hood” upbringing and make her “classy,” according to members of the singer’s entourage. She was a pop princess.”
The push to take Houston from the “hood” and make her a “pop princess” tore her away from her identity. There really wasn’t a reason to do that—Houston’s voice guaranteed she was destined for stardom no matter what she sang. She could have sung the alphabets and people would have bought the album. Certainly, if Houston had stayed true to her roots and focused on R&B, she would have made money—just not as much money as her White handlers would have wanted. There’s obviously more money to be made by packaging her as a “mainstream artist”—a term in itself that is problematic since it implies that R&B, Hip Hop, Soul or whatever label you slap on it isn’t mainstream. The attitude is mired in the slave mentality—use Black artists to do all the work and we plantation owners reap all the money.
In an article titled “Music’s Racial Divide: An Industry Built on Black Talent Still Lacks Black Executives”, The Wrap noted, “Still, even though music is deeply rooted in the black experience, African-Americans have had a tough time historically infiltrating the higher echelons of the music business. Even when what was once dismissed as “race” music finally hit the mainstream in the ’60s and ’70s, it quickly came under the control of the white-led majors.”
It’s disturbing especially since you don’t see this determination to sell a talent as mainstream with any other race or genre. Country Music, Rock n’ Roll, Classical all are fine to stay true to what they are. You don’t see Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton or Carrie Underwood being forced to betray their County Music roots to appeal to cross over audiences.
Sure, singers and musicians should know what they are getting into when they sign on for fame. But the cost could be more than just hard work and hit records. In 1989, Houston who was already a multi-Grammy award winner faced an ordeal at the Soul Train Music Awards that those close to her say she never recovered from. When Houston walked onto the stage, she was barraged with “boos” from the audience.
In the end, you have to wonder if losing her identity and feeling adrift may have contributed to Houston’s reported drug problem. Houston could be a shining example of what happens when people allow others (who don’t possess their talent) to define and control them for their own agenda. It is a cautionary tale of what can happen to people in the music industry when all that is required for fame is for a singer to sell their “soul”.