Our past is a strong indicator of our future. Looking back, it’s easy to see the remarkable impact soul music had on the world in the 1960s. Starting in earnest in the mid-1950s it became more common for black musicians initially rooted in the gospel tradition to drift towards a more secular sound – ultimately helping to create the soul music phenomena. This genre would eventually become immersed in discussions of race and equality. Soul music would be a turning point in the history of African American music and would see black musician’s infiltrating and connecting with white audiences in a way that would have been unfathomable at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Portia Maultsby, an ethnomusicologist, believes that ‘through their texts, soul singers not only discussed depressing social and economic conditions for black communities but also offered solutions for improvement and change.’ Songs such as ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’, and ‘Is It Because I’m Black?’ were suggestive of a people’s hopes and dreams – the dreams of the black man and woman. However, these songs also connected with white people in a powerful way. The connection was so strong that the white appropriation of black music became common practice. For many black artists, this was another attempt, post slavery, at stealing their cultural identity.
Fast forward 50 years. Turn on your television, turn on your radio. The chances are you will see and hear soul music being performed. But who is performing it, and what are they saying? The debates around singers such as Adele, Justin Timberlake, Joss Stone, and Sam Smith singing soul music are endless. People are buying it – black and white. There is no denying the soulful inflections and influences in Adele’s voice, or any of the aforementioned artists. The likelihood is, they grew up listening to the Donny Hathaway’s, Etta James’s, and Sam Cooke’s of this world. They learnt how to use their voices effectively, how to convey emotion, and how to engage an audience by listening to and studying such artists. The origin and impact soul music has made on society is undeniable. Therefore, as a society we must ask ourselves is it fair to assign the “soul singer” label to white artists who may be influenced by the sound but do not fully understand the depth of the movement or can’t relate to the social and economic conditions from which soul music was born?
There are many elements to soul music, of which white musicians have adopted, and they are catering to audiences around the world. There are a few elements missing amongst your Adele’s and your Sam Smith’s, however. One, the ability to prick the social conscience and to engage politically. Granted, it’s 2015 and not 1965. However, in 2015 is it still necessary to ask ‘Is It Because I’m Black?’ or inspire people to proclaim ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud’? Unfortunately, it is. So while Adele and Sam Smith are catering, very successfully, to millions of broken-hearted people around the world with their soulful takes on love and heartache, it is left to the black soul singer to give audiences a true soul experience. 2015 saw Janelle Monae release ‘Hell You Talmbout’ in reference to African Americans killed by police brutality, while Prince released ‘Baltimore’ which speaks of the racial unrest that engulfed the city.
Finally, an authentic soul singer can perform a song, on stage, in a distinctive gospel inspired style. They have an innate skill to deliver a song live with so much feeling and emotion that the audience feels the need to scream, cry and shout. A soul singer has the ability to sing with intensity and stir up emotion as if you were in a Sunday morning church service. Today, not many singers take us to church through song. However, Leela James, Fantasia, Lalah Hathaway, Ledisi, Syleena Johnson and Anthony Hamilton, to name a few, are soul singers who don’t necessarily sing about social issues but about love, pain and relationships with voices and a tone that delivers a soul-stirring energy which is not matched by white artists who try to duplicate the same sound.
So, the question still remains. Is soul music for black artists only?