‘Notice to Black Artists’: Behind R&B’s Struggle at Radio & The Letter That Has the Industry Buzzing
By Gail Mitchell
No song spent more time atop the Billboard Hot 100 last year than Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which logged 12 weeks at No. 1 and set the all-time record for radio audience when it reached 229 million listeners in a week. It did so by tapping the sound of classic R&B, which has sparked both controversy — its groove is close enough to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 No. 1 hit “Got to Give It Up” to have sparked a since-settled suit involving the Gaye family — and ongoing discussion. That’s because 2013 was also a year that didn’t have a single black artist top the Hot 100 as a lead performer — the first time that’s happened in the chart’s 55-year history.
Why? The increasing dominance of pop at radio — across all formats — is one reason. But a satirical commentary by Sebastien Elkouby published on RapRehab.com the day of the Grammy Awards (Jan. 26) took aim at the marginalization of black artists in popular culture in general. It struck a nerve — especially in light of the apology Macklemore made the following day to Kendrick Lamar for “robbing” him at the Grammys.
“This letter is sad because it’s not far from the truth,” says the co-founder of one R&B independent label. The head of an R&B-focused marketing and branding agency boils down colleagues’ universal reaction to the posting in six words: “I was thinking the same thing.” An executive who works in the U.K. R&B music industry, adds, “[It] summarized a long-held feeling or fear about what’s happening with black music, but [people] haven’t felt confident enough to raise these issues.”
One person who does is Jeff Robinson, president-CEO of MBK Entertainment. Robinson helped guide Alicia Keys to stardom and helms the careers of R&B singer-songwriters K. Michelle and Elle Varner. He says it was tough to break an R&B artist in 2001, when Keys’ debut album, Songs in A Minor, hit No. 1, and it’s even tougher now.
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