'They put us in a little box': how racial tensions shape modern...

'They put us in a little box': how racial tensions shape modern soul music

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Leon Bridges remembers the exact moment he realized something had gone wrong. It was June of 2016, and Bridges was performing a headlining set in front of a mixed crowd at the Roots music festival in Philadelphia when he noticed a visible disconnect with the black fans in his audience. As Bridges interspersed his pop-leaning, 60s-inspired R&B with a cover of Ginuwine’s modern classic Pony, he noticed the black portion of the crowd stirring about, disengaged with his music. “It was definitely shocking to me, to not be able to connect with my own people,” he said to the Guardian.

That experience, which inspired Bridges to pursue a more contemporary sound on his recently released follow-up album Good Thing, was a culmination of the year-long struggle the singer faced since releasing his retro debut Coming Home in 2015. As soon as he became recognised, he was inundated with reductive categorisations of his music, skepticism surrounding his influences and criticism regarding the racial makeup of both his band and audience.

“People took me as some kind of Sam Cooke retro prodigy, and that wasn’t what it was about. I wanted to tell my story through that sound,” says the singer, who, despite having a soft-spoken, crooning voice, says he was consistently compared to more emotive soul-shouting contemporaries like Sharon Jones and Paul Janeway. “As much as I love those guys, it was annoying when people would try to say I wasn’t living up to that kind of music. I associate myself more with Willie Nelson or Townes Van Zandt than with Otis Redding.”

A full decade after the last wave of soul revivalism with the rise of Amy Winehouse and Daptone Records, classic soul and southern R&B sounds have become newly, if more subtly, omnipresent, from pop to Americana. “The production and aesthetics of retro soul have become an atomic part of production in mainstream music,” says Oliver Wang, whose work has chronicled the ways in which Daptone-era retro soul was specifically marketed towards white tastemaking audiences. “But what’s happened in the 10 years since Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones is that it’s become much more normalised.”

Meshell Ndegeocello.



Meshell Ndegeocello: ‘Race relations right now are bringing a lot of things to the surface.’ Photograph: Charlie Gross

The tension is now between white artists who are free to effortlessly latch on to, and later discard, the newly commercial sounds of southern soul and R&B and historically minded artists of color who don’t receive the same freedom to cycle between their own set of stylistic influences. “There’s a difference between someone referencing another artist and someone being like: ‘Let’s change a few chords so we don’t get sued,’” says soul and R&B singer Meshell Ndegeocello.

The situation is most fraught for young artists of color drawing from classic soul and R&B traditions, who can struggle to navigate the preconceptions and prejudices of the mainstream music industry. While each artist interviewed for this piece stressed a musician’s typical reluctance to have their music limited by genre, every artist of color described deep-seated, racially loaded, creatively stifling assumptions, that pressure them to prescribe to the few models of traditionally leaning black music.

Like Bridges, Kam Franklin, lead singer of the Houston-based “Gulf coast soul” collective the Suffers, said that early in her career she was so constantly compared to retro-soul paragon Sharon Jones that her band felt obliged to try to get signed by her label Daptone Records, despite having little in common with their James Brown-inspired soul-funk.

“It’s been almost soul-crushing for me sometimes: at what point do I get to be myself and not just another black girl singing soul music to you people,” says Franklin, whose adventurous new album Everything Here blends 70s R&B, disco, jazz and contemporary gospel. “It’s something that affects every woman of color in this industry, but I look forward to the day that it doesn’t.”

“Something you get used to, being a person of color in music, is people trying to tug around your genre, so you’ve got to scream it louder that ‘I am this’,” said Yola Carter, an emerging British singer who defines her sound as “country soul”.

Over the past three years, an array of white Americana artists have turned to the sonic template of Muscle Shoals and Stax to broaden their sound. In 2015, a heretofore unknown country songwriter named Chris Stapleton released Traveler, a soulful country/roots hybrid that has since reshaped the entire landscape of mainstream country music. The premise was simple: draw out the haunting emotion of Stapleton’s deep-throated vocals by blending his country balladry with R&B melodies. The album’s highlight, Tennessee Whiskey, paired the country standard to the arrangement of Etta James’ Muscle Shoals classic I’d Rather Go Blind.

Chris Stapleton



Chris Stapleton: ‘We have a love of outlaw country things and soul music and old R&B.’ Photograph: Laura Roberts/Invision/AP

“We have a love of outlaw country things and soul music and old R&B,” Stapleton said of his relationship with the producer Dave Cobb, who has gone on to produce a slew of R&B-indebted country-roots albums in the last several years. The summer of 2015 also saw the release of the self-titled debut from Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, a surprise success that mixed an energetic roots rock approach with a bursting, Stax-inspired horn section.

With their 2015 releases, Stapleton and Rateliff offered twin models for how white singers can use southern soul as a means to articulate masculinity. Stapleton deployed the idiom as a vehicle to express a certain fragile vulnerability, while Rateliff used an exuberant soul revue to access primal bravado.

Others like Sturgill Simpson, Anderson East, the Texas Gentlemen and Cale Tyson also draw from Muscle Shoals’ historic R&B legacy and, at its best, the mindset has fostered a group of progressives engaging with, complicating and breaking down the segregated strands of American music.

“People tend to think of music in genres that are bounded, but if you start to think about rhythm, you start to see all kinds of connections between Augustus Pablo, Waylon Jennings and Ann Peebles,” says MC Taylor, lead singer of the North Carolina hybrid roots outfit Hiss Golden Messenger. “The deeper conversation is about how rhythm works and what ingredients comprise American rhythm. Sometimes when we see bands that seem to be aping soul and R&B from the 60s and 70s, I often feel like they haven’t gotten to that deeper conversation yet.”

Other artists, like Nicole Atkins and Courtney Marie Andrews, have tastefully negotiated soul and R&B influences on recent albums Goodnight Rhonda Lee and May Your Kindness Remain, careful not to cross over into overt revivalism. “I tried not to have too much straight throwback soul, because let’s be frank, I’m not a full-on soul artist, and I don’t intend to be,” says Andrews, who rejected a song from her new album because it sounded too retro.

“The decision to make my own kind of soul music just came from me getting older and having more experience,” says Atkins. “This is what my life now sounds like.”

But while white artists can be thoughtful, the reality for young artists of color, struggling to overcome the racially coded expectations that accompany genre, remains more stark than ever.

“We were made out to be a retro, cute band. I found it frustrating,” Brittany Howard, frontwoman for the band Alabama Shakes, told an interviewer in 2015. “They had this picture of us and this little box they put us in.”

Leon Bridges at Coachella music festival in April 2018.



Leon Bridges at Coachella music festival in April 2018. Photograph: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella

Of his white, soul-influenced contemporaries, Bridges says “they wouldn’t have the same expectations that black artists would be confronted with, questions about race”. Indeed, Americana’s well-intentioned project of desegregating American roots genres continues to be largely done by its leading, commercially viable white male troubadours.

One of those troubadours is Anderson East, a fast-rising country-soul singer whose music is steeped in the transformational gospel that East traces back to his Southern Baptist upbringing. He speaks of “the emotion you get from singing along with the choir in church, of getting away from yourself and having a bigger sense of self”.

East is a more complicated artist than his Muscle Shoals-signifying records might suggest. He is a reverent soul singer steeped in southern gospel and R&B traditions who is nonetheless uninterested in rigid notions of authenticity – on his new album, Encore, which gives rural, southern gospel a pop-leaning sensibility, East worked with everyone from Ed Sheeran to Avicii. He is well aware of the complex questions that surround his role as white male performing southern soul, and he is admirably honest about having not yet resolved them.

“Maybe it’s because I’m a blond-headed white dude from Alabama, but I think it’s just music from the heart and it doesn’t have to be associated so directly …”

He switches tack.

“It’s a very delicate thing. I definitely understand the lineage of American southern music and it’s one that I revere and respect, and mainly, I’m just a lover of it. It’s a worthwhile topic to investigate and I’m just here to continue to think about it.”

Other singers like Nathaniel Rateliff, who declined to be interviewed for this story, have expressed something closer to lack of interest in examining their role in contemporary R&B revivalism – he refers to southern soul as “working-class music”, and has mostly shrugged off conversations about retro soul, race and appropriation.

Questions about appropriation have, of course, been asked since the dawn of American popular music, from 1920s minstrelsy to 50s rock’n’roll to 90s hip-hop. But “race relations right now are bringing a lot of things to the surface”, says Ndegeocello. “No one’s asking white people these questions. No one’s asking Justin Timberlake, and I’m like: let’s go there, because Justin Timberlake makes black music.”

The idea that soul music is born of an innate feeling, aura or deeper emotional connection rather than a specific set of artistic, rhythmic and melodic practices, remains a pernicious one, and allows contemporary singers drawing from the genre to genuflect on the music’s supposed essence while disregarding its complicated historical legacy.

Meanwhile, the inherent structure of streaming services, which valorise certain genres and moods on their playlists, can lead to a sort of “Spotify soul” with easily identifiable retro signifiers like horn sections and bellowing, emotive vocals. “In an era of shorter attention spans, there’s a greater need for surface-level signifiers that are less and less nuanced,” says JT Nero, one half of the roots duo Birds of Chicago.

During the recording of their new album, Franklin found herself trying to avoid those very signifiers. “The band was playing a riff, they were trying to make it funky sounding, and it was irritating the fuck out of me and I couldn’t figure out why,” she says. “Eventually I look at my band and was like: ‘I love you all, but this sounds like when a white person listens to a soul record for the first time.’”

The Suffers continued to work on the song, You Only Call, eventually coming up with something that the entire band agreed was a definite improvement. All it took, she says, was using a slightly different guitar tone.



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