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Why Non-Black People Can’t Be “Soul Singers”

Ariana Grande for Billboard

Ariana Grande for Billboard

Now, more than ever, we see all over social media and all throughout the entertainment industry a rising trend of non-black “soul singers” or singers that people consider “soulful” From industry veterans like Christina Aguilera, Adele, and Justin Timberlake, to new rising stars like Alessia Cara, Demi Lovato, and Ariana Grande, non-black people who can sing like black people are all the rage. This movement has transferred more overseas than anything because its seems like every other day I’m seeing videos of K-Pop stars being called “soulful” to British singers on televised contests being hailed for their “R&B like voices” but, in case you did not know, regardless of how much alike these people sound to black singers they will never meet the cultural standards of what it means to be a soul singer, or even an R&B singer.

The origin of soul singing comes from nowhere else but slavery. It is a well-known fact to anyone who is a music history buff that almost all modern American music is rooted in negro spirituals that slaves sang. This is also where soul singing originated. Slaves sang hymns and songs about freedom soulfully because they wanted God to hear their cries and pleas for freedom and they wanted other slaves to come together and unite through music. These songs were also used among slaves as ways to communicate paths to freedom, safe spaces for slaves, or just to boost morale during the long cruel hours of working in the fields, and this concept of “soul singing” found its way from the fields to the churches.

Almost every black singer that sings soulfully either cites black church as the reason they do, or cites listening to gospel artists, or soul singers that are influenced by gospel artists growing up as where their “soul singing” comes from. Soul singing and black church go hand in hand with each other. R&B/Soul music is a branch off of what black Gospel music and negro spirituals started. These genres of music are cultural and are a key part of black identity when it comes to upbringing and spirituality, and to me you simply just cannot be non-black and have no attachment to all of the cultural significance of “soul singing” and call yourself an R&B/Soul artist. It’s just not possible, and quite frankly its appropriation to pretend otherwise.

It’s bad enough almost every genre of black music has been gentrified by non-black people, but the narrative behind the idea of a “non-black soul singer” is always how impressed we as black people should be with this person who can do a couple of runs here and there, and how we should be so amazed because they aren’t black but they sound black, and it is condescending. Not only do I not have to like non-black people who can sing like black people but I refuse to identify them as soul singers or R&B singers because they don’t have the cultural connection black people do to said genres of music. Most of them didn’t grow up in a black church. Most of them didn’t grow up around black people who sang like this. They may have been raised on Neo-Soul greatness like Maxwell, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Anthony Hamilton, and Angie Stone, and for the most part know the history of this genre of music, but they need to acknowledge their influence and pay homage as well.

I am not saying everyone who isn’t black can never make R&B/Soul music. I just would not call them R&B/Soul singers. For the most part they are pop with R&B/Soul influence or they can be a pop singer who makes R&B/Soul music but to me and most black people they aren’t a full-fledged R&B/Soul singer. For example, when you put a singer like Adele up against white pop artists like Britney Spears, and Katy Perry she clearly surpasses them vocally, but when you put Adele up against someone like Leela James, or Jill Scott, she doesn’t have half the range to sit with a real R&B/Soul singer, and that goes for many non-black soul singers. They may have what it takes to sound impressive to the pop music industry but the standards to being a soul singer are very high, and rarely will you find an R&B/Soul singer with a limited range.

I know some people will say music is music, and a lot of others will say “Oh because I’m not black I can’t make black music? That is ridiculous!” but that is not what I am trying to say. Rap is black music, and to me anyone can be a rapper. Rap is almost like spoken word or poetry, and although there are sub-genres of rap music that non-black people will never be able to identify with, in my opinion anyone of any race can be a rapper, but not everyone can be an R&B/Soul singer. There are culturally exclusive standards that many non-black people will never meet, and in comparison to many black singers they sound weak and unimpressive. Please stop trying to make black people adapt to people appropriating our culture and trying to get us to be so blown away with these non-black R&B/Soul singers, because it is very telling that the only reason society as a whole likes these people is because they aren’t black but they sound black. Their album sales, critical acclaim, and the awards they receive for making black music when actual black artists participating in their own culture won’t ever see even a third of that success speaks volumes, and black people as a whole are tired of seeing non-black people profit and succeed off of our own cultural music more than us and the people who invented it. That is why to most of the black community, non-black people cannot be R&B/Soul singers.

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