Music genres — like award shows — have a history of boxing in mainstream artists, while excluding alternative artists. Within the last few years, genre-benders have forced nomination boards to develop new categories that accommodate their unique sound. And while these categories allow for a little more wiggle room, they still have an undertone of palatability. Between the media and award shows, artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna have been recognized and celebrated time and time again. And while their praise is definitely deserved, it’s still clear that those in charge see no wrong in continuing to categorize Black women.
For example, if we take a look at Beyonce’s body of work: we’ll hear everything from country to opera to hip hop to R&B. Rihanna also has a range of ballads and pop hits that reflect her Carribbean culture as well as her love for electronic dance music. It’s the range for me — a range that shows just how adaptable and diverse Black women truly are.
However, when we think about artists like Rico Nasty, Suki Hana, Cupcakkke, FKA Twigs and the like…I’ve started to wonder why we aren’t making room for them to be celebrated in a comparable way. Is it because their messaging isn’t “clean” enough or “clear” enough? Because if it’s about them having “too much sex appeal” or needing to “fit in” a little more, then we’re totally negating every major moment when a well-received artist took a risk.
Considering our history, as a people, boxing ourselves in feels like a huge injustice to artists and art everywhere. It’s communicating to youth that we must exist in certain ways to be deemed worthy of acknowledgement. Thankfully, young people are starting to feel less and less pressure to fit in while shedding light on the artists that make them feel seen. Music genre and award nomination creators are now being forced to take a second look at the artists that have gained loyalty from younger generations.
Billboard recently profiled Kehlani, Summer Walker, Teyana Taylor and Jhene Aiko for a piece that can be summarized by the quote, “R&B is that bitch.” And, yes: these women are more than worthy of being given their flowers now, but we still need to be making room for the artists whose brand and content question norms. Throughout Janet Jackson, Tony Braxton, Erykah Badu and many other Black woman artists’ careers, their ethics, tones, and messaging were all questioned. There were points where they were all considered too sexy, too free and too direct. Meanwhile, all of them have left their impression on a number of “non-Black music genres” as well as non-Black artists. Even in their attempts to box us in, the influence still jumps out!
Rico Nasty mentioned this in an interview with Pigeons & Planes. She discusses the industry’s need to label Black female artists as one thing or another. As we’ve come to realize, labeling can get in the way of creativity; the perfect example being Teyana Taylor. The multitalented singer, songwriter, dancer shared in one of her most recent posts that she plans to leave the industry altogether. Is this perhaps why R&B was on hold for some years? Did women leave because they weren’t being paid, managed and/or appreciated properly?
Moving forward, I for one would love to see genres disappear, if possible, but definitely open up at the least. I want Black women to be pursued, treated well – making room for everyday Black women to experience the same. I want women embracing their skin, their hair, their sexuality, their life experience through their art to be the norm as it empowers other women to do the same.