Black Music: Often Appropriated Can’t Be Duplicated

2013 could be considered the year where black music was not only heavily appropriated, but also appropriated to the point of no return. Miley Cyrus proved to be the Queen of Appropriation when she shocked the world with her gold grills and twerking, or what she thought was twerking, in the video for her song, “We Can’t Stop”. From there we entered the world of Justin Timberlake, fresh off a musical hiatus, along with Robin Thicke, both of whom have been dubbed the new “blue eyed soul”.

But Cyrus, Thicke and Timberlake aren’t doing anything new. In the words of Paul Mooney, “Everybody wants to be a n word, but nobody wants to be a n word”.

Appropriation in music and pop culture started way before any of these stars were even born, or probably their parents.

The music from the 1940s and 1950s that was done by African Americans, has basically laid the ground work for today’s music. Before Rock and Roll, there was the delta blues sound that eventually was called rhythm and blues. Some of the biggest appropriators of black music back in the day were Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

The unfortunate facts that remain, is that although most of these artists, besides Jerry Lee Lewis, made a fortune off the sounds of blackness, the originators rarely saw a cent. In order for record labels to make money and market R&B to white audiences, companies used a practice called “mainlining”. Record labels hired white artists to take songs that were performed by black artists and “clean them up”. The lyrics were rewritten to make them suitable for radio and the instrumentals were reworked. This mixing of rhythm and blues from black people and country music from white people was eventually known as rock ‘n’ roll.

One of the first big hits from mainlining was “Shake, Rattle and Roll”. In 1954, Jesse Stone wrote the song under his alias Charles E. Calhoun, and it was then sung by “Big” Joe Turner. Although Turner’s song hit the rhythm and blues charts back in June 1954, it wasn’t until the following month when the Comets recorded their version and released it in August. That version was on the top 40 charts for twenty-seven weeks. No one heard a peep from Turner’s version again.

Whether it’s mainlining or appropriation, regardless of the decade, there’s no mistaking that black music and our culture is something to be in awe of.

One of 2013’s biggest R&B hits came from Robin Thicke and his song “Blurred Lines”. At first listen, many people might have thought the music sounded familiar, but music aficionados quickly recognized a sample from Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” and Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways” in the song. Instead of fessing up to using the samples, Robin Thicke, T.I and Pharrell Williams filed a lawsuit against Gaye’s estate, before they had a chance to file one against them. The lawsuit claimed that there were no similarities between Blurred Lines and the other songs “other than commonplace musical elements.” The trio sought a declaration that the “Gayes do not have an interest in the copyright to the composition ‘Got To Give It Up’ sufficient to confer standing on them to pursue claims of infringement of that composition.”

The Gaye family followed up with a countersuit against Thicke, alleging that he not only infringed upon “Got to Give it Up,” but also committed copyright infringement on “After the Dance,” for the title track from his 2011 album, Love After War. The siblings claimed that Thicke practically admitted to copying “Got to Give it Up” in interviews with GQ and Billboard. In interviews with the publications, Thicke admitted to getting “inspiration” from Marvin Gaye.

Although many present day artists get “inspiration” from black artists from the past, the thin line of appropriating and appreciation is something that has been repeatedly crossed.

How Are Reality TV Shows Affecting Society’s Perception Of Black Women?

While Black women are clearly underrepresented in films and on prime time comedies and dramas, the same cannot be said of our representation on reality television. The sheer number of reality programs on television today makes it difficult to determine if we are in some way “overrepresented,” however, Black women have been entertaining American households through this genre from its inception and continue to do so today. We’ve gone from Tammy on the pilot season of The Real World to Tammy translating her renewed popularity on Basketball Wives into her own reality show.

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Yesha Callahan

Reality TV shows

Some of the shows that focus primarily on Black women are The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love & Hip Hop and Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, The New Atlanta, and Married to Medicine. There are also shows like Black Ink Crew, Thicker Than Water, and Preachers of L.A. in which Black women figure prominently. This list is in no way meant to be exhaustive and does not include the many reality shows that rely on Black women for a great deal of their entertainment value, ranging from the now defunct Cheaters to Bad Girls Club.

So, why are Black women so entertaining in “reality” but thought to be unable to garner an audience as actors? Reality shows have been around for decades but began to multiply exponentially over the last decade. They seem to be a good way to get ratings without having to pay actors. Makes sense. But movies and television dramas and sitcoms are still being made, actors are still getting paid, just not Black actors.

Black women on reality television are not necessarily monolithic. There are accomplished career women, stay-at-home mothers, musicians who’ve had varying levels of commercial success, and even actors (who were actually actors before joining reality show casts). The depictions of Black women, on the other hand, are narrow and seem to revolve around the same themes including conflict with other Black women, dealing with cheating and disrespectful Black men, and that’s pretty much it. We see Black women throw drinks in each other’s faces, jump on the table, shake the table, and pretend to be held back ‘less they shall surely spend the night in jail. And then come the boyfriends / husbands /baby daddies / significant others / crazy exes. They lie, cheat, and also throw beverages. It makes for exciting television, but at what cost? Are these shows, although heavily scripted, presenting some of the realities of Black womanhood, or are they merely repackaging what America thinks of Black women (and men) and pulling an audience by confirming stereotypes? Sadly, I think the latter is closer to the truth.

I would like, however, to do something with which some or many will surely disagree, and that is to applaud The Real Housewives of Atlanta. While that show did feature physical fighting, bullying, and cattiness between Black women (and Kim), they seem to have responded to calls that the violence and venom cease. While there is still venom and cattiness and a host of other problems, they seem to have dispatched with the violence and also seem to be the only show that presents examples of healthy bonding and friendships between Black women that do not revolve around gossip or back biting. While I recognize that this is a relatively low bar, I also recognize that reality television isn’t going anywhere. As long as the other shows continue on a downward trajectory, I will encourage The Real Housewives of Atlanta to continue to step it up.