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From Bob’s archive: Estelle, or who owns back culture?

Another one from the archive, from April 2008. Extra points to me for predicting the success of “American Boy”, which became ubiquitous and then irritating. Check out the comment thread too. 

The British R&B singer, Estelle, got angry in an interview with The Guardian last week:

Singling out Adele and Duffy, who she knocked off the number one spot at the weekend, she says: “I’m not mad at them, but I’m wondering – how the hell is there not a single black person in the press singing soul? Adele ain’t soul. She sounds like she heard some Aretha records once, and she’s got a deeper voice – that don’t mean she’s soul. That don’t mean nothing to me in the grand scheme of my life as a black person. As a songwriter, I get what they do. As a black person, I’m like: you’re telling me this is my music? Fuck that!”

Before I comment on this, I should say that I quite like Estelle’s music. She’s a little too influenced by contemporary American corporate R&B for my liking, and her voice does not stand out. But she is a good and intelligent lyricist, who tells a good story in her songs. Her music is interesting in the way it mixes both “urban” (i.e. mainly black) elements with indie (i.e. mainly white) elements. She deserved to do better with her UK album The 18th Day. It looks like she is finally going to achieve the success she deserves with new album Shine, released on Atlantic Records in the US. The current single “American Boy” is canny in bringing a grime sensibility which is totally fresh in the mediocre world of American R&B, while featuring a guest slot by Kanye West, guaranteed to bring attention. It makes gentle comedy about the experience of trans-Atlantic translation.

I’m not going to comment on the egotistical bullshit implied in the words “That don’t mean nothing to me in the grand scheme of my life as a black person” – as if the grand scheme of her life as a black person is intrinsically more important than the grand scheme of, say Duffy’s life as a Welsh woman.

Anyways, in her outburst there are are three serious points.

1. The UK music industry is undoubtedly institutionally racist. They have never been able to market homegrown black music acts. Estelle is probably right here.

2. The UK music industry in particular and the music industry in general is all too keen to find and market singers who are the “new version” of the most recent big thing. Hence, Adele and Duffy as two variants on Amy Winehouse, or last year’s Kate Nash as the new version of the previous year’s Lily Allen. This is bad for creativity. Again, Estelle is right here.

3. Black people own soul music. This is the important one, and Estelle is wrong here. The idea that any cultural form is the unique property of any one ethnic, cultural or ‘racial’ group is complete nonsense. Even the briefest look at African-American music explodes any proprietary idea of culture. Blues and gospel were not Africanmusical forms; as W.E.B. Du Bois recognised, they were American forms, creole forms, shaped by the experience in white America and by the influence of “white” forms like Scotch-Irish folk music. When soul music emerged – as vividly portrayed in the fantastic recent film Ray – it could not have taken the shape it did without the creative force of people like Turkish Ahmet Ertugen, Jewish Jerry Wexler or white Southerners Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.

(There is a great bit in Les Back’s book Out of Whiteness about the writing of “Do Right Woman“, and the way Aretha Franklin, Dan Penn and Jerry Wexler wrote it together, with Jerry contributing the Yiddish-y “You can’t prove that by me” and Aretha contributing the proto-feminist “As long as we’re together baby/Show some respect for me”. It was the creative synergy between these different people that made soul music, not some essential feature of black-ness.)

Soul music is no more Estelle’s property than it is Amy Winehouse’s, Duffy’s, Estelle’s or Joss Stone’s.

Bonus links: Daniel’s black music postsLes Back interviewing Paul Gilroy about The Streets (pdf). Image source: Savory Sojourns.


About bobfrombrockley

South London family man. Eating bacon bagels on the 171 bus, listening to Johnny Cash while reading Hannah Arendt, the kid next to me playing dubstep on his telephone. Mostly politics at http://brockley.blogspot.com and mostly music at https://bobsbeat.wordpress.com

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