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Oct 16, 2017

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Black Musicians on Being Boxed in by R&B and Rap Expectations: We Fit in So ManyThings

Illustration by Martine Ehrhart Many find themselves relegated to “urban” genres whether that’s the music they intend to make or not. “You have to start in R&B or hip-hop and only then can you cross over into pop culture,” says Richard. “If you go at it any other way, you’re either trying too hard or it’s not going to work because it doesn’t seem true to who you are. We’ve gotten so used to that format being thrust upon us from journalists or from society that we’ve now become stuck on the idea that you—as a black woman, especially—can only win if you start where you look like you belong and then branch out.” This reinforcement of identity through genres trickles down to listeners, too. Much like seeing wealthy black faces hooping can inspire black kids to dream of becoming a basketball player instead of a doctor, seeing black musicians acquire wealth mainly through hip-hop might nudge teens in that direction, too. “Black kids do probably end up making more hip-hop because they think they have to,” KAMI says. “You don’t see them kind of trying to steer past that.” It’s like checking a box for white, black, or other, he adds: “You want to check that ‘other’ box, but you don’t know how that will represent you.” That artists must micromanage expectations based on their blackness is dismal, and it is part of the burden that all minorities must bear. But those within the music industry at large have a responsibility to not make musical assumptions based on skin tone. If we aren’t both inclusive and intentional in our actions and our language, we risk further isolating black artists and listeners on the fringes. When we fail in this regard, we inadvertently strip away black artists’ multitudes and agency. We limit the creative potential of all music with our inability to truly hear an artist instead of just see them.

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