Friday, April 04, 2008

Estelle, or Who owns black culture?

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 iof 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, which I'll reflect on in turn.

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. Who owns soul music? 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 African musical 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 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.

More: Estelle's MySpace, Estelle's website. Buy her records at or For audioblogs with mp3 downloads by her and/or reviews or comments about her, check The Cold Cut, This Recording, Zeon Music and Panda Toes. Duffy and Adele are all over the audioblogging world. Try Mollifire, Lines Through Lines, This Women Coil, The Late Greats, Wongie, ickmusic, NoRock'n'Roll. And here's Duffy's MySpace and Adele's. Bonus links: Daniel's black music posts, Les Back interviewing Paul Gilroy about The Streets (pdf).

P.S. Every mention of Adele includes the two words "South London". Wikipedia says she was born in Enfield (North London), and I know she went to Croydon's BRIT School, but does anyone know where in South London she grew up/lives now?

Image source: Savory Sojourns


Andrew Brown said...

I quite like The 18th Day - and very much like 1980 from that album - and can see what she's trying to say. But, then I saw Estelle on Later the other night and thought where's the Englishness gone.

As for soul...

Well Sharon Jones is soul, but so is Eli "Paperboy" Reed as far as I can hear.

Courtney Hamilton said...

"The idea that any cultural form is the unique property of any one ethnic, cultural or 'racial' group is complete nonsense".

I would certainly agree with that sentiment. Especially when I recall such bands as The Specials, The Selectors or even Bad Manners. They represent just one generation in three waves of Ska music, that was developed in three different continents.

Ska music was loved and made by all types of young people, black and white - it's proof, in a way, that music as a cultural form is the 'unique property' of no-one.

bob said...

Good to hear from you Courtney - it's been a while. Yes, ska is a great example. Another is hip hop, thought of as archetypally black, yet where would hip hop be without Melle Mel's "White Lines", and where would "White Lines" be without Liquid Liquid's "Cavern", whose bassline (arguably the "blackest" part of the record) they nicked, without crediting it (I think). Liquid Liquid being, I believe, all white.

Andrew, Sharon Jones is pure soul. I think Adele and Duffy have a trace of what Sharon Jones has, but only a trace. Estelle's first two points are strengthened by the fact that Adele and Duffy seem to be becoming household names, while Jones is still not that well known.

Andrew Brown said...

The point I was trying to get across about Sharon Jones and Eli Reed is she's black and he's white. Soul's had a pretty good tradition of incorporating a few blue eyes in there.

And while neither are - yet - household names Sharon's backing band seems pretty ubiquitous doesn't it!

bob said...

I wasn't disagreeing with you Andrew!

Sharon Jones is quite big among nerdy web-types, but I don’t see many articles about her in the UK mainstream media, and don’t hear her get much radio play (in contrast to Duffy and Adele).

I like Eli Paperboy Reed, although I don’t think he has half the voice of Sharon Jones (or Duffy or Adele). I like the retro pure deep soul that both him and Jones conjure up - and which Duffy (e.g. on the single “Mercy” and the track “Warwick Avenue” on the album) and Adele (e.g. on “Hometown Love” and maybe the Norah Jonesish “Make You Feel My Love”) occasionally come close to, and which Amy Winehouse also does sometimes.

Estelle is doing something different, and, to me, it just isn’t soul. It’s much more innovative and interesting than what Eli and Sharon are doing, but it is also less soulful.

By the way, on this authenticity question, check out Uyimbube (53 Reasons to Hate Vampire Weekend, Pt. 2 of 4) [] - very good.

Andrew Brown said...

Okay, I'll calm down then.

I think any of the retro-soul people won't make the mainstream, musical taste has pretty much moved on leaving just a long tail of us who will hopefully make her enough money to get buy on, and encourage others to keep our purses opening.

As you say Estelle doesn't seem to be doing soul to me either. Nice pop music and there's nothing wrong with that.

antinomian said...

adele did most of her growing up in a bleak bit of haringey

Courtney Hamilton said...

"The idea that any cultural form is the unique property of any one ethnic, cultural or 'racial' group is complete nonsense".

Someone reminded me the other day of this near forgotten, under-rated, British reggae artist/promoter - and one of my all-time favorite radio DJ.

Who remembers Mr David Rodigan?

BTW. Your music posts are fast becoming a must read for me - as well as your political criticisms of course - keep up the good work.

Also, your critiques of my post are very much welcomed as well...

bob said...

Thanks for kind comments Courtney. I've now started experimenting with actually posting music, and plan to strengthen that element of the blog.

Rodigan: yes, great video. And then there's the horrible Tim Westwood, who hip hop people tell me is actually very respected in the hip hop community, altho I couldn't possibly comment. And the wonderful Wolfman Jack. And the truly brilliant DJ Derek, who I used to see DJing in a West Indian pub in Easton around 15 years ago.

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Anonymous said...

Well,well,well, and where is Estelle now? it not a secret that white soul singers get more airplay and more funding than black soul singers that has been going since the 1950's and 1960's, so what now, is everyone just going to demean Adele for a fact of life she didn't create Adele is perhaps the best songwriters Britain has produced, lets just so some love Adele deserves all her success. Estelle is just very classless and no talent for singing, 2012 Adele won Grammys had a baby and recorded the Bond song where is Estelle? in the same pub as Mica Paris and Beverly Knight soon to be joined by Alexandra Burke. Next time Estelle you buck teethed cow keep you mouth shut.