The exact definition of neo-soul may not be clear, but one thing is: Alicia Keys is not neo-soul. Neo-soul, a loosely-defined subgenre of R&B that arose in the 1990s, has very conscious roots in funk and soul, as well as vocal stylings that often take cues from jazz. While Keys’ classical piano training established her as a musician in a way that set her apart from many female R&B vocalists, her overall style did not differ significantly from the conventional, hip-hop influenced R&B of the time. Yet my former graduate school advisor (and supposed mentor) wondered why I didn’t include Alicia Keys as one of the neo-soul women in my research, and accused me of excluding Keys because she is a “fair-skinned” beauty. Her evidence that Keys should be included: Wikipedia.
I had heard her dismiss the validity of Wikipedia in class. Suddenly, it had become a legitimate source. I stopped taking my advisor seriously that day. Soon afterward, she left the university, and stepped down as chair of my dissertation committee.
The decision to stick with my instincts and go my own way left me in a no academic’s land where I no longer have the resources or support to do my kind of work. Ironically, I have become a little like those neo-soul women I most admire, and live in a way I most feared: a part-timer and freelancer. In a way, it excites me to think there are parallels between my life and the lives of the women I admire. After all, most of us who went the academic route focus on something particularly close to us. Perhaps being the black weirdo drew me to the neo-soul women, even though they exude much more sophistication and personality than I do. Through it all, I learned one thing: media and academia teach you similar but distinct lessons about black female identity and representation.
Image: This theme takes into consideration the persona constructed for each artist. How are these women represented in the press? What battles have they had with sexism, racism, homophobia, sizeism, etc.?
Erykah Badu The New Age Mystic Turned Revolutionary
Lauryn Hill The Rasta Girl
Jill Scott The Earth Mother
Angie Stone The Earth Mother
India.Arie The Black Hippie Chick
Macy Gray The Space Case
Meshell Ndegeocello The Bisexual Enigma
Media Teach You: Even though all these women complicate notions of what it means to be a black woman in the public sphere, especially in the music industry, the press still tries diligently to control their images, to make them recognizable. Those who can’t be controlled are ignored. Ndegeocello is a case in point: her dramatic shifts in style make her one of the most creative forces in music, but her unabashed vocality about her bisexuality scares away much of the black press. When the press recognizes the struggles these artists have with representation, it does so selectively: for example, it pays attention to the sizeism both Scott and Stone face, but cannot see the intersection of sizeism and colorism with Stone. In other words, the press both addresses the difficulties these artists face as women constantly in the public eye, and subjects them to these same pressures.
Academia Teaches You: It’s frustrating to see these complex women reduced to simplistic images. But it’s even more disturbing that your study of the process doesn’t prepare you for the experience of being reduced yourself. You’ve spent years following the politics of respectability, being a “lady,” trying to avoid the tropes the have plagued black women for centuries: the loudmouthed Sapphire, the overassertive matriarch, the nurturing Mammy, the fast-tailed Jezebel. Yet despite your efforts, you are labeled as the angry by the lone white member of your dissertation committee. And when grad school doesn’t give you the language to discuss the experience, you begin to believe you are a stereotypical “angry black woman.” You take your advisor’s word that you should “jettison the criticism of white feminism for now”; you’re quiet as the white committee member tells you that you have to harness your anger like she did when she was a young feminist starting out in academia. But how do you process this when you are the least aggressive person you know, when you believe you don’t get angry enough?
Agency: What type of power do black women have over their own work as writers, musicians, and producers?
Media Teach You: One of the most fascinating things about the neo-soul women is that they are singer/songwriters, interested in every aspect of the creative process from inspiration to production. Yet it’s often hard for them to maintain control of their work. Lauryn Hill struggles to be recognized as a producer, a fight that comes to a head when four males sue her for production credit on her album. Scott, with no formal music training or experience playing instruments, has to find creative ways to make sure her music sounds the way she wants. The challenges these women face speak to how much black women still have only a certain degree of agency in the public sphere, even when they are seen as creators.
Academia Teaches You: You slowly watch agency slip away when you’re not brave enough to stand your ground with your committee. Standing your ground could mean a setback. You can’t afford one of those. Quietly, you keep doing the work that’s important to you, exhausted by having to explain constantly that you do not study hip-hop, the only form of black cultural expression academia seems to recognize. It’s a losing battle: your mentors keep insisting that you do hip-hop studies, and your real work is not respected or recognized as valid. You begin to realize that the reason you were wanted so much in this program was to focus on the hip-hop studies popularized by Imani Perry and Tricia Rose, the only prominent black female scholars studying black women in entertainment at the time. You are a black woman and will always be seen as such (whatever that means to the beholder) no matter how you present yourself. You do not exist for your own sake.
Genre and Audiences: What audiences are neo-soul women thought to attract, and how do these imagined audiences respond? Does cross-genre music mean crossover appeal?
Media Tell You: The neo-soul women absolutely complicate notions of audience and genre, particularly Gray and Ndegeocello. While they tend to be ambivalent about the neo-soul label, these women know the music business, and they understand the value of a category that sets them apart from other artists. They want to reach a broad audience, and they also intentionally connect with black women through their music. They walk a delicate balance between making music defined by black female experience, like Arie’s “Video,” and expressing a rose-colored “Music Is Universal” mantra that allows them to appeal to audiences outside their core black female base with songs like Gray’s “Do Something.” Gray is an interesting case: she is thought to have connected with a white audience first, since she became popular in Europe before her home country, but her black audience makes itself known as the press begins to pay her more attention. She even expresses her desire for a black audience, but explains how hard it is to break into black radio, especially when her music sounds nothing like the R&B and hip hop of the time. Ndegeocello’s base audience is more undefined as she first becomes known to the black audience, but the black press seems to grow more uncomfortable with her over time, so the implication is that the black press assumes black people do not listen to her. While alternative and international publications like to pride themselves on their appreciation of Ndegeocello, the black press seems unable to get around the complications she presents in terms of defying genre and audience expectations. Drawing these imaginary lines around genre fails to acknowledge audience fluidity, and completely ignores the centering of marginalized audience members that comes with the neo-soul movement.
Academia Teaches You: The choice to center black publications in your work is the first problem. Your work is considered less valid since it does not center whiteness and the mainstream media, or make comparisons to white female musicians, but rather focuses on narratives in the black press about the neo-soul women. Everyone wants to know what the mainstream media is saying. As one person (a black woman) blatantly asks at a conference, “What are the white people saying? I want to know what the white people are saying.” Why is this so important? Why does whiteness need to play such an important role in the narratives and images we create for ourselves? But asking these questions is taboo, much like criticizing white feminism, or saying you specifically want your work to reach black women. You very much want to make your work relevant to black female audiences and, believe it or not, many black women are not preoccupied with what white folks are saying and thinking.
Cultural Impact: What socio-historical impact have black women had on the music industry as well as within the general public? Also, what do these women mean to their audiences?
Media Teach You: If the significance of the neo-soul women can be summed up simply, it would be to say that they open up more varied representations of black womanhood, but find themselves fighting for recognition. Black women have resisted stereotypical images for decades, and the neo-soul women are at the forefront of this resistance during the mid-90s. Almost twenty years after neo-soul is declared a passing fad, these women continue to make music and further complicate notions of genre. Their black female fans have stayed loyal to them, as the artists have stayed loyal to their ways of creating music on their own terms. The black press sources express much respect and admiration for the neo-soul women. They see them as complimenting and complementing a space that has been one-dimensional and unvaried for far too long. Still, they see these women as an anomaly, and at worst, a passing fad that cannot have the same impact as Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, or Ashanti.
Media Also Teach You: The Internet has changed the music industry immensely in a very short time. While black women who more or less fall in line with recognizable controlling images still dominate black female representation, social media have made it possible for others to carve out spaces for more complicated representations of black women. All the neo-soul women are still around, and connect with their fans via social media. In much the same way that MTV fragmented storytelling with music video, the Internet has fragmented the means and distribution of making music, and the neo-soul women are well-suited to take advantage of these changes, especially since they have extremely loyal audiences supporting them.
Academia Teaches You: Your own cultural impact… Is it reinvention when you decide to become who you really are? Were you preparing yourself when, in grad school, you took a note from Meshell Ndgeocello and began writing fiction regardless of genre, as long as you could see someone resembling you represented? Did you really make a difference if your only achievement was to make one person see that Macy Gray was not a drug-addled idiot? As you settle into your new name, you find yourself on a tough road in a world that cares nothing for your degrees or anything else you achieved during your academic career, so you still tell yourself that your one regret is that the people who wronged you weren’t on the bridges you burned. They will see just how wrong they were when you finally get your fiction published, and your voice matters in this new public sphere the academy does not own and traditional media do not yet control. But you are an expert on nothing except yourself. You have some evidence that this is enough for some when a personal essay becomes a rallying cry for the “black weirdo” who never knew they had kindred in their “weirdness.” Otherwise, what impact have you had, and how dare you state your pseudonym in the same breath as Erykah Badu, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, Angie Stone, Macy Gray and THE Meshell Ndegeocello?
In other words, you’ll have to get back to cultural impact when you make one.
Inda Lauryn is constantly