‘Soul Singing While White’ Is Killing the Legacy of Soul Music

1388165156003-SamSmith24100012-Custom-NameGQ magazine lauding UK singer Sam Smith as the new face of soul pushed me over the edge recently. White faces are never the faces of soul music.

White soul singers are given inordinate amounts of praise by the masses. There is just something about a White person treading into soul singer territory that gives them all the “street cred” in the world (at least to other White people). This is not to say that Sam Smith or any other White artist isn’t a “soul” singer. “Stay With Me” is dope (listen below). And for the first couple of times I heard it, I assumed he was Black. But only White people can put out one song and suddenly become the face of an entire genre of music.

Yet and still, the outlandish praise continues to flow. V Magazine refers to him as “the new sound of soul.” I’m not sure what weight a fashion magazine has in crowning leaders in musical genres, but that is a pretty bold statement to make. But, this is the Macklemore Effect. It’s professional Black face that is hyped up and cosigned by White news media.

Let’s be real. Isn’t Justin Timberlake, as talented as he is, given half of the praise he gets because he manages to do it while White? Would Robin Thicke have been seen as a viable artist if there wasn’t such a high likelihood of him crossing over onto pop radio? Would Remy Shand or Jamiroquai have ever even had a chance if they weren’t White?

Yes. There was a time when Remy Shand and Jamiroquai seemed like wholly viable artists in the name of blue-eyed soul. Stew on that.

I find it difficult that people so easily take an art form that was born of the blood, sweat, and tears of Black people – often rooted in the bowels of oppression and perpetual inequality – only to commodify it in this way. Soul music is not a passing fad or term to be thrown around when convenient. It is not a collection of instruments and sequence of sounds to be employed for financial gain. Soul music is deeper than that.

jessie-js-boyfriend-luke-james-does-the-heavy-airport-liftingFor example, look at Luke James. His self-titled album last year was a soul music revelation. It was a staggering debut. Still, I saw more press about him dating Jessie J than the content of his album. Despite his long road to make it in the industry and his remarkable talent, paparazzi literally reduced him to Jessie J’s arm candy and luggage valet.

Compare “Stay With Me” to James’ breakout hit “I Want You” (listen below). Or just compare “Stay With Me” as recorded by both singers. Now compare Grammy nominations: Sam Smith – 6, Luke James – 1. Clearly a crime is being committed, and Luke James is the victim.

By and large, I’d bet that a Sam Smith fan isn’t much of a soul music fan. I’d bet that Taylor Swift is in their rotation. I took the liberty of listening to Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour. And honestly, it is much more of a pop/soul album (see the Grammy nominations in the Pop category). New face of soul? Right.

That is the danger in magazines making these outlandish claims to increase sales. All of a sudden, the unenlightened think they are enlightened. The soul singers that have been paving the way and laying the foundation for the art form are either forgotten or never even noticed. And because Whites have the privilege to disregard soul music’s deep rooted history, the simple, sinister truth is exposed: things only matter if they matter to White people.

So who is the true face of of soul? Well when Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke released their most recent albums, they were deemed the faces of soul. Now they say it’s Sam Smith. And while the likes of Timberlake, Thicke, and Smith may have grown up listening to the voices that defined the genre, they by no means get to co-opt the mantle. There is no face of soul music. But, if there was one, it would be Black. And if you are racing to name one from the slews of White singers recently crowding the Billboard Top 100, you just don’t get it.

Listen to Smith sing “Stay With Me” here:

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Hear James sing “Stay With Me” here:

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.

16 Responses

  1. Von says:

    Soul Music killed itself while persuing inclusion, white acceptance, attempts at transcending and embracing white popular culture, while abandoning it’s own identity in the process.

    British singers have been emulating Soul Music since the 1960’s, so it’s nothing new.

    The real Soul Singer’s aka R&B singer’s have been abandoned for a while now, in favor of those deemed as popular by those who have the look, but not the sound.

  2. polly pence says:

    whites steal everything, make it their “own” then reintroduce it to the masses with a new shiny label that theyve ripped off from another toy. its like if you go into a store and switch the tags on clothes or something with a lower price tag and say it was there the whole time. Black people arent allowed to own anything, or be predominant in anything, because around every corner theres a sam smith or taylor swift ready to take it away from them.

  3. D Jackson says:

    Right. And then they award themselves for it.

  4. Not your business says:

    Why aren’t the best and most talented black singers recording soul music? The watered down over produced trash that R & B has become is no where near as soulful as the soul singers of the past. Oh, and you are chipping your own shoulder if you think every white person has a wonderful life. How you oppressed? Writing for a column? You attended college, right? Looks like someone had opportunities. Live in a white trash trailer park as a young pretty white girl and live in that perverted abusive hell . Shouldn’t that white girl have some soul to sing? Oh, I forgot her ancestors were indentured servants from England and Cherokee refugees not slaves, so she is posing. Whatever. Move on.

  5. Rosco says:

    WOW… bit of a racist love in?

  6. D Jackson says:

    No saying that all White people are living the good life. And I’m not saying that White people can’t sing soul. The heart of the issue here is that White people get extra credit and attention for an art form originated by Black people.

  7. D Jackson says:

    Nope. I respect art. I respect talent. I just don’t respect undeserved praise.

  8. Rosco says:

    Assuming soul music was invented by Black people living in a vacuum.

  9. Lesley Harrys says:

    Article seems a bit biases in its “anti-white”-message. While I agree it’s a travesty to declare Sam Smith the new face of soul, I disagree that you can only be a “real” soul singer if you’re black. I love soul music, both classic soul and neo soul. As far as classic albums go, Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul is one of my top 5 albums of all time, and Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On is probably my favorite vocal performance ever recorded. Having said that, my favorite neo soul album is by a white guy. Remy Shand’s The Way I Feel is another one of my top 5 albums of all time and it still bums me out that that remains his only album in the past 15 years. Still, I think it’s better than even Voodoo or Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (both of which I love), and everything that Raphael Saadiq and Musiq have put out. Songs like I Met Your Mercy combine the best of Al Green with the best of Gaye, adding a touch of Prince in the vocals, and even though his range is limited, Remy Shand has a great, soulful voice and gives a more genuinely vintage soul sound than most black contemporary soul singers

  10. D Jackson says:

    I noted in the article that White people can be soul singers. Definitely possible (I too used to run that Remy Shand CD into the ground). The real issue I am trying to point out here is that White soul singers get special treatment, appeal, and exposure simply because they are White. There are so many Black soul singers that are beyond amazing that don’t get any play because they are Black (check out Ro James if you get a chance).

    I think that a biproduct of the inordinate amount of focus put on White “soul” singers is the Black soul singers end up either compromising their music to keep their careers afloat or relegating themselves to only “cult following” status. We’ll never know what amazing music we’re missing out on because these artists just don’t have the support. That is the real travesty.

  11. John Michael Hobson says:

    Your perspective is spot on.

  12. John Michael Hobson says:

    I’m tired of the music community trying to pass Adele off as a soul singer. Her music does not make me feel anything inside which is the exact opposite of SOUL music. That hello track is overrated and getting wayyyy too much praise. She is a great singer but certainly not Soul.

  13. John Michael Hobson says:

    I will say that Luke James’ cover of Sam Smith’s Stay With Me wasn’t better than the original version.

  14. Andy Vietri says:

    Music today is all about what sells in a global market today, which is generally a “safe” white person singing in the style of any of black music to a global crowd with easy lyrics. “Stay with Me” is just a version of Tom Petty’s “won’t back down” with some soul flavor. The real enemy is how performers, producers, and the MI industry don’t give credit in general in the last 20 years or so..

    The main issue I have with ‘popular’ (especially american) music is that it doesn’t give credit where is do. The great thing about all the musicians from the 60 / 70 – and even into the 90 – is they made a point to point out the black american artists they loved and to encourage other to listen and support there music and communities. a few examples:

    The Stones / U2 pointed out and toured with B.B. King
    Clapton became good friends with and promoted Hendrix
    Nirvana loved Lead Belly and would routinely cover his songs at shows
    Jimmy Page (from Led zeppelin) often pointed out many amazing black singers / guitarists

    Routinely, Black American has created so many of our culture, musical, and scientific contributions with little to no recognition within america. This leads to the world absorbing their culture without credit or reason for creation in the first place. Its a tragedy and its bullshit.

  15. Jay says:

    “The heart of the issue here is that White people get extra credit and attention for an art form originated by Black people”

    And it’s YOU who contributes and gives it to the pink skin loons. If you and other stupidly generous blacks stopped entertaining that “whites can sing soul” then maybe this foolish madness wouldn’t have got out of control like this.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I agree that white people should stop singing soul music. Not because I really love soul or because I consider “white soul” to be a form of colonial cultural appropriation. I actually don’t really care about any of that. I want white people to stop singing soul because I am tired of hearing it all the time. I am tired of hearing white people who sing or speak in a way that imitates the stereotypical accent of Black Americans. Adele is a white woman from the UK .Amy Winehouse was a white woman from the UK. Iggy Azalea (not a soul singer but a rapper) is a white woman from Australia. None of these three singers/rapper are either Black or American. How many other white singers out there are doing “soul?” Too many!

    My main objection to it, apart from that I am tired of hearing it, is that the “white soul” craze has only continued the white obsession with Black coolness; the idea that as a white person you are cool or only cool if you imitate Black people. White people can sing in other styles that are pleasing to the ears and don’t have to use a fake Black “soul” accent when they sing. To me it just sounds artificial and tiresome to hear a white person sing “soul.”

    But it isn’t just white people. People of all races are singing in soul style now, and it is becoming too much. It seems like every rendition of the National Anthem has to be done in soul these days, whether the singer is a Black woman or a little Asian American girl. Soul is being overdone and overused and I am just tired of it. Please get off the soul train already!

    White people (Or Asian or Hispanic or people of any race or color): You don’t have to be Black to be “cool.” You don’t have to dress in a Black style (like “ghetto” or “gangsta” or “thug”) to look cool! You don’t have to speak or sing in a Black style to sound cool! You don’t have to go around acting like a “pimp” or a “thug” or some other “ghetto” associated persona.

    I don’t think white people shouldn’t adopt Black styles because its appropriation, I just think it’s ridiculous for white people to believe they are better or cooler for adopting Black styles. I don’t dislike soul; I can enjoy it now and then, I just don’t want to hear it all the time and I feel like it’s being overdone these days. There are plenty of other singing styles to use.