Does Contemporary R&B Need To Take It Back To Church?

Words: Jesse Bernard

The nature of contemporary, mainstream R&B is continuously changing as trends in the industry are becoming more digitised and formulaic. Historically, gospel’s influence in R&B has always been celebrated, with the lineage between the two being as clear as day. But as a generation borne out of social media with exposure to a wider array of sounds than ever before, the lines are becoming a lot less distinct, particularly over the last decade.

The Recording Academy now has two separate categories for awarding R&B at The Grammys: Urban Contemporary and Traditional, recognising that there is a distinct difference within the sonics, particularly the harmonies and melodies used. With Bruno Mars’ 24k Magic winning the award for Best R&B Album this year, in a category that included Musiq Soulchild’s Feel The Real, Daniel Caesar’s Freudian, Ledisi’s Let Love Rule and PJ Morton’s Gumbo, it’s clear that mainstream audiences are less interested in traditional-sounding R&B, and instead prefer sounds that evoke memories of the 1990s.

When you consider the historical context of black people in the UK and our cultural presence, R&B has never really had much of a presence. For one, the genre’s lineage dates back to the Great Migration in the 1920s of black Americans from the South to urban centres such as New York, Chicago, Detroit and LA. From there, contemporary R&B grew from the rhythm & blues, jazz, soul and funk that built those cities. The fabric of popular American music is made up of these components with Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Minnie Riperton shaping the R&B of the 20th century that would birth the much-adored ‘90s movement.

The problem now isn’t that the industry’s failing to nurture young black voices, it’s more that there are few exceptional ones with a wide degree of range. Powerhouse vocals aren’t always suited to dance-led pop tracks, nor are softer, airy voices able to perform ballads with force—there needs to be a balance. Artists aren’t being developed in their church choirs as they once used to be, which has also impacted the overall sound and texture of R&B of late. As more and more up-and-coming singers build their careers online—often without traditional vocal training—gospel’s influence on the sound is becoming less pronounced, with melodies leaning more towards pop.

In the UK, the gospel influence has always been surreptitious in R&B, but artists such as Des’ree, Gabrielle, Beverley Knight and Lynden David Hall were prominent in the charts while still boldly expressing their undeniably black, gospel roots. Hits such as “Crescent Moon” and “Feel So High” by Lynden David Hall and Des’ree, respectively, contain gospel elements at their core in the singers’ melodies with strong soul tones, highlighting a sound once loved by a wider audience.

The difficulty, for at least the last ten years, has been the way in which strong black voices have been marketed. Estelle, for example, migrated to America because the market for voices like hers wasn’t only more receptive but it was much bigger as well. “There are two general assumptions: that most black female singers can seriously sing as a rule, and they generally sing R&B/soul,” Beverly Knight said in a 2011 interview. “Therefore, a great voice does not make her exceptional. The other side of this situation is that a female of any other ethnicity who has a great soul/R&B voice stands out immediately. We have all heard the phrase, ‘she sings like a black girl’. That singer is already a marketing dream, and stands more of a chance of success.”

The case of gospel-influenced R&B gradually being erased from the genre lies in the development and scouting of artists. In turn, it has led to the slow erasure of traditional black vocalists whose roots were supplanted in gospel. But again, the story is a lot more nuanced in the UK, where mainstream audiences are less receptive to black representation in R&B—at least in recent years—but it’s also caused a shift in the sound of contemporary R&B. While British mainstream R&B typically features strong and easily identifiable R&B melodies, the production and pop-leaning writing has led to gospel’s decreasing influence in the sound where voices such as Lynden David Hall and even Floetry’s could be found. And as black gospel has informed soul and R&B throughout the decades, questions need to be asked about how its core sound will begin to evolve with black artists finding inspiration outside of the church.

It’s argued that those voices are now present in the industry with the likes of Ray BLK, NAO, IAMDDB and Yazmin Lacey being examples of strong, powerful voices, but it’s not about tokenism or just having a few to silence naysayers. At the chart level, it shows a lack of balance, and while not every R&B artist is chasing mainstream success, what we consider authentic R&B does matter as it influences future trends and tastes. RAYE, Dua Lipa, Mabel and Jorja Smith are the names you’ll find most prominent within UK R&B at present; each of them are talented in their own right, but it goes without saying that the aesthetic in R&B has changed significantly—at least when you compare to when Estelle released “American Boy” in 2008.

Where the US R&B charts used to be dominated by gospel-inspired stars such as Joe, Brandy, Jodeci and Blackstreet, they’ve now been replaced by artists who were raised on the internet, exposed to sounds far beyond traditional R&B. You only have to look at the likes of SZA, Syd, Jhene Aiko and H.E.R.—whose voices are far more softer, with less typical R&B runs and melodies—to see how the texture of contemporary R&B has changed dramatically overseas. And with a lot of male artists now identifying as both singers and rappers and blending the two crafts, the lines are certainly less distinct.

While current trends are leaning towards ‘90s nostalgia with sample-led productions, audiences must keep in mind that it was the gospel-influenced vocalists that made the genre so unique. (Of course not every voice has to be able to run like Brandy, or bring down buildings like Jazmine Sullivan.) To say British audiences aren’t receptive to strong voices would be a myth—they existed in Amy Winehouse and do so today in Dua Lipa. But with black powerhouse voices in UK R&B so scarce when it comes to the mainstream charts, it indicates that the underlying issue is race.

Posted on May 21, 2018