Unifying contemporary R&B with indie rock, alternative dance, hip pop, electronic music and neo soul, alternative R&B has officially infiltrated the zeitgeist of pop culture. This is no doubt due to recent Top 100 landmarks released over the course of 2016 such as Rihanna’s Dada movement revival album Anti, Beyoncé Knowles’s womanist song cycle jambalaya Lemonade, Solange Knowles’s fairy-dusted Afrofuturist kiss-off A Seat at the Table, Esperanza Spalding’s post-apocalyptic pow-wow Emily’s D+Evolution, and Childish Gambino’s cosmic funk odyssey “Awaken, My Love!”. However, the genre really developed its platform on the ever-expanding Afropunk movement that celebrates the participation of African Americans and other black people in the punk and alternative music subcultures, areas of interests that are fundamentally and overwhelmingly white. However in its mission to launch intersectionality to the forefront and its drive for inclusive mobilization, there is a slight undercurrent of homonegativity that lingers like napalm on a battlefield.
In fact, it comes as quite a shock that there seems to be a commercial firewall in place for two of the most critically commended artists in this genre—Frank Ocean and Dev Hynes of Blood Orange—, both of whom are black queer men have remained on the outskirts of commercial success while openly displaying affection for the same gender in their artistry as well as tipped their subversive hats to black queer thought. While Ocean has received critical praise throughout his career (2011’s nostalgia,ULTRA., 2012’s Channel Orange, 2016’s Endless and Blonde), Hynes (who released 2013’s Cupid Deluxe, 2016’s Freetown Sound as Blood Orange) has been relegated more or less behind the scenes as an emerging super-producer for the likes of gay icons like Kylie Minogue, rock bands like Florence and the Machine, The Chemical Brothers, future legends like Solange Knowles, Carly Rae Jepsen and emerging talent like Sky Ferreira, FKA twigs and Tinashe. There are a number of reasons, especially on the part of the artists: Both Ocean and Hynes are reserved artists who are not as prolific as their peers, taking longer lapses in time to release new solo music as well as frequent tour cancelations. But that doesn’t excuse the lack of promotion from their individual record companies or album sales despite universal acclaim of their respective solo projects.
And then, there’s the world of what I’d like to call blue-eyed glitter soul; soul music performed by white artists with queer sensibilities and songs penned with LGBT-friendly narratives orchestrated and underscored by a sound that fuses R&B, indie rock, glam, queercore and dream pop. These artists are recognizable in their homogenous somber yearning. For example, Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour, Troye Sivan’s Blue Neighbourhood and PWR BTTM’s Ugly Cherries. While these artists certainly deserve the publicity their work has drawn, it pales (pun intended) in comparison to work of queer of artists of color like Ocean and Hynes, who have tackled masculinity, unrequited love, casual sex, existential longing, universal meaning, Black Lives Matter, white privileged ennui during the financial crisis and class conflict with candid fearlessness. As artists, the musical careers of both Ocean and Hynes can be described as a clap back against an anti-black establishment bent on tearing down queer, disenfranchised and unsung identities that are also diverse non-white persons of color.
The same can’t be said of the work of Smith and Sivan, whose lyrics indulge in self-pity and the struggles same-sex relations face, or even the punk rock soul band PWR BTTM, whose lyrics explore coming-of-age queerness and gender. While this doesn’t contradict the admiration these musicians have earned for their artistry, it should give pause: Smith took home four-time Grammys including Best Pop Vocal Album for his debut which earned mixed reviews and later won an Academy Award for “Best Song” while Ocean, a two-time Grammy victor who won for Best Urban Contemporary Album—a new category at the time when he took home the prize in 2013—has virtually been blacklisted by pop, hip-hop and R&B artists like.
But is the status quo and white supremacy only to blame?
Alternative R&B is referred to by various names: indie R&B, experimental R&B, R-Neg-B, Noir&B, hipster R&B, the vaguely offensive PBR&B (an abbreviation for Pabst Blue Ribbon, a lager associated with the hipster subculture in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg vicinity), and voodoo pop.
In many ways, voodoo pop has proven to be the kindred offspring of the neo-soul movement that bum-rushed the mid-1990s and became a testament of black excellence by the mid-2000s. With the astral-bodied successes of Meshell Ndegeocello, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Eric Benét, Saadiq, Kelis, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, India.Arie and The Soulquarians, among others, there is a clear divergence in the goals that the voodoo pop artists have that isn’t mirrored in the recordings of the neo-soul artists of yesteryear. But unlike the backwater gospel-jazz that permeates neo-soul music, voodoo pop is characterized by its echo-laden and lofty edges followed by a bottled, topsy-turvy, drug-induced timbre within the synthesizers that nod to the likes of Prince’s 1987 classic double album Sign o’ the Times and Janet Jackson’s 1997 opus The Velvet Rope, not to mention the cascading manic depression guitars that impacted Fundadelic’s Maggot Brain. In laymen’s terms, while neo-soul exults the sacred, voodoo pop pampers the profane. However, both derive from Church of God In Christ origins, which is saturated in homophobia. While many voodoo pop songsmiths are pushing the envelope musically, could the trickle-down effect of COGIC black gospel music be a source of tension and homonegativity toward black queer music artists?
Perhaps. Between 2012 and 2016, during Ocean’s hiatus from the music industry, there were numerous reports that state recording star has been alienated since coming out. In a 2014 interview with Vlad TV, rapper-crooner T-Pain said, “Frank Ocean would be on a lot more songs” hadn’t there been rampant homophobia and knew musicians that would not work with the artist because of this. Ocean has also been used as a shield to protect straight-acting cis-men whose careers could take a hit for charges of homophobia. After suggesting that iLoveMakonnen, another rapper-singer had undermined his reputation by coming out publicly in January in their Rolling Stone profile, Quavo of Migos later backpedaled in a moment of defense by drawing attention that the group recorded a single with the singer (“Slide,” a Calvin Harris track featuring Migos and Frank Ocean).
Which begs to question, what is the true value of intersectionality in the arts, who benefits from it the most and where is that sense of openness in oppressed diverse communities of color in mainstream popular culture? Inquiring minds need answers.