A few months ago, I was at a concert when my friend, referring to one of the performers, turned to me and said: “That’s the blackest white man I’ve ever heard.”
Turns out, the guy was half black, so my friend was half correct and half wrong. He’d observed this, however, for the same reasons that people tend to say someone “sounds black” or has a black sound, particularly as that label relates to music. On occasion, “sounding black” can come from something nuanced as the tone of someone’s voice, but generally, it has to do with a certain diction and vocabulary
Over at MTV, Carvell Wallace skillfully breaks down the problem with white artists putting on a so-called “blaccent” in their music. Specifically, Wallace focuses on Meghan Trainor, who is now, somehow, officially a pop superstar. On “No,” the first single from her latest album, Wallace notices the Nantucket-born and bred singer dropping her g’s and utilizing what is understood to be African American Vernacular English.
They are the recognized phonic conventions of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a variety of English spoken largely, though not exclusively, by working-class and middle-class African-Americans. AAVE has been studied by linguists who cite it as a correct and complete language system with consistent internal logic and grammatical complexity. Society at large, however, still persists in treating AAVE as a sign of low intelligence, which means that people who speak it naturally are regarded as less worthy of jobs and respect.
It is a similar criticism often leveled against Australian “rapper” Iggy Azalea who curiously hit the scene with a black American Southern accent which she chalks up to a result of having spent time in Atlanta and Houston.
Some people find this idea hard to decipher, likely because it involves a calculus that is mostly instinctive, and accepting this criticism as legitimate means having to believe black people who know that something in the milk ain’t quite clean. Wallace notes tangible instances of Trainor’s put-upon accent, but the problem with it comes less from specific moments and more from the overwhelming feeling that it is strange to hear a blonde woman from Massachusetts sounding a bit like Ashanti.
Is a black voice coming from a white face what 250 million people want?
Well, yes. “Blue-eyed soul” as a genre is proof of that. The success of artists like Macklemore, Iggy Azalea and Sam Smith are clear indicators that there is a whole audience of white people who want to listen to and enjoy black music without the black people.
Wallace contrasts Trainor to Amy Winehouse, whose soul-inspired sound made her a star. The difference, however, between Trainor and artists like Winehouse and perhaps someone like JoJo is that the tinges or entire waves of a black sound in their music feel authentic—as Wallace writes, “honest and understated.” On Winehouse:
She seemed like someone who was honoring black culture and living its pain and beauty as part of her own truth, rather than someone cynically plundering it for financial gain.
Amy Winehouse exhaustedly praised her influences, employed a mostly black band and seemed to have true understanding and appreciation for the canon. Further, it was a sound found in all of Winehouse’s music, unlike Trainor who only puts it on when she wants to sound sassy and have a bit of attitude.
(White) people who don’t believe in cultural appropriation often try to argue that culture is fluid and necessarily something to be shared. Ultimately, Wallace arrives at the crux of the issue—and the fallacy of that argument—which is there is an inherent inequality around cultural production, and who tends to benefit from it.
The problem isn’t the enjoyment or even use of ideas outside of your natural milieu; the fact that people learn and grow from one another and enjoy each other’s cultures is, to state it plainly, beautiful. But black people have reason to fear that this will turn out to be an uneven trade. Some people will benefit from that exchange more than others.
There’s also simply the fact that Amy Winehouse made music that was actually great. I am of the belief that it’s not so much that black audiences don’t want white artists exploring a black sound: the issue is that white artists can be bad while employing black style and still be successful.
White people shouldn’t get to make bad rap music and be as popular—or even more popular—than talented black artists. There is not, and likely cannot be, a black Meghan Trainor—whose newest album Thank You, debuted at number three on the Billboard 200 chart.
Image via Getty.