by Candice Nembhard

Whether it’s Janet Jackson in a purple latex suit, TLC in a spaceship or Aaliyah in the headlights of a motorbike, it is no secret that visual and artistic concepts among RnB artists were undoubtedly ahead of their time. The late nineties/early noughties saw many artists make use of developments in CGI/Camera Technology, fashion, specially-designed sets, and shooting locations. Directors such as Hype Williams and Dave Meyers, noted for their work with Missy Elliot, have gone onto make iconic if not classic visuals young music lovers still reference to this day.

As the MTV generation boomed, RnB remained one of few popular genres that consistently gave room for artists to reinvent their image and sound without the critique of ‘selling out’. Now that YouTube and online video sharing has become a stronger influence than mainstream television and radio, the possibilities of the genre no longer lie with studio heads alone. With a wide range of artists globally contributing much to the style, it has since been characterised as ‘Afro-futurism’ or ‘futuristic RnB’.

the possibilities of the genre no longer lie with studio heads alone.

Although these terms are often rejected by singers working within the industry, it is to some extent understandable as to why streaming services and label heads are trying to keep up with the ever expansive classification. Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Stevie Wonder are key examples of RnB artists making commercially popular records teemed with political and social discourses; in particular, Wonder’s dedication to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr ‘Happy Birthday’, and Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. Even today, these songs sound just as good as when they were recorded. For many men working within the crossovers of motown, soul and RnB, a balance between personal integrity and a successful career was possible.

Whereas their contributions are greatly appreciated, often male success stories within the genre overshadowed celebrations of black women’s contributions, both musically and stylistically. As a whole, women make up much of the musical subject matter and core demographic, but aren’t given as much credit for their roles in production, songwriting, musicality and entrepreneurship. Although the genre should be non-binary in nature, contemporary RnB charts are littered with musical offerings from the likes of Chris Brown, The Weeknd, Travis Scott and Drake and very rarely sees change.

women make up much of the musical subject matter and core demographic, but aren’t given as much credit for their roles in production, songwriting, musicality and entrepreneurship

Despite their popularity, many of these artists regularly obtaining billboard positions find themselves stuck within a small niche. Repetitive and cyclical ideas surrounding women as sexual conquests, nightlife and egoism make for great chart toppers but contribute little to the expansion of creative, even innovative concepts. That’s not to downplay the success or talent of these artists, but is to suggest that many black women working closely in RnB, pop and neo-soul are foregoing the trope of lost love and are instead openly discussing sex/sexuality, race, religion and experiences of mental and social health.

Artists are not only thinking about their physical material, but are spearheading curatorial decisions, taking charge of their image is presented. PR in itself is nothing new, but in the age of Instagram, a unique and distinctive look can put you ahead of the rest, if not support an underrepresented minority group. The push for a more rounded female RnB artist has given both the artists and record labels newfound access into art galleries and biennales, award ceremony judging panels, journalism and activism; thus expanding core demographics and expectations of the genre’s influence.

Solange’s 2016 Grammy award winning album, ‘A Seat at the Table’ garnered much positive attention in lieu of the record’s involvement in music, film, fashion and performance art. Under her Saint Records label, Solange has not only managed to authorise her own brand, but is watching it grow beyond the recording studio. Since the album’s release, Knowles has gone onto to curate dynamic performances at the Guggenheim and continue her work in directing, producing and creative direction. Most endearing about Solange’s rise to well-deserved fame is her insistence on transparency within her music. Grounded in this album are discussions of depression, cultural appropriation, motherhood and anger. For those who have followed the singer’s career, there is a definite leap away from her ‘I decided’ and ‘T.O.N.Y’ days to a more introspective view that could only ever stem from lived experiences.

I would argue that it is within the expression of these lived experiences that the genre becomes an active tool for black women to educate and uplift themselves. Beyonce’s self titled album prompted intense discussions regarding feminism upon its release after her song ‘***Flawlesss’ sampled a TEDx talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie . Shortly thereafter, the Swedish Women’s Lobby decided to distribute free copies of Adichie’s text ‘We Should all be Feminists’ to sixteen year olds. In the age of digital, the search for validity is at an all time high. As we continue to view the world around us through filtered screens, young folks of colour are looking towards role models that are perfectly in tune with the anxieties of social of media, and face those anxieties head on in creative and constructive criticisms.

I would argue that it is within the expression of these lived experiences that the genre becomes an active tool for black women to educate and uplift themselves.

I would also argue, that this search for validity, or more broadly speaking, a search for a acceptance opens the discussion spaces black women are able to have with themselves and each other. Whether we believe it or not, black women are caught in a catch 22 when it comes to displaying emotion, silenced when you do and judged when you don’t. SZA’s newly released debut album ‘CTRL’ tackles this conundrum incredibly well. The album, which debuted at number 2, discusses the artist’s’ experiences with love, lust, adolescence and the internet, in a way that tackles the over-romanticism of relationships and self-esteem. In an interview with Billboard, SZA notes that ‘Ctrl’ is about ‘fantasy’ and in a way speaks more closely to the loss of control, moreover, the inability to control one’s thoughts, feelings and image.

Both SZA and Solange’s experimentations with ideas and sound tap into a dark underworld in which contradictions over the black woman’s body and mind are rife. Although distinctly different, at the core of their work is a stand alone concept of autonomy and authorship which is not only politically inspiring, it makes for a great, stylistic records too.

In light of these two albums and music by Kelela, Tink, Doja Cat and Jhené Aiko, RnB is the magnifying glass of the internal, which as we know is subject to change. Perhaps RnB is viewed as futuristic because it facilitates the ability to progress amidst contradiction and confusion. It feeds off the uncharted and unfounded, yet remains critical and subjective. RnB in itself is an enigma:- undefinable yet overwhelmingly preset, something black women know all too well.

Featured image credit: Dani Miller


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