By JD Brant // Contributing Writing By Saliek Ruffin
Hip hop has come a long way since the OG days of “Rapper’s Delight.” The track was the first hip hop song to reach Billboard’s Top 40 at a time when music by young black musicians was easily misunderstood. Now, almost 40 years later, hip hop still dominates Billboard charts. Streaming numbers have nudged the genre, yet again, into familiar hybrid pop/rock territory (Does anyone remember Blondie’s “Rapture”? That’s where it all started).
At its core, hip hop is a political movement, and contemporary artists’ attempts to smash the status quo offers glimmers of hope for Gen Zers, millennials, and other lost generations. Here we’ve compiled a list of standout artists who’ve emerged victorious during the COVID-19 pandemic and have taken on social justice causes as influencers in the music industry. We will post one new artist a week throughout the summer.
Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson is her government name. Her stage name, articulated “her,” is an abbreviation for Having Everything Revealed. The Filipino/African-American vocalist and musician rose to prominence at the height of the pandemic, and has been soaring ever since.
After initially releasing music under her government name, Wilson reappeared in 2016 with the H.E.R. persona, delivering her introduction EP H.E.R. Volume 1. She at that point delivered resulting EPs H.E.R. Volume 2 (2017), The B Sides (2017), I Used to Know Her: The Prelude (2018) and I Used to Know Her: Part 2 (2018).
2020 was the year of H.E.R. She was designated for five honors at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year for her album, I Used to Know Her, and Song of the Year for “Hard Place.” In September, she sang Prince’s tune “Nothing Compares 2 U,” for the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards, and during the pre-game celebrations for Super Bowl LV, H.E.R. performed “America the Beautiful” while playing guitar.
What makes H.E.R. a beautiful soul is her passion for activism. Laced throughout her discography are reflections of her beliefs. “I Can’t Breathe” was the singer’s premiere social justice song, an emphatic statement on the current global policing crisis. She also contributed a song to the soundtrack of Judas and the Black Messiah titled, “Fight For You,” last August.
“It is really surprising to see his name in giant letters above an entire list of Black artists. Very strange approach especially during this time when people are being more mindful about their bullshit?” — Facebook commenter and music journalist Tia Brown expresses an attitude many Twitter commenters share about the Roc Nation MADE IN AMERICA tour announcement.
This week Roc Nation announced that a “new generation of musical greats” would headline the 10th annual MADE IN AMERICA tour. The only problem is this: Justin Bieber, one of the headliners, is from Canada. Not only that, but Bieber joins several artists who, over the course of their careers, have taken on aspects of Black identity (i.e., blackcents, physical appearance changes) to sell music. Considering today’s racially divided culture, this marketing move comes across insensitive.
A fellow music journalist from Buffalo, NY commented on Facebook the following:
“It is really surprising to see his name in giant letters above an entire list of Black artists. Very strange approach especially during this time when people are being more mindful about their bullshit?”
Several music fans on Twitter posted their own interpretations of the marketing move. One fan wrote, “Here we go with male artists being the headliners over more talented female artists again.”
Another fan expressed their disappointment in talent scouting, lamenting, “Man some of the line ups been bad but this is prob the weakest I’ve seen. You’d figure artists would line up to play shows now that covid in rear view mirror.”
The tour announcement was a huge disappointment not only because of its horrible timing but because it follows the predictable fool-proof patterns the music industry is so accustomed to abusing: marketing white people as the leaders of historically black-led movements. We know that placing Justin Bieber at the top of the bill makes sense economically. But also, it doesn’t. What really doesn’t make sense is the flagrant disregard for the changing priorities that have shifted the cultural dynamic of America over the pandemic. It’s almost a slap in the face to the people who stream Roc Nation artists, pay for Roc Nation merch, and attend Roc Nation shows.
Bieber is one of several artists who have become the center of cultural debates focused on borrowed Black identities in music, and whether the creative choices artists make are appreciation or cultural appropriation. Ariana Grande is guilty of taking on “blackcent” in her music, Qveen Herby has visibly changed her appearance over the course of her career and has been on the receiving end of mixed commentary for her aesthetic choices in videos such as “Sade in the 90s.” Even Justin Timberlake began his solo career idolizing the trendy and profitable careers of Black R&B singers (and to this day continues to idolize aspects of Black culture).
The problem with heralding singers that straddle the line between “culture vulture” and art appreciator as poster children for large profitable “black-owned” tours is that it negates the work Black artists with fewer Twitter followers and streaming numbers have done to make it to this point. This type of marketing sends a harmful message to young musicians, too. Putting Justin Bieber at the top of this bill tells these younger fans that to make it big, you need to ride the coattails of White America. You need to be a few shades lighter, a little more ambiguous, a little more people-pleasing. In other words, the formula isn’t broken. The formula is normal.
As much as performers must cater to a persona, digitization has forced music streamers to reassess their purchasing behavior, especially during periods of massive economic stress (i.e., during a pandemic). Music tastes have also changed, reflecting a more formidable and optimistically “woke” public interested in promoting authenticity. “Normal” doesn’t work anymore. Music fans want realness, period, especially when they’re choosing to spend their hard-earned dollars in a competitive entertainment market stealing jobs away from Black and Brown performers. Did we forget that, at one point in America, Black musicians couldn’t find work because of white people in authority?
That’s not to say that white people can’t appreciate hip-hop culture or become influential parts of the movement. What fans care about, however, are the success stories of artists choosing ethical dollars over exposure bucks. Fans want to know that the Justin Timberlakes and Justin Biebers of the world aren’t latching onto Black culture to stay relevant, but because they care about advancing the movement forward (i.e., progress). They want to know their hearts are in the right place. Bieber’s survival in hip hop is symptomatic of a larger shift in music trends: You no longer need a “come up” story to be successful. As someone who has openly admitted to benefiting from Black culture, vowing to do the work to fight racial injustice, this is the one tour Bieber could’ve sat out.