Grace Vild dissects the history of R&B, looking at the women who started it and the women who are changing it today.
Arguably since the Victorian era, music and lyrics have been getting more and more ‘out there’ as my grandmother would say. It has always been younger generations at the forefront of pushing music forward as an act of rebellion against the status quo. In the 20s and 30s it was Jazz, (hi, Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man”!) and in the 50s and 60s, it was Rock ‘n’ Roll. One can almost imagine a 15th-century Lord refusing to let his daughter go to see a minstrel performance because the madrigals were too scandalous. The point I’m trying to make is that music will always be pushing the limits of what’s acceptable. Even today, you probably won't catch me playing Lizzo with my nan in the car.
Genres are never static; they are always changing and evolving
The evolution of genres is an important aspect to mention. Genres are never static; they are always changing and evolving, like the incorporation of Hip-Hop beats into R&B. Genres themselves are almost a problematic subject as it’s nigh impossible to have each and every song fit neatly into a box for categorisation. But, I digress. The evolution of the lyrics written by female R&B (Rhythm and Blues - yes I had to Google it) artists have evolved, just like the genre. And sorry Aaliyah stans, though considered to be the “Princess of R&B”, she did not write any of her songs.
R&B first emerged as a genre in the late 1940s, first being used as an umbrella term by the white male-dominated music industry as any music written and performed by African-Americans. By the 60s, it had evolved beyond this boundary and into a genre of its own. It includes elements of blues, jazz, gospel music and a whole array of music popular among the African-American community. The Smithsonian described the origins of R&B as: “A distinctly African American music drawing from the deep tributaries of African American expressive culture, it is an amalgam of jump blues, big band swing, gospel, boogie, and blues that was initially developed during a thirty-year period that bridges the era of legally sanctioned racial segregation, international conflicts, and the struggle for civil rights”.
It was music born of struggle and oppression, much like rap was. Of course, like with all things it was first dominated by men, but women still had their voices in there. One of the most popular earlier R&B artists was Aretha Franklin. While she did not write some of her most famous hits like “Respect” and “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” she did write songs such as “Rock Steady” and “Spirit in the Dark”, both of which made it onto the Billboard Hot 100. Both of which are incredibly hard to not dance around to. “Rock Steady” has a funk vibe to it as she calls her partner to dance with her and move their hips.
“Let's call this song exactly what it is / (What it is -what it is - what it is) / It's a funky and low down feeling'/ (What it is) / In my hips from left to right / (What it is) / What it is is I might be doing / (What it is) / This funky dance all night / Oh! / (Wave your hands up in the air) / Oh! / (Got the feeling and ain't got a care) / Oh! / (What fun to take this ride / Rock steady will only slide)”.
While not overtly explicit in any way, it certainly does have sexual undertones, as sensual dancing usually leads to...well, another form of dancing. The moving of the hips while dancing would have scandalised the older generations, who were used to big band and swing dancing. This gyrating was something new. This music is about letting loose and having a good time. Let go of your cares and just jive and dance. Most importantly it’s about sexual freedom. While it doesn’t say this in so many words, the message is clearly there when you listen closely and interpret the lyrics. This message of letting-loose was key.
Towards the end of the century, R&B had started to see influences of another popular genre created by Black Americans - Hip-Hop, along with mainstream pop. R&B became entwined with Hip-Hop and Rap, forming into the genre we hear today. New names rose in the R&B charts like Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey. It also saw the emergence of girl groups in the genre. Perhaps one of the most popular girl groups of the time was Destiny’s Child, made up of Beyoncé Knowles, Michelle Williams, Kelly Rowland (predominantly). One of their best and most well-known songs, “Say My Name” is possibly one of the best-known R&B songs, winning 2 Grammys and is certified 3x platinum. Lyrically, the song is about a woman calling her lover, who she suspects is cheating, and asks him to ‘say her name’. When he hesitates she believes it’s because he doesn’t want his side chick to know who she is.
“Say my name, say my name / If no one is around you / Say baby I love you / If you ain't runnin' game / Say my name, say my name / You actin' kinda shady / Ain't callin' me baby / Why the sudden change / Say my name, say my name / If no one is around you / Say baby I love you / If you ain't runnin' game / Say my name, say my name / You actin' kinda shady / Ain't callin' me baby / Better say my name”
While also not overtly explicit, the song does relate to explicit content. The repetition of the title phrase ‘Say my name’ carries its own connotations. While a bit more conservative in the sense that there’s no grinding or gyrating going on (thanks conservative revolution. Ronald Regan and Tipper Gore, thanks a lot) it does still deal with sex and cheating lovers - something older generations would not be used to hearing on the radio by girl groups.
We have entered into the era of R&B songs that talk about women themselves, not about wanting to dance with your man or worrying about if your man is cheating on you.
This brings us to today. The power divas of early R&B have paved the way for this new generation of female R&B artists. While some of the names have stayed in the game, ala Beyoncé, newer, younger artists have emerged, artists like Jhené Aiko and of course, the iconic Lizzo. In the era of #MeToo, female artists are taking ownership of their bodies and souls. Take Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” for example. In one line she says: “I put the sing in single, ain’t worried about a ring on my finger.” We have entered into the era of R&B songs that talk about women themselves, not about wanting to dance with your man or worrying about if your man is cheating on you. I have found that in older R&B songs sung by female artists, there is a lot of lovey-dovey-ness or raging against a man who has wronged them - all to do with men. I feel like there should be a Bechdel test for music; if it’s just a song about a woman moaning over a man it fails.
This generation of female artists is throwing off the shackles that have defined women by their relations to men and have started to portray themselves in a new light.
As Lizzo so wonderfully puts it “Why men great ‘til they gotta be great?” This generation of female artists is throwing off the shackles that have defined women by their relations to men and have started to portray themselves in a new light. With songs like “WAP” by Cardi B and “Body” by Megan Thee Stallion, music is being made by two powerful black women embracing their bodies and sexualities in a way that has not been done before. Music, and art in general, has always been about pushing the boundaries and even finding new boundaries and pushing them. At the vanguard, increasingly so, are women. Tired of being stepped on and being defined by their relationship to men, women are breaking their constraints and the glass ceilings above them, both boundaries that have long needed to be broken.