Kehlani, And R&B’s Women Of Color, Struggle To Be Heard In Pop Market

Kehlani Parrish’s music isn’t meant to be a secret

The singer, who was raised in Oakland and currently lives in Los Angeles, makes a winning sweet-and-sour blend of contemporary R&B. She can strike a confident yet self-aware pose. On her single “CRZY,” she boasts, “If I gotta be a big I’ma be a bad one,” then adds, “I kill ’em, I kill ’em, I kill ’em with compassion.” Her music hearkens to the honeyed melodies typical of ’90s stars like SWV and TLC, homage-paying references to past hits like New Edition’s “If It Isn’t Love” and Akon’s “Don’t Matter,” and the ecstatic flights of melisma that suggest unfettered joy.

Kehlani is a capable and surprisingly strong singer, too, though she often sticks to a strident middle range. When she professes her love, she tends to look for a roundabout way to do it. When she asks, “Do you want to be a distraction, baby?” on “Distraction,” her seduction doesn’t necessarily roll off the tongue. But it’s appealing all the same.

Courtesy of the artist

Yet months after the January release of her retail debut SweetSexySavage, Kehlani has evolved into a critic’s darling who can’t quite breach pop radio. Sean “Puffy” Combs has said that Kehlani “saved R&B.” When Solange accepted the Centric Award at the 2017 BET Music Awards, she shouted out the new wave of women in R&B. “I love Syd, and Kehlani, and SZA, and Kelela and all the new-school girls who are out here,” she said.

However, none of Kehlani’s singles have cracked the Billboard top 40 so far. “Gangsta,” a trap-inflected number where she channels Harley Quinn from last year’s Suicide Squad, came closest, earning a RIAA platinum certification yet paradoxically stalling at No. 41.

The moderate success of SweetSexySavage has reignited conversations about whether the music industry is devaluing R&B artists and, specifically, talented women of color. Kehlani’s not alone: Sevyn Streeter, SZA and Mary J. Blige have also released superior major-label projects this year, only to find a muted reception on the pop charts.

The irony is that, as a genre, R&B has never been healthier

It teems with variety, whether it’s the neon-hazed, synthesized romance of H.E.R., the sun-dappled hip-hop funk of Anderson .Paak, the gauzy teenage fantasies of Khalid, or the airy, baroque star-gazing of Chloe x Halle. No longer limited to the binary debate between “jiggy” urban pop and earthy neo-soul that dominated at the dawn of the millennium, today’s R&B world is as diverse as any other.

However, it seems like it’s the women who are truly expanding the genre’s vocabulary. Many of them have evolved into musical diarists. No longer limiting themselves to the endless tumult of love and sexual relationships, they write about their fears with disarming vulnerability.

You can hear that inner voice take hold on Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage. On “Piece of Mind,” she bravely discusses a highly-publicized suicide attempt, which she has said was triggered by trolling over her complicated love life. “Trying to forget all of the unnecessary thoughts from my head / Man it was pretty scary,” she sings. “At least I learned a thing or two / About me and you / What we went through.”

kehlani

The successful June release of SZA’s Ctrl came after long label delays and her own creative anxiety.

Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for HBO

Sevyn Streeter’s just-released Girl Disrupted opens with “Livin,” where she discusses her issues with depression. In an interview with Billboard, she noted, “All these artists at the top of the pop charts are dressed like R&B artists in their videos.

They’re singing lyrics and melodies from R&B songs of the past. We’re a very influential genre, and I’m not mad at it. I just want people to accept it no matter who it comes from. I can’t say that that’s always the case.”

There are a few men who take a hyper-personal approach to songwriting, namely the incandescent Frank Ocean, who writes in rich, complex metaphors. But it seems like most aspire to the aesthetic masculinity of rappers. They talk-sing boasts in a wavy voice that threads the needle between melodic pop-rap and clubby, hard-edged trap music.

It’s no surprise that listeners occasionally refer to the likes of Chris Brown, Bryson Tiller, and the Weeknd as rap stars — sometimes they dispense with singing altogether and spit actual bars, if only to underline their unbeatable virility.

But generally speaking, men dominate rap music — at least its most visible variant. So R&B women have subtly developed values and thematic ideas that contrast with corporate rap’s muscular displays of material wealth, opiate consumption, casual violence, and the necessary ability to steal your girl for a one-night escapade. It’s a compelling package that has yet to receive the industry support it deserves.

kehlani

Tinashe’s controversial comments on colorism in The Guardian overshadowed her critique of an industry where space for black women’s success feels limited at best.

Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic

Tinashe has also tried to split the difference between artistic and commercial dictates, with uneven success. Her early, electronic-fused mixtapes had a wonderfully hermetic feel, as if she were singing quietly into a microphone on her laptop. On her 2014 major label debut Aquarius, she leavened her dense, whispery meditations, like “Cold Sweat,” with swaggy and accessible confections, like “2 On,” a delirious celebration of over-drinking that climbed the upper reaches of the Billboard top 40.

But despite critical acclaim — Jon Caramanica of the New York Times called Aquarius “one of the most inventive R&B albums of recent years” — she hasn’t been able to score anything on the scale of “2 On.” Meanwhile, her long-delayed follow-up Joyride remains unreleased, leading her fans to protest with the hashtag #FreeTinashe.

One Of Music Row’s Most Influential Leaders, Jo Walker-Meador, Has Died At 93

Jo Walker-Meador

Jo Walker-Meador

Jo Walker-Meador, one of the most important behind-the-scenes advocates of country music

Has died. Walker-Meador, who led the Country Music Association as its executive director from 1962 to 1991, died Tuesday night in Nashville at age 93 after suffering a stroke. Her death was announced by the Country Music Association and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Born February 16, 1924 in Orlinda, Tennesee as Edith Josephine Denning and raised on a farm

Walker-Meador began working in 1958 as the first paid employee of the Country Music Association, which hired her as its office manager.When first hired, Walker-Meador had a very steep learning curve, as she told CountryZone.net in a 2008 interview: “I knew nothing about country music,” she said. “I had never been to the Grand Ole Opry. I’d heard of Minnie Pearl and Roy Accuff, Ernest Tubb and I’d heard of Hank Williams but I didn’t delineate the different types of music… they had a board of directors just been elected several weeks before I was employed. They didn’t want to hire someone who wanted to be a singer or who wanted to be a songwriter, but someone who would be an administrator.”

Jo Walker-Meador

Within four years, she became CMA’s executive director, after the resignation of the organization’s founding director, Harry Stone

It’s hard to overestimate the growth of country music as an industry over the course of her tenure, as the Country Music Hall of Fame pointed out in its remembrance: “One year before she took the helm at the CMA, full-time country radio stations numbered fewer than 100 nationwide. By 1995, there were nearly 2,400 such stations.”

During her time leading the organization, the CMA became a country music industry powerhouse and, for other “niche” music genres, an important model for self-advocacy. Those activities included establishing the Country Music Hall of Fame (which launched in 1961), the annual CMA Awards (begun in 1967 and televised nationally beginning the following year), and the CMA Music Festival (originally known as Fan Fair), which was created in 1972.

Walker-Meador was herself elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995.

Donald Sterling and the problem of pro sports ownership

Donald Sterling

Donald Sterling

Donald Sterling and the problem of pro sports ownership

So Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, stands accused of having made remarks of unbelievable crassness and flavored with a racism that would bring a tear to the eye of Cliven Bundy.

Are you surprised? Me neither. Sterling’s record of difficulty with racial issues is well-documented, including two lawsuits (one from the federal government) alleging racially discriminatory rental practices at his real estate properties. He settled both for millions.

Then there was the lawsuit from long-term Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor accusing Sterling of racial and age discrimination; Baylor lost his case in a 2011 jury trial. Another accusation of racist rhetoric, attributed to veteran college basketball coach Rollie Massimino, dates back to the 1980s. And there’s more.

The fact that Sterling has survived all these prior dustups — and the betting here is that he’ll survive this one, too — says less about Sterling himself than it does about America’s unhealthy relationship with its pro sports tycoons and about the unhealthy structure of pro sports leagues.

Donald Sterling

Donald Sterling and the problem of pro sports ownership

Abandoning a loyal fan base for profit? Bob Irsay of the NFL Baltimore Colts did that, infamously moving the team to Indianapolis in the dead of night. His son Jim is still the owner of the team.

Failing to invest for success on the field? Lots of guilty parties here, including Peter Angelos, whose Baltimore Orioles have made it into the postseason three times in his 21 years of ownership. Sterling is a standout in this category: Since he acquired the Clippers in 1981, it’s had five winning seasons, going 930-1,646 — a winning percentage of .361.

Felonious activity? Eddie DeBartolo Jr., owner of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, pleaded guilty to a federal felony in connection with the solicitation by former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards of a bribe for a casino license. DeBartolo relinquished control of the team, but this year he was a finalist for the NFL Hall of Fame, and he still hankers for a return to NFL ownership — a goal that several owners say they would favor.

Racism? Leaving Sterling aside, Marge Schott, onetime owner of baseball’s Cincinnati Reds, had a long history of racist and anti-Semitic remarks. Baseball finally suspended her as the team’s principal owner, but she retained a financial interest.

Leagues are reluctant to take firm action against owners for several reasons. One is that their authority to do so, absent some truly egregious act, is murky — even overt racism is a judgment call. Figuring out what to do with an orphaned team is a headache. And fellow owners are loath to lower the bar, possibly because not a few of them have unsavory histories of their own to worry about.