Beyoncé broke the internet at the close of 2013 with the stealth drop of her self-titled album; Kanye proclaimed himself Yeezus; Jay-Z sent fansboys into a frenzy over Magna Carta Holy Grail; Drake and Kendrick Lamar were all over mixtapes and headphones (and GQ), but despite the popularity of Black music, not a single Black artist claimed the top spot on Billboard’s famed Hot 100 chart (as the lead act) in 2013.
Billboard began charting the top 100 singles in 1958, and since then, Black artists have never been shut out of the top spot—until 2013.
To give it some context, a decade ago every number 1 single on the Hot 100 chart was performed by an artist of color, but in 2013, 44 of the 52 number one artists on the R&B and Hip-Hop charts were White.
So what gives? Has mainstream music simply chucked the deuces to Black music? Not quite.
Hip-hop and R&B artists both claimed the top spots with Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, Macklemore, and Ryan Lewis (who also charted on the R&B charts) finding success. And while many of these artists are heavily influenced by, and some say appropriate, Black music, they are not Black.
Keli Goff, of the Daily Beast, argued that while Black artists are still popular, record companies prefer to sell “Black music” via White artists if possible because they can often engender a larger fan base and more revenue:
It almost reminds me of the ’50s and ’60s when you had a lot of music that was being made by white artists and being popularized by them but it was coming from black artists. It’s much easier to sell a Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, an Eminem, a Justin Timberlake, to mainstream audiences than it is to sell a Jay Z. It is still a preferred feeling in mainstream pop culture that if we can find an attractive white act to do it, why not?
While Black artists like Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and A$AP Rocky enjoyed number one albums, Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart was a different story. Slate columnist Chris Molanphy explains it like this:
What’s happened is, whether it’s radio, whether it’s iTunes — there’s now a lot of data feeding into the Hot 100…. The charts of ten years ago when Outkast was No. 1 — iTunes was not a factor in the charts yet because it was brand new. There was no YouTube — it literally didn’t exist — and so this great feedback loop we used to have where we had crossover from the R&B charts to the pop charts has kind of gotten swamped.
Some see the success of White artists in “Black Music” as proof that America is moving toward a more inclusive society, but Goff is concerned the shift will have ramifications when it comes to who gets to define our music and what it means for our stories as a whole.
There’s an argument to be made that this debate is not just about color or race specifically, because how long have we been having this debate in hip-hop? About whether or not the guy who’s rapping about slinging rock on the street and actually had a middle-class, two-parent upbringing should really be perpetuating that image. So that’s part of it. But I do think as we increasingly move into this so-called post-racial America, which a lot of us don’t believe there is such a thing, about what happens to our art. Because it’s not going to be just about music. We’re going to see this happening in movies in terms of who gets to tell what stories and who can define an authentic experience.
Are we ready to say that absolutely no White person can touch hip-hop? Well that’s ridiculous. But on the other hand, are we ready to say that White people should define hip-hop in its entirety? Which is a little bit what’s happening with these charts.
Admittedly, I’m uncomfortable when White artists enjoy a majority of the success and accolades in genres created and dominated by African-Americans. While some will say White artists crossing over to Black genres is a symbol of a post-racial, colorblind America, I don’t believe in colorblindness. Like Goff mentions, when people say they are colorblind it tends to render Black folks invisible, even in genres we create.
What do you think?
Is the breakout success of White artists in R&B and Hip-Hop, and the disappearance of Black artists from the Hot 100, simply a trend or is it the new normal? Sound-off!
Listen to the entire Soundcheck episode here: