by Martholdy Pierre-Canel ‘21
Music allows artists to express themselves in different ways their listeners can connect to and enjoy. As the music industry expands, many artists find it difficult to label themselves as the music they make cannot fit in one genre. When black artists, especially, are constantly boxed into the genres of R&B and Rap, it is limiting and harmful. Though the R&B and Rap genres are dominated by black artists, these are not the only genres that they may associate with. Many artists, like Frank Ocean, Fka Twigs, and more have experienced this.
Frank Ocean fans agree that when it comes to Ocean’s music, it is something that cannot be categorized into the one genre that people continuously attempt to classify it as: R&B. In 2011, Ocean expressed his frustration with this issue and told The Quietus, “If you’re a singer and you’re black, you’re an R&B artist. Period.” He continues to explain why he only considers himself a singer/songwriter and not a R&B singer saying a singer/songwriter “implies versatility and being able to create more than one medium, and the second one is a box, simple as that.., I like singer/songwriter because it allows me to move a little bit more freely.” He also continues to say that restricting yourself to one genre feels “dated”. When googling “What genre does Frank Ocean sing,” R&B ironically pops up, proving his point.
Another moment of irony concerning this issue was found with The Guardian’s 2014 interview with artist FKA Twigs. She is another victim to this pigeonholing by the media. She recounts, “When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre.’ And then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer.” Despite the entire article concerning her new music and hatred for the set genre she’s been trapped in, this article was placed underneath the R&B section emphasizing that despite artists voicing their concerns, no one seems to listen. This problem is not only seen in journalism but throughout the entire music industry.
Another black musician, Tyler the Creator, also voiced his opinion on these classifications when winning a Grammy for Best Rap Album for his 2019 record “IGOR.” After accepting his award and speaking on how grateful he was, he criticized the Grammys for constantly placing “guys that look like me” in the rap and urban categories. He said that the categorizing of his music as rap is a “backhanded compliment,” and that, “It sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that’s genre-bending or that’s anything they always put it in a rap or urban category. I don’t like that ‘urban’ word — it’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.”
These artists and their fans are aware that to the world, black artists are expected to sound and create a certain way while white artists are able to break genre walls and be credited for it. People must listen with their ears and not their eyes because unfortunately, when people view a black artist, they see black before anything else and make assumptions. Fluidity needs to be allowed and accepted for these artists as it is necessary that they are able to express themselves freely without facing these microaggressions.