In 1988, I published a book called The Death of Rhythm and Blues
about the steady demise of the system of record stores, radio stations, venues, communities, and music that had been the heartbeat of black America from the 1940s to 1980s. The underlying idea was that the health of black popular music reflected the hope and aspirations of my people. Rhythm and blues, particularly soul music, had evolved alongside the civil rights movement. Alongside the things that were gained, there were losses as well, and our musical culture was, to a great degree, one of the losers.
The Death of Rhythm and Blues hit bookshelves in the middle of what many now call "the golden age" of hip hop, when great (mostly New York-based) MCs rocked the mic, bringing politics, religion, philosophy, and introspection to the world via dope beats and swagger. Public Enemy, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and many others led a surge that would eventually push R&B to the side, making hip hop black America's defining musical expression. In fact, the most popular R&B/soul records would, from the late '80s on, be made, and heard, largely through a hip hop prism.
All of which makes it ironic that I spend much of my summer traveling America in search of soul. I conceived and hosted a series called Soul Cities (currently airing on the VH1 Soul channel) in which I looked at the food, landmarks, museums, and, of course, musicians of New Orleans, Memphis, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area. The support system for singers who make old-school-styled black music is fragile. There isn't a coherent national network radio stations or venues that showcase soul (though there are tons of nightly parties.) The community of fans is very fragmented, with some liking '60s soul vets; others fans of younger neo-soul acts.
But there is, if not a movement, then a definite yearning for the inspirational, life-affirming nature of this music. Marvelous vets like Raphael Saddiq from the Bay Area, young underground acts like Aloe Blacc in Los Angeles and Yaw in Chicago, and Kindred and Jazmine Sullivan from Philly, all spoke to me about why this music is relevant in the 21st century. Though differing in attitude and style, all these artists shared the feeling that the combination of political optimism and economic hardship made it a fertile time for music that spoke to human aspirations and frustrations. (It should also be noted that British acts like Amy Winehouse, Seal, and Adele have been making successful soul records that have crossed the pond.)
While I'm not quite ready to write a book called The Return of Rhythm and Blues, I was encouraged by the vitality of the music I heard around America this summer.