Guitar soul divas
IT was the kind of image that flicks across the television late at night, when the music channels loosen up their playlists and offer glimpses of the future. The video showed a young woman in a comfy living room, meditatively playing an acoustic guitar. No gyrating midriffs; no flashy bling. Just quiet scenes of someone looking inward, wrapping her voice around a love song and strumming some simple chords.
What startled about Corinne Bailey Rae’s performance of “Like a Star,” from her recently released self-titled debut on Capitol Records, was the singer’s coffee-colored skin and brown-sugar voice.
Women of color aren’t usually seen playing guitar on screen, or at the top of the charts. A few have gained fame -- Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, Lauryn Hill -- and artists like funky bassist Me’Shell Ndegeocello, mystical chanteuse Erykah Badu and poetess Jill Scott qualify as close relations. But mostly, “brown girls” don’t take on the guitar-strumming, introspective pose that since the 1960s has been associated with rock genius. When they do, they throw a wrench in the thinking that, despite many examples to the contrary, divides “rockist” values from pop ones, mostly along racial and gender lines.
Since the days of Lennon and Dylan, at least, rock authenticity has been linked to the image of the white male genius stating his truths with rawness and depth, while pop authenticity (yes, there is such a concept) has stressed supposedly feminine ideals like beauty, adaptability to current fashions and a talent for working well with others. Racial differences create related divides: Soul authenticity, and now hip-hop “realness,” stress rock-style heavy emotion, but collaboration matters here as much or more than individuality. Musicians from Elvis Presley to Prince to Kelly Clarkson have long defied these categories, and yet they still dominate the way music is marketed, judged and discussed, even as one form of realness -- say, hip-hop’s mix of sonic innovation and from-the-streets testifying -- triumphs over another, like rock’s tradition-minded soul-searching.
As any diva will tell you, though, “realness” is a slippery concept. Even as Nelly Furtado’s commercially triumphant transformation from folk-pop hippie to beats-hungry vixen seemed to drive the final nail in the coffin of guitar-based balladry, soulful women of color with guitars have emerged to claim rock-ish authenticity for themselves. India.Arie, the heir apparent to that lonely seat most recently occupied by Hill, earned her first-ever Billboard No. 1 with her third release, “Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship,” becoming the first female Motown Records artist to gain that spot since Diana Ross in 1973. And she’s not alone. For perhaps the first time, a woman of color strumming a guitar is not an anomaly but a genuine pop trend.
It’s part of an influx of independent-minded women somewhat obscured by the proliferation of alpha divas strutting summer singles down the runway like new frocks. Jessica, Paris and Christina define the status quo with their future-sounding pop explosions. Something more quietly affecting is coming from rising talents such as keyboard-based songwriters Regina Spektor and Vienna Teng, guitarists Kaki King and Gabriela Quintero, and electronic experimenters Leslie Feist and Juana Molina. Guitar soul divas hold a special place within this promising group: They’re challenging the cliches about folk-rock authority by making music that no one expects them to make.
The 27-year-old Rae, a platinum artist in her native England, released her debut album in March; it’s made Billboard’s Top 20 and is receiving major airplay on adult-contemporary and smooth-jazz stations nationwide. The video for her second single, the buoyant “Put Your Records On,” is in heavy rotation at VH1, and the former indie rocker who cites Courtney Love as a major influence is now leading a large, horn-kissed band in her first American headlining tour, stopping at the House of Blues in Hollywood on Monday. Often compared to Norah Jones (and, to her own chagrin, the unmatchable Billie Holiday), Rae blends reggae, indie-pop and down-tempo electronica -- she recalls Bjork as often as she does Lady Day -- within ballads and groovers grounded in the sophisticated feel of 1970s soul. When she played the Troubadour this summer, Prince himself showed up to cheer her on.
If Corinne Bailey Rae is the next India.Arie, then San Francisco-based Nya Jade could be the next Corinne Bailey Rae. The Ghana-born, peripatetically raised daughter of a U.N. physician, who has a pre-med degree from Stanford, is equally influenced by coffeehouse folk and vocal jazz. Her cool singing voice recalls Sade and Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries. “One Pill,” her beguiling critique of psychopharmacology from the independently released debut “My Denial,” is getting Jade attention on BET, VH1, AOL Music and MP3.com, putting her in the running as the latest voice of multicultural bohemian self-empowerment.
Skye Edwards, the misty-voiced singer formerly of pop electronica pioneers Morcheeba, enters similar territory from a different corner on her solo debut, “Mind How You Go.” The album, now available online and set for an Aug. 22 CD release, retains the thick-pile atmospherics of Morcheeba’s memorable work. But Edwards’ lyrics -- the first she’s written -- and sometimes surprisingly itchy vocal delivery make this album a more personal affair. Already gaining major media attention in Europe, “Mind How You Go” could break Edwards to a new audience in the States, one as interested in the private story of this former foster child and mother of two as in her status as one of electronica’s top ghost-divas. And the album’s songs, it turns out, were mostly written by the singer and her collaborators on acoustic guitar.
A class apart
FROM Grammy darling India.Arie on down, these queens of guitar soul find commercial strength through different channels than those of alpha divas like Christina Aguilera and Beyonce (and, now, Furtado). Their success tends to be grass-roots, based on the rock-style idea of the holistic album instead of market-saturating hits. Touring too is important: It creates word-of-mouth interest for newcomers like Rae and cements audience loyalty for midcareer stars like India.Arie. They don’t fit very well within the music industry’s perception of bankability -- as scholars such as Mark Anthony Neal and Tricia Rose have noted, black women making music that’s not about “booty” are viewed within the industry as having an unprofitably small audience -- and so their music often slips through the marketing cracks.
Though industry awards often come their way, these artists are resolutely unhip; they’re usually shunned or ignored by critics who find their earnest lyrics and “conventional” music a bit dull, even as listeners embrace their honesty and earthiness. Realness -- there’s that word again. These artists shift the debate that sets folk/rock authenticity against pop innovation, by opening up new avenues of expression within the most conventional of musical forms. Guitar soul divas are outsiders within the scene they’ve chosen to inhabit, with identities that elude easy labels. Their music, while traditional on the surface, tends toward a subtle stylistic diversity that refreshes the supposedly irredeemably boring folk-rock style they appropriate.
The biographies of these women speak of ethnic and class outsiderness. Rae is biracial; Edwards, Jamaican by heritage, was raised by white parents. India.Arie’s father, Ralph Simpson, played pro basketball when she was a child, making her a daughter of that complicated class, the black bourgeoisie; Jade’s family moved from Africa to Canada to the Caribbean following her doctor dad. As with Chapman, who left working-class Cleveland via the minority education program A Better Chance, or Hill, whose childhood in South Orange, N.J., was transformed by a teenage acting career -- or Alicia Keys, a piano-playing soul diva who is also biracial and was educated at an elite high school, New York’s Professional Performing Arts School -- social mobility made these women who they are. Their experiences don’t fit within hip-hop’s streetwise vision of authenticity, nor within rock’s traditionally white perspective.
A hybrid evolution
WITH a fluid identity a given, the guitar soul diva creates musical hybrids without showiness. Her relationship to pop’s past is wistful, but it’s the nostalgia of the postmodernist: the world she seeks to re-create would have probably shunned her, so she makes it more sonically complicated, more quirky, less of a blueprint and more of a dream. No one has yet done this better than Hill did on her 1998 solo debut, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” That album’s crystalline arrangements and super-natural integration of hip-hop with reggae and vintage soul suggested a bright future for the former Fugees singer. But Hill, who is reportedly recording a new album and recently played some badly reviewed Bay Area shows, vanished into her own experiments. Her inheritors take fewer risks, though more than they’re given credit for.
A Caribbean lilt infuses Rae’s “Put Your Records On,” hinted at by the song’s first line, which references the “three little birds” of one of Bob Marley’s sweetest songs. Her slower ballads meet the standard set by Sade and Anita Baker back in the 1980s, when “retro nuevo” soul was a new term coined by critic Nelson George, but Rae’s as likely to access her mellow mood through Scandinavian neo-lounge stylings (Nordic singer-songwriter Teitur Lassen co-wrote her “Choux Pastry Heart”) or a dropped trip-hop beat. Rae has received some criticism for beefing up her songs with the help of “professional songwriters” -- those menaces to authenticity -- but it’s interesting to note that one of her hired guns is Rod Bowkett, former keyboardist for the wildly eclectic progressive rock band Stackridge. This may be the most roundabout path to neo-soul a brown-eyed girl has ever taken.
Rae’s eclecticism communicates subtly; India.Arie wears hers on a gauzy, ruffled sleeve. On “Testimony,” she goes beyond her 2001 duet with John Mellencamp to collaborate with both hip-hop crooner Akon and country stars Rascal Flatts and Victor Wooten. More audaciously, she turns “The Heart of the Matter,” a syrupy ballad by that whitest of white rockers, Don Henley, into synth-inflected gospel -- and finds its tenderness.
Her own compositions favor the lilting rhythms she’s learned from listening to Babyface and Sting, patriarchs of Banana Republic-style yuppie eclecticism, but she also gleefully raids black pop’s closet, calling on the spirit of the Jackson 5 in the “Sesame Street"-style “Better People” and donning En Vogue’s moxie for her ode to masturbation, “Private Party.” And on the fantastic “I Am Not My Hair,” she lets Akon lead her into a fluid mix of rhyming and crooning that’s as close to a fine summer bounce as she’ll probably ever get.
“I Am Not My Hair” showcases India.Arie’s greatest asset -- her conversational gift for expressing the same inner debates that preoccupy the hearts and minds of her fans. The song takes on the issue of black women’s beauty in a white-dominated world, long a theme for writers like Audre Lorde and artists such as Lorna Simpson. Recounting her own hair history, she weaves it in with some provocative common assumptions (“Bad hair makes you look like a slave”) and concludes with her usual positive message: Your hair is not you, even though it often feels like it.
Such deliberately constructive explorations of tender topics inevitably cause critics to compare India.Arie to Oprah Winfrey, usually as a put-down. But that’s her appeal: Like America’s most successful woman, the 29-year-old Atlanta-based singer transcends the boundaries of her own individuality by assuming her personal is everyone’s universal. Connecting to the strong self-help strain within black middle-class culture that’s helped make the careers of gurus such as Iyanla Vanzant, India.Arie asserts her authority by opening her arms -- her inviting, un-slick music and forthright lyrics combining to comfort and uplift.
A parting of the ways
THIS sense of entitlement to express universals goes against the radical individualism that powers most mainstream pop. Contrast it with Furtado’s “Promiscuous,” an equally great song, but with a completely different agenda. With her current album, “Loose,” Furtado (whose background is not black but Portuguese) has rejected the naturalistic persona that made her India.Arie’s peer, successfully transforming into a cutthroat alpha diva who views love as a game of seduction and locates her own power in being “loose” and “hot.”
That’s a resonant view of reality for young women (and men), and Furtado and her producer/sparring partner Timbaland state it with wit, candor, and breakbeat-happy catchiness. In a way, though, “Promiscuous” is a lot safer than India.Arie’s calls for mutual understanding, because its playful cynicism counters any serious issues the lyrics might imply and allows Furtado to avoid the tar of pretentiousness.
Try to resist cynicism and you may come off as smug; just ask John Kerry. India.Arie sometimes falls into that trap. When she reasons that if Nelson Mandela can pardon his oppressors she can forgive her ex-boyfriend, and credits an impoverished blind Brazilian street musician with reminding her to enjoy her American affluence, she does seem awfully self-aggrandizing. Expressing the classic liberal desire to make connections and downplay difference, she connects herself further with that rock-based sense of authenticity, which is connected to an earnestness that its critics find naive.
Yet India.Arie’s listeners hear something else when she dares to be deep: empathy. “Thank you for expressing the feelings of the ‘average’ woman ... although you are so beautiful,” writes a fan on a Web page devoted to “testimonies” inspired by “I Am Not My Hair.” The possibility of being average and beautiful is, in fact, the old-fashioned rock and soul dream: what Sly Stone, that original soul guitar man, meant when he called us all “everyday people.” In the hands of a new generation, this dream is being preserved. It isn’t very cool, but its warmth sinks in.
Ann Powers is The Times’ pop music critic. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.