By Errol Michael Henry

founder of the i2 Music Group

The debate about the reasons why purveyors of what is broadly (and often lazily) categorised as ‘black music’ have fared less well than creators of less ‘ethnic’ music – has raged long and hard for many a year. Some cite racism, while others claim fiscal imbalances or social divisions as the central cause. The simple truth is less complicated and is perhaps even less attractive. The real problems for black music began when people started calling it that! There are a substantial number of people who swear that Elvis Presley was the king of rock and roll – Chuck Berry might have a very different point of view.

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The Rolling Stones, The Beatles (Little Richard called and wants his ‘oohs’ back) and many other rock legends owe much of their ‘sound’ to what others refer to as black music. The Funk Brothers, Mussel Shoals Band and the Stax Records house band all contained significant numbers of musicians who were not black in terms of race, but does that disqualify their creative contributions to what is widely regarded as some if the finest ‘black music’ ever recorded?

You can probably tell that I view the whole ‘black music’ saga with a measure of weary disdain. “What You Won’t Do For Love” was recorded by both Peabo Bryson (who is essentially considered black) and by Bobby Caldwell who is indisputably ‘white.’ Nobody with a beating heart or a functioning brain could possibly doubt that the version created Bobby Caldwell oozes quality, elegance, sophistication and class. Did it matter a jot that the singer was a white dude? Not to me. I love that record: I always have and I always will.

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Steve Gadd is a white chap but plays drums with as much soul and heart as any black man, so I sincerely believe that any attempt to surmise such a vastly complicated body of work as either ‘black’, ‘white’ or ‘other’ is pointless. Perhaps more to the point: once the decision was made to create a category called ‘black music’ a parallel decisions to market the music differently, spend different amounts of money on promotion was also made – to my mind that’s when the real trouble started.   

It is widely accepted that two industries arose and co existed to the mutual benefit and the mutual detriment of both. Some black artists were given smaller budgets to record their products, less money to promote their music and fewer personnel to market their wares to the wider world. Some of this imbalance can be put down to endemic racism but even more of it due to sheer imbecility. Back in the old days, many record companies, radio stations and sales outlets were run like small kingdoms. Big decisions about the potential saleability of artists creative output, where often taken by small men (in terms of their intellectual capacity): people who were singularly unqualified to make such important decisions.

There is a man (I won’t heap further embarrassment on him by using his name) who declared that the Beatles “would do nothing in the music business”. Was that man a racist (The Beatles don’t deny the extent to which their music was influenced by black artists): believing that four white boys from Liverpool had no business messing with that sort of material? Or was the real reason that he so spectacularly misread the likely public demand for the Beatles ‘sound’ because in truth, nobody knows why that particular group were so successful during their heyday? Who really knows?

Would Michael McDonald be considered an even better vocalist if his skin was darker? Would Otis Redding have been less able to stir the human heart with his voice if he was born with lighter skin? Honestly: ‘black music’ is impossibly difficult to define, so we shouldn’t bother trying and instead, just listen to a body of work – then simply decide whether we like it or not.

It could be argued that most of the music I’ve made would be described as ‘urban’ or ‘black’ music. When I produced Bobby Womack (who without a shadow of a doubt possessed one of the finest voices the world is ever likely to hear) he marvelled at the fluidity, creativity and soul delivered effortlessly by the fellow playing the Rhodes piano on the track. Bobby didn’t bat an eyelid when I told him that the musician in question was a tall, gangly genius named Graham Harvey: who just happens to be white.

Bobby Womack was performing a duet with Lulu – a Scottish born bundle of energy: who not only has a long-standing love of ‘black music’ – she’s damned good at making it too. When I choose musicians to work on a record, my only consideration is their talent – not their race because listeners ultimately don’t care. ‘Good enough’ or ‘not good enough’ are the two essential measures that matter to me.

The wider opportunities afforded to us these days through technology enable us to present what we believe to a vast global audience who are well qualified to make up their own minds, but I doubt that ‘black’ or ‘white’ are the two most pressing criteria.

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