What Happened to the Love in R&B?

by Asma A. Neblett

Do you remember the time when R&B saturated urban, and pop radio stations with mostly woman positive songs?

Albeit there were some racy exceptions within the genre, R&B was the sound that all sexes could enjoy based off of it’s content alone. It discussed topics many people could empathize with, such as love, pain, sensuality and relationships.

Notably, it consciously and subconsciously excluded misogynistic language and implications, due its historical roots and the predominantly female consumer base. To some extent, artists wrote and sung about what they thought women wanted to hear, although it as still favored the male point of view, and we readily subscribed to it.

As a child of the 90s, I vividly remember the male and boy-band presence of R&B during this era. Generally speaking, you had male groups and singers such as 112, Boyz ll Men, Jagged Edge, Kenny Lattimore, Ginuine, Usher and others alike who specialized in singing about love, women, and relationships in an honest and mostly positive manner.

At the time, I was too young to understand some of the content about love and relationships, but I remember being able to sing along to most of these tunes, and listen to the lyrics knowing it wasn’t something negative. It was simply “grown” as some folks would put it.

Culturally speaking, R&B was the relative of Rap in black culture that we could invite home. But as the era of mainstream ‘pop’ music garnered more capital from the record industry, voices of R&B, and other soulful subgenres became less visible and heard on radio. As the decline occurred, the sort of music that specifically catered to women did as well.

However as of late, the sound of R&B is reemerging back to mainstream with the originals and newcomers, except there’s something about this second time around that sounds little off. As of recent, I find myself being just as selective with listening to certain songs of R&B, as I do with Rap, which is a task in itself as a lover of music, and womanist/feminist.

The image and sound of R&B has dwindled from what it was, to which from a creative point of view is fine. Everything is subject to change. However, when such change signifies misogynistic language that attack women, i.e. ‘these h*es ain’t loyal’—which is both hypocritical and denigrating—or ‘U.O.E.N.O’ that promotes sexual violence to the beat of R&B, the sound of the genre loses it’s distinct element that made it what it was, and turns it into something else.

From what I can see, it’s as though the production and sound of R&B has remained, but the voice and message of it is being polluted by what can be found in most, but not limited to, rap anthems with similar messages.

Now let’s be clear, my address of rap and the parallels I’m finding in contemporary R&B is coming from a sole place of facts and experience. As aforementioned, I’m a (selective) subscriber of Rap.

You can turn on many mainstream or underground rap songs and hear the misogyny embedded, and the problem is not wholly the misogyny itself or the influence of patriarchy. It’s also the lack of conversation and education on gender, and the acute stances on womanhood, manhood and sexuality within our communities and in others, where it matters most.

The fixed position of men and women and the linear images of them, and their ‘roles’ are so sociologically and psychologically pervasive that it effects, and influences our most genuine actions and commodities.

The common result is that the value of men over women remains fixed, and that filters distinctly into our products, with one of the biggest being music and art. This is chiefly why we must be careful as to what we propagate, as the detriments go beyond sound.

You have women and girls being addressed as ‘THOTs’, (an acronym for ‘that h*e over there’), and ‘side chicks’ (the other woman in an affair) that hypersexualizes, and cheapens the importance of person based on their gender.

But it is not only the significance behind these words that is problematic. This language will be used notably toward women of color due to where these words originate from, of which uniquely attacks us from a gendered and racial point of view. It is frankly unjust, embarrassing and exhausting to especially defend in all settings where it is susceptible to appear (i.e. schools/universities, workplaces, social affairs and globally).

These particular songs with misogynistic messages (sexual abuse/violence, objectivity & etc.) have become the anthems that promote a certain image of manhood and the homosocial culture surrounding it that negatively effects women, and threatens their quality of life. Although the male homosocial culture has always been prominent in many musical genres, R&B had a unique way of framing it that didn’t devalue women.

The alarm and concern most people, scholars, feminists and music-lovers from our communities have with Rap, and likely now with the new trends of R&B are not baseless. It is imperative that musicians (and all of society) takes responsibility for their actions, both past and present, and commit to reforming their harmful messages that devalue, and encourage violence toward women.

Female positivity is one element of R&B that shouldn’t disappear.

Photo Credit: Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com

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