Yet when I listen to R&B today, I ask myself the same question Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway posed in their classic 1972 duet: “Where is the Love?”
Listening to black music today is depressing. Songs on today’s urban radio playlists are drained of romance, tenderness and seduction. And it’s not just about the rise of hardcore hip-hop or rappers who denigrate women.
Black people gave the world Motown, Barry White and “Let’s Get It On.” But we don’t make love songs anymore.
I asked some of the stars who created the popular R&B classics of the late 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s. Their answer: The music changed because blacks lost something essential–something that all Americans, regardless of race, should regret.
Earth Wind & Fire keyboardist and founding member Larry Dunn says a new generation of black R&B artists is more cynical because more come from broken homes and broken communities.
“How are you going to write about love when you don’t know what it is?” asks Dunn, whose new album “N2 The Journey” contains a remake of one of Earth Wind & Fire’s most famous ballads, “Reasons.”
Love songs flowered during that era also because black people were more optimistic, music critic Rashod Ollison wrote in an essay on Barry White, the rotund singer with what Ollison described as the “low-as-the-ocean-floor bass voice” who gave us love songs such as “Never Gonna’ Give You Up.”
White was caught up in the same social pathologies that trap some black youth today. He was a teenage father and gang member who spent time in jail, but “music saved him,” Ollison wrote.
“Black pop was ripe with music that echoed the aspirations of a people realizing some of the dreams of the civil rights movement,” Ollison wrote. “Ghettos had become burnt-out shells after MLK was gunned down. Those who had the means to leave were now tucked in the ‘burbs,’ working in offices their mamas used to clean.”
It was a time when, as a friend of mine said, “Being black was the bidness!” We celebrated our kinky hair and dark skin and greeted each other as “brother” and “sister” without any sense of irony. Everybody seemed to have a copy of Jet or Ebony magazine on their coffee tables; a man would have been slapped if he called a black woman a bitch.
Then it all seemed to evaporate. Crack cocaine decimated black communities in the 1980s. The blue-collar jobs that gave many black families a foothold in the middle class began to disappear. Desegregation split the black community. Those with money and education moved to the suburbs. The ones left behind became more isolated.
Today, we have a black first family, but our own families are collapsing. A 2009 study from the Institute for American Values and the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting at Hampton University in Virginia highlights the erosion.
The study found that while 70.3% of all black adults were married in 1970, that rate dropped to 39.6% by 2008. The study also showed that while 37.6% of black births were to unmarried parents in 1970, that figure soared to 71.6% by 2008.
Our music became as grim as those statistics. Singing about love now seems outdated.
Something else also happened: Black people became more narcissistic, and so did our love songs.
This self-absorption has seeped into contemporary black love songs.
One of R&B’s most popular current hits is “Quickie” by Miguel, who declares, “I don’t wanna be loved. I want a quickie.”
Consider a recent Valentine’s Day song by popular R&B artist Chris Brown called “No Bull S**t,” in which he sings about inviting a woman over to his place at 3 in the morning because “you know I’m horny.”
Then he sings to her to take off her clothes because “you already know what time it is” and orders her to “reach up in that dresser where them condoms is.”
“It was more about romance and seduction,” Hines says of classic R&B love songs. “It was more of, ‘Let me work my way into something with you,’ instead of ‘Let’s do it.’ Teddy [Pendergrass] had to convince a woman to ‘Come on over to my place.'”
A recent study of Billboard hits confirms the notion that wooing a woman is disappearing from modern R&B.
Psychology professor Gordon Gallup Jr. and student Dawn Hobbs studied the subject matter of the 174 songs that made the Billboard Top 10 in 2009. They analyzed three musical genres among the top-selling songs: R&B, country and pop.
The researchers at the University at Albany in New York found that R&B contained the most references to sex per song (an average of 16 sex-related phrases per song). The top three sexual themes in R&B songs were the singer’s sex appeal, the singer’s wealth as it relates to finding a partner, and descriptions of sex acts. A total of 19 song themes were examined.
The least-popular theme in R&B music was “courtship,” while country music offered more songs about courtship than any other genre, the study said.