“Ideally, any effective genre chart—be it R&B, Latin, country, even alt-rock—doesn’t just track a particular strain of music, which can be marked by ever-changing boundaries and ultimately impossible to define. It’s meant to track an audience. This is a subtle but vital difference.”
Chris Molanphy is not the first one to recognise the important distinction between two ways of understanding musical genres: by their stylistic musical features and by ethno-musicological features, i.e., by how they sound and by who listens, plays and composes them.
Arguably, neither is the right way of defining genres, and each one might be more appropriate for different purposes. Furthermore, it is a truism that, given that musical styles are not developed in a cultural vacuum, both ways of defining genres are intimately linked, i.e., similar people tend to like and make similar sounding music. In other words, stylistic differences become genres usually because they are reproduced in specific cultural contexts. Nevertheless, the relation between musical styles and audiences is not one-to-one, but many-to-many: people do not listen (or make) just one kind of music and musical styles tend to be liked, composed and played by more than one kind of audience. Thus, it is almost impossible than a musical style belong to a single audience and vice-versa.
In this context how are we to interpret a claim like Chris Molanphy’s affirmation that Rhythm and Blues is African American Music?
From a political perspective, the affirmation cuts both ways. On the one hand, it serves as a statement of resistance against the threat of cultural appropriation by hegemonic groups (which is a genuine threat. Just consider Turkey’s recent systematic efforts to erase and appropriate Kurdish culture) But on the other, it itself erases the experiences (and contributions) of other minorities, like for example, the experiences and contributions of not-African Americans to Rhythm and Blues as a musical style and tradition.
The problem is not only that such claims are inaccurate – it is impossible for any musical genre in the era of mass media to belong to a single culture or to have its main contributors come from a single ethnic group – but that they are exclusionary. To continue with the example of R’n’B, it has been well documented the fact that Rhythm and Blues was a huge element in the Chicano experience during the 50s and 60s (S J Loza 1993, p.134). So much that many Chicano bands of the 60s and 70s were, in fact, playing their own, innovative variant of Rhythm and Blues (Loza 1993, p. 95) that would later become very influential in the rest of Mexico (Arana 1985). Claiming that Rhythm and Blues is, primarily African American Music that has, nevertheless, “appealed to many listeners throughout America and abroad” (G. P. Ramsey 2003) would be erasing (or, at least, marginalizing) the experiences and contributions of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
Just a few days ago I was having a snack at one of the most “traditional’ Mexican food markets in Mexico City when a street musician stopped to play traditional Mexican love songs. Among them, he played “Tus Ojos” [“Your Eyes”], a Rhythm and Blues ballad from the early sixties by Mexican musician Raafel Acosta (who, by the way, lives not far from the Market itself). The songs is part of the Mexican musical canon, yet it is a songs in the canonical Rhythm and Blues style of the early sixties.
There is no question-begging way to keep the Rhythm and Blues that African Americans play and listen to within the Rhythm and Blues Canon while also excluding both the white-washed version at the top of the Billboard charts and the Mexican version people still listen to and play all over the country.
However, Chris Molanphy has suggested one. The idea is simple: the difference between a song like Justin Bieber’s “Baby” and Ginuwine ’s “Pony”, for example, is that while people who listen to Justin Bieber do not listen to much other Rhythm and Blues, people who listen to “Pony” also listen to other Rhythm and Blues songs, that is, they form what Molanphy calls Rhythm and Blues’ “core audience”. Justin Bieber’s “Baby” sounds like a Rhythm and Blues song but it is what is commonly called a crossover song, i.e., a song consumed by people who usually do not consume that kind of music (i.e., Rhythm and Blues).
Unfortunately, the proposal does not actually solve the problem, for the proposal si clearly circular: we cannot identify Rhythm and Blues’ core audience without identifying core Rhythm and Blues music and vice-versa. The strategy might work for a few radical crossover cases – very few people who used to listen to Baha Men “Who let the dogs out” in 2000 or still dance to Banda Blanca’s “Sopa de Caracol” are regular listeners of Soca music. But it certainly does not work when trying to draw the boundaries of such widespread musical genres as Rhythm and Blues, Jazz, Rock, Hip Hop, House, etc.