Singer Dionne Farris had become little more than a musical footnote, that talented backup singer on Arrested Development’s alternative hip-hop classic “Tennessee,” who wrested the song from lead vocalist Speech as she wailed, “won’t you help me, won’t you help me, understand your plan.”
Thankfully, she has resurfaced—on the Internet. For Truth If Not Love and Signs of Life, released on her own label, Free & Clear, and on MySpace, mark a new phase in Farris’ career and, with it, a new wave of attention to underplayed soul songstresses.
Farris’ return comes after a nasty parting of ways with her former label, Columbia, which wanted her to produce black-radio-friendly, neo-soul tracks, even though her post-Arrested Development breakout single, “I Know,” was a mainstream video pop hit. At a creative impasse, she requested and gained a release from her contract.
That was more than a decade ago.
Farris’ story is not unlike countless black women in the recording industry. But the marginalization—some of it self-imposed—serves as a necessary function, allowing the tradition of R&B to remain rooted in a politics of remembrance and accountability that simply couldn’t survive in the full bloom of the marketplace.
This is the role being played by a new crop of dynamic women soul singers, including Imani Uzuri, Muhsinah Abdul-Karim and Georgia Anne Muldrow. (Click through for a slideshow of this amazing group of women.)
These R&B songstresses are artistic outliers, committed to a contrarian view of what is musically acceptable. They aren’t afraid to leave the tribe of the music industry or the black community, and nor are they afraid to demand the kind of control over their product and image that is usually reserved for men. As Erykah Badu hints in her brilliant video for “Bag Lady,” black women are often simply expected to sit in the pews and wave their pretty fans as opposed to sharing the knowledge in the “bags” they are forced to carry.
While you’re checking out Farris, sample some of the women singers who are flaunting their bags in ways that should make us all proud.