Is America's 'Race Music' Past Hurting Janelle Monae?

How a segregated music industry makes it almost impossible for genre-busting musical talent to succeed.

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The ArchAndroid CD cover

Kitschy, socially conscious singer and songwriter Janelle Monae has all the tools for a successful debut music career--interesting and dynamic production, a melodic singing voice, an interesting look, a new dance--and one of hip-hop's heavy hitters (Big Boi, of Outkast fame) as her mentor and co-collaborator. So why hasn't her new single torn up the airwaves? Is it because the world isn't ready for Monae's tuxedoed swagger and retro-meets-R&B supersonic sound? Or is it the music industry's stubborn adherence to narrowly defined genres, coupled with monopolization of the airwaves?

As an independent artist, Janelle Monae's fresh sound may actually be her downfall. Since her music crosses conventions, a logical conclusion would be that the Atlanta-based singer/songwriter has a broad appeal. Unfortunately, thanks to a system where music is market tested and distilled down to appeal to just one demographic, ''innovating'' means ''liability.'' Our current state of musical affairs stems from America's racial past. Before euphemisms like ''urban'' took hold, music was strictly divided among racial lines--black music for black audiences, white music for white audiences. These boundaries began eroding in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as music consumers would twist the radio dials in search of their favorite sound. However, as racial boundaries fell, new barriers sprang into place. The music business began tightening its model for ''success.'' Instead of allowing artists to organically flourish from record to record, the industry started favoring bands that would churn out hits.  And musical artistry has suffered for it.

In The Hip Hop Wars, scholar Tricia Rose discusses the commercialization of music, and the influence that consolidation has had on playlists, noting, ''Commercially established major-label acts, because of their visibility and notoriety, are easily packaged for a national audience and easily transportable across regions. Thus they dominate their genre specific playlists across the country'' (p.19). In conjunction with overall control of media shifting to just a handful of companies, this move effectively discouraged stations from taking risks with their content. While most regions have been able to hold on to a small hour or so in the daily programming to promote local music and local artists, the vast majority of airtime is dedicated to artists who have the backing of major labels, artists who fit a certain type of sound.

Most black artists who fall outside of the accepted bounds of the ''urban'' genre (which is hip-hop, R&B, and the occasional gospel tune) find themselves sidelined, unable to hear their music on the stations they love. Though breakout star Santigold toured with everyone from Jay-Z to Björk and collaborated with GZA and Res, most of her record sales and airplay have come from rock and pop stations. The Los Angeles duo, J*Davey, with their eclectic sound and rocker styling, have made waves in smaller circles but have yet to translate to mainstream play. And musical history is littered with the careers of women like Macy Gray and Kelis, who found more support for their music overseas than they ever found stateside.

Nikki House, program director for Washington, D.C.-based urban station WKYS, sheds some light on why certain artists get more play than others on the mainstream stage. As the person in charge of compiling playlists for 93.9 FM, she says there are ''various things'' that influence a playlist: ''research, requests, social networking, record sales ... pretty much what's hot in the streets.'' She believes this is why Monae isn't getting wider airplay. ''Janelle has her own following ... people are beginning to talk about her. That's an artist stations would watch.''

But watching does not necessarily translate to airtime, until that artist has proven themselves through consistent buzz. House notes: ''People that know [Monae] are music lovers,'' code for typically more discerning listeners who are more likely to seek out the artists they like through alternate channels such as satellite radio, Internet-based stations and live shows. Such listeners aren't likely to call ''urban'' radio stations to request ''Tightrope,'' House says--instead, they would send their e-mails and phone calls to independent stations.

House believes Monae will make it to mainstream success soon, but also points out it depends on how her record company (Diddy's Bad Boy Records) markets her. If Monae's work is only sold to adult contemporary stations, she might not cross over to urban stations, which typically attract a younger audience. Still, there is precedent--Usher's 2008 hit, ''Love in this Club,'' was a song originally marketed to older listeners; it eventually crossed over to all urban markets.

Instead, Fields says, more and more people are looking outside of radio for musical alternatives that are ''spiritually fulfilling.'' As he sees it, Monae's groundswell of support from both hip-hop underground and indie rock circles, heralds the ends of the end of the radio era. ''You know how water bends light? The culture medium bends all kind of things,'' Fields says. ''Janelle can have success outside of black radio. By the time black radio catches up, she'll already be a superstar.''

In short, Monae's strong numbers--from ticket and record sales--will eventually be the only gatepass she needs to break into the mainstream. ''It's about making it matter in the marketplace,'' Fields says. ''Janelle Monae has been able to show that her music matters.''

Indeed, she has. Though Monae has been toiling behind the scenes since her 2003 effort The Audition, she gained major traction after meeting Big Boi and collaborating with him on albums like Idlewild and Got Purp, Vol. 2. In 2007, she released her first EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite through her Web site. The ArchAndroid, which dropped on May 18, debuted on the Billboard Top 200 charts at No. 17, sharing the stage with major forces like Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek, Justin Bieber, Usher, AC/DC and Lady Gaga.

Luckily for Janelle Monae, her unique sound has already started rocking the nation--if media gatekeepers aren't willing to open their ears, they are going to miss the Monae-led musical revolution.

Latoya Peterson is editor of Racialicious.

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