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.
There’s nothing muted about Imani Uzuri’s vocal instrument. The sheer force and range of Uzuri’s voice recalls Tina Turner in her prime or the audaciousness of Grace Jones—a voice that is insurgent and demanding, regardless of the genre or the theme.
Born in North Carolina, Uzuri’s credits include work with Talib Kweli (“Four Women” from Train of Thought), Herbie Hancock (“Be Still” from Future2Future) and a 2003 live performance with a then-unknown John Legend at New York’s Knitting Factory. As the profiles of her past collaborators suggest, Uzuri’s debut recording Her Holy Water: A Black Girl’s Rock Opera (2008) covers a full gamut of musical forms, which is as much a testament to her nuanced understanding of what counts as “black” music as her right to sing whatever she feels.
Uzuri is perhaps best known for her trip-hop track “Sun Moon Child” which was given a brilliant video treatment by artist Pierre Bennu. The video uses Uzuri’s “Sun Moon Child” as the backdrop for a visual statement on the links between popular Diasporic dance. Despite the upbeat and defiant rhythms of “Sun Moon Child” or “Indigo,” (where she sings “everybody wants to sing my blues … but don’t nobody want to walk in these shoes”), Uzuri shines the best with sparse accompaniment on tracks like “Love Story” and “Cage.”
Washington D.C. native Muhsinah Abdul-Karim’s Oscillations: Sine (2008) is a repackaging of her debut day.break and her Oscillations EP from 2005. A classically trained pianist and one-time back-up vocalist for Raheem DeVaughn, Muhsinah’s style could be best described as melodious—her voice literary weaves in and out, about and around notes, like a playful game of hide and seek. As such, Oscillations: Sine has the feel of a sonic collage. Muhsinah’s voice is layered in intricate ways with itself and countless other references including Martin Luther King Jr. (whose voice is sampled on “Constructions”) and “Once Again,” which features a bass line which liberally borrows from Pharaoh Sanders’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”
Soothing as her voice may be, there’s nothing playful about Muhsinah’s music, which aims to disarm listeners. One example is the striking and brilliant “BillieClub.” Performed as a duet with Wayna (another underground R&B artist deserving of more attention), the song tells the story of police brutality (“I see you in my rearview/I get chills all up my spine/I’m not supposed to fear you but you’re not the friendly kind”) but also hints at what that brutality looks like when aimed not at random citizens, but at loves ones: “Tempted to call services/that’s what we’re supposed to do/But how can I address it if the services are you?”
That the song’s title “BillieClub” (rather than traditional “billy club”) is notable in that the singing styles of both Wayna and Muhsinah recall that of Billie Holiday, who faced her own very public battles with trauma and abuse.
Georgia Anne Muldrow
Muhsinah’s unique vocal style is perhaps only matched by that of her peer Georgia Anne Muldrow, about whom the term original might be an understatement. Muldrow’s father is the late guitarist Ronald Muldrow, who played with jazz saxophonist Eddie Harris at a time when many jazz artists were experimenting with electronic instruments. Muldrow’s mother is the longtime music and arts director for Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City, Calif., who earlier in her career was the lead singer of the New York Jazz Quartet and Pharaoh Sanders Ensemble. Needless to say, Muldrow’s musical style was influenced by her parents.
Although it's been a few years since she's released a whole album-length work, she has already created a distinctive catalogue. Olesi is literally fragments of musical and cultural influences, that often leave audiences gasping for more. Her 2006 recording Olesi: Fragments of an Earth, is almost beyond category, recalling many of the Free Jazz experiments of the mid-1970s.
Nevertheless, the recording resonates because it isn’t what audiences often expect from women vocalists. The best example of this on Olesi is the dramatic opening track “New Orleans,” which musically captures the disorientation caused by Hurricane Katrina, while Muldrow’s dissonant voice sings “There’s a history in the water, that they don’t show us … there’s a mystery in the water, there’s a daughter out there in the water, there’s a family lost on the water, here from centuries, centuries ago.”
The message of “New Orleans” is apropos for Muldrow and many of her outlier peers. It is their duty to remind us of the mysteries and histories that drive us into the future.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation. Neal is a professor of black popular culture at Duke University.
Also on The Root:
Keeping soul music honest, a slide show.
John Murph sings Shemekia's blues.
Jonathan Pitts-Wiley approves of Souljah's swag.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.