Last week, a major topic of discussion was whether there are any current musicians who serve as current-day examples of the first blues women, such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey or Bessie Smith. Clouded by skepticism, my initial response to this issue was that current musicians are over-produced, and their music is not as honest, not as authentic. People sing about social issues, but it doesn’t usually feel like they’re breaking new ground. Is there new ground to be broken though? Songs are generally about one of a few themes: love, breakups, going out, partying, or general hardship.
I realized that my initial skepticism wasn’t necessarily fair—just because people aren’t singing about particular topics for the first time, it doesn’t mean they aren’t relevant to today’s public audience. John Legend and The Roots are a great example–they sing and rap about hard times, especially for black males, and they sing about things they know and have experienced. They recently won an Image Award from NAACP for their collaboration and performance as a group.
Perhaps music is more manipulated and more time is spent editing and producing it, but a message is still a message, and sometimes music is the best method of being heard by a broad public audience. Maybe the issue is the amount of music produced—instead of having a few recording artists to choose from, there are infinite possibilities when a person is looking to find new music. With the Internet especially, so many artists have been able to reach an audience, and now it’s up to the audience. Who will you choose to listen to, and will it be for their message or their musical styling? Is it acceptable to support artists who berate women, as long as the beat is good?
The messages in music may not be breaking new ground, but artists can be innovative by reaching new audiences and increasing awareness about the issues they’re passionate about. While Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey initially sang primarily to lower/middle class black women, and made them realize that they were not alone in their situations, current artists can also reach new people, and guide them through difficult situations in new, productive ways.