Soul music, a sound that has its roots in the black experience, is a genre drenched in history. Soul grew out of the African-American struggle, and at the same time invigorated black pride and racial awareness in the cultural imaginary of the Civil Rights era.
Aloe Blacc, born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III, is a musical artist signed to indie record label Stones Throw Records, whose music is wholly in conversation with the past. It’s not surprising that his sophomore album, Good Things, has been compared to the work of game-changers like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield.
Due somewhat in part to the proliferation of micro-genres on music blogs, artists are rarely assigned one genre these days, nor is it necessary that they should. How do artists like Blacc, then, negotiate the newness of an old sound? In many ways, the emergence of the term “neo-soul” in the late nineties marked a striking commercialization of soul music. Coined by former Motown Records president Kedar Messenburg, neo-soul didn’t present anything particularly new in terms of music, but rather, reflected new marketing strategies for artists like Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, and Macy Gray. Simultaneously, however, neo-soul offered an “example of black self-determination in an industry that is still defiantly wedded to narrow definitions and images of black folks,” said writer Tyler Lewis in a PopMatters review of Bilal’s latest album Airtight’s Revenge. Interestingly, the USC-educated Blacc has coined a term of his own to describe his music: “brand-new-old-soul.”
Brand-new-old-soul calls attention to soul’s never-ending dialectic between past and present. Citing heroes like Mayfield, Bill Withers, and Al Green, Blacc’s music is, in every respect, in dialogue with the past, but he insists that he still wants to “create something unique that has a quality of its own.” Blacc discussed his relationship with classic soul in an email to The Daily: “I am a disciple of great and classic soul artists and my goal with this new album is to carry on an important tradition in soul music of making songs with social and political commentary.”
Aloe Blacc’s music videos, like “Femme Fatale” and “I Need a Dollar,” make musical references and aesthetic allusions to nostalgic black music, while simultaneously exploring a very current urban life. This is not to say that Blacc’s music is overtly militant or radical; instead his lyrics aim to prolong the tradition of slave music, as testament to its power in early Civil Rights movements.
However, Blacc’s political angle extends beyond a necessity to stay true to the idea that the “soul is political.” For Blacc, the responsibility to address social and political issues isn’t restricted to his music. “I think every adult with a conscience has a responsibility to address political and social issues. Whether you are a day labourer or a filmmaker, it’s important to be aware of the issues that affect your life,” said Blacc
While the genre of modern soul, or neo-soul, or whatever you want to call it, may lack the politicization of days past, it could be argued that this was a natural consequence of having entered the mainstream. Even in its infancy, soul was entrenched in debates surrounding the effects of commercialization. Alongside the politicization of soul music for the Black Power Movement, soul was often considered to have made the commercialization of black music (and black culture) possible, due to its “cross-over appeal.” The very song that has been hailed as the recession anthem, Blacc’s “I Need a Dollar,” was picked up by the HBO series How to Make It in America, bringing his music a far wider audience. “The soul artist is an archetype that exists and is well understood. Fortunately, a new music lover is born everyday and the tastes of music fans are broadening, so I imagine artists will not have to be so strict with genre-centrality,” said Blacc.
Aloe Blacc’s music doesn’t simply resist classification, it exemplifies his self-determination in creating a space of brand-new-old-soul to call his own.
Aloe Blacc will be playing live with his band The Grand Scheme at Le Belmont, 4483 Saint Laurent Boulevard, on November 16. Visit lookoutpresents.com for more information.