Rising to the top of any field requires tenacity, hard work and commitment to success that often calls for unparalleled sacrifice. Rising to the top of any field as a young Black person? Multiply everything by ten and then add extras. So, when we see a rising Black artist, we all are ready to give them our support. The few who are able to breakthrough are often met with fanfare that says “Congrats, sis/bro, you made it and we got you from here.” It is the way we even the playing field—by being our own cheerleaders and making our own rules. We are so often duplicated and not celebrated that we take great pride in seeing any of us win.
But there is something else we do that, at times, seems to do more harm than good: compare them to the artists who have come before them. Comparison is one of the simple ways we draw lines between that we know and that we are trying to know. It is easier to pitch a new artist to someone by telling a potential listener that they have an *insert person whose work we are familiar with* vibe and for journalists, it is a quick way to introduce a new audience to someone they may enjoy.
It is a natural human desire to compare two things in order to make sense of the one you are least accustomed to; however, when it comes to Black artists, it can be a hinderance to their individual success. Many young artists are pigeonholed long before they come into the collective consciousness of a major audience. In fact, many artists find themselves signed to major labels because of their similarity to an artist who has already amassed a huge following. When it comes time for them to establish themselves though, it can be hard to break away from the picture that has been painted or the shadow they’re standing in.
Let’s look at some examples.
Chlöe Bailey, a name who is on everyone’s lips at the moment, is slated to be the next Beyoncé. A reasonable comparison considering she, along with her sister Halle, are signed to Bey’s label and one would have to be blind to not see the similarities between the two—not only vocally but physically as well. However, one search on Twitter and you will see legions of fans giving harsh critique on the younger of the two by comparing her to the elder of the pair via videos of the Queen a decade or so into her career. Where is the fairness in that? And what is a new artist to do to fill the shoes of a woman who has been working in this business, at the top of her game, for longer than they’ve been alive?
It is an unfair place to find yourself in as you are trying to carve out your own space in the cultural landscape. Not to mention, we often make general comparisons without actually seeing the fullness of what young artists are; having a tendency to reach for the low-hanging, easy to reach comparisons that do not cause us to properly scan the musical and artistic terrain for more interesting or exact comparisons. After all, every curvy Black girl who can dance and sing isn’t Beyoncé nor does Beyoncé have a monopoly on those identifiers.
Moving into the rap world.
Female rappers with a certain braggadocio or bravado are most often giving comparisons like Lil' Kim or Foxy Brown. In fact, there has not been a woman in recent years to touch the mic, who presents herself as raunchy or comfortable with sexuality in a way that is apparent, that has been untouched by comparisons to those two.
And what happens? Female rappers are either forced to accept the torch and go deeper into that lane or throw off the duplication and face scrutiny surrounding wanting to be seen as their own artist. It often times becomes a lose-lose situation as they flounder between wanting to give people an easy parallel and trying to do something different. Music, creativity and imagination suffer as a result. How many times can we recreate the “Crush On You” video aesthetic before it's simply regarded as shtick rather than the culture defining moment it truly was.
And it is not the fault of young Black artists.
They are simply trying to live out their dreams but, we all know, part of that is doing what sells and what will keep them relevant. However, if every pop girl has to give us Janet Jackson and every rap girl has to give us Kim—who will our kids have to emulate? Will the next round of artists just be copies of copies? Young Black artists have a hard enough time fighting against an industry that rewards everyone for their best Black impressions while ignoring the actual talent and culture creators—the last thing they need is impossible shoes to fill. Or shoes to fill at all. And we can be hard on artists on the rise; expecting them to come in the game and be where the icons we’ve grown up watching are after having decades to work out the kinks. The world is different but art is the same. Creativity takes time. It is not as simple as picking up your phone and scrolling until you’re satisfied. Making something that stands the test of time cannot happen in a microwave.
Legends are not made in viral moments—no matter how much it may seem so. Artists cannot be forced into boxes and then expected to still push the boundaries of imagination and inspire us. We, as a people, have to make room for our artists to be something we’ve never seen before. We have to give them the opportunity to show us who they are rather than fitting a mold we’ve created for them. There is not a single art form or genre of music that we have not created, mastered and improved, so letting our artists grow and expand before we identify them as someone else, is something we need to make room for.
Every singer in a fedora ain’t Michael Jackson and every rapper with a message ain’t Tupac.
And that’s ok, y’all. It really is.