Can the white girl sing soul? Yes, as long as we pay for it

THE MUSIC industry has a long and inglorious past when it comes to the subject of race

THE MUSIC industry has a long and inglorious past when it comes to the subject of race. The term "cover version" - to take just one example - actually means "to cover up the race of the original singer". It was invented when early black rock'n'roll songs were covered by white artists, the thinking being that the song would sell more to a predominantly white record-buying audience if it was sung by a white person.

Just as black models routinely complain that they are rarely featured on the front of glossy fashion mags, so black musicians report that they have to work under different budgets, and all too often find themselves being marketed to a black audience only.

In its first two years of its existence, MTV played videos by, at best, a handful of black artists. This colour bar was only revealed years later when Michael Jackson's record label, CBS (now Sony), revealed that the only way they could get MTV to play the Billie Jean video was to tell the channel that if it wasn't played, they would not give them the clearance to play videos by other big-name CBS acts (Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and so on).

Received wisdom tells us that Elvis "stole" black music and made it palatable for a white audience. That's All Right was originally dismissed by white DJs as a "black" record, but when it was pointed out that the singer was white, it became a massive radio hit.


It's a complex issue: for example, when Ray Charles first released a country music album, he got it from both sides: from white people for "stealing" their music, and from black people for recording "redneck music". Today, there are still regular arguments about the Mobo (Music of Black Origin) awards. Is Amy Winehouse eligible? How can you quantify to what extent a song is "of black origin".

The troubled subject of race and music was given a fresh airing last week by Estelle, who is currently high in the UK and Irish charts with American Boy. She feels that, as a soul singer, she was largely overlooked in her native UK, and it was only when she moved to the US that her career took off.

Remarking on two other British soul singers, Adele and Duffy (who, let's face it, haven't exactly been starved of publicity), Estelle remarked that their music wasn't true "soul".

"It's hilarious. I'm not mad at them," Estelle said. "I'm just wondering: how the hell is there not a single black person in the public eye singing soul?

"Adele isn't soul. She sounds like she heard some Aretha Franklin records once and she's got a deeper voice - that doesn't mean she's soul."

Asked to define "soul music", Estelle said: "I guess it is music that you feel in your heart and your experience. You can't explain it; it just gets you. It's in the lyrics, the melody, the beat - you can't pull it apart. They keep trying to tell me in the media what soul music is and I'm like, we know what soul music is."

By "we", does Estelle mean black people? If her point is that Adele and Duffy were given far more opportunities - in terms of radio play, TV exposure, and so on - than she was, then she is correct. In a predominantly white record-buying country such as the UK, the white version of "soul" will always sell better. It's marketing demographics reduced to its crudest expression.

If, however, she is, by implication, stating that only soul music performed by black artists is somehow "authentic", then she is returning to the hoary old "can the white man sing the blues?" argument.

Allowing for the fact that there is at least as much racism in the music industry as there is in any other walk of life, the simple truth is that the white man and the white woman can sing the blues and/or soul as much as the record-buying market allows it. And at the moment, that market is buoyant.