What’s ‘neo’ got to do with soul?

You may have heard this one before. Work with me anyway.

A kitten is taken from its litter and moved to a home full of dogs. It develops in a new environment. Canine activity dominates its habitat, but the cat remains a cat. It doesn’t change. Furthermore, when around other cats, it adapts to its feline ways without needing much adjustment.

The lesson here is that moving something away from its original place and returning it later does not change it, or make it new. That’s how I felt when purchasing 1st Born Second, the debut CD from Interscope Records artist Bilal, last fall. It was worth the buy because Bilal’s eclectic vocal style reminds me a little of Bobby Womack, and his presentation complements contemporaries such as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Maxwell and D’Angelo. All these artists have depth that goes beyond the formulaic creativity of mainstream R&B. It took me back to a time when chords and arrangements challenged the listener’s senses. The public treats these artists like they’re new, but I simply found them refreshing.

That’s why the whole neo-soul thing messes with me. Neo-soul is the term used to describe artists whose music updates and adapts the deep soul of the ’60s and ’70s. They’ve got more issues to sing about than sex and money. They avoid high fashion for thrift-store flair, and ditch diamonds for cowrie shells and energy crystals. They might allow their hair to grow to coarse perfection instead of hunting down the latest styles. Theirs is coffeehouse/boho schtick brought to the world stage. Where commercial rap is the bedfellow of mainstream R&B, poetry is companion to this earthen vibe.

The music industry seems to have a difficult time treating the Scotts and Maxwells as classic soul artists. They package them, and call them neo, and just like that, they have a marketing tag. The industry is more comfortable with promoting a product when there’s a one-word umbrella under which a clump of like-minded acts can be huddled. The inherent danger is that it makes “neo-soul” look like a fad. By the time Musiq, Bilal, Remy Shand and Res joined the family of artists, it looked as though the movement was in full swing. But will the industry sell the music, or the artist? And if they sell the artist, will this rich, refreshing music die when their star falls? Will it die if the music becomes ubiquitous?

“My understanding of how neo-soul came to be is that it’s a brand that Motown created,” says Toya Hankins, manager for hometown soul singer Kem. “I commend them for creating their own brand, because when you’re selling a product you have to have a brand. But I really think that neo-soul is the music of yesterday. Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. Ray, Goodman and Brown. LTD. Earth, Wind & Fire. People like Remy Shand, Kem, Alicia Keyes and Jill Scott are doing that kind of music for today.”

Hankins shares the sentiment of many people who were around when Earth, Wind & Fire was the deep group of the day. We are the ones who have lived long enough to make the connection between then and now. It’s understandable that younger listeners, who may be exposed to deeper soul music for the first time, need a way to identify with what they’re hearing. But that’s where education comes in.

When I traveled to compete in the National Poetry Slam in 1999, I spent four months learning about the poets who laid the groundwork for my opportunity. From Haki Madhubuti to Allen Ginsberg, we were offered their stories first, and it helped to put ours in perspective. Likewise, Maxwell was able to turn Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” into a classic, exposing millions of African-American listeners to her work, because he pulled the soul from the past. There was nothing new, or neo, about it. Second verse, same as the first.

There is definitely a new crop of soul singers, and many believe they are saving the integrity of soul music. But let’s honor our roots, folks. Soul is about drawing from what’s already there, in order to go forward. There’s nothing new under the sun, and there’s nothing neo about soul.

Khary Kimani Turner writes about words and beats for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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