Does Justin Timberlake Benefit From Being White In A Black Musical Style?

The latest "Blue Eyed Should Singer."

The latest “Blue Eyed Soul Singer.”

I just read an excellent piece that captures the strange situation of blacks liking artists like Justin Timberlake, who I, like the author of the piece, really like. I think Timberlake is a supremely talented triple threat – singing, acting and dancing. Not many can match him across all three disciplines. He is not the best at any one of them, but few can competently do them all.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is Timberlake benefits from being a White singer who borrows from Black styles which then makes it much more palatable to middle America to enjoy his style and music since a Black singer doing the same music is not always so easily accepted to the main audience of Whites.

Here is how the author of the piece I am referring to said it:

My ambivalence toward Justin is, to a large degree, a matter of aesthetics. But it’s also rooted in a very real anxiety about white artists “borrowing” black music and style then taking a break when it becomes inconvenient. Yes, Timberlake has rightfully earned his place among modern pop music legends, but he also embodies the historical mistrust that exists between white performers and black listeners that dates at least as far back as Elvis Presley’s 1950s foray into what was then called “race music.“

Timberlake is by no means in my opinion a racist nor is he purposely taking advantage of Blacks. I think he truly loves the music and it fits him. So let him do his thing. I am not trying to take that away from him or any other White singer for loving the music. Why shouldn’t they?

So I am not blaming him or a slew of others like Macklemore, Presley, Robin Thicke, Justin Beiber, you name the “blue-eyed soul singer” that we have seen. But it should not be surprising either when these singers take the Number 1 slots for their music. Again, I don’t see it as racism, just numbers. There are more white consumers. So when a White singer belts out Soul or Rap, it makes it more acceptable to many to buy it. History proves it. The Beastie Boys, talented as they were, were by no means the best rappers out there. But Number 1 they were. Eminem is also talented. But not surprisingly he outsells most Black artists, in a very Black-rooted art form. Macklemore, a White rapper, comes along with a very catchy tune, “Thrift Shop,” and rockets to the top of rap and other music. Again not surprising. Kind of like Vanilla Ice wasn’t surprising many years ago. Timberlake is just benefitting, whether he knows it or not, from being White in a style rooted in Black culture.

I watched Timberlake perform on SNL a few weeks ago and loved his performance of “Suit and Tie,” a song I love. But it was interesting to note that everyone backing him musically in his very large band, save I think for two band members, was Black. I think for someone like Timberlake, and I have seen this before, having a nearly all-Black band and back up singers, provides credibility and a coolness factor. Sort of a, “look, I’m down with these people.”

But as I said, I like Timberlake. But I do so at least knowing fully well, that part of his success is not just about his talent.

Here is the full article that sparked this post. Well worth reading. And below is Timberlake’s performance on SNL.

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13 thoughts on “Does Justin Timberlake Benefit From Being White In A Black Musical Style?

  1. And is Harry Connick Jr a deserving talent from New Orleans, or is his popularity boosted because of his European heritage?

    • Earnest Harris says:

      Indeed. And again, I think Connick is very talented. But people should recognize there is something else at play as well.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for raising another good issue for me to consider. I haven’t been much into music for the last 20 years and haven’t paid much attention to who is singing the songs on the radio, but I’ve heard a lot more popular music recently because my son loves it and I need to be on my game.

    • Earnest Harris says:

      That’s right,jump back into the pool of music. Lots of good stuff out there. The old stuff is still the best though. 🙂

  3. ericjbaker says:

    I’d say Justin Timberlake benefits from being so massively popular he can do whatever he wants musically.

    I can only talk about my experience: I’ve always been in rock bands because that was the pool of musicians around me. If I had a chance to jam with a seriously talented soul ensemble, I’d be all over it in a heartbeat. Not for coolness or street cred or anything other than I love that music and want to play it. If I were the bandleader, I get the best players I could find in that genre, and chances are, they’d be black. If i wanted to put together the best heavy metal band I could, the odds are the players would be white. It’s simply statistical likelihood.

    Re: “Blue eyed-soul.” It’s a shame that people care what color skin the singer has, but if JT can help bring soul music to a wider (whiter?) audience, more power to him. The white kid listening to JT or Eminem might become curious about influences and discover a whole new world of music.

    Ha! Can you tell this a passionate subject for me?

    • Earnest Harris says:

      Oh I agree that if Justin likes R&B more power to him, because in my opinion everyone should like R&B. LOL. And the dude is plenty talented so I take nothing from him. (He’s on my iTunes when I run I have to admit) But the point of the post is hopefully to put him and other “Blue Eyed Soul Singers” in historical context, i.e. he is one of the latest in a long line (many of whom were/are very talented) who often sit at the top of those categories because they are indeed more acceptable to the masses. I truly wish the color of the singers didn’t matter, but unfortunately for a lot of black singers of old, and today, Timberlake brings a “bonus” (at least to the industry) that they can’t. Bieber does introduce an R&B sound that maybe a lot of those 13 year old girls might not have gone for. But I am not sure it translates to them listening to an equally or more talented black singer who does the same sound. But again, I don’t think this is conscious racism, but rather just the nature of culture and numbers.

  4. ctfranklin28 says:

    Mr. Earnest Harris,

    I can understand where you are coming from on the historical perspective issue. I can also understand where you are coming from with the image perception (having mostly Black drummers in a band). Mr. Timberlake is an entertainer, so he and his group of people chose the image that most suit him and his fans.

    I agree that Mr. Timberlake is benefiting from Black musical style, but I don’t blame him because of it. He found a style that helped sell him records. What artist wouldn’t do that?

    Your post and the comments on this post reflect what I think is the key issue and that is perspective.

    One on hand, as the comments have pointed out, music is music. When you mix cultures, it is only natural for styles to mix.This happens even more when young people of different cultures and musical styles mix.

    On the other hand, your post and comments reflect all the too-real history of Black music being co-opted and adapted by White musicians while Black musicians received less pay (if any), segregation, and horribly undeserved unfair treatment. You only have to recall those Black musicians in the early 40’s and 50’s who could only go to “Colored” motel rooms or who had to go through the back of the building instead of the front because it “didn’t look right”.

    Which perspective is right? Both are valid, depending on who you are and who you associate with.We need to discuss both perspectives because this kind of conversation will help everyone understand more about the complex dynamics of history, race, and culture.

  5. Rob says:

    I am not here to dump on you, but this article is crap. Not yours, per se, but the original that you based this on. Whites and blacks do not have separate music. Yes, styles have originated in either culture, but like it or not, we have had a shared culture as Americans for a long time.

    Do you think Jimmy Hendricks (the greatest guitar player of all time) was a sellout to his race because his band was all white? What about Lenny Kravitz (arguable a top-10 guitar player)?

    This is nonsense. People do what they’re good at and what they can make a living doing. This is 2013. Jay-Z owns a large portion of the Brooklyn Nets. P-Diddy is worth half a billion dollars. Magic Johnson is worth over $800 million.

    Just because JT is white doesn’t mean he just waltzed his way to the top. Now, I’m sure it was easier for him, but how many of us were on the New Mickey Mouse Club when we were kids? It’s rare for a kid to have success early in life and then actually have success as a grownup in the fame biz. It just hardly happens.

    And how many young black teenage girls do you see at boy band concerts and Bieber and Timberlake? A ton. Same question about young white kids at Snoop or Tupac or Biggie concerts?

    It’s not selling out. It’s selling yourself and your art. And corporations have been involved since radio was invented. The fact is that 15% of the population is black, a bit more mixed race, and the rest mostly white. Feed your family! Make that money! It’s all art anyway. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When I was growing up 20 years ago, the best selling tapes were Paula Abdul, Digital Underground, and MC Hammer. A couple years later, it was NWA, Dr. Dre, Snoop, and Ice Cube.

    We all enjoy music. Stop making it about race. If you’re good, people will find you and they will listen.

    • Earnest Harris says:

      Thanks for commenting. But I think you missed the entire point of my post and that of the underlying piece. Read them again. Neither piece denies Timberlake or anyone the right to perform or do the music they love. In fact it is flattering to those genres that they choose them. The point of those posts was simply to note that it is undeniable that a talented white man doing R&B or Rap will have great access to consumers that an equally talented black in those same genres will not have. The point was never made that that is racism but the fact of numbers, where it is not deniable that there are more white consumers in this country than there are black. It is important to note that discussing the impact of color is not the same as racism or as you say, “making everything about race.”

      • Rob says:

        I guess I just disagree. There will always be those that have easier entry into any field (see: nepotism), but I think that musicians of all races have been handsomely rewarded over the years. I’m not saying that every person who is incredibly talented makes it, and probably most don’t, but I would say entertainment is probably one of the least segregated areas of our society.

        You want to talk about promotions at work, or advancement in academia? Ok, I buy that.

        But some of our biggest stars in this country (Will Smith – $50M+ per movie, Beyonce – who knows what she charges now, Mariah Carey?) These are all people at the top of their field.

        I just don’t buy the notion that being black or even half black holds you back in entertainment. It’s the most liberal industry out there.

        I could also argue that Eminem had a harder time breaking into rap because of his race. There are still folks that won’t listen to his music because he’s not black.

        I guess it’s a matter of perspective, but I maintain that if you’re good at your craft, no matter the genre, if you’re persistent, it will pay off in the end.

        Thanks for the conversation, I appreciate it. You take care.

      • Earnest Harris says:

        Yeah we’ll have to respectfully disagree on this. Because believe me I wish it were as simple as pointing to a handful of successful crossover artists or entertainers and assume that that negates the much wider pattern. It’s like saying Oprah Winfrey’s success proves there is no racism in television. Or the success of one or two black head coaches in the NFL means there is equality in all of sport, another area where you would think ability and talent alone should matter most. Unfortunately it is not as simple as that. As much as we might hope. And believe me I wish it were that simple.

        And by the way I just got back from my run and who did I listen to among others? Justin Timberlake. LOL. As I said I never said the guy wasn’t good.

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