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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Black Skin, White Mask

How many of you all remember the pre-2003 Black Eyed Peas (or BEP for short)? For those of you who can reach that far back into your psyche, they were not that different from what you see and hear of them today. They were originally signed to Ruthless Records in 1992 by the father of gangsta rap, Eazy-E (can you believe it?). Their music back then was still like nothing people had previously heard, their videos reflected this ingenuity, and they were the strange avant-garde of alternative rap. Oh yeah, all their members were domestic racial minorities and their first two albums (released in 1998 and 2000) sold less than 200,000 copies combined despite receiving major label push. Their most recent album, Monkey Business, was released in June of this year and sold 295,000 copies in its first week of release. What has accounted for this drastic change? Commercially, why were the Black Eyed Peas able to achieve in seven days what they hadn't been able to achieve in seven years? I see the answer as being one small, "lovely lady lump"-having White girl from the burbs of California who came to the group in 2003 and provided another example of the age-old practice of putting a White face on Black art's most lucrative field: music. (more in expanded post)

Presently, the Black Eyed Peas are characterized as a Pop group. Simple and plain. A visit to Launch.Com will reveal that they are not categorized as a rap group or even alternative rap group, but pop. Pop as a genre of music is an interesting thing. Some people take it narrowly to mean music light on bass (relatively), heavy on chorus, and sing-songy non-serious lyrics about love. Others take it broadly to mean POPular music of any variety that is widely appreciated (read: bought). I see the Black Eyed Peas as being closer to the broad definition than to the narrow one, though they are moving more and more to the narrow definition with each passing single. In the past two years as their popularity has exponentially grown their musical image has ventured further and further from their pre-Fergie era. Relatedly, I remember being a senior in high school and hearing "Where Is The Love?" and thinking, "Black Eyed Peas and Justin Timberlake?!? That's like Led Zeppelin and Frank Sinatra!" I felt that the Black Eyed Peas had sold out and gone "pop", but I had no idea of the extent to which they would do so and become corporate pawns and musical sidekicks in the group THEY started.

Another way to chart the pop progression of the Black Eyed Peas is to take a look at the styles of their four albums as assessed by AllMusic.Com. According to this website, the Black Eyed Peas' album styles of music went from "Alternative Rap" to "Pop-Rap" to "Party Rap". Although the line between the 2nd and 3rd sub-genres may be fuzzy to some, "pop rap" is defined as being widely accepted rap and "party rap" is rap specifically aimed at being played at parties, in my humble opinion. A current look at the most recent single from BEP shows that they are DEFINITELY putting out party rap music. "My Humps" is currently the #3 song in the U.S. and may reach #1 due to its still increasing popularity. But wait? Is party/pop rap new to the Black Eyed Peas? Before 2003 were they not putting out records aimed at getting people to tell DJs to "turn that sh*t up, play it again" or "make a brother feel like I'm in the disco"? Yup. They were (listen to "Joints and Jams" or "Request Line"). Hmmm...what gives?

Prior to 2003 the Black Eyed Peas employed Kim Hill as their backup singer. She is the female vocalist heard in the aforementioned "Joints and Jams". She is Black. You've probably never heard of her. In 2003 Hill was replaced by Fergie--a small, energetic bundle of U.S. status quo affirmation that proved to have the ability to take BEP to the next level. Whichever exec at A&M was behind getting Fergie into the group should be the label President. Really. Despite pouring what was surely millions of dollars into two widely-released albums by the Black Eyed Pease in 1998 and 2000 they bore very little commercial fruit. However, after adding a White female to the group in contrast to the Native American, Filipino-American, and Jamaican-American in the group sales exploded. Whereas Hill was rarely featured prominently in videos and never featured on album covers, Fergie was. Also of note on the first two BEP album covers is the prominence of the big, melanin-filled faces of males on the dark backdrop in contrast to the more holistic view and lighter backdrop of their most recent album cover. One says "BLACK MUSIC...SCARY!" while the other says "You have nothing to fear. This is now integrated music."

In the same vein as Eminem in relation to D-12 or Elvis Presley in relation to Chuck Berry, a White person has now been put at the forefront of what was previously a Black...situation, let's say. This age-old gimmick has been around for a long time and is continuing with the Black Eyed Peas and their new leader (yeah, I said it), Fergie. A visit to Launch.Com again shows that when one searches for the Black Eyed Peas, their picture is not a group one but solely that of Fergie. Is she the entire group (or even one of the founding members)? No. Additionally, a Google "Images" search for Black Eyed Peas reveals Fergie as the very first picture. According to Launch (a subsidiary of Yahoo!, Inc.) and Google, Inc.--two of the largest information superhighway corporations in the world--Black Eyed Peas = Fergie. Additionally, the popularity of "My Humps" brings Fergie even more publicity separate from that of BEP since it is nearly a solo song. Sad. The mass appeal that Fergie has brought to the Black Eyed Peas is quite sad. They are creating (largely) the same type of music that they have been creating all of their career but their group now has a White face and leader. The music industry "powers that be" behind the marketing and exploitation of BEP as a "pop" group did so in the interest of increasing the bottom line. This is wrong. What was once a cutting edge group for non-status quo, non-commerical radio fiends has become just that. Fergie and Corporate America (the REAL name of this country) have teamed up to once again push genre-leading Black artists to the periphery, market their product with a White face, and make boatloads of money while doing so. Poor (literally) Kim Hill.


At 1:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wouldn't the group have done equally as well with a jennifer lopez or beyonce instead of fergie? i don't dispute the claim that it's commercially profitable to repackage entertainment, just wondering is all.

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

Probably not, in my opinion. Neither Beyonce nor J.Lo have the "alternative" image and genre-stretching ability to fit with BEP and their music. They ("they" being whoever engineered the Kim Hill subtraction and Fergie addition) needed somebody that already fit that mold or someone altogether new (Fergie did, however, have a brief solo and group career before BEP). The public wouldn't have bought (no pun intended) into J.Lo or Beyonce. This is to take nothing away from their solo careers which have been more commercially successful than that of the Black Eyed Peas.

At 8:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't really see what the problem is here - the label wanting to make more money by selling more records decided to expand its sellable demographic by *gasp* adding a WHITE GIRL. Mind you that white Americans still make up the majority in this country, this makes perfect business sense.


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