a nostalgia-induced stupor the other day, I stumbled upon the song
"Freedom" while clicking around YouTube. I mean, I remember the song
itself but seeing the sheer number of successful black female rappers,
singers and musicians moved me. It struck me that one of the reasons I
was so moved is because even entertaining the thought of a similar
recording today was disheartening. So then I started thinking about
what has happened in the last thirteen years since "Freedom" was
released as the lead single for the Panther Original Soundtrack (1995). I compiled a short list (read: long entry) of five reasons why "Freedom" is impossible today.
To get into the right frame of mind, you first have to watch the video.
5. The negative effects of 'thuggification' on women artists of urban music.
It only stands to reason that the rise of the 'thug' to dominance in urban music would mark a decline in the visibility strong women artists in its representative genres (namely hip-hop and r&b). When "Freedom" was released in 1995, urban music had not yet been completely mainstreamed. Subsequent years showed that record labels would equate high sales with an increasingly hyper-masculinized caricature of a 'thug' -- complete with all of the misogyny, violence and excess possible. By early this decade it had gotten to the point that the most visible women in urban music had been transformed into accessories, regardless of musical talent; the predominant image of women in urban music were hyper-feminine, negatively sexualized, complimentary caricatures to the 'thug,' relegated to dancing, stripping and singing hooks for him. Even though many of the women who contributed to "Freedom" have continued to make great music, and there are a number of women in recent years who have rejected the thuggification trend and been successful, the larger impact would likely hinder production and promotion of "Freedom" today.
4. Lack of a celebration of diversity in the representation of black women in music.
All of us here at SoulBounce know that there is a breadth of diversity in the practitioners of urban and soul music. The producers of "Freedom" knew it, too, and they managed to put together sixty of its most popular and talented black women. Sixty. From TLC, to Vanessa Williams, to Joi, to Sweet Sable, to Aaliyah, all of these women came from different genres, and reflected different generations and levels of mainstream popularity. Today even though there remains a lot of diversity it certainly isn't celebrated and embraced outside of forums like SoulBounce, and it's definitely not reflected in popular urban music media the way it was during the time of "Freedom." Imagining a group that today theoretically would have to include (remember sixty) Beyonce, Ciara, Jill Scott, Miss Jack Davey, 'Lil Mama, Muhsinah and Alicia Keys, feels as absurd as the original "Freedom" feels organic.
3. Solo divas and the lack of real singers.
Pulling together sixty black women from urban/soul music may be a struggle, but it's vaguely doable. (Especially if you cheat and bring in some of the original contributors which would undoubtedly happen even though it's akin to Patti LaBelle and Diana Ross singing on the original.) And let's not be mistaken, there were a few unknowns contributing vocals to "Freedom," so it's not like a remake would have to be made up of multi-platunum pop sensations. "Freedom" was recorded after the American Music Awards in 1994. The logistics of pulling together sixty mostly notable contemporary black women singers in the same place, let alone after an awards show, and expecting them to sing as a group is impossible today. There are some talented solo singers making music, sure. There is also a slew of studio manufactured "performers" who can't sing a harmony without being fed the notes seconds before the track was recorded. Additionally, so few of them have experience blending their voices (no, singing over backups does not count) that getting them to tone down the excessive vocal embellishments on site would be quite the task. Of course then you have to assign the verses, and considering some egos that task might doom the entire project.
2. The disappearance of the female emcee.
1. Empowerment, revolution, and politicized blackness are taboo.
Freedom for my body? Freedom for my mind? Propaganda? Lies? We have all the goods on you? Just based on the lyrics alone this song would not be recorded and released as the lead single for a major motion picture. Or at all. The powerful concept of black women in music showing solidarity by recording a song about black women rising up and taking back what's ours is too aggressive, too black and too politically incorrect in today's social climate. Possibly alienating or offending white listeners is a risky move, as they are a major consumer base for urban music. Singing a song with a group of other empowered, aware black women that talks about making white folks run and hide from their ancestors' transgressions, while bold, may not translate to increased sales for the single or for each contributing artist's solo projects. And it's certainly bound to offend a fair amount of industry executives who fancy themselves progressive liberals because they promote music by T-Pain and have a Teyana Taylor ringtone. Artistic and political merits of the song aside, "Freedom" was successful enough to break the Top 50 on Billboard's Pop Singles Chart, and push the Panther album into the Top 40. Today "Freedom" would probably be leaked on the internet, be denounced or apologized for by a large segment of its contributors, and get Robin Thicke all up in his feelings about it but then concede his respect for the song because he "lives with a black woman."
Tags: aaliyah, amel larrieux, az-iz, blackgirl, brownstone, casserine, changing faces, da 5 footaz, emage, eve, felicia adams, mary j. blige, may may ali, mc lyte, n'dea davenport, tanya blount, tyler collins