Back in the 80’s and 90’s R&B was a popular and prevalent genre, developed by Black artists, which shaped much of the current generation, in music and otherwise. When you think of the greats Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Maxwell, Chaka Khan, Anita Baker, Brandy, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott … etc. One thing they all had in common – aside from their innovative influence, and their eternal musical legacies – is that they dominated the genre of R&B. While R&B in the 90’s notably had a distinguishable sound, so it goes with each era as we grow and experiment. How can we dare to persist with the question “is R&B dead” when it is the discography of these honored artists, and so many more, who influenced all of our major artists today. This alone proves R&B can never die, only keep transforming, inspiring, and thriving.
With historic roots in soul and blues, R&B was a genre known for its depth of emotion. It derives from gospel, jazz, funk, rock ‘n’ roll. It sprouted neo-soul – this is the music that raised us. Even so, we often struggle for visibility within a genre we created, in an industry that still sees black music as a monolith, and would love to classify it all as “hip-hop” or simply “urban”. Changes with time and technology aside, that depth of emotion remains the core ingredient to the genre. While new age R&B incorporates trending lingo, we still have a love and a need for “love songs” and express our infatuation – or lack thereof – as bluntly and creatively as need be. Arguments that the new generation has lost touch with our emotions, have allowed the genre to “die”, or questions of substance, are easily refuted by a quick listen to a few artists who have been prospering in R&B in recent years: H.E.R, Frank Ocean, Drake, SZA, Ari Lennox, The Weeknd, SiR. R&B since its conception has demanded evolution and innovation, and offered creative transposition. This reaffirms the eternal nature of the genre, and brings us blessings by way of new genres like Alternative R&B/Neo-Soul/Electronica and R&B/Indie/Synth/Pop/Trap. Think Abra, BANKS, Ravyn Lenae, Solange, NAO, The Internet, Aja Iman.
Music has always been a lifeline. A means of survival, double helix, saving grace. For many of us it was our first artform, a new way to feel the universe experiencing itself.
Aja is native to Florida and shines light on fellow artists in her local music scene, “We have some dope R&B artists in Tampa, and I hope we get more attention this year.” When asked if R&B is underrated, Aja relates “Maybe in the Tampa scene but everywhere? No. R&B is a whole world.” Aja has a distinct sound, one that sets her apart from newcomers in her field, and boasts originality. What else makes a good R&B artist? “When an artist has their sound together,” Aja states first. “Versatility is cool but when you have your own sound that’s specific to you, that helps you stand out.” Knowing yourself and staying true to yourself is an unchanging token of advice from successful artists in the industry, and Aja agrees, “knowing where your voice fits in can help your sound a lot. You don’t have to be the best singer in R&B as long as it’s rhythmic and interesting.”
On the evolution of her genre, Aja shares “A lot of people listen to R&B and don’t realize because there’s such a wide range to the genre.” How can we highlight R&B more? Aja has a plan. “I think including more R&B music into streamed playlists would be dope. More R&B shows and collaboration with promoters who work [mainly] with Rap/Hip Hop/Pop/Rock artists.” On her definition of “real” R&B, Aja shares “R&B stands for Rhythm and Blues. It’s an aesthetic, multiple feelings… in my definition, where jazz meets bass, drums, guitar, [new] interesting sounds, and smooth vocals.” You can detect all of these elements in Aja’s art. Her recent release Fantasy marks her first music video drop to date. Aja’s signature confident, mesmerizing tone and sincere lyrics breathe a breath of fresh air into an ever-changing genre and we look forward to hearing more from her.
Growth and progression is the answer. Never dead, always flourishing and expanding. Such is true as it pertains to energy, time, music – which emits one and transcends the other – and specifically to the genre of R&B. Could it be that the deliberate contrasts critics see when comparing the elements of the past and present within this genre, are imperative to the dynamic identity of the genre itself? What would R&B be, if anything at all, without the initial innovation of the fusion of jazz, gospel, rock, funk, folk? What would any aspect of current art be without the influences of and homage paid to the originators and legends? We can stand firm in the truth that as long as we can feel and express, R&B is alive and well. Erykah emotes as deeply as Summer , just a croon in a different key. Jhene Aiko can sail you places acapella where ABRA can teleport you instantly with a synth-pop tinge. Frank Ocean eased us into an era of what love meant just as Prince offered individuality and demanded your respect and attention. R&B remains a steadfast confirmation of Black Americans innovation in music, and a reminder – to all of us – of our limitless ability to evolve.