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Suddenly, a lot less soul

Chikezie is the latest black male singer to find the going rough on 'Idol.' It reflects the challenges that face many R&B crooners.

March 28, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

Why does it feel like this year's "American Idol" family is getting whiter and whiter? Chikezie's elimination Wednesday night is a big blow to the Top 10's overall energy and fun quotient, and to fans of the R&B-based pop that's well served so many previous finalists. Who's left to provide us with our weekly dose of melismatic testifying? Not Syesha -- despite her recent spate of emotiveness, she's made for Diane Warren-style ballads, not Aretha jams.

Yet Chikezie's departure, especially after he dipped back into Luther Vandross' catalog this week, was no surprise. Aside from Ruben Studdard, the Velvet Exception who proves the rule, black male singers have a tough time on "Idol," hanging out on its bottom tiers. Brandon Rogers, Anwar Robinson, Gedeon McKinney and Rickey Smith all lost their spots before the end of March. Only George Huff lasted into May, and that was after Simon used a wild card to reinstate him.

Does this shock you? Take a look at the Billboard charts. Last year's 20 bestselling albums (topped by Daughtry, the whole reason this season's "rocking" so hard) included not one traditional soul man. R. Kelly, who's ruled that position for years, topped out at No. 50 with his album "Double Up." Skinny pretenders Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke both did much better.

R&B crooners still have a place in pop, but it's increasingly marginalized. Marvin Gaye spoke for his generation when he recorded "What's Goin' On," and Stevie Wonder managed to be both proudly Afrocentric and universally minded on his great 1970s albums.

But since the 1980s, when Prince and Michael Jackson broke every barrier, R&B's biggest crossovers have almost always been women. (The exceptions appeal to teens: Usher, for example.) The men who do thrive find support from the same fans who've made Tyler Perry a massive mogul: women of color and their swoon-tolerant partners.

The reasons for this are complex and go beyond music itself (and, really, the scope of this piece). The "urban music" business operates at a remove from other aspects of the music industry, with different promoters, publicists and marketing teams selling its artists to a preordained audience. What's more troubling is white America's seeming reluctance to universally embrace a strong black male voice, unless it belongs to a rapper selling blaxploitation fantasies to teens.

If you hate armchair sociology, please stop reading right now. I gotta ask -- is it a coincidence that during the same period that R&B's men got shoved into a corner, a stunning number of African American males were incarcerated? Or that, according to a 2006 study, the rate of unemployment for black men was twice as high as for men of other ethnic groups? Sorry to be a total bummer, but according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, such men also have the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group.

As daily life goes, so goes pop. Female artists tend to be more chameleon, and less categorized by their race; white homeboys like Timberlake channel black style without being burdened by negative stereotypes. Teen artists like Chris Brown seem to be able to break down these divides; hope lies with the kids, as usual. More mature-seeming R&B lovemen, like Chikezie, have trouble crossing audience lines.

So did racism do in Chikezie? That seems too harsh a statement during a season that's actually more diverse than usual. Contenders like David Archuleta and Jason Castro rep for the new style of teen idol, whose biracial beauty matters as much as puppy-boy cuddle appeal. Biracial Syesha Mercado and Filipina Ramiele Malubay contribute to a roster that looks a lot like America (not to mention a certain Democratic presidential candidate).

Still, I'm sad that we've lost this season's one true soul singer, and one of the program's most charismatic black male contestants. Chikezie worked his Luther vibe a little too hard, solidifying his stance in a way that much of America couldn't support.

He should have taken a cue from the black male singer to find the greatest recent success -- Akon, who almost beat Daughtry for last year's top album-selling spot. Like Chikezie, Akon has African roots, and he's used his immigrant voice to shake up preconceived notions of what a soul singer should sound like. Chikezie kept talking about "Nigerian cultural music" during his interviews; he should have incorporated some into this performances. Maybe then he wouldn't have been Konvicted on Wednesday night.


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