Silk Sonic: Appropriation or Appreciation in the Work of Bruno Mars?

When Rick Rubin signed the Beastie Boys to Def Jam and Russell Simmons booked them to open to for both Public Enemy and Madonna in the late ’80s they took a risk by putting a white rap group before two very different audiences — one comfortable with black nationalist rhetoric, the other in thrall to a female pop idol. Through those very different experiences the Beasties found their own audience, one that was largely white like Madonna’s but musically way more adventurous and open to the kind of sonic experimentation practiced by PE’s Bomb Squad.

At the time there was a fear among black folks that when the Beasties sold four million copies of ‘Licensed to Ill’ in 1987 they’d usher in a slew of white MCs who’d dominate the landscape. Didn’t happen. Aside from the one hit wonder of Vanilla Ice in 1990 and ascendance of Eminem in 1999 white rappers were basically a subset of American hip hop into the early 21th century. The core audience for most of hip-hop’s first thirty years, both white and black, were in deeply invested in an vision of “keepin’ it real” authenticity that valued a ghettocentric version of American life. No white MC save Eminem (who was co-signed by Dr Dre and a slew of black Detroit rappers) was given as sweeping “ghetto pass” from black audiences, one earned through deft rhymes and precise articulation. But, otherwise the hip hop audience, white and black, respected the color line.

In the internet age, where sub-groups thrive without interacting with other communities and there are few commercial gatekeepers, white MCs proliferate and, by the sunken sales standards of the contemporary music biz, make money. Moreover the white audience that so valued “authenticity” has passed out of his music purchasing prime, opening the doors for millennials and their successors for whom “realness” is not really important. Most contemporary white MCs exist in a musical universe where young white kids make hip hop for young white kids. The “keep it real” generation of buyers have been supplanted by folks who are entertained G-Eazy, Macklemore and Machine Gun Kelly. The passage of time, married with the arrogance of youth, mean today’s audiences have an, at best, a superficial connection to the conventions of golden age hip-hop.

Truthfully, the same can be said for so many 21st century black MCs whose connection to hip hop’s roots is so tedious that Jay Z is old school, Rev. Run a reality show star, LL Cool J and Will Smith basically actors, and Snoop a game show host. In short the foundations on which the newest generation go MCs stand is quick sand solid. In fact some of the most progressive forces in today’s hip-hop are more likely as influenced by Radiohead’s textures than the Bomb Squad’s block rocking beats.

Which brings me back around to the 21st century conversation around appropriation. In the ’70s Sly & the Family Stone fused gospel and funk with poppy melodies right out (and perfect for) Top 40 radio. George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic thang adapted the acid guitar and drone of hard rock to funk. Later Prince, Cameo and Jermaine Jackson were amongst the many black ’80s acts to have hits by adapting the keyboard sounds, melodic ideas, and vocal arrangements of new wave bands. I guess that was all “appropriation” if you wanna make it a negative. I prefer to think that artists hear sounds they deem cool or current or progressive, and then put their spin on them whether they are white, black or Puerto Rican. The gifted “steal” creatively and the corny do it insultingly tone deaf.

In that vein I’m gonna take a moment to shout out the career of Peter Gene Hernandez, the quarter Latino, two thirds Filipino singer-songwriter professionally known as Bruno Mars. Raised as a child performer in Hawaii, young Mars was a gifted performer, who could imitate Elvis, James Brown and Sinatra. He came on my radar as a co-writer of Ceelo Green’s “Fuck You,” a neo-Motown ditty with a cheeky hook, and was the vocalist/writer on a couple of straight up pop hits. Then, at the 2012 the Grammys, he and his agile all-black horn section, did a tremendous performance of “Runaway Baby” that flawlessly evoked the chitlin’ circuit glory of R&B showmanship.

I really needed to see what Mars did in a full show. Finally caught him at the Hollywood Bowl in 2013 and he put on an old fashioned R&B venue with the entire band doing choreography, long instrumental vamps (even on the pop hits) and much call and response between Bruno, the band and the audience. This singer-songwriter-producer was the best onstage male performer/dancer I’d witnessed since young Usher. Aside from the showmanship and craft Mars’ show displayed, I was also stuck by how little of this performance style remained in popular black music. Maxwell tapped into it. So does D’Angelo, whenever he decided to come out and tour. If you caught a New Edition show the boys from Boston still have it deep in their bones.

It wasn’t until Anderson .Paak’s break out in 2014 with the brilliantly groovy single “Come Down” that I saw another performer attempt that level of showmanship, especially since he used his backing band, the Free Nationals, in a way similar to his R&B elders. Paak is half Korean but, perhaps because he also half black, the singer/MC has avoided the appropriation attacks leveled at Mars. But the truth I’ve found very few African-American millennial male performers who work as successfully in this grand energetic, tightly scripted, dynamic black show business tradition — much less did it while recording 21st century smash hits. It was impressive that both because Mars and .Paak were so damn engaging, invoking the past while making radio friendly music for now.

“What Bruno Mars does, is he takes pre-existing work and he just completely, word-for-word recreates it, extrapolates it,” writer Seren Sensei wrote in 2018. “He does not create it, he does not improve upon it, he does not make it better. He’s a karaoke singer, he’s a wedding singer, he’s the person you hire to do Michael Jackson and Prince covers.” She was incensed that his Mars’ album ‘24K Magic’ Won Album of the Year and that Prince never had.

Many black celebrities came to his defense, most notably Charlie Wilson, former of the Gap Band, who successfully sued Mars for songwriting royalties on the massive 2015 hit “Uptown Special.” That suit certainly fed the critique of Mars’ as articulated by Sensei and others. But, for me, that case doesn’t invalidate Mars’ body of work, on and off stage, or undercut his value. Besides Grammy voting is its own weird universe. (In 1985, the year ‘Purple Rain’ was eligible for album of year, it lost out of Lionel Richie’s ‘Can’t Slow Down,’ which says more about the Grammy voters than the music voted upon.)

Charging “appropriation” is part of the blame game that uses the success of a younger artist to point out the injustices, financially and historical, to performers and genres in the past. As part of a strategy to call out the craven or lazy it’s a useful tool. When people called out Iggy Azalea in 2015 for appropriation when “Fancy” was a huge hit, while black female MCs struggled for exposure, I was down. She was a blond babe gimmick, a true one hit wonder, and soon receded from view.

But Bruno Mars is not stealing “our” music. He wasn’t a parody of R&B or new jack swing. In fact he was one of the only people with a mass audience keeping these styles alive. Putting out a record celebrating funk in 2015 or new jack swing in 2017 were as far from a commercial slam dunk as one could get. Black folks, both as creators and customers crave innovation, invention and the constant shock of the new. It’s why black music has moved like a tractor through the cow pasture otherwise known as American culture. The search for new sounds have driven everything from bebop to trap.

What was left behind in this process? Entire aesthetic revolutions that are the envy of other cultures globally are left on the side of the road, like vintage cars now viewed as hoopties. Mars goes into the junkyard of African-American expression, stripped off the spare parts, made a sleek new muscle car and drove it smack dab up the digital highway. The man may not have the ethnic DNA of Babyface & LA, the Gap Band, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Teddy Riley etc but he has retrofitted their brand of R&B and funk for the Spotify generation. When he accepted his Grammy for ‘24K Magic’ Mars name checked Babyface, Teddy Riley and Jimmy Jam Harris & Terry Lewis, giants of late 20th century R&B, who are currently irrelevant to commercial black music. For a lot of people watching Mars might as well have been talking about Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry.

Those who burn Bruno Mars in digital effigy should have been happy the man was keeping a part of black musical history current, not just relegated to performers on a Tom Joiner oldies cruise. The current collaboration of Mars and Paak, along with Bootsy Collins as Silk Sonic, is as natural as milk and cookies. Two gifted singer/musicians obsessed with the past, yet capable of translating R&B traditions for 21st century artists. Which raises the musical question: are you truly appropriating when you embrace what has been already been discarded? Definitely looking forward to hearing the entire Silk Sonic album and the post-pandemic tour to come.

Author and filmmaker. Current books: a novel, The Darkest Hearts (Akashic); music collection The Nelson George Mixtape (Pacific)

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