Francesca Royster: Music, Identity and Soul

by Phillip Witteveen on March 4, 2013

Francesca Royster, author of Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, was a featured guest on WBEZ Chicago’s ongoing series for Black History Month. She, along with Richard Steele, discussed the era of soul music, a “coming of age through music.” “Music has always been a space to open up imagination and imagine new identities. But it’s also a kind of snap shot of a cultural movement, that moment after the civil rights movement, and the generation after that — where ideas about blackness and sexuality opened up,” Royster said during her appearance on the NPR affiliate.

Eartha Kitt, commented host Tony Sarabia, is an interesting figure that Royster writes about in that she straddles the pre- and post-soul time periods. “I thought she’d be an interesting performer to begin [with], partly because she is so odd and dynamic and theatrical — the kind of traits I connected to all these other post-soul artists to in the book,” Royster said. In the spirit of interesting performers, the discussion touched on artists from Sylvester, to Prince, to Michael Jackson, and settled on Grace Jones, the iconic woman who occupies an honored position on Sounding Like a No – No‘s cover.

“Grace Jones is such a fantastic artist, and sometimes underestimated. She knew how to make her way in the commercial world, and was in [a] James Bond film, but in a lot of other ways, was a sub-cultural figure, and someone who I really think of as a performance artist, as well as a disco artist.”

“I think there is a kind of way that she can be linked to an African diasporic spirit of protest and rebellion.” Although she didn’t reach the same levels of popularity as some other performers, it may have been because of “the way she countered the idea of authenticity — black authenticity and soul by performing … something else, whether it was a cosmopolitan European aspect, and also a kind of coldness, or distance, that’s different from what’s often valued in soul music — and just her outrageousness”

“Elsewhere in the book, I look at Stevie Wonder, who doesn’t,  on the surface, fit with these kind of outrageous artists, but like them, I think he used the space in his success to do some kind of outlandish experimental projects. So cumulatively, just looking at the way these artists use fame, sometimes as a place for experimentation, for challenging stereotypes, or norms about blackness”

This legacy of post-soul is still evolving and re-manifesting itself in modern music, comments Royster, with eccentric artists like Nicki Minaj and Lady Ga-Ga (descendents of Grace Jones’ fashion sensibilities, claims Steele), and perhaps more in music and identity, with the incredible up-and-coming Janelle Monae.

You can check out the full round-table here.

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