Postmodernism, Pop Music, and Blues Practice in Nelson George's Post-Soul Culture

Article excerpt

[T]here is something missing in black America, and symptoms of the illness are in its music. (Nelson George, Death of Rhythm and Blues xii).

We are no longer post-soul. We are something else. For now, I leave that new definition to you (Nelson George, Post-Soul Nation 230)

In a period lasting about 20 years from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, author and music producer Nelson George published a series of books that examine African American cultural identity, popular music, and social change. This compelling series of books includes Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound (1985); The Death of Rhythm and Blues (1988); Buppies, B-Boys, Baps, and Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture (1992); Hip Hop America (1999); and Post-Soul Nation (2003). (1) These texts examine company histories, stylistics, and noteworthy recordings among several recent genres of black popular music, with a special interest in business models, artist/producer collaborations, and other practices and innovations that have made particular genres, artists, and companies succeed and fail. The texts also probe how black music styles have influenced music consumers and public culture during an era beginning with the rise of rhythm and blues and ending with the globalization of hip hop as a musical lingua franca among world youth.

More specifically, George's texts hypothesize ways that black popular music produces a collective black cultural identity by responding to social conditions and justice-seeking movements among African Americans. Collectively, the texts raise a number of questions regarding popular music, identity politics, and social change going forward into the twenty-first century: can the multidisciplinary discourse known as postmodernism be used to point the way from traditional identity politics and racial essentialism to more rigorous and scientifically sound understandings of race, popular music, and cultural change? What assumptions and methods are most useful for examining the relationship between African American cultural identities and black popular music? In future decades, should one expect that black popular music will serve as a leading force toward progressive social change, as it appeared to do during the periods when jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and soul music emerged?

Working from George's texts and a postmodernist/new historicist lens, my essay examines "post-soul" culture within a wider postmodernist critique of black cultural essentialism. Like George, I am interested in how popular music responds to and represents the collective cultural experiences of African Americans, and I am especially interested in the representational qualities of hip hop and blues music in the postmodern moment. I find hip hop to be an exciting subject of study because it is currently practiced widely with significant stylistic variety and a high degree of consumer and critical interest; hip hop is widely presumed, in fact, to be the musical style with the most current relevance to everyday African American life. Blues, on the other hand, is widely thought to be anachronistic as black cultural expression--once a genre engaging strong consumer and critical interest, now a subject of greater interest to committed aficionados and musicologists than ordinary music consumers or even cultural critics such as George. I do join George, though, in wondering what it means for the vitality of African American cultural expression and critical discourse to leave behind the traditions and institutions that produced classic rhythm and blues, soul, and blues, with shifting identity politics and declining black consumer interest in the blues being of heightened interest in my own critical reading of post-soul culture.

Indeed, I am glad to engage with George and others in an effort to identify where and how black popular music has brought critical insights on race, culture, and politics to a wider public--and where and how black popular music has had a less constructive role. …