Drake offered fans an unexpected drop of his latest album, Honestly, Nevermind, in the last week of this week. Its release, only one year after the previous album, Certified Lover Boy, was met with mixed reviews from critics and was surprising. Many fans were hoping for an update to the music he made famous: the standard beats, bassy, euphoric hip-hop songs to contemplate and wretched lyrics that would become the primary focus of Instagram captions throughout the remainder of summer. However, another snarky surprise was delivered: tracks after tracks of deep house beats.
A few days after, Beyonce released a teaser for her new single, Break My Soul, featuring the distinct bassline from the classic house track Show Me Love by Robin S. It’s been challenging to define Beyonce’s style in the past few times. The critically acclaimed album Lemonade contained songs which pushed the boundaries, such as the country-influenced track Daddy Lessons – but on all, the album was solidly rooted in the genre of R&B that was popular and chart-topping throughout the past decade. However, this track was a refreshing change and a clear hark back to the 90s house.
It’s not surprising that this change of tone from two major global players in the world of R&B and hip-hop has received severe criticism, with both artists accused of catering to white tastes and even their pockets. The criticism stems from the fact that both artists have decided to focus on an area that isn’t typically considered part of our current view of commercially profitable Black music. Yes, both had played with the house in the past, with Drake in the top 10 charting Passionfruit in addition to Beyonce with Formation and Formation, which offered hints of New Orleans house offshoot genre bounce but have largely kept it to themselves up until now.
If you choose to trust the critics, this sudden enthusiasm for house music may initially seem strange or untrue. House has been a synonym for whiteness, with its figures still predominantly white DJs who are male, as well as electronic music festivals like Creamfields and superclubs like Ministry of Sound still pulling predominantly white crowds; however, the same could be said about many music festivals. A lot of young Black people accept this as the norm. However, it’s not a lot of searching to discover that the genre’s origins are deeply rooted in Black or brown LGBTQ+ communities.
House music originated out of Chicago’s primarily Black nightlife scene. The legendary house godfather, Frankie Knuckles, pioneered the distinct sound. The roots of techno also can be traced back to Black Detroit. There remain prominent electronic Black DJs in the industry like Honey Dijon, Jayda G and Seth Troxler, even if they’re part of an underground scene that caters to those who love music and are well-informed.
How did the house genre become so white? When electronic music gained popularity and was adopted by large audiences across the world during the 1990s gradually, white people began to adopt it as their own. However, the whole picture is more complex than just appropriation. The gradual elimination of Black impact on grime was assisted with the help of white people and their coordinated efforts to shut down Black nightclubs, with law enforcement often linking these places with disorder and criminality, a pattern that continues to be seen in the excessive police-policing of the grime genre.
When the genre started gaining traction in the mainstream during the 1990s, house music’s popularity grew, and white people began to appear behind the drums. The artists like Daft Punk and Pete Tong had massive success with music that featured Black artists. They turned into appealing, unobtrusive names that attracted white listeners drawn to traditional Black music. The gradual whitewashing occurred in tandem with the distinctly Black-fronted boom in R&B and hip-hop. Hip-hop was perhaps aware of what was happening to house and firmly rejected the idea of putting white artists at the centre, a pattern that persists today, but there are exceptions. The legacy of this era of segregation is evident in the white music lovers who are too attached to music not created by them and in young Black people who are not identifying with it. It also limits the scope of the possibilities that Black music could look beyond R&B and hip-hop.
The tension is evident within the electronic scene. Black promoters have come out in support of being barred from London’s most popular nightclubs. This year, Black producer Felix Da Housecat has accused Berghain, the electronic centre of Berlin, of discrimination against blacks after being denied admission. Solange has also shared her stories about “hostility” in primarily white spaces following a report of being thrown a lime at her during a Kraftwerk concert.
It is a good thing that initiatives have been created to highlight the Black heritage on which these foundations of British music culture were based. In 2020, Black employees of the website for electronic music Resident Advisor started a project to showcase 120 notable Black producers over the last 20 years. They felt that Resident Advisor had historically favoured white artists. Bristol-based producer Ifeoluwa developed The Digital Archive for Underground Music to combat his belief that Bristol, filled with Black tradition, mostly erased its impact. Both expressed the same sentiment that the past of Black electronic music was not composed through Black people meant that it often left out key events and the details.
Further afield, house-produced producers, including many in South Africa, such as Uncle Waffles and the now-famous Black Coffee, have become an aspirational Black icon of the genre, selling out major shows across the African continent as well as beyond. Maybe, as a way of leveraging that trend, the new releases from Drake and Beyonce are significant – but not just because they’re revolutionary or innovative. If you’re a fan of the house genre or not, it doesn’t matter. The renewed interest in house music isn’t an issue of taste and more of a method of taking control of a genre that’s had its origins taken away from the earth. Watching the world’s most famous Black stars discuss the history of house music will inspire Black people to study their roots and show that whites can appreciate it.