As Michelle Obama prepares to take her place in history as the nation’s first African-American First Lady, it feels regressive to have to point out that the female presence on today’s R&B/hip-hop charts looks alarmingly pale in comparison to the abundance of guys like T-Pain, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West. Before you get your knickers in a twist, let me be clear: I’m not talking about the crossover success of pop stars such as Fergie and Gwen Stefani, but rather the current lack of diversity among black women in music. Hugely talented as they are, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Alicia Keys have all undoubtedly benefited from a color-conscious double standard that favors artists who look like them over, say, Estelle and Kelly Rowland. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Back in the day, Lauryn Hill, Brandy, Foxy Brown, and Missy Elliott were among the hottest names in the game; India.Arie had a Grammy-winning moment; and Mary J. Blige remains an inspirational trailblazer. But now it appears that vocal powerhouses such as Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia are increasingly rare exceptions to the widely held notion that darker-hued black women don’t sell records.
Before I published this post, I e-mailed a few artists and industry insiders, seeking answers to some of my burning questions: Does the problem stem from a lack of talent? Are artists like Estelle and Kelly Rowland more difficult to market/promote than Beyoncé and Rihanna? Why are black men seemingly immune from this double standard? How much does money/profits play a role in all of this? How can labels strike the proper balance between pandering and ignoring the problem? What can or should be done about it? No one replied. And I guess that says it all. Their deafening silence not only speaks volumes but it also reminds me of a song by Common called “So Far to Go,” in which D’Angelo sings, “You have come so far, yet got so far to go.” Word.