Does Joss Stone sound too black?

Criticism of the blue-eyed soul singer's new album raises old questions about cultural appropriation.

Published March 27, 2007 7:00PM (EDT)

Over at the L.A. Times, the great music critic Ann Powers has written an interesting examination of the ways that Joss Stone has been criticized for her "black" style of singing. For those of you who don't know, Stone was born in Dover, England, is 19, white, and sings like the second coming of Gladys Knight. After two albums of slavishly faithful attempts to re-create the sound and vibe of classic soul, Stone's new album, "Introducing Joss Stone," was meant to herald the arrival of "the real" Joss Stone, as she took a more hands-on approach to writing and recording the music. The so-so album sounds a lot like her older work (a funny thing to say about someone so young), but it's already on the verge of being deemed a failure in England due to it's low chart placing. As the always insightful Powers explains, part of the album's problem is the way that, even on an album designed to represent her, Stone seems incapable of transcending the soul tradition she's so strongly influenced by: "If there's one fault on 'Introducing,'" writes Powers, "it's that Stone's comfort level with that tradition remains too high. Throughout the album, she sings in a voice she learned from those soul albums; the lilt of coastal England never surfaces."

Powers goes on to write that Stone's "refusal to see [her] identity as artificial" has singled her out for criticism regarding the "right to sing in a black style." It's a great point: Stone's unwillingness to pay fealty to the idea that she's some sort of cultural culprit makes her a target for certain critics -- some of whom have even gone so far as to label her a "freakshow." But isn't the argument that only certain types of people have the "right" to sing certain types of music hopelessly reductive? Should only poor white people play punk music? Do Northern-born blacks have less purchase on the blues than those born in the South? Can someone from California honestly play bluegrass? The truth may be distasteful, but scholars and critics like Nick Tosches, Eric Lott and Greil Marcus have shown that, for better or worse (and I firmly say it's the former), popular culture is one long story of cultural alchemy. Call it exchange, call it theft, call it what you will, but without the interplay between cultures, our world would be radically different.

This kind of cultural appropriation conversation gets kicked up every couple of years -- Eminem and "The White Rapper Show" being recent examples -- but it never seems to come closer to a resolution. As Powers points out, the facts of white privilege and the unequal economy of cultural exchange will always render Stone's blatantly appropriative style of music-making an intellectually and emotionally fraught proposition. I'm just not sure how the right-to-sing conversation can ever be resolved in a constructive or satisfactory way. Am I being too glib or pessimistic? Let me know your take on Stone specifically and cultural appropriation more generally. Post your answers in the comments section.

-- David Marchese

By Salon Staff

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