I want to be white for a day. For no other reason than I am curious to know what it’s like to be christened a king despite offering only a pauper’s level of effort. Sam Smith can certainly sing, but as far as being a soul singer goes, he ranks right up there with soul legends like Bette Midler and Lance Bass. However, because he’s white, he is handed the crown by virtue of simply walking in the room.
Enter Smith’s GQ profile, which is titled “.” In it, writer Amy Wallace describes Smith’s debut album, In the Lonely Hour, as “part funky falsetto, part gospel-infused electronic pop.” This is both majorly hyperbolic and highly irritating. How does that combination even translate to “The New Face of Soul?”
GQ’s christening recalls Forbes last year publishing the piece, “Hip-Hop Is Run by a White, Blonde, Australian Woman.” After noted pushback, the article was changed to “Hip-Hop’s Unlikely New Star: A White, Blonde, Australian Woman.” The latter title made more sense, but the former is the sort of clickbait that drives traffic.
One imagines GQ knew that sort of bold proclamation would generate interest as soon as the article made its way online. I would love it if these mainstream publications would stop trolling Black people online, but I have to acknowledge that GQ is not the first to make this inept claim about Sam Smith.
Last year, VIBE deemed Smith “the ruler of soul.” In response, I wrote at the time, “Sam Smith can sing, but if Luther Vandross is collard greens and smoked turkey, Sam Smith is kale with the wrong kind of hot sauce. That’s cute if you like the latter, but never mistake it for the former.”
If you’re familiar with the Foxy Brown track “I Can’t” featuring Total, this is the part where you should sing, “Say it again, say it again. Say it again, say it again.”
Yet, here we are, still having to discuss Soul Zero being hailed as the savior of a genre he isn’t even a genuine participant in.
Omarosa Manigault infamously explained to Bethenny Frankel during an appearance on her now cancelled talk show, “You get to walk around and be mediocre and you still get rewarded with things. We have to be exceptional to get anything in this business.”
So many of us – black and white alike – get so excited when white people can even competently do something we liken to Black culture.
Yet, even when blacks are exceptional, we often go unacknowledged. Ultimately, it’s just a headline, but it points to a larger problem where white singers like Adele, Ed Sheeran, and Sam Smith are praised for their “soulful” works that a decade ago, would simply be thrown into the adult contemporary pile with Sarah Mclachlan and co.
They are not Amy Winehouse. They are not Michael McDonald. They are not Teena Marie. They’re not even Justin Timberlake’s thin falsetto getting the big boost from Timbaland. Or Robin Thicke rummaging through the Marvin Gaye catalog for ideas. Allegedly.
To call Sam Smith the face of soul is to insult the contemporary artists actually doing interesting things within the genre — like Miguel, who deserves far more credit but has too much pigmentation for certain publications to garner such praise.
Perhaps part of it is rooted in the current music climate producing a scarcity of singers who can actually sing, though much of like feels like further attempts at erasure. It also points to the benefits of lowered expectations. We should have higher
Whatever it is, be clear: it’s dead wrong.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem, and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him @youngsinick.