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What's Behind the Decline of Black Artists on the Billboard Charts

Updated on April 12, 2016
Michael Jackson's success spanned three decades
Michael Jackson's success spanned three decades

The gossip website Oh No They Didn't (ONTD) did an interesting original piece titled "The Hot 100 Top Ten has gotten less diverse over the years."This is something I've noticed as well. When I was growing up in the 80's/90's many of the dominant artists were black: Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, New Edition, etc. Black artists or artists of color seem to be less dominant now at a time when the United States is increasingly diverse. As I write this only three of the artists in the top 10 of the pop radio chart are minorities. Only one of those three is black.

"In 1995, 52 of the 68 Top Ten singles for that year featured one or more PoC [people of color] artists. In 2005, 48 of the 68 Top Ten singles for that year featured one or more PoC artists. 10 years later in 2015, less than half of the 55 singles which charted within the Top Ten featured a PoC vocalist."

The Hills and Can't Feel My Face by The Weeknd were 2 of the 10 songs that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2015
The Hills and Can't Feel My Face by The Weeknd were 2 of the 10 songs that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2015

What shocked me about this is how underrepresented white artists were in the past. In 1995, there were 12 #1 songs. 10 of those #1's were by black artists. At a time when America was about 75% white and 13% black, black artists made up more than 80% of the #1 hits. Even as far back as 1975 black artists were over-represented having 21% of that year's #1's when the US population was about 85% white. One commenter on the ONTD piece said:

"On that note, the irony is that artists like Meghan Trainor, and Adele, and Charlie Pluth, and Sam Smith, and so on, fill a niche of providing music we might recognize as traditionally black* while still providing us with white faces for that music. It's Elvis all over again, just less direct theft."

Is this a fair claim to make when in 2015 people of color made up 45.45% of the top 10 hits while making up less than 40% of the population? After all, people of color are still slightly over-represented and white artists are slightly underrepresented. Add to that, 5 out of the 10 songs that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2015 were by nonwhite lead artists and two others had nonwhite feature artists. There may be an decrease in successful nonwhite artists (or conversely an increase in successful white artists) but plenty of minority artists are still enjoying chart success. Still it's not surprising that many people feel there's a racial preference for whites due to history.

In the book How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll, Elijah Wald addressed the history of racism in popular music. In the 1930s white bandleaders like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey became hugely popular playing music arranged by black composers. Black bandleaders weren't played on the radio, so they became "wizard behind the curtain." Audiences wanted black music but didn't want it from black musicians.

"...white artists and aggregations that sounded sufficiently black could almost always get better jobs and more money than their African American counterparts."

Does it make much sense to claim that racism is behind the declining numbers when black artists managed to dominate in the 1990's and at a time when people of color made up a smaller percentage of the population? Whites make up about 64% of the US population now versus more than 70% in the 1990's. America has become much more diverse. Half of all children born in America are a minority. American music buyers are increasingly people of color and white people have been buying the music of black artists for decades. About 70% of rap music is purchased by young white males.

Radio stations are often segregated by genre
Radio stations are often segregated by genre

If racism hasn't led to a decrease in the number of people of color on the Hot 100 top 10, what has? Urban music may be facing the same problem rock music is facing. Radio has become increasingly separated by genre. Many radio stations in the past played a mix of pop, rock, R&B and dance music. Over time these genres became separated into stations focused on a particular genre.

Nowadays we have Pop, Hot AC, AC, Urban, Alternative, Country and Modern Rock stations. Some songs will crossover or find success on multiple formats. Rock and urban music seem to have fallen victim to this change. Songs that aren't pop enough won't get picked up by pop and Hot AC stations, which are the most popular formats in many areas.

Rock and urban fans also seem to be part of the problem. Rock and urban acts that try to appeal to pop audiences may experience a backlash from fans who complain they've become too "pop" sounding. Rock and urban fans are often contradictory, decrying the lack of their favorites genres in the mainstream while also condemning artists for selling out if they make their music more friendly to pop audiences.

Whitney Houston sang soul and R&B songs but she also released pop songs like I Wanna Dance with Somebody

In the past rock and urban acts could appeal to both their own audiences and pop fans without much difficulty. Songs like Eye of the Tiger by Survivor and Jump by Van Halen appealed to both rock and pop fans. Whitney Houston could appeal to pop music fans without alienating R&B fans. But times have changed and artists are often forced to choose between staying loyal to their genre or appealing to the mainstream. Many artists today choose loyalty over courting fickle pop audiences.

Of course, another factor is trends. Rock and R&B simply aren't always going to be the "in" sound at a particular time. Genres like rock, folk pop, EDM, rap, and R&B can go out of or come back into fashion on pop radio. This is not to say there are no racial considerations when it comes to what songs are picked up by pop radio stations or what artists get pushed to pop radio by major labels. But there are lots of different factors at work.


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