SOULtober 2014: “Zak, you’re not black.” / What is Soul?

SOULtober 2014


“Zak, you’re not black. Stop trying to be.”

I can’t even begin to count how many times some adult told me that growing up. Teachers, parents, coaches, whomever. I heard it enough that it’s permanently ingrained in my memory. At the time, I didn’t get it. I still don’t. I never associated any of my interests or actions with a specific race. The fact that a person even could associate an entire genre of music or a sport specifically with one race baffled my pre-teen mind.

I’m now 22, and I’m still white. It still baffles me. How, exactly, does one “try to be black”? Sure, I probably tilted my hat to the side a little more than anyone ever should during my teenage years. I let my pants hang down my ass a bit further than is considered proper. But who’s the racist, the kid with a backwards hat and baggy sweatpants? Or the adult who see the kid with the backwards hat and sweatpants and immediately looks at such outfit choices as a racial thing?

That's not me, for the record. I've always been really damn skinny.
That’s not me, for the record. I’ve always been really damn skinny.

My two favorite athletes growing up, Allen Iverson and Chad Johnson/Ochocinco, were quite vocal about their “blackness” and that scared some people. But I was a fucking kid, I didn’t think about that stuff. I idolized these guys because of their dominance in their sport and their charisma. I legitimately never thought to myself that race had anything to do with, really, anything. But what really made certain authority figures think I was “trying to black” was my taste in music.

I LOVED rap and do to this day. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Hip-Hop history. It’s sort of sad, actually. I was listening to rap before I could really even understand the lyrics. The sound of and emotion behind it just captivated me. I was this 10 year old kid who would walk around with his walkman, listening to rap CD’s I sometimes snuck off and bought at Best Buy on family shopping trips (shoutout dudes at Best Buy who always sold my 10-year old ass explicit CDs). My parents knew this and most certainly did not approve, even going as far as confiscating CDs I had.

But I’m a sneaky mother-shut it. I would grab a CD case out of my parents collection (usually Springsteen or Petty or something else they’d actually believe I was listening to), take the CD out and put it somewhere, then put one of my raps CD’s in the case. So I had would have the CD and walkman everywhere with me. They thought I was innocently riding in the back of the car listening to The Boss sing about American pride. In reality, I was cruisin’ with my head bangin’ listening to Ice Cube, Eminem, and Nas rap about quite the opposite.


The years went by and I, sort of, expanded my musical horizons. I’ve always enjoyed every genre (including Soul). I just never really chose to listen to it on my own seeing as I was more concerned with expanding my knowledge of Hip-Hop while still finding times to listen to the classic rock anthems I knew every word to.

My newfound interest in Soul, however, has been sparked more by my disdain for some other current genres than anything else. I’m not trying to get into a whole thing, but the EDM/Rave scene was just never my thing. That’s not the music I want to dance to. It’s not what makes me happy. On the Hip-Hop ode to Soul “Slow Jamz” by Kanye West, Twista, and Jaime Foxx, the song starts off with Foxx saying…

You know, I was talkin’ to this girl. She was talkin’ bout the music all fast in the club, you know. She gotta drink water cause she’s thirsty. She danced like ninety-two-hundered songs back to back, with ain’t nobody really tryna find out what she feelin’

I feel like Foxx was talking about me. I AM THAT GIRL WHO NEEDS A GLASS OF WATER.

That’s a great music video btw…

So I’ve decided, instead of listening to the same 25 Kendrick Lamar songs I’ve been living off the last two years, that’d I’d go on this journey of cultural enlightenment. For an entire month I will listen to nothing but Soul. I’m setting out to touch on every era, subgenre, and region. Surely some great artists will get lost in the shuffle. If anything, I’m going to attempt to shed some light on some less-famous artists by todays standards. We all know names like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Al Green, etc. So while I’m sure I’ll cover them at some point, my ultimate goal is to find new soul music to enjoy.

This brings me to a question I need to attempt to answer right away…

What is Soul?

I don’t know. You probably don’t either. It’s a loaded question. Soul draws from and gave to so many different genres that many prominent artists and album can count as Soul while also counting as Gospel, Funk, Disco, R&B, Doo-Wop, Jazz, Blues, Psychedelic, Hip-Hop, or even Electronic. But in order to not get too out of hand this month, I need to establish at least a working definition. There are many different subgenres of Soul but we’ll get into that later. So I looked on the interwebs and got some key compositional and vocal components that are often associated with Soul music.

They include but are not limited to:

  • Often consists of handclaps, and sometimes the lead singer almost having a conversation with the background singers (referred to as call and response).
  • Key instruments often include electric guitar and bass, Hammond organ, keys, and horns.
  • Vocalist usually has vocal range that can encompass a wide range of human emotions, hence the word “Soul”.
  • Utilizes silence of “empty space” in the instrumentation

That’s really all I got. In the late 60’s Soul became something else entirely as artists ventured into different genres, but still fit into Soul. You don’t have to define an artist by one genre. Take James Brown for example. Referred to as “the godfather of Soul”, Brown began his career in Gospel and eventually gravitated towards Funk. Many artists struggle to find their sound within one genre. James Brown helped invent two.

Classic example of soul music, and a great fucking album.
Classic example of soul music, and a great fucking album.

Any music I go through will at least be considered somewhat Soul by sites such as AllMusic, Wikipedia, etc. I’m not setting out to define Soul, because I can’t.

While it’s hard to word a definition for Soul, it’s not hard to know it when you hear it. You can tell if something is Soul pretty easily. So while some of the music I cover will also certainly fit into other genres, some characteristics of Soul need to be present in order for me to spend my time with it this month.

I don’t really have a plan for this. I’m just going to listen to a ton of music share it, and write everyday. I’ll surely miss some important artists. I’m only a human being with a full course load and a Spotify premium account, after all. And not to be selfish, but this journey is about me. I’m trying to discover what I view as the essence of of Soul music. That may be very different from your point of view. I hope that some of you will follow my example and attempt to expand your musical canon, or just listen to a little bit of Soul music.

But if not, that’s cool. This gives me an excuse to do my three favorite things; listen to music, write, and argue with people on the internet. I don’t have a plan for this, but here are some posts to expect in the coming days:

“The Rise, Fall, and Re-Rise of Neo-Soul”

“Philly Soul: Highlighting contributions from America’s oft-forgotten great musical city”

“I got Soul but I’m not a Soldier: Soul music and the Vietnam War”

“Kanye West, Auto-Tune, and the lost art of Soul-sampling in Hip-Hop”

“Motown vs Atlantic vs Stax. ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN”

“Is the King of Pop also the King of Soul?”

Enjoy and as always, follow me on Twitter for more thoughts.

One thought on “SOULtober 2014: “Zak, you’re not black.” / What is Soul?”

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