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Whitney Houston’s biopic shows why it was absurd to think she didn’t make “black music.”


The life of the greatest voice of his generation, or simply The Voice, is treated as a biopic in “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Kasi Lemmons. Glimpses of Whitney Houston’s (Naomi Ackie) struggles as a drug addict, queer woman, colossal pop star and wife of Bobby Brown all rear their ugly heads.

When we look back at the singer’s legacy, the aforementioned examples are the most egregious examples of tabloid fodder that spawned heartache and anxiety within. However, as the film explores, Houston faced heavy criticism about her blackness which also affected her deeply. Whispers and cries from the Peanut Gallery to social justice leaders accused the singer of “selling himself” to please white audiences.

The idea that she was a betrayal has always been a ludicrous narrative that has only flattened and distressed enormous talent.

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” suffers from thin dialogue and predictability — annoying pitfalls intrinsic to biopics. However, it is at its best when it acts as a celebration of Houston’s beautiful voice and reminds us of the line that black artists (often black female artists) are supposed to walk when thrust into the public eye. For Houston, the idea that she was a betrayal was always a ludicrous narrative that only flattened and afflicted a huge talent.

A key moment in “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” paints a picture of a pivotal 1989 night that Houston had in a room full of the recording industry’s biggest black stars (and Kenny G). At the Soul Train Music Awards, co-hosted by her cousin Dionne Warrick, she met her future husband Bobby Brown, who performed twice – once with New Edition and once as a solo artist. During the presentation of the award for best contemporary R&B/urban single for a female artist, a chorus of boos rang out from the gallery. At the previous Soul Train Music Awards, she had received the same reception. The two cases were not unanimously mocking; you can hear applause, but when aren’t taunts the strongest vibrations in an artist’s head?

Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston in “I Want to Dance With Somebody.”Emily Aragones/Sony Pictures

In “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” a 2017 documentary about the singer’s life, longtime Houston saxophonist Kirk Whalum remembers the event as “emotionally devastating” for her. ” I do not think so [she] never got over it. It was one of those boxes that was ticked, that when she finally perished it was because of those boxes and that was a big one,” he said. His mentor Clive Davis and label Arista have steered his music in a direction that might appeal to more people.In the documentary, Kenneth Reynolds, the late advertising and marketing maven who helped launch Houston’s career in the ’80s, said that Arista intentionally avoided sounds similar to George Clinton or Parliament.Records that sounded like something “too black” were sent back to the studio.Label heads “didn’t want a female James Brown,” Reynolds said. Even with that knowledge, the public humiliation she suffered at the Soul Train Awards seems gratuitous.

Another scene from “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” reads like a fictionalized account of various media appearances in which Houston was forced to defend the music she created. A disc jockey asks what she thinks of the accusations that she is a sellout who is not a real black artist. Houston responds, “if I’m not a black artist, then what am I?”

It’s a beat in the film that perfectly encapsulates the absurdity of this claim that has surrounded his career. Houston comes from a long line of black singers who began their journey inside the black church, where she received guidance from her mother, Cissy Houston, a talented singer in her own right with a pretty big voice. to serve as backing vocalist for Aretha Franklin. and countless others.

To wit: Whitney Houston was a black woman — ate black, slept black, lived black, cried black, marketed black, and died black. It’s a wonder how Houston could do anything other than sing Black too. Houston appealed to a so-called mainstream audience because she was The Voice. The “girl-next-door” image created by Davis, Reynolds and the Arista team was designed to introduce her to a wider variety of homes, but Houston’s singular talent has been the main agent. of its success. And who’s to say a black woman can’t be the “girl next door?” It’s silly and only stirs the beauty in which there are myriad ways a person can be black.

Houston was a princess of pop, but the accusation that such a thing made her a non-black star is peculiar for a number of reasons. While funk was never really his thing (funk isn’t exactly a known genre for divas of his vocal caliber), R&B was a pervasive force in his music from day one and throughout the height of the days when she was called “oreo” and “Whitey Houston”. Her very first single, after all, was “Hold Me”, a duet with Teddy Pendergrass. The most peculiar aspect of this review is the fact that almost all American music is black music. Black people are the architects of countless lush sounds, from rock ‘n’ roll to country, and pop is just one of them. Houston has simply done it all. the music she was capable of.

While Houston has mostly evaded criticism that she wasn’t black enough or didn’t make black music, the spirit of that indictment lives on today. Musicians like Lizzo and Doja Cat are getting the same complaints as Houston over three decades ago, but with the added component of the instantaneous nature of social media. What do these and other ratings of darkness actually achieve other than the ability to shatter one’s soul?

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