Saturday, January 22

‘Something Has Changed’: Tobi Kyeremateng on R&B Crush | R&B

Alicia Keys, I have to pick a bone with you.

For the moments I spent in the back of the classroom imagining myself in the music video for You Don’t Know My Name. Me, all skin, bones, and fantasy, scrawling tunnel vision dreams on the back of school textbooks, distracted by the thought of an almost reckless and risky kind of love; one that in any R&B music video would see me abruptly leave the room to run towards my lover in slow motion, they standing at the end of the hall with a gold chain and diamond earring, the bridge made its way to the choir final.

Despite all the sounds that love gave us, from Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross summoning cries of passion in concerts from a generation of women that I am still learning to understand, to SWV and Aaliyah taking sensuality out of vulnerability, it was you, Alicia, who consolidated a sound of romance that I came to recognize; a longing love that spanned generations but lived in the now. “Grown up” but naive enough to live vicariously.

In my dreams, I recreated the moment when you call Mos Def’s character “Michael,” answering the home phone after 6 pm when house-to-home calls were free, calling someone’s son’s landline. She’d trade the cafeteria at 39th and Lennox for Mr. Thompson’s math class, and the fly blue suit with glittering cufflinks for the way she wore her white polo shirt under her school jacket, marking her Just Do It bag slanted. about yours. torso as if it belonged there.

In hindsight, she didn’t have to love the way she did, but Alice made love taste salty and sweet; of sneaking into the Cineworld on Southside with Asda snacks, delegating a coin to a Tango Ice Blast, and hoping, this time, they didn’t search our bags. Like something complex that shouldn’t work, and sometimes it didn’t, but when it did, was it unhealthy? R&B did that to you, sending you into a trance of incomparable passion.

So maybe you have something to choose from with R&B.

For selling dreams of men dancing down the main streets through the four elements, just to screech. For the boys from the extremes singing Mario’s Let Me Love You over the phone to the girls trying to move in, ditching the bravado of the playground for something sweeter. In order to So sick of Ne-Yo being the go-to song to sing at any talent show for a solid few years. But in all its rosy nostalgia and infatuation, R&B has always been insignificant. Songs about love weren’t always songs about love: Donell Jones, undecided about what he wanted in a relationship, would appear outside the restaurant window as the Candy Man once his girl found a new man in Where i want to be; Let’s get married from Jagged Edge sounds more desperate than romantic; Too close for the next To be downright unpleasant, to come to realize that “you’re making it difficult for me” meant a different kind of fight against temptation.

I don’t believe in the idea that “old school” R&B is the perfect execution of fading love, desire and need. I don’t believe in their rebranding of being the best sound of love that the younger generations are now churning with in comparison.

But something has change. Love sounds distant now. Like a muffled bass that seeps through flimsy walls. Like misty dreams that fade into oblivion the next morning. Like a kind of hesitation in the face of love’s lack of sensuality; their commitment, their vulnerability, their openness and their willingness to carry on. How does love sound to a society that is hesitant to embrace it?

Maybe you have something to choose with us.

For rejecting “who hurt you?” as a way to antagonize and pass the blame instead of asking “how do you want to be loved?” For reciting quotes from All About Love from bell hooks on Twitter and avoiding the work it takes to adopt it as praxis in our offline lives. For sitting in a false nostalgia for how love was once supposed to be, pushing the perfectionist ideas of a different generation, while minimizing their love to a form of imprisonment.

In the distant hum of what once was love, I still hear that song, that chorus, that melody, reminding me that no matter how messy, chaotic, and indecisive, R&B still keeps us close to our love; a muscular memory that refuses to forget itself. Perhaps one day we will return to this love, dusting off its cobwebs and forgiving its mistakes, fulfilling the promises we make to ourselves when we say that I have you, that is: I see you; that is to say: I love you. And when these songs remind us of our past selves, I wonder how we will look back at this very moment. How will future generations look at R&B and if they still wonder: “Who hurts R&B?” And “Who hurts us?”

Tobi Kyeremateng is a producer and cultural writer

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