jazmine sullivan

Jazmine Sullivan

*Louisville, KY – There’s been a debate brewing among “Soul” music lovers recently that has caught my attention.

As a preface, It’s pretty common knowledge that music sales are in the toilet. Heck, only three artists reached platinum status in all of 2015 – digital sales and otherwise. That’s a problem.

But, enter Adele, the English chanteuse who sings like a caged bird and has captured the hearts and disposable income of an impressive cross-cultural demographic, black, white, brown, red, and yellow.  Her genre, “Soul.”

AdeleAfter a years-long layoff to focus on motherhood and tend to other facets of her life, the “Chasing Pavements” singer burst back onto the scene with new music and did what not many artists – not even Beyonce’ – are able to do.  She temporarily reversed the snowballing erosion of album sales to move over 7 million units of her new project “25.”  Only Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift are anywhere close to that league, but Adele had us at, “Hello,” the title of the single she dropped upon her return.   The song was everywhere, including urban radio, and created a multi-platinum stir for the album.

The voluptuous singer/songwriter is no stranger to success, however, given that her first two projects, “19” and “21” broke records by riding the Billboard charts for weeks, and weeks, and weeks … and weeks. But it’s quite amazing to go away for a while, have a baby and chill,  then come back with that amount of force when today’s consumers’ attention spans are equivalent to that of a gnat. And what’s also interesting is during her rise to the upper echelons of the music industry she had to battle and overcome criticism about her weight and image, most notably from the late Joan Rivers. Such attacks have derailed some, but obviously not her.  The self-assured singer clapped back in dignified defiance, then just kept on selling records and selling out shows.

But interestingly, this piece isn’t really even about Adele, which takes me back to the mention of the growing debate.

Let me make all this make sense.

jazmine sullivan (with giuitar)Last week, I noticed an article entitled “9 Black Soul Singers That Move Us More Than Adele Ever Could” in my Facebook timeline. I didn’t even read it (and still haven’t), but I could immediately grasp the gist of it from just the title. Then, a few days after seeing it, I had the privilege of covering a Jazmine Sullivan concert in Louisville, Ky. It was this singer’s image that was attached to the “9 Black Soul Singers …” article.  Recalling that and experiencing Jazmine’s impressive artistry made me instantly agree that we do have a trove of soul-singing gems who struggle to gain even a fraction of the success that Adele has achieved during her short career.  Other great R&B Soul singers aside, the fact that Jazmine’s career has some striking parallels to Adele’s made it impossible for me to not speak on the debate: Why is Adele so prosperous at doing what artist’s like Jazmine can do gagged and bound, while such artists struggle to stay afloat in the music business?

The answer is likely very complicated, but it certainly bears addressing.

As for the show, which also featured Vivian Green and Tank as the headliner (Jazmine could’ve easily headlined, but …), I was backstage for much of it.  After Vivian (with Kwame’ as her DJ) was done with her soundly executed set as the opener, she exited the stage, and up from the bowels of the theater emerged this imposing black goddess dressed in all black, her stylist walking alongside her putting the finishing touches on her hair. She just looked like she was about her business.

It was Jazmine, of course.

She had her game face on, but on her way to part the curtains to enter the stage, she paused for a moment to oblige me with a selfie.  She bent down a little to shave a few inches off the height her shoes had added, flashed a sweet smile, and I snapped the shot.  Then, in a flash she was in front of the mic, flinging her hair and pouring out her soul to a modestly sized audience.  But, although the theater wasn’t filled to capacity, the energy and adoration exuded by those who did pay the money to see the show was as thick as if it were.  It was kind of like hearing a choir that only has a hand full of singers but are so great they can drown out the Mississippi Mass.  “Real” singers (like Brandy, Jill Scott, Lalah Hathaway, etc …) have that kind of cult-ish following … but are typically underrated by the masses and underrepresented in the sales department.

It’s a curious thing what makes some of the most technically talented urban singers the most ignored by the mainstream.

Anyhow, as I stood and listened to Jazmine, also a singer/songwriter of the voluptuous persuasion, deliver hit after hit with impeccable vocal skill, passion, and SOUL, running, in my opinion,  “Circles” around what I had heard of Adele during her televised show, I was reminded of just how incredible her instrument is. And I’m not alone in my appreciation of her gift; she’s been nominated for a Grammy (award that recognizes talent over popularity) eleven times (three of those for 2016) during her career.  But competition must have always been impossibly stiff, because she hasn’t actually won one yet.  Adele, on the other hand, has walked away with ten gramophone trophies, with an academy award to boot.

Nevertheless, Jasmine did what she came to do during the show, convincingly delivering hits from all three albums (Reality Show, Love Me Back and Fearless), which also ironically mirrors Adele’s three-album to date career.  She wrapped up with “Need You Bad,” the song from Fearless that put her on the map, dropped the mic, took one photo with another fan backstage, expressed how tired she was, and dipped.  She only had so much time, not being the headliner, but her talent was so immense, experiencing it in such an in-between-acts whirlwind kind of left us hanging. Tank was no chopped liver and gave a comprehensive, variety-style show, but fans definitely wanted more of Jazmine.

Getting back to the “Adele vs Jazmine (and Soul singers at large)” debate, I’m sure I’ll ruffle some feathers by saying Jazmine can run vocal circles around Adele, but that’s my opinion.  So, I’ll back off that statement to leave room for varying tastes and say if not better, she’s undeniably equally talented. If you listen to the two note for note without bias, it would shock me if a significant number denied that she, a contralto/spinto-tenor trained at Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, is at the very least in the same league as Adele, a mezzo-soprano trained at the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology.

jazmine-sullivan-mascara-mp3-mainI’ve been chided for even comparing the two singers, because it seems like apples to oranges, but, along with numerous uncanny parallels including their ages (Jazmine is 28 and Adele is 27), the fact that Adele’s music has been classified as Soul and Jazmine certainly sings R&B Soul makes the comparison fair game. … and as writers, they both even write true to their own lives.

Reaching back and grabbing one of my initial comments about Adele and the scrutiny of her image, Jazmine, too, had public struggles with being critiqued about her body type.  BUT, the notion seemed to impact the latter’s career more negatively than for the former. Jazmine even temporarily divorced herself from the industry that she otherwise loved due to her disillusionment with the way she was being scrutinized. She clapped back in dignified fashion like Adele, but the net results were different, as the circumstances still drove her away for a spell.

Before her exit, she wrote on social media:

“Real quick y’all… IM BIG!!!! #nowcarryon #sheesh lol seriously tho, first and foremost I’m an artist. So my main focus from now until the day I die will be my art. Secondly I’m a regular woman. My weight fluctuates depending on what I decide to put down my throat that week.”

If anything I’d hope that whatever u see in me serves as a reflection and inspires u to love or change certain things abt YOUR life. That’s all I want to be for u. That’s all I have to offer. Please don’t idolize or put me on a pedestal cuz I’ll be the first to admit I can’t live up to anyone’s expectations. I’m figuring this shit out day by day like the rest of y’all. If me being or looking big makes you uncomfortable… Well I feel sorry for u. And if u must say something screenshot the pic and talk shit to ur friends thru text like the rest of us do! ??. ALLS I’m saying is I love u regardless and want u to spend ur day being happy and growing as an individual. With all my [heart].

Why didn’t her story read: “and she went on to sell millions, and win Grammys, and …” as did Adele’s?  Instead it went:  “and she abruptly left the industry for five years.”

Fortunately, the “Lions and Tigers and Bears” singer’s love for singing made her return to the mic. She not too long ago came back with Reality Show after five years on the lam (also similar to Adele’s hiatus). The album has made a critical splash, but she’s still undervalued as one of Soul music’s luminaries.  She absolutely has her rabid following, but she’s not selling out venues in minutes, getting spins on Pop stations, smashing ratings with TV specials, or  moving millions of albums like her “blue-eyed” cohort. It almost seems as if it’s easier for blue-eyed soul to crossover to black and other cultures than it is for the opposite (an age-old dilemma).

jazmine sullivanI’m not saying it’s a race thing, but …

It could be a simple matter of production (even though Soul is Soul) and marketing and promotion, but it feels a little more complicated than that, to me.

Whatever the case, shame on us for ever allowing such an immensely talented and beautiful artist to be shamed out of the industry due to unnecessary judgment and lack of support for even a minute, let alone five valuable years. Even though she eventually pulled herself up by her bootstraps and came back, the damage done as a result lingers. I love Adele and singers like her, but we should be celebrating our gems and lifting them up in support, including financially.

So, what is the chasm between Jazmine and Adele’s careers? Not sure it can really be defined when you strip away the successes. But playing off my earlier statement that “this piece isn’t about Adele,” it should be pretty obvious at this point that it’s not really about Jazmine Sullivan either.  In as much as the nuances of her career comfortably match Adele’s, she just so happens to be the perfect poster child for all the talented R&B/Soul singers out there struggling for sales and support while the blue-eyed soul singers (Justin Timberlake and Bieber, Robin Thicke, Sam Smith, Adele, etc) are “soul-singing” their the way to the bank. When Jazmine exited that stage in Louisville and said she was “tired,” I couldn’t help but take that as how she feels over all in her career, having to work so hard to achieve so comparatively little.

So, what is this novel really about? Let’s say it’s an open letter to  “us” to make an attempt at appreciating and supporting the gifted Soul singers that we have like Jazmine Sullivan; to industry execs to do a better job of marketing and promoting those singers; and to Soul music lovers in general to support the full breadth of the “good stuff” that’s out there, before extinction of black soul singers turns to non-existence.