You’d think that black music would be a fertile place to try to define this ineffable meme of post-blackness, but not so much. So many of today’s stars fit neatly into the rigid paradigms of blackness outlined way back in the 1960s: Motown, the house of classy, refined, 100% non-threatening, ready-to-crossover negroes (Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, Diana Ross, and the Supremes) and Stax, home of edgier niggas who could bring the funk like nobody’s business (Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas). If those labels were hot today, Motown would have the glamazons—Beyoncé, Janet, and Mariah—while Stax would have the raw singers like Alicia Keys, Keyshia Cole, and maybe even Amy Winehouse.
So where’s the post-black sister who’s challenging all that?
A woman who’s proud to be black but not always worshipping at the altar of blackness? I wasn’t the only black kid who went to prep school. I know there are others who grew up polycultural, loving Guns N’ Roses as much as NWA and The Beatles as much as Jay-Z. So where are the artists who feel like us? So many black artists are afraid to let themselves be influenced by white music, as if admitting the greatness of white music would be a slight against their own. I’m not talking about a little sampling, I’m talking about being drenched in it. I know that black music is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but lots of white people have come up with incredible records. No one was addressing that.
And then I found her.
The woman I’ve been looking for is Santogold, a Philly-raised Brooklynite whose eponymous album is the hipster album of the year and one of the best albums of 2008 overall. It mixes dub, punk, post-punk, post-reggae, electronica, new wave, and psychobilly, and gives you a young woman’s love of textures, layers, and electronics. Sant’s inspired by Nina Simone and the black punk legends Bad Brains, as well as Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde, the Pixies, and M.I.A., and she’s unafraid to show all of it. When I see Sant onstage with these big, complex, genre-bending sounds coming from the speakers, I think of her saying, “I got a sound system that’s bigger than your mind. Look what I can make it do. Roar!”
I wasn’t the only black kid who went to prep school. So where are the artists who feel like us?
The reward for stretching genre boundaries, especially for a black artist, is not fame. Sant’s too far out of the mainstream to get support from pop radio—she’s moved just 80,000 units—but she and her management team have plugged into another kind of exposure. Her manager, Jayson Jackson, says, “We made a conscious effort to find smart branding opportunities.”
His publishing company has relationships with much of Madison Avenue, and they were able to get Sant’s music placed in a lot of commercials, so many that you’ve probably heard Santogold even if you don’t realize it. Her songs are in ads for Bud Light Lime, Ford Flex, and VO5 Hair Treatments, and she made a song for Converse with Pharrell and Julian Casablancas from the Strokes.
She’s also been heard on Entourage, Gossip Girl (three times), 90210, The Hills, and Grey’s Anatomy. These are important ways of getting noticed in the new record business, where MTV barely plays videos and an artist’s MySpace page is a crucial link to fans.
What Sant really needs now is a spot in a movie—M.I.A. is another brilliant, widely slept-on artist whose six-month-old song “Paper Planes” was featured in the trailer for the forgettable Seth Rogen comedy Pineapple Express. That one placement sent it into heavy rotation on modern rock stations and zooming up the charts. I’m waiting for a director to become Santogold’s white knight.