On Christmas Day, 2016 gave us another blow. George Michael suddenly passed away of reported heart failure, aged 53.
George Michael was more than a pop star with a godlike voice, superb songwriting skills and devastatingly good looks. Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, he was a white, male, queer, soul singer who rose to fame in an era in which music was racially segregated and mainstream culture was ferociously homophobic.
Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, Sam Smith and many others owe him a debt of gratitude. Like Michael, none of these artists are pop singers; they are R&B singers, but only labeled “pop” because they are white.
There has always been a deep segregation in music. The music industry was built from “race records” with artists like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and John Lee Hooker making labels rich, but only themselves pocketing a fraction of the money. Meanwhile, white artists like Pat Boone or Elvis Presley made millions singing music that was originally recorded by black artists. Even the R&B single charts were bizarrely titled “Hot Black Singles” from 1982 to 1990.
There was a differentiation between “black” and “white” music, which was eventually destroyed by Prince, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. However, George Michael wasn’t just another white artist rummaging in R&B. He didn’t strive for a “soul sound”; he was soulful without trying. There was never a hint of cultural misappropriation, unlike the accusations hurled at Justin Timberlake. He wasn’t in “urban drag” or co-signed by a heap of black producers. He was as soulful as any black artist, similar to the late Teena Marie.
In 1988, George Michael became the first white artist to reach number one on Billboard’s “Top Black Albums” chart. He also scored a number one hit on the “Black” charts with “One More Try,” which was the last number-one single on that chart (now named Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) by a white male artist until Robin Thicke’s 2007 “Lost Without U.”
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