Charlotte's black music scene exists ... I think.
Currently, Grammy winners Stephanie Mills, Anthony Hamilton and Fantasia call this emerging metropolis home. Grammy-nominated crooner Calvin Richardson lives here, too -- as does rising star Rudy Currence, who was recently signed to rapper Ludacris' Disturbing Tha Peace record label.
Music industry veterans Ed "Special Ed" Archer and DJ Shogun have recently relocated to Charlotte from New York. Up-and-coming indie acts like Soulganic, Jocelyn Ellis and The Alpha Theory, Pradigy GT and Trish Andrews also reside in the Queen City. And Charlotte's own DJ DR has gone international with his uncanny ability to move the crowd with hits old and new, discovered and undiscovered talent.
So, if Charlotte has all of this going for it, why isn't the city's black music scene on the map?
According to concert promoter Michael Kitchen, it's because Charlotte does not nurture or support its local artists. "Charlotte's music scene is weak because people don't come out and support unknown artists," said Kitchen. "If they've never heard of the person, then they don't come. People here are more tied to radio than thinking outside of the box and aren't open to artists that aren't mainstream. We need to open up more avenues to local artists and come out and support them."
One of the ways that Kitchen suggests doing this is by having national artists host events to cultivate emerging talent. "It helps that we have three Grammy-caliber artists that live here, but they need to take more of an active role in developing local artists," he said. "Eric Roberson hosts events in New York that highlight local artists, so why don't our known artists do that here in Charlotte?"
Monroe, N.C. native Calvin Richardson agrees with Kitchen. "It is great that we have national artists living here -- Stephanie Mills, Fantasia, K-Ci and JoJo, who I came up with. At the same time, no one is really accessible because when we come home to Charlotte, we come here to get away from entertainment. We should do more, but for that to happen, there definitely would need to be a shift in that mentality," Richardson said.
Perhaps the reason that they look at Charlotte as a resting place -- as opposed to a place to develop talent -- is because many local artists have to leave town in order to find places to perform and/or to get a record deal.
"There really is not a black music scene in Charlotte as far as I'm concerned because there aren't enough venues. There is definitely not a shortage of talent, but in order to succeed, I had to go outside of the Carolinas," Richardson said. "I did a demo and took the music up there [to New York City], shopped it around, got a couple of auditions, got the music in people's hands, and then I moved to New York to make it happen."
Soul/pop singer Rudy Currence agrees: "I've been blessed to get a lot of love from Charlotte, but there aren't enough venues for me to play. I have to perform elsewhere in order to survive. As an artist in general you have to spread your wings and focus on a lot of different markets to really establish a name for yourself. I still live in Charlotte, but I work a lot outside of Charlotte."
Even if the city had proper venues for artists to perform, however, many in the music industry are not convinced that Charlotte audiences would be open to it. According to DJ Shogun: "Unlike other cities, including Atlanta, people here are more resistant to come out. They're kind of cliquish. Like in New York, people will go anywhere, but here it seems that people are kind of divided. Music is music, but it seems like people just want to hear a certain thing. I've never seen 30-year-olds in cliques except here. It's weird and high-schoolish."
The audience's reliance on radio for determining what is hot is a point of frustration for many in Charlotte. Originally from Columbia, Md., Jahmaar Stafford -- of the indie rock band Elenora Fagan -- feels that Charlotteans follow the trends instead of creating them. "They seem to know so little about music. Musically, there's more to us than just R&B and hip-hop. Blacks started rock music." A JCSU grad, Stafford named his band Elenora Fagan in honor of Billie Holiday, whose real name was Elenora Fagan, to hopefully inspire people to remember the roots of black music. "Our music is a mix between alternative, jazz and hip-hop. Billie Holiday informs all of that. In other places, people support all types of black music. What qualifies as 'black' culturally in Charlotte is very limited."
In D.C., Atlanta, New York, Toronto, Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, Oakland, Philly and damned near anywhere in Ohio (the funk capital of the world), folks come out in droves to support local talent of all genres. Perhaps it is a lack of knowledge of the significance of black music in the cultural development of the Carolinas that makes the music scene so precarious.
DJ DR believes this is the case. "The black music scene has no identity because there is very little culture and knowledge of broader types of music. People are pretty much followers. If you try to present something new, they're not open to embracing and learning something," he said. "Not everyone, but most people come out to party and hear their favorite six or seven songs and keep it moving."
"If you go to clubs in New York, Miami, L.A., people know what to expect," DR added. "There's no asking the DJ to play something that doesn't fit. In order to succeed here, you have to be commercial. The blacks have become so commercialized that people who really do know music get discouraged. It makes for an uncomfortable experience."
Maybe if people knew about the rich history of black music in the Carolinas, then they would be more open to supporting local artists and different musical styles. Wanda Hubucki of the Charlotte Folk Society states, "There is a wealth of traditions in the Carolinas. When I think about music from the Piedmont, there is a tradition of hymn singing that's still carried on in North and South Carolina." On March 28, the Folk Society will host the Black Banjo Gathering Reunion, a concert hosted in conjunction with Appalachian State University's Black Banjo Project. Like rock music, many blacks do not associate the banjo (which originated in Africa) as an instrument central to black music. It is, and knowing that might encourage people to support black banjo performers, expanding their musical repertoire and willingness to be open to other forms of music.
Charlotte has the parts to make it a successful black music scene, but needs to step it up in certain areas like mentoring new artists, creating more venues, expanding the definition of what qualifies as black music, and being open to new sounds that may become the city's black musical identity. Which leads me back to a recurring question about Charlotte -- is it ready to be a dominant force in black music?
Special Ed has hope: "Every city gets their chance to shine. They have to step up to the plate and take it. It rotates and goes around the country -- New York to L.A., ATL, Virginia, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis -- each area has an era in which to shine. Charlotte and North Carolina could be next. They need to make good music, put it out there, and market it strategically. Artists here do have an opportunity to make that happen. Charlotte's time is coming."