Five Artists Who Are Keeping the Soul in American Music

Jamilah King celebrates the year's renaissance of soul music--whatever that is.

By Jamilah King Dec 07, 2010

It’s notoriously difficult to define exactly what "soul" means, and even harder to pin down exactly what a soul singer looks, sounds or acts like. But what’s certain is that for the better part of the past 40 years, it’s infused virtually every popular genre of American music. And these days, it’s enjoying a renaissance as both familiar and new artists break into the popular culture.   

There’s perhaps no better contemporary, mainstream representative of soul music’s long-lasting legacy than Cee-Lo Green, whose third solo studio album, "The Lady Killer", officially hits stores today. The Georgia-born artist has been singing his way to the top of American pop charts for nearly two decades. He began with Southern hip-hop pioneers Goodie Mob, then teamed up with producer DangerMouse to form the group Gnarls Barkley. With an uncharacteristically melodic voice and stellar songwriting, his chart-smashing hit "Crazy" catapulted him into the mainstream, and with hit singles like "Georgia" and every angst-y lover’s anthem, "F*ck You!", his latest album is already generating Grammy buzz.

But soul music has also been the subject of much new debate. A recent story in the New York Times by Rob Hoerburger looked at a new generation of mostly white artists, known as "soul revisionists" like Mayer Hawthorne and Eli Reed to ask blankly, "Can A Nerd Have Soul?" Hoerburger argued that these new artists, unlike Cee-Lo, Amy Winehouse, and Raphael Saadiq, seemed to be "soul literalist[s]." "What Eminem is to rap, Mayor Hawthorne is to soul," said one young white fan in the story.  

Pop culture critic and DJ Oliver Wang accused the article of sidestepping the issue of race. "The whole ‘can a nerd have soul?’ angle, therefore, is a coded way of trying to ask, "what’s up with all these young white kids into soul music?" wrote Wang, before adding that the differences between today’s soul artists aren’t such an easy sell. "The soul world is rich with nerds and nerds can be rich with soul," wrote Wang. "But as with any world, "they are all complex and teeming with diversity. That, to me, is what make soul music in 2010 so damn interesting."

Cee-Lo’s helped popularize a conversation that other artists have been having for years. So since this year’s been packed with any number of well-known soul artists (Erykah Badu, Bilal, and Janelle Monae) and emergence of not-so-well-known ones (Nigerian-born songstress Nneka and former Erykah Badu back-up singer YahZarah), we’ve rounded up a few of our favorites. Check out our list, and feel free to add your own in the comments below.

Aloe Blacc, "Good Things" (Stones Throw, 2010)

When your press bio touts a love of transcendentalism and french existentialism, it’s fair to say that you won’t easily fit into mainstream musical boxes. That’s definitely the case for Aloe Blacc (born Ebgert Nathaniel Dawkins III), a USC graduate who first made his mark in the late 90’s as one half of the underground hip-hop group "Emanon." His latest hit, "I Need a Dollar" was featured on HBO’s "How to Make It in America" and has easily become the rally cry for an era of down and out laborers. "Perhaps the reason soul music is relevant in 2010 is that it’s timeless," he recently told the New York Times.

"You can’t put a date on it. The reason it’s not prevalent is that the music industry is pushing junk down our throats. It’s McDonald’s every day. People are hungering for solid food."


Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings,
 "I Learned the Hard Way" (Daptone Records, 2010)

Called "meticulous soul revivalists" by Saki Knafo at the New York Times, this nine-piece band was founded by musical purist Gabriel Roth with one main goal: to make the music that soul purists would love to listen to. While Roth writes, produces and plays bass for the ensemble, 54-year-old Georgia-born singer Sharon Jones is the group’s undisputed star. Jones had a gospel and soul career in the early 70’s, and later worked as a corrections officer at New York City jailhouse Riker’s Island before stepping back into a singing career in the late 90’s.

"I Learned the Hard Way" is the band’s third album.


Asa, "Beautiful Imperfection" (Naive Records, 2010)

Born in Paris and raised in Nigeria, Asa’s gained more attention in France, Belgium, and Switzerland than she has in the United States. But that’ll likely to change soon. And her musical inspirations seem as varied as her personal history: She grew up surrounded by the sounds of Aretha Franklin, Fela Kuti and Marvin Gaye. At 18 she enrolled in music school and learned to play songs by her favorite artists in English and Yoruba. In 2007 she released her first album, "Asha."

Her second album "Beautiful Imperfection" was released in October and showcases an uptempo, rock-tinged style infused with plenty of 60’s soul.


Georgia Ann Muldrow, "Kings Ballad" (Ubiquity, 2010)

With a stellar voice and unabashedly political tone, Georgia Anne Muldrow’s pedigree reads like something out of a sort of 20th century musical catalog. Her father was a renowned jazz guitarist, her mother’s the musical director of a spiritual center in Los Angeles, and her husband is fellow artist and label-mate Dudley Perkins. But Muldrow’s musical accomplishments stand firmly on her own. Muldrow’s used her powerful voice to team up on recent tracks with Erykah Badu and Mos Def. "Kings Balled" is her third studio album.


Kings Go Forth, "The Outsiders Are Back" (Luaka Bop, 2010)

This band’s lead singer is another ’70’s era musician who’s found a second wind in 56-year-old Black Wolf (born Jesse Bilal). Based out of Milwaukee, Kings Go Forth didn’t exactly start out as a band looking to make a big statement. Andy Noble, the band’s founder, started it to increase publicity for his niche record shop. But the 10-member band’s throwback version of brass and funk has made fans of many industry enthusiasts. This is their first full-length album.