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December 28, 2010 at 2:49 PM

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Have you got soul?

Posted by Lynne Varner

The question is a line from the 1990s movie, The Commitments, a film about nine white guys from Dublin singing black soul music.

My column ponders these cross-cultural exchanges in music and other areas, a detour spurred by the death of soul singer Teena Marie.

Teena Marie was a renowned vocalists. one of the first white performers signed to Motown Records. Her triumphs weren't just musical. As I noted in my column, concerns about the white singer's acceptance by a mostly-black soul music audience dissipated underneath her enormous talent.

History will distinguish Teena Marie but from say, Elvis, who is beloved as well but also remembered as a singer who routinely appropriated black music and rarely credited the source. No one owns art forms but to not credit the source of ideas and genres is to plagarize them. Moreover, suspicions and fears that black musical forms would be essentially stolen were underscored by the transmission of the blues across the pond during the British soul invasion, but Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and other bands tended to credit for music's soul origins to those who created it.

Janice Monti, chair of Chair of the Sociology and Criminology Departments at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., says the embrace of Teena Marie is because the singer didn't simply learn soul music, she used it to pay respect to a culture that wasn't receiving much of it. When I think of her final album and its images of Africa and Martin Luther King, Jr., I can believe this.

Peter Rachleff, a history professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., adds that the issue of white performers in pop culture cannot be understood apart from America's sordid history of minstrelsy. That was after all the first entertainment form in which people bought tickets to watch white people white people performing their interpretation of what it was to be black.

Delving into the history of pop culture means entering a politically and racially-charged arena, ibut f the result is a blend of cultures and genres owned by no one and respected by everyone, let's have it.

Otherwise, when we box people into racial categories, assuming we know their values and beliefs based on the color of their skin, we do more than stereotype, we leave them no room to be more than one thing, for eample to nail rock music and the blues. Rigid social morays leave no room outside the box. To grasp the power of cross-cultural alchemy, I'd invite anyone to listen to Mia Zapata's, former singer of the Gits, rendition of "A Change is Gonna Come" . I won't enter the fray over which version is better, hers or the original by Sam Cooke. I'm merely saying a punk rocker in her 20s put as much pain and world-weariness into that song as did Cooke, a black man trying to survive America in the 1950s.

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