Episode Three: Southern Souls

This week, we talk about songs and albums, lyrics and melodies, sounds and sensations with Scott Heath, a professor of African American literature and culture at Georgia State University, and we learn about the southern inflections of soul and neosoul music along with African American music more generally.

D'Angelo performing at Brixton Academy, February 2012. Photo credit: Phil Sheard

D'Angelo performing at Brixton Academy, February 2012. Photo credit: Phil Sheard

Since Andre 3000 proclaimed that “the South got something to say” after Outkast won the Best New Rap Group at the Source Awards in 1995, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in southern hip_hop artists. However, there are several distinctly southern artists who are not necessarily considered in conversations about southern musical traditions.

An excerpt from the VH1 documentary 'ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta's Rise in the Rap Game' (2014).

We begin by investigating the importance of regional identity to certain genres of music. As Scott explains, attaching a musical aesthetic to a region only happens in a couple of genres: country and hip_hop. While country music is associated with the South, hip_hop was primarily associated with urban centers on the East and West coasts (until Outkast’s prominence beginning in the mid-90s, at least). These regional affiliations often either necessitate that the artist either relocate, adopt the sound of another region, or risk causing a disruption in the genre. Investigating the effect of music genres tied to certain regions prompts us to ask what an artist might gain or lose by associating with a particular region. We also ask what makes an artist “southern,” and what qualities make music sound “southern.”

Taylor Swift performs "Our Song" at the 2007 Country Music Awards.

With these questions in mind, we begin to consider neosoul. Neosoul grows out of soul music, which itself is a hybrid of 60s R&B and gospel music, along with some elements from jazz and blues. Initially, the most popular artists creating soul music—Ray Charles, Nina Simone, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin—were all born in the South. Scott argues that the South remains the intellectual home of soul music into the neosoul era, with D’Angelo (from Richmond, Virginia) and Erykah Badu (from Dallas, Texas). We also discuss connections between Badu’s “Southern Girl” (1999) and Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) in their depictions of unapologetic southern black womanhood.

Provided to YouTube by Universal Music Group North America Southern Girl · Erykah Badu Southern Girl ℗ 1999 Universal Motown Records

Finally, we investigate what happens when artists outside of the region adopt the aesthetics of southern rappers, as we turn our attention toward Desiigner, a Brooklyn rapper who has gained prominence by emulating Future, an Atlanta-based artist. To help us understand Desiigner’s success, Scott introduces the concept of the “long South,” in which contemporary African American music from across the U.S. is connected by a series of resonances to traditions emanating from the U.S. South.

We would like our special guest, Scott Heath. You can explore his other work on teaching poetry through Kanye West, archiving the black 90s, and viewing recent media related to slavery.

We would also like to thank our musical contributor Brian Horton. Please visit his website and support his music.