Hours after the 2021 Grammy nominations were announced, pop star Justin Bieber took to Instagram to make a statement. Bieber had just been recognized for his 2020 LP Changes in a variety of pop categories, ranging from best pop solo performance to best pop vocal album. His lengthy post voiced neither excitement nor gratitude, but his frustrations at the Recording Academy for misclassifying his nominations. Bieber stated that “Changes was and is an R&B album. It is not being acknowledged as an R&B album which is very strange to me.”
His words suggest he feels owed a place and a voice in the R&B genre, a musical space that has long been pioneered and popularized by people of color. As far back as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, and as recent as Beyoncé, contemporary R&B has transformed traditional rhythm and blues into a mainstream musical force. Rhythm and blues, first introduced by African American communities in the 1940s, underwent a dramatic sonic shift to become the R&B sounds we know today — yet, the history and culture remain deeply intact. In an attempt to claim a place in R&B, particularly in its Grammy nominations category, Bieber is not only disrespecting the genre’s history, but would also potentially be overshadowing the many Black voices that comprise its industry.
One particularly prominent voice is Beyoncé, whose most recent single “Black Parade” received multiple nominations in a variety of R&B categories. The track, a tribute to the Black experience in America and a symbol of cultural pride, illustrates the rich heritage ingrained into R&B music and its artists. Imagine instead “Yummy,” Bieber’s lead single off of Changes, staking claim on the nominations list and sidelining “Black Parade” or the multitude of other tracks from Black R&B artists. This would effectively minimize Black folks’ art in a space they themselves created, suppressing an artistry so deeply intertwined with race and racial struggle in America — wherein Bieber is frontrunning himself for his own uncanny agenda.
Of course, this is not to say that a non-Black artist is barred from creating within the genre, because there are many that in fact do. The key difference here is intention.
Listening to Changes, R&B, hip-hop and trap influences are certainly present, but the record still remains overwhelmingly pop. It is worth noting, however, that a genre switch is apparent, though the case for its reclassification as R&B is extraordinarily weak. The album is still ruled by the structure and sound of pop music, making the purpose of Bieber’s switch from electronic dance music-inspired “Sorry” to tracks such as “Yummy” appear to be less about appreciating R&B, and more about riding popular trends. The trends in recent years have leaned heavily in favor of rap, R&B and hip-hop, overtaking the EDM-pop genre, which saw singles such as “Sorry” and “What Do You Mean?” dominate national charts. Naturally, many pop artists adapted their sound — and in Bieber’s case, toward one he clearly lacks appreciation for.
Overall, this trend saw the rise of R&B-infused pop music often from non-Black pop artists. However, white pop artists morphing genres isn’t a singular occurrence — in fact, this kind of trend happens periodically, and is visible in much of Britney Spears’ earlier work and likewise littered throughout the early 2000s.
Switching genres in this way has become increasingly normalized in the pop industry, often simply because artists balance a fine line between appropriation and appreciation. Many times it slides by without second thought, because genres such as R&B have become so popular that their tropes and styles become commonplace in any popular song. Only in these moments, such as Justin Bieber’s cry for recognition on Instagram, do we get to see the implications of normalizing the appropriation of Black-led genres like R&B.
When the culture gives permission to white artists to put on appropriating costumes and perform in a Black-led space, it becomes easier for non-Black people to take up more room than the people of color who’ve dedicated their careers to the genre. In the case of Bieber, we see him actively trying to enlarge himself in R&B, staking claim to the genre’s Grammy nomination categories, even if this is only an aesthetic he wears for an album cycle or two. When he eventually sheds this aesthetic — whether it be because R&B has fallen out of fashion or a shiny new musical style has caught public attention — he would have left a quieter, more invisible Black artist in his wake had he gained access to the R&B category.
This, in essence, is the main flaw in pop music’s affinity for genre appropriation: It feeds the privileged pop star the sustenance necessary to continue the racist trends that have for so long plagued Black folks — and perpetuates a success that rides on the shoulders of those who built it in the first place.