Five years ago I wrote a deep dive on the plight of Black women in R&B. It was a piece born out of conversations I’d had with female artists around their frustrations with an industry that has historically shown itself to be far crueler to Black women. There was also a desire, on their part and mine, for a frank look at the impact of sexism, colorism and Stan culture on Black women in R&B.
In my conversations I learned that the pressures a new generation of Black female pop stars felt from labels and audiences wasn't much different from the artists I'd grown up on and got my start writing about. The idea that Black women needed to be a certain thing in order to crossover and how their exposure often paled in comparison to that of their male counterparts or white women performing variations of the same music had only gotten worse in the years R&B fell out of favor on pop radio.
It was Tinashe who ended up grounding the piece, when she told me this during one of our interviews: “When it comes to black women, people want to put you in these almost race-driven musical genres. [Our] songs automatically become ‘urban’ or ‘rhythmic.’ I was creating music that didn’t necessarily fall into what people [considered] Black female music—and there was pushback.”
Speaking to visionary women like Tinashe, Kehlani, Dawn Richard, H.E.R., Jhene Aiko and SZA over the years has led to great deal of writing about the unkind environment Black women in the music industry are left to navigate and the difficulties to overcome those hurdles. I’ve gone back to that piece, and the conversations I had with those women, a great deal since then. I revisited the piece a couple years later when I profiled Lizzo, whose effervescent, genre-blurring tunes was receiving pushback from critics and genre purists who were unsure of how to categorize her artistry and music. And I revisited it throughout the research and writing of Didn’t We Almost Have It All: In Defense of Whitney Houston, a book that at its core is a treatise on the ways in which we are harsher in our criticism towards Black women in pop music.
That piece has also come to mind as I’ve followed Normani and Chlöe’s ascent as solo artists. These are two young women making wildly different takes on R&B that appeal to the pop zeitgeist at a time when the genre is enjoying a mainstream resurgence. But they are also industry veterans whose careers offer varying glimpses of the challenges Black women making pop music experience, and the scrutiny they receive for not immediately achieving a particular level of commercial success despite those hurdles.
Chlöe and Normani are possibly the two most hyped about R&B singers without an album since H.E.R.’s meteoric rise. Chlöe has released just one single of her own, the bouncy twerk anthem “Have Mercy,” while Normani has been slowly finding her path since Fifth Harmony went on indefinite hiatus in 2018. She released a string of slickly produced buzz singles as she developed her artistry before taking a step back and reemerging with last year's summer jam "Wild Side." Neither have released much solo music, but there’s an ongoing debate around both women happening online about whether or not they have what it takes to succeed on their own based off their small output.
Sure it’s a question that’s asked of any artist that came to public view by way of a group (Normani with Fifth Harmony, Chlöe as one-half of sister duo Chloe x Halle), but there’s a polarizing intensity around the two that’s troubling—and all too familiar for anyone that’s ever loved a Black pop diva over the last 30 years.
When Normani and Chlöe aren’t being derided for loving their bodies or exploring sensuality in their music (a tale as old as time for female artists who started in the business as kids) their burgeoning solo careers have almost entirely been judged off the promotion and chart performance they secure. Their fans passionately argue about why neither has landed a No. 1 hit and vent their frustration over the wait for the next performance/interview/single/album update to them and whatever members of their team they can track down on social media.
It’s all a well-intended part of fandom in the social media era, but the tendency amongst Stan Twitter to make rivals out of female artists has led to these women being compared and pitted against each other ad nauseam. There’s the group thing, and both are dancers that have cited Beyoncé among their artistic inspirations with the latter getting mentored and signed by the superstar. But if we’re being honest, Normani and Chlöe being young Black women also subjects them to this “there can only be one” mentality that seems to only be projected onto Black female pop artists. We've been doing it for decades. We did it with Whitney and Mariah. And with Brandy and Monica. And with Beyoncé and Janet. And with Rihanna and Ciara. And with Jhene Aiko, H.E.R., SZA and Kehlani.
This idea that there can only be one Black girl popping at a time is a byproduct of deeply rooted misogynoir that has long existed in pop music. Things have shifted, somewhat, since I wrote that piece in 2017. But rap still runs the show. In the last decade R&B/hip-hop reached a point where it was the most consumed genre of music in terms of album sales and streaming figures and Black women making hip-hop have accounted for more of that growth in the last few years. But that doesn't extend to Black women whose pop music is rooted in R&B. Only Rihanna, Beyoncé and Mariah Carey have gotten a No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the last decade with an R&B record.
The reality of the business has always been quite clear, particularly for Black women in pop. Chart hits speak louder than Twitter virality or critical acclaim and it’s difficult to launch an album without having a major hit. The idea that Normani and Chlöe will somehow become megastars with just a few records between them is unfair. Between the dearth of platforms for artists to get their music to audiences; the homogenization of the genre by hip-hop trends; the expectations to adhere to a traditional genre identity; and the constant comparisons that create infighting amongst fanbases, it’s never been tougher for Black girls charting a path towards pop stardom. Normani and Chlöe both have a real shot at getting there. We just have to let them figure it out.