Black History Month 2017 is over. By the time I post this, March will have relegated February to yesterday’s news, and the official recognition of Africans’ contributions to American history will be just that: history… well, at least until next February when we “officially” get to do it all over again.
As a music blog site, djrobblog uses the annual occasion to reflect on contributions by African-Americans in music (see last month’s articles about that endangered species known as R&B groups, both male and female). But with this year’s ending to the formal honoring of our history and our heritage comes this stark realization: another non-black singer is carrying the torch for a historically black music art form that for the past 30-plus years has essentially been on life support…that is until Bruno Mars decided to turn up the funk on what was already a red-hot music career and resurrect a genre that had long since seen its best days.
His 3rd and latest album, 24K Magic, had already generated one top-five hit on both the pop and R&B charts with its funky title song and now has repeated the feat with follow-up single “That’s What I Like,” which is climbing at #4 on the Hot 100 and #3 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs list. In fact, when you subtract the hip-hop and look strictly at Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs list, “That’s What I Like” sits firmly at #1, giving Mars just his first chart-topper on that list and making him the latest non-black artist to achieve the feat.
But if you probe deeper and ask what’s the historically black music genre that Bruno Mars is actually saving? Well, it goes beyond R&B and extends to funk music. In fact, if Billboard had a “Hot Funk Songs” chart, not only would Mars be atop the list with the stellar mid-tempo groove that is “That’s What I Like,” but he might very well own every position in the top five with tracks from his latest album.
Mars, who was born Peter Gene Hernandez in Honolulu, HI, is of Puerto-Rican, Ashkenazi-Jewish, Filipino and Spanish descent (according to Wikipedia). In other words, Bruno Mars ain’t a brotha.
But he certainly isn’t the first non-black artist to enjoy R&B chart success during the current millennium. Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke are the most notable blue-eyed soul crooners who’ve delved into funk in recent years. And white Canadian artist Alessia Cara had a #1 hit on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop charts last year with her breakout single, “Here,” although that was soul and not funk.
But don’t get it twisted. Not everyone who didn’t come by it honestly is given a free pass to funk music’s exclusive club by its gate-keepers. Just over a decade ago when Timberlake proclaimed he was bringing “Sexyback” with his #1 single of the same name, the late funk music progenitor (and worldwide icon) Prince took issue with the former N-Sync singer by famously retorting that sexy had “never left.” Technically the focus may have been on the word “sexy,” but Prince was making it clear to JT: don’t be thinking you can jump from singing pop ditties like “Bye, Bye, Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” to appropriating a black music style less than a decade later and we won’t have anything to say about it.
Then, just three years ago after Robin Thicke scored a massive hit with the funky “Blurred Lines” – a song obviously and heavily “inspired by” the late Marvin Gaye’s funkiest single ever, “Got To Give It Up” – Thicke (and fellow songwriter Pharrell Williams) ran into a buzz saw when the Gaye estate called “Blurred Lines” out, saying the 2013 hit was structured a little too much like the 1977 classic. The courts agreed.
So did I.
However, Bruno Mars’ path to funk royalty seems to be a much easier one than either Timberlake’s or Thicke’s was. Sure Mars was also sued – along with producer Mark Ronson – by multiple parties for his 2015 uber-hit “Uptown Funk,” which was a virtual textbook case of how to borrow liberally from the throwback funk of decades past and still make it sound contemporary today.
But, seemingly undaunted, Mars and Ronson simply settled with one of those parties – the Gap Band – whose core members now share writing credits for “Uptown Funk,” based on its alleged similarities to the funk classic “I Don’t Believe You Wanna Get Up and Dance (Oops Upside Your Head).”
Although I never saw the copyright connection between “Uptown Funk” and “Oops Upside Your Head,” the out-of-court gesture was more than a good business move by Bronson and Mars. It was a show of deference to one of funk’s greatest pioneers and a signal that this was a music style that Mars clearly intended to make a part of his repertoire going forward.
And so he has.
Now, Mars is bringing da funk AND da noise much more consistently and more convincingly than any of his pop-crossover contemporaries ever have. In fact, he’s doing it better than ANY artist now – black, white or otherwise. The album 24K Magic consists almost exclusively of funk joints, with classic horn sections, guitar riffs, bass lines and 4/4 drum patterns that recall late ’70s/ early ’80s jams by Gap Band, Zapp, Prince, (early) Kool & the Gang and The Time.
At times, Bruno Mars even recalls James Brown (see the album’s third track, “Perm”) with call-and-response verses, a rap-sung delivery and spontaneous yelps and screams that would make even the late Godfather of Soul proud.
But Mars seems to also understand that he is riding a wave that would not have been possible were it not for all those funk legends who came before him. He proved his respect with a spot-on performance of “Let’s Go Crazy” in tribute to Prince at last month’s Grammy Awards show. To wit, if Bruno had ever been as bold as Timberlake to make a claim that he (alone) is bringing funk music back, it might have given Prince a slight pause were he alive to hear the boast. But even His Purple Highness would ultimately have had to admit that Mars is putting down some legitimate, good old-fashioned funk on par with a lot of those greats of the past.
After all, somebody’s gotta do it. Before his death, Prince tried to keep funk’s flame burning with his late-career album releases. But radio and the industry had long since moved on from the Purple One, relegating those albums to essentially the same dismal sales status that funk albums of the 1980s’ post-disco era had to endure.
However, the industry – radio, digital, streaming, awards shows, you name it – has fully embraced Bruno Mars, who has now sold over 120 million records and downloads in his short seven-year chart career, already making him one of the biggest-selling artists of all time. That he chooses to continue breaking down traditional racial barriers by making funk his brand of choice is thus a good thing, especially if it keeps funk music off life support – even if only for as long as Bruno’s latest album is still hot.
And, mark my word, 24K Magic is still very hot… scorching actually. And Bruno Mars is the only major artist who is playing (very well, I might add) funk music today.
After all, somebody’s gotta do it.
Check out this awesome video clip of his latest single, “That’s What I Like,” below.
ps: thanks to my frat brother Reggie Hammond for the inspiration for this article!