For the Black Music Walk of Fame in Atlanta to be taken seriously, it first has to BE serious!

(February 21, 2021).  I recently learned that the new Black Music and Entertainment Walk of Fame – or BMWOF for short – is breaking ground in Atlanta later this year and that its first three “foundational” selectees – Quincy Jones, James Brown and Otis Redding – have just been named. Also, 35 more artists and industry moguls will be vying to also be part of the first class of inductees in what will likely be an annual event beginning in June (during Black Music Month).

In a statement issued last October, the BMWOF’s creators stated, “The Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame will be a permanent monument to achievement in Black excellence.  We are designing the Walk of Fame in hopes that it will become a popular tourist destination, illuminating our rich cultural heritage.”

The first three automatic inductees to the Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame in Atlanta, from left: Otis Redding, James Brown and Quincy Jones

The Walk of Fame was created by Michael Mauldin and Demmette Guidry, founders of Black American Music Association, and Georgia State Representative Erica Thomas and Catherine Brewton, founders of the Georgia Entertainment Caucus.

This is great news for Black music specifically and, more broadly, for the city of Atlanta, which has long been considered the Black music capital of the world.  The BMWOF will be an indelible stamp symbolizing the city’s status as this generation’s Detroit or Memphis or Philadelphia, and rightfully so.

The organizers certainly deserve kudos for making this milestone occasion a reality because it has long been said that we need to stop relying on existing (white-owned) institutions to properly recognize our immense talents, especially when these longstanding entities perennially get it wrong and subject themselves to regular criticisms of being, at best, tone-deaf and, at worst, well worse.  

The three foundational inductees – those who will be automatically installed this June without having to compete – are worthy enough.  Quincy Jones is arguably the greatest music producer (of any race) of the 20th century and, among many other musical accomplishments, is responsible for helming the biggest selling album of all time (Michael Jackson’s Thriller).  

James Brown, the man of many nicknames – including Godfather of Soul, Soul Brother No. 1, King of Soul, with all of them being accurate – certainly deserves his place on the new BMWOF.  After all, he is the Black artist who charted more hits in the 20th century than any other, and he held that distinction until very recently when music streaming changed the game and allowed millennials like Drake, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj to take over.  

And then there’s Otis Redding, a highly respectable selection given his soul-stirring talent and his undeniable contributions to music before his life was tragically cut short in a plane crash in 1967.  His legacy has lived on for more than half a century with musical masterpieces like “Respect” (made more famous by Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin), “Try a Little Tenderness,” and his signature song, the posthumous No. 1 hit “(Sitting on) the Dock of the Bay.”

Each one of those three icons has rightfully earned his automatic placement on the BMWOF.

But one look at the 35 nominees vying for a spot, and it’ll be anyone’s guess whether this future Black institution will be able to elude some of the same criticisms heaped upon its more established counterparts like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Hollywood Walk of Fame or the Grammys for all of their perennial snubs and gaffes.

First, let’s look at the BMWOF’s categories and then analyze the potential inductees. 

There are both Hip-Hop and Mainstream fields (where “mainstream” is defined by the Walk of Fame as any R&B that is not hip-hop).  Note to the organizers, hip-hop is the new mainstream and has been for years now.  This categorization screams of the industry’s pre-1990s attitude towards what is now the dominant genre in music.  But anyway…

Each of those two fields is then divided into male and female categories.  It’s worth noting that there are no categories designated for “duos or groups” in either the hip-hop or mainstream fields, so acts like New Edition, Jodeci or Boyz II Men would be lumped into the Mainstream Male category if they were nominated.  Likewise, groups like Destiny’s Child, TLC and En Vogue would be relegated to the Mainstream Female category if they were considered.  Not sure how the BMWOF would handle mixed-gender acts like Ashford & Simpson, Sly & the Family Stone or the 5th Dimension, but that’s a different issue for a different day (none of the names in this paragraph are nominated, btw).  

Then there is the “Legacy artists” category – one designated for musical acts who began their careers before 1980 – because, well, we all know how ancient that year was in modern music history.  

While the selection of any year for that category’s eligibility would necessarily be arbitrary, to me it seems inappropriate to pick a year as late as 1980.  The only rationale I can see behind it is that hip-hop didn’t largely pervade the commercial music scene until that time, which clearly was a game-changer in modern music.  

But, to me, an even bigger shift in modern Black music came in the 1960s (or even late 1950s) when jazz began to fall out of favor and R&B, soul, pop and rock began to take over.  A legacy artist would then be someone like a Billie Holliday or a Duke Ellington, not a Chaka Khan or Lionel Richie – both of whom are nominated and are still alive and touring (at least pre-pandemic). 

There are also categories for gospel and music & entertainment moguls, although these two – along with legacy acts – are not split into male and female subdivisions.  Notably absent, by the way, is a jazz category.   

And now for the 35 nominees to go along with Q, JB and Otis:

Mainstream Male: Charlie Wilson, Pharrell Williams, Usher, Maxwell and Babyface 

Mainstream Female: Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Anita Baker

Hip-hop Male: Nas, OutKast, Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Public Enemy

Hip-hop Female: Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, MC Lyte, Lil’ Kim, Da Brat

Legacy Artists: Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan

Gospel: The Clark Sisters, Kirk Franklin, BeBe & CeCe Winans, Shirley Caesar, Donald Lawrence 

Music & Entertainment Mogul: Sean Combs, Dr. Dre, Queen Latifah, Will Smith, Jay-Z

Where do I even begin?  I’ll start with the Legacy acts. 

First of all, the most glaring omission: the late Aretha Franklin.  While all five of the nominated legacy artists certainly deserve recognition, there’s no way such a list can be considered complete without the undisputed Queen of Soul.  Her list of musical accomplishments – not to mention what she did for and meant to the Black community for decades – cannot be overstated.

The late Aretha Franklin

I love Diana Ross and Chaka Khan, but each of them getting a plaque on the BMWOF before Aretha?  Heck, she should’ve been given automatic status like Quincy, James and Otis.

There are other glaring omissions too, including Motown greats like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations and the Four Tops – all of whom changed the game for Black music’s acceptance in the 1960s and beyond.  If nothing else, these are true legacy artists (some of whom paved the way for label mates like Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie) and should have had automatic status.  Hell, Michael should get automatic status!

The fact that he and Stevie (or Diana for that matter) even have to “compete” in a legacy category is just plain ridiculous.  I can just hear Stevie’s acceptance speech now – assuming he’ll be selected: “thank you, but where’s Aretha’s?”

And where are names like Curtis Mayfield, the Drifters, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the O’Jays, Dionne Warwick, the Spinners, Earth, Wind & Fire, Frankie Beverly & Maze, and more?

Which points to perhaps the BMWOF’s biggest early mistake: the field is just too small.  To limit a “legacy” category that it defines as anyone whose career began before 1980 to an inaugural group of just five nominees is setting itself up for unnecessary criticism.  

Black music’s legacy had already been well established before 1980, and the number of acts who had contributed to it are far too many to count…and far too many to leave out.  Even the omission of Atlanta’s own Gladys Knight should have been a red flag to the committee that created this. 

If anything, a “grand opening” like this should have an inaugural list of “foundational selectees” with at least 25 or 30 names, and the “legacy” category cutoff moved back to, say, 1960 or at the latest, 1970, to limit it to those who are truly legacy artists.  

Then there are the Mainstream and Hip-hop categories, the eligibility for which is 25 years of recording (or beginning no later than 1996 for this year’s consideration).  

Already there are some questionable selections.

Charlie Wilson, formerly of the Gap Band

Charlie Wilson has certainly made a name for himself in the Adult R&B world over the last two decades, but his “legacy” goes back to the 1970s when he started with his brothers in the Gap Band.  His solo career didn’t really start jumping off until the 2000s (although, admittedly, his first solo album came out in 1992).  Still, either Uncle Charlie should have been considered a “legacy” act with his brothers, or a male soloist with far more credentials, like Luther Vandross, whose first solo album was issued in 1981, should’ve been named instead.  

Perhaps the organizers felt that only Wilson’s solo work deserved recognition in this field, which doesn’t explain the next example.

That would be Beyoncé, whose own solo work didn’t begin until 2003, long after the 1996 minimum cutoff.  Even if you include her Destiny’s Child work – which would be a double-standard considering the Gap Band and Charlie – her career didn’t start until 1997, a year after the 25-year minimum eligibility period.

And it’s Beyoncé’s premature inclusion that requires further examination of the Mainstream Female category. I’ll just throw one name out there: Whitney Houston.  Simply nominating her instead of Beyoncé (who should get her due when her actual eligibility would allow) would have solved many problems with the BMWOF’s list.  How do you not include a Whitney, whose career knew no bounds when she was at her peak.

The late Whitney Houston was not among the inaugural nominees for inclusion in the BMWOF

The other names in the female mainstream category are, thankfully, all credible ones, given the timeframe in which the category is confined (careers beginning between 1980 and 1996).  Still, Whitney’s omission is about as glaring as Aretha’s or Gladys’ or Ella Fitzgerald’s from the legacy group.

Then there’s the gospel category. 

Now, I’m not an expert on that genre by any stretch.  But it would seem that a Mahalia Jackson or a James Cleveland would have at least been considered legacy artists, or even foundational selectees before names like Donald Lawrence are cemented in BMWOF stone.  

It would also seem like Shirley Caesar, whose career spans seven decades, would be considered a legacy artist and not be relegated to a competition field against more contemporary acts whose minimum criteria is 25 years in the biz.

And, finally, there are the moguls.

Sean Combs, Dr. Dre, Queen Latifah, Will Smith, and Jay-Z.

Nowhere are names like Berry Gordy, Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, and others whose contributions to music have outlasted and, arguably, outweighed those of all the names above. Even a soul and hip-hop pioneer and entrepreneur like the late Sylvia Robinson would have been a nice nod.

Sure Combs, Dr. Dre, and Jay-Z have become near-billionaires who regularly top Forbes lists, and Smith and Latifah have expanded their brands beyond music, but this is clearly a “music” walk of fame (judging by the absence of any nominees in other entertainment fields, contrary to the landmark’s full name), and no one can deny the groundbreaking musical legacies of the names who came before these five nominees.

Can anyone really hold up the musical contributions of a Will Smith or Queen Latifah against that of Motown’s Gordy or Philadelphia International’s Gamble and Huff?

Kenneth Gamble (right) and Leon Huff are not among the moguls considered for the inaugural BMWOF

Say what you will about those other institutions.  But the one thing that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame arguably got right in its inaugural class of 1986 was that it took care of its true legacy artists first.  With rock and roll only being 31 years old at the time, there were only so many artists who met the Hall of Fame’s 25-year recording criteria and were thus eligible for consideration, arguably making it easier for the voting committee to limit that first year’s crop to the true pioneers of music.

The BMWOF got into the game late and its 25-year eligibility criteria (for the mainstream field) begins as late as 1996, which means there is more than a half a century worth of artists who started before then to consider for their inaugural class.  

Narrowing down that field would be no small undertaking for any voting committee, even a well-intentioned one. 

It’s likely that eventually there’ll be room for all the names I’ve mentioned plus many more, and the wrongs of the BMWOF’s inaugural year will be rectified.  But, for now, I’ll just close with this common sense consideration…

There is no way in this lifetime that an artist like Usher or Pharrell Williams or even Charlie Wilson should have their names enshrined on a Black Music Walk of Fame before an Aretha or a Smokey or true legacy artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, or Billie Holiday.

Or to borrow one of Aretha’s famous title lines, there just ain’t no way.  

DJRob

Michael Jackson should have been given an automatic entry to the BMWOF

DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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