R&B’s Lost Soul: What 90s Girl Bands Taught Us About Womanhood

At the turn of the century, 90s R&B girl bands were the quintessential model for the new wave of feminism that was emerging.

Remember Cleopatra? SWV? TLC? Destiny’s Child?

At the turn of the century, 90s R&B girl bands were the quintessential model for the new wave of feminism that was emerging. Well, at least for me, a child born in the 90s, the music that had filled my stereos and captured my attention were the ones sung by daring black women. Their tales of love, independence, and sisterhood made me eager to grow out of my overalls and fill out tank top with voluptuous woman parts. Those ultimate girl power anthems produced by groups like Blaque and Xscape encouraged women around the globe to embrace their inner badassness, to be emotional in relationships, and to never be afraid to stand up for what they believe in.

kut kloseYes, I have become nostalgic for the pre-millennial feminism that was once packaged and sold on shiny compact discs at local record stores. The music that drifted into my ears on an early Saturday morning at the hair salon had subconsciously raised me to believe in the power of my own voice – especially in a world that had long oppressed blacks and women.

Unfortunately, today it seems that R&B has lost its luster. Gone are the days of women standing side-by-side, soulfully singing about the complexities of love and the intrepidness of being vulnerable in life’s quest for happiness. Now the category once known for “rawness” has been taken over by auto-tuned, industry-made machines spitting out flat lyrics for the sake of dollar bills. That “realness” in music is almost unheard of today. Folks talking about popping bottles in the club have submerged the artists have stayed true to the genre’s art to this day. Where did all our R&B go? Where did all our sistahs go? Women were the spine of the industry, the backbone of the genre. Black women and their stories of struggle and triumph. They turned up nightlife with music we could “jiggy to” and made us feel like the baddest chicks in town.

It seems that the death of R&B slowly arrived when reality television began to emerge. The last big girl band I can remember was Bad Boy’s Danity Kane, a five-member musical group formed through a reality-TV competition in 2005. By 2009, the group had disbanded and ended up being a reality-produced clusterfuck driven apart by shifty management and fame-hungry personalities. Watching Danity Kane fall apart was the moment in which I realized that the unity that once existed in black music had lost its vitality. Girl groups like Cherish that showed promise early on began to slow in production and fall off because of rumored solo sidelining. The industry had lost its heart by the mid-2000s. Its pulse had stopped. It was no longer breathing. R&B’s soul was truly missing.

Even though R&B has gone astray, a part of me is still hoping, wishing, and praying that there are emerging artists brave enough to reclaim it (Miguel, SZA and Elle Varner are among the new age “Alternative R&B” artists that are attempting to do just that). The genre is broken, laced with the poisonous (and meaningless) beats of one-hit club bangers, and needs women strong enough to go the road alone to save it. If there is one thing that those 90s R&B girl bands taught me it was the power of embracing the unknown and not being afraid to venture into it.

They also taught me about the value of womanhood. I had claimed my sexuality by the time I was 12, seductively twisting my non-existent hips in my neighbor’s front yard while pretending to rehearse to Destiny’s Child hits with the girls down the block. 90s R&B spoke my truth. In fact, they taught us as women several truths.

survivorWe can do bad all by ourselves. So scrubs and chickenheads sit down. Groups like En Vogue preached how important individuality is. “Free Your Mind” says that dating who we want, wearing what we want, and being who we want should be no one else’s concerns but our owns. Sisterhood was the epitome of the era and knowing that we could be ourselves with the support of fellow women (702’s “Where My Girls At?”) felt good and more relieving than the girl-on-girl brawls regurgitated in today’s televised landscape.

Owning our sexuality is sexy. And no man can break that. From how we liked to be sexed to the vulnerability created by falling in love, we were courageous in self-discovery and had no qualms about expressing our emotions to the world. We teased men (Remember Kut Klose saying,“If you really want it all you have to do is get up on it”?)  and enjoyed the chase. We learned that even though we’re tough as nails, women should never be afraid to simply feel sometimes without judgment. And that our “realness” should be respected by the men that we love. Yes, the evolution of Oliva Pope has long been in the making. Our R&B sistahs of the 90s were the first to scream, “Earn me!”

We have a voice and will use it. As black women, we took the definition of fierce, remixed it, and gave it a whole new meaning. We weren’t afraid to stand up to our dog-cheating men (“Say my name if you ain’t playing game!”)  or call for political change in urban communities (i.e. Cleopatra’s “Life Ain’t Easy”). We threw on men’s baggy jeans with feminine tops to level out inequality and subtly continue the liberation movement. We became fearless, opinionated citizens with a similar agenda: to advance opportunities for women – all while looking good.

I am hopeful for a reawakening in R&B and the resurgence of the genre’s spirit: the girl band. As black women begin to tire of Basketball Wives-esque TV and rape-laced rap lyrics, we have turned to social media to voice our opinions. I hope that we will also take a critical look at black music together and continue to search for the “consciousness” that our music once used to possess.

What ever happened to 90s R&B? What happened to music that aided in young women’s self-development and molded their political spirit? I press our generation to call for and create the answer.

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