Some white artists, like Elvis, exploit Black culture. So celebrate Bobby Caldwell, who enriched it

A Black person growing up in the west will experience moments of shock. There is the first time you knowingly experience racism, and here, for me, was another: the first time I realised that the man who sang the soul classic What You Won’t Do for Love was white.

Long before there was Ed Sheeran, Adele, Justin Timberlake or, before them, Simply Red, Lisa Stansfield, Jon B (the only white musician Tupac Shakur ever made a record with), or even the current underground king of blue-eyed soul Mayer Hawthorne, there was Bobby Caldwell, who died last week.

We talk a lot about appropriation, about who inspires what, who owns it, who copies it, who leases it, who honours it, who exploits it. This is why Bobby Caldwell, RIP, has much to teach us.

Cultural appropriation as a concept is widely misunderstood and therefore easily ridiculed. People who throw accusations of appropriation around on an erroneous or false basis only serve to assist those who wish to dismiss the concept.

At its most serious, under the bonnet of cultural appropriation lies a struggle with five important socioeconomic themes: power, privilege, portrayal, perception and pound sterling (money). It is a situation in which the dominant sector of society leverages its position to loot a disadvantaged sector of society for those five Ps, helping the dominant further strengthen its already privileged position.

Given their history of having almost everything looted and their cultures debased or dismissively ridiculed, Black people in particular feel an understandable sting at cultural appropriation. Black culture cannot be separated from the Black struggle. And Black culture, especially from a western perspective, is the bedrock of modern popular culture. Yet it quickly becomes “everyone’s property” (for everything else and everyone else there is the Patent Office).

Compounding the sting, where white people often find celebration and wealth accumulation in Black culture, Black people far too frequently find stigma and tragedy. Even where their own cultural heritage is concerned, Black practitioners are often crowded out by white ones and Black people end up earning the equivalent of crumbs.

But Caldwell was a different matter altogether. He cut his teeth with Little Richard, and when he made his own demo tape it was roundly rejected by the major labels. Down on his luck, his mother suggested he approach Henry Stone’s TK Records, a Miami-based independent powerhouse best known for cultivating the rise of disco with genre-defining hits such as Rock Your Baby by George McCrae (which topped charts in the UK, the US and across Europe), Ring My Bell by Anita Ward (another massive No 1 in Britain and the US), and an avalanche of hit records by KC and the Sunshine Band.

His self-titled debut album was a triumph of a soul record, but the problem was that he sounded like a member of the Temptations at Motown or the Stylistics (remember Betcha by Golly, Wow), but looked as if he belonged in the lily-white Osmond family. To ensure his album wasn’t shunned by R&B radio, Caldwell’s “whiteness” was concealed on the cover of his debut single.

The plan worked. What You Won’t Do for Love hit No 6 on the Billboard R&B charts and No 10 on the Hot 100 in 1978. And then the real life-defining magic happened. Invited on tour by Natalie Cole, Caldwell’s mask had to come off. In a 2015 interview with the Red Bull Music Academy he recalled the moment.

“It’s the very first night in Cleveland, at an amphitheatre. We’re talking about 7,000 brothers and sisters, and I was the only cracker there. And everyone is coming to hear ‘soul brother’ Bobby Caldwell. I walked out on stage and you could hear a pin drop, just a total hush came over the crowd. It was like, ‘What the fuck is this!?’ I stayed and delivered, after about 10 minutes, I had them in my pocket. That was the night I became a man, I’ll tell ya.”

In that moment, Caldwell could have culturally tanked, like Jamie Oliver’s ill-advised jollof rice, or seemed as ludicrous as the English faux hip-hop group Blazin’ Squad. He could have poppified his music and become enormous – like Vanilla Ice or Elvis Presley. Instead, Caldwell helped define the difference between being a cultural appropriator and a genuinely skilled and heartfelt cultural practitioner with a real understanding of and appreciation for the art, for the culture and its creators.

He didn’t think he sounded Black (he thought he sounded “like a white guy that was influenced by R&B music”, adding, “but people would swear up and down I was Black. Huge amounts of money were lost in bets.”). He also didn’t sound like a confused cultural voyeur. He was not leveraging any privilege; he was a genuinely great soul man.

And, critically, he gave back. He embraced hip hop as much as hip hop embraced him. He allowed his music to be prominently sampled by rappers – What You Won’t Do for Love became Do for Love by Tupac, the music in My Flame became Sky’s the Limit by The Notorious BIG, and Open Your Eyes became The Light by Common (produced by the late great J Dilla) – all of which immortalised his work for a younger generation.

The core owners of the culture, the core audience, couldn’t have embraced and celebrated him more. Unlike many a white performer of Black music who came after him (and even before him) his core audience remained Black (he was also big in Japan).

The appropriation debate gets heated and muddled, people transgress, finger pointing is rife; but it’s clear to me that it’s possible to truly embrace and play a part in a culture that isn’t obviously your own – and that we need more Caldwells. He was not just the type of white person who gets invited to the mythical Black barbecue, he was the type who is trusted with the stereo and the grill. He could have been the poster boy for cultural appropriation, and instead became an integrated poster boy for the culture.

Cultures are broad and those who protect and prize them can detect inauthenticity at a thousand paces. Look at Caldwell, people – look and learn.

  • Nels Abbey is a writer, broadcaster and former banker, and the author of Think Like A White Man. His new book, The Hip-Hop MBA: Lessons in Cut-Throat Capitalism From The Moguls of Rap, is out next year

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