Couples - mostly middle-class, middle-aged and almost entirely black - gather at Washington's Lincoln Theatre for a night of adventurous soul music, the kind seldom heard on today's commercial urban radio. Of the night's acts, Baltimore's Fertile Ground is the most musically daring.
The septet crafts a sound that slips in and out of jazz, R&B;, Brazilian samba and African roots music. James Collins, a lanky man with unruly dreads who founded the band with lead singer Navasha Daya, addresses the crowd from his keyboards. "As black musicians, what we do is more than entertainment. It's a way of uplifting the ancestors," he says. "This is black music!"
The house erupts in applause.
The next evening, in Towson, a different crowd gathers for a night of "black music." Most at the Recher Theatre were born in the '80s and many attend classes down the street at Towson University. The full house is largely white. Tonight's bill features a Recher mainstay: the Baltimore-based Kelly Bell Band.
Bell's show is free of any easy signifiers of modern black music: no shades of bass-heavy R&B; and certainly no hip-hop. For an hour, the Kelly Bell Band performs blues-lite songs with a high pop gloss, including a punchy snippet of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing."
"I bet you didn't think four and a half black guys knew that," Bell says, partly referring to the band's sole white member, keyboard player and business manager Kirk Myers.
Although they grew up in the same region, listening to some of the same sounds, James Collins and Kelly Bell have filtered those influences in dramatically different ways, arriving at their own definition of black music - and who its audience should be. Fertile Ground's style is unabashedly Afrocentric and jazz-suffused, while Bell's is pop-friendly with strong traces of rock and blues. Neither sees his music as mere entertainment. Collins and Bell profess a serious artistic mission: to preserve the essence of black music.
But what is black music in an iPod age where there are more musical choices than ever and genres are harder to pin down? And how will black music be defined, now that President-elect Barack Obama's victory has upended ideas about racial identity?
"Musically, it gets difficult. You have to weigh in the role of the artists and who they're trying to pitch it to. If they feel it's black music, it's black music," says Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University and author of What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture.
But what about white artists whose music absorbs the vocal approaches and rhythmic syncopation of traditionally black styles: jazz, blues, hip-hop? In the last two years, some of the most authentic-sounding R&B; came from white artists such as Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake and Amy Winehouse. They all adhered to musical templates of Motown-influenced melodies and aggressive, funk-laced rhythms. Each sang with a streetwise swagger that was mostly convincing. Meanwhile, the music of mainstream black acts such as Rihanna and Kanye West glinted with classic new wave and progressive punk, sounds generally associated with white acts.
A little more than half a century ago, during the days of segregation and Jim Crow, the definition of black music was clearer than it is today. For the most part, it was music made by and sold to black people. The foundation of it all (the harmonic structures, the rhythms, vocal colors and textures) had been informed by early styles shaped by blacks: spirituals, blues and jazz. But even then, artists such as Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke and the acts of the Motown machine drew sizable white audiences with a streamlined, sometimes anodyne sound. Still, the boundaries, dictated by legal segregation, were set. Black acts sang one way for the swanky white crowd at the Copacabana and another for the vibrant black folks at the Apollo.
In the early '70s - as the black power movement lost steam, as society grew more integrated and as blacks reaped some benefits of affirmative action - black music became more mainstream. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, architects of the Philly soul sound and founders of Philadelphia International Records, landed a historic distribution deal with CBS Records. Their strutting, lush productions for the O'Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and others scaled the Top 10. Stevie Wonder swept major categories at the Grammys with a string of landmark albums, including Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. Acts such as Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 and, later, Donna Summer dominated pop charts and packed arenas around the world.
But in today's pop music market - as the democratized Internet continues to liberate artists, fragment listeners and annihilate the old infrastructure of record companies - James Collins and Kelly Bell doggedly try to define black music for themselves.
The two men actually have a lot in common. Collins, a West Baltimore native, and Bell, of Washington, are both in their 30s and grew up absorbing the Parliament and Marvin Gaye albums in their parents' collections. In their teens, they immersed themselves in hip-hop. For more than a decade, they have maintained profitable careers as indie acts in Baltimore and beyond. Fertile Ground's fame has extended to London and Denmark, while the Kelly Bell Band's reputation is known throughout the Mid-Atlantic.
As Collins discusses the ambiguous state of black music, he is sharply analytical, which comes as no surprise given his background. Before forming Fertile Ground in the mid '90s, he was a teacher and biochemist.
"We as artists have to realize that we have to be a part of creating institutions that define our music," Collins says. "[The black artist] tradition has been ... we put the music on a CD, we give it to a white guy ... and we see what happens while we're fed fool's gold. We're not actively marketing our music, so our artists get thrown away."
The old major-label system of selling and distributing music, which the Internet has largely obliterated, offers few real benefits to artists, Collins says. Although Fertile Ground has been approached with deals from record companies over the years, staying independent has made more sense economically and creatively.
Soon after the group formed, Collins established Blackout Studios in the cluttered basement of his Mount Washington home. The company records and releases Fertile Ground albums, as well as CDs and books by other local artists. With Blackout Studios, Collins had a clear vision of the audience he wanted to target.
"We wanted to make music for black people," he says. "We went after a black audience."
It was a marketing decision. Collins' approach, which took nothing from the experimental rock or lacerating club music that have long dominated Baltimore, didn't attract attention from local white producers or promoters. He says he saw a need for a certain niche in the black pop market, one that reflected the progressive, slightly bohemian aesthetic that his band embraces. In the late '90s, Collins helped create arts events where Fertile Ground was the main entertainment and where the band sold its CDs. In promoting these programs throughout the city, he targeted black organizations such as the local chapter of the NAACP and black fraternities and sororities.
Collins saw no other alternative to his grass-roots promotional efforts, because the city had no infrastructure of clubs that supported the kind of progressive soul fusion that Fertile Ground does.
"It was a question of whether we're going to open up for the most popular white band of the area and infiltrate that set, or are we going to dissect what brings black people out and develop our own crowd," he says. "We wanted to bring black people out."
When the Kelly Bell Band jelled at about the same time as Fertile Ground, Bell didn't have such a narrow focus for his audience.
"We never sat down and said, 'Let's make this song funkier with a heavier beat so that black people will like it,' " says Bell, seated in the mirror-walled living room of his Reisterstown home. "Our gimmick is that we have no gimmick."
Bell, a therapist and social worker by day and a part-time amateur wrestler when he's not on stage, started his group in the mid-'90s. At the time, he was a bouncer at the 8X10. The Kelly Bell Band performed blues covers initially and included former members of local rock bands. Bell, who weighed more than 400 pounds at the time, was the only black member. But, unlike Fertile Ground, the Kelly Bell Band easily found venues in the city receptive to its sound.
Chris Keith, an events and entertainment specialist for the Baltimore office of CBS Radio, caught Bell's act at the 8X10 in 1995. Soon afterward, he offered to help manage the band. Keith thought the group's high-octane blues-rock fusion would click with Baltimore's club scene.
"The mentality was to broaden his audience. We didn't think about race," Keith says. "Kelly wanted to play to college kids - black, white. It didn't matter. He wanted a rock audience. He had a rock edge, so he could play the rock clubs in the city."
Eventually, the Kelly Bell Band became popular at Hammerjacks, Fletcher's and especially the Recher, venues that didn't regularly attract black audiences. Bell also released CDs on his label, Phat Blues Records, and Keith helped secure dates in and around the city. But as gigs steadily came, the band went through personnel changes, shifting from Bell being the only black member to keyboard player Kirk Myers being the only white musician in the fold. Five years ago, Bell, a diabetic, underwent a gastric bypass and lost nearly 200 pounds. With a new look, new band mates and a slightly mellowed approach, the singer-songwriter now wants to draw more blacks to his shows.
But "black promoters won't touch us because we're not black enough - whatever that means," Bell says. "The black promoters feed into the same b.s. as the white-owned blues labels. If you're not B.B. King, they're not trying to touch you. White audiences want to see some young, white guy who can play a mean guitar, or some old black guy doing 12-bar shuffles all night. I guess the problem is we're not white enough or black enough or young enough or old enough."
Bell sighs and shakes his head.
"What I'm doing, man, is black music, period. It's the blues, that's black music," he says, his crisp voice booming. "But black folks aren't in my audience. That hurts."
Neal of Duke University says, "The fact that Kelly isn't going out of his way to make his music sound characteristically like modern black music is just as politically motivated and just as important as James choosing to address black cultural issues in his music."
Onstage at Lincoln Theater, Fertile Ground locks into a shuffling, Latin-tinged groove. Lead singer Navasha Daya leaps around, shakes her hips and twirls as if possessed by the music. She's barefoot, her face is marked with bold warrior-style makeup, and five gold feathers fan out from the crown of her head.
The next night in Towson, the Kelly Bell Band opens with a high-octane interpolation of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom." The imposing Bell, dressed in a roomy black shirt and jeans, stalks the stage, nodding to the beat. Once at the microphone, he furiously shakes his jump rope-length dreads. They fly over his face, around his head and shoulders as the guitar screams. The house cheers.
In its own way, each group is dealing with preconceived notions about what a black band is supposed to play. Although the bands have shared a bill only once over the years at a local festival, Collins and Bell respect each other's work. They also understand that the audiences for their music will always be different.
"I think black people will like our music," Bell says. "It's a matter of exposing people to what you do. If more black folks had an opportunity to hear us, they would dig us."
Collins believes mainstream black music has been reduced to caricature and wants to help redefine it.
"It's very important that artists stop running from the term 'black,' " he says. "It's something we should embrace. We as black artists, especially black independent artists, have to set our benchmarks. If this is still our music, it's up to us to make sure it really reflects all of who we are."
Education: Graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1999
The band's beginnings: Formed Fertile Ground in the spring of 1997 around the vocals of Navasha Daya and the drum skills of Marcus Asante. Since 2000, the band has released seven albums via Collins' Blackout Studios.
About his music: "My people were taken from our homeland and sprinkled into different fields around the world. Well, I think it's time to go home. That's the purpose of our music, to bring people together and take them home."
Education: Graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1990 and received his master's degree from the University of Maryland at Baltimore in 1994
The band's beginnings: Formed the Kelly Bell Band around 1995. Soon afterward, Bell founded Phat Blues Records through which he and the band have released six albums.
About his music: "My style of music is eclectic, not just straight 12-bar blues all night long. They say kids don't dig the blues, but we say, 'You just haven't presented it to them in the right fashion.' "