Madonna, one of the biggest American singers of all time, is white. But when her music first came on the radio in the early 1980s and no one knew what she looked like, people thought she was black: she sounded black and only black stations played her music.
That no one knew what she looked like at first was no accident. Her record company was trying to sell her music: putting a white face to black music would only make it harder. Madonna sang black music because that is what she grew up on.
Once she had some success she began to appear on television. Then everyone knew. She might have gone the way of Teena Marie, a white R & B singer much better known to blacks than to whites, but then white girls started to copy how she dressed. Even Time and Newsweek had to notice. That put her squarely in the white world.
In 1989 Rolling Stone magazine asked her, “Do you ever feel black?”
Oh yes, all the time. That’s a silly thing to say though, isn’t it? When I was a little girl, I wished I was black. All my girlfriends were black. I was living in Pontiac, Michigan, and I was definitely the minority in the neighborhood. White people were scarce there. All of my friends were black, and all the music I listened to was black. I was incredibly jealous of all my black girlfriends because they could have braids in their hair that stuck up everywhere. So I would go through this incredible ordeal of putting wire in my hair and braiding it so that I could make my hair stick up. I used to make cornrows and everything. But if being black is synonymous with having soul, then, yes, I feel that I am.
Whites tend to overstate their degree of friendship with blacks, but in this case I believe her: it is that bit about the wire. How many white girls in the 1970s would have gone to such trouble to copy anything black – unless they found themselves in a black girl world?
Most singers she loved were black too, like Ella Fitzgerald, Chaka Khan, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Harry Belafonte and Johnny Mathis.
But having black friends and listening to black music and even living in a place that is mostly black is not the same thing as being black. And it shows, as bell hooks points out:
White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure. And it is no wonder then that when they attempt to imitate the joy in living which they see as the “essence” of soul and blackness, their cultural productions may have an air of sham and falseness that may titillate and even move white audiences yet leave many black folks cold.
Inotherwords, in a hundred years people will still be listening to Billie Holiday but not to Madonna.