A televised Amy Winehouse performance would not be complete without a lot of camera time given to her retro-style singin’ and dancin’ backup singers. You know these guys: two stylish, handsome, and animated black guys in dark, ’60s-cut suits who perform a frantic, nonstop array of choreographed Motown-style moves to add some needed life behind the scrawny atrocity exhibition who’s paying the bills. The camera can only hang so long on Winehouse, in hopes of her falling over or throwing up. The backing singers keep things FUN and LIVELY!
During our examination of the African American Robed Choir (AARC) I addressed whether a rock band being supported by “colored girls” as backup singers constituted an example of exploitive black rock history. We seemed to agree that if a performance called for the tone of African American backup singers, the selection of a trio of African American singers as acceptable in terms of instrumentation, no different than a guitarist selecting a Gibson over a Fender. None of us would deny the importance of showmanship and mach schau in rock, so we can’t immediately jump on any backing singers who dance and dress in a way that adds to the performance. In the case of Amy Winehouse, however, a young, white, English singer who apes African American vocal characteristics and themes, I’ve got to question whether her use of her backing singers is a ploy for Blackredibility or the acceptable selection of human instrumentation.
About 10 seconds into the above performance, the camera can’t pull back fast enough to distract viewers from Winehouse’s drunken chicken shuffle to a view of the soul city roller-blading slide of the backing singers. They do add a few ooohs along the way, but their dancing is as much a part of the song’s arrangement as the drummer’s hi-hat work. Coming out of the song’s breakdown and heading into the finale, Winehouse resumes her chicken shuffle while the backing singers crank up their boogaloo down Broadway. Rock hasn’t seen such hammy, choreographed shuckin’ and jivin’ since Jake and Elmore Blues were doing their thing.
Who are these guys, and can’t they put their talents to better use? One guy goes by the name of Heshima, or as his MySpace page lists him, “Heshima (Amy Winehouse’s Backing Singer).” He’s got a special message for you.
His association with Amy Winehouse goes back to an outfit called the Bolsha Band. “We were in the band together,” says Ade. “Amy went on to international stardom, but she doesn’t forget those who were with her from the start.
To her credit, Winehouse is willing to turn the spotlight on her backing singers, even if, as the following YouTube clip is entitled, “Amy Winehouse Is Outsung by Backing Singer.”
I don’t meant to diminish the talents of these men by calling them into this analysis – and I’m not sure where I fall on the Blackredibility vs Acceptable Human Instrumentation question regarding their role in support of Winehouse, but they are so popular with her fans that they have their own Facebook appreciation page. Maybe my possibly white guilt-driven defense of their dignity is motivated above all else by my distaste for Winehouse, but I don’t know. It’s one thing to find these guys toasting in a 2-Tone-era ska band; it’s another to see them rolled out for this fourth-generation schtick in support of a most white, vacant artist, yet another in a now long line of artists who fulfill Lenny Bruce‘s “Girl Singer” bit.
Here’s a young Amy, from 2003, with a few healthy pounds on her frame, a Strat in her hands, her hair well conditioned and let down, and absolutely no stage presence. Worse yet, she’s sans Heshima and Zalon! Check out this clip and tell me what she’s missing more: the instrumentation of their backing voices or their Retro Negro Entertainer routine. I can’t fault them for paying the bills – and they do a fantastic job – but do you think they ever wonder when they’ll be free of this arhythmic junkie?
I could be so wrong about all this that it’s not funny, but during Exploitive Black Rock History Month I feel compelled to ask you to help me examine this situation and take that risk. I don’t doubt that Amy appreciates and tastefully utilizes the talents of these men, but what percentage of their role is to add Blackredibility? And what does this say about us?