Feb 182009

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.

The other guy’s name is Ade Omotayo. He also goes by the name Zalon, and Zalon’s got a message for you too.

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?


  18 Responses to “Amy Winehouse’s Backing Singers: Blackredibility or the Acceptable Selection of Human Instrumentation?”

  1. diskojoe

    Just some random thoughts:

    1. That “Rehab” song sounds just like a Jonathan Richman song from the 80s called “Double Chocolate Malted”, especially the “no, no, no” refrain;
    2. The guy playing guitar in that “Rehab” clip looks kinda outta place w/that sweater.
    3. Jeez, doesn’t Dave kinda look like Bud Selig these days?
    4. As for the topic, hopefully these guys will get noticed enough to get a chance to get a gig on their own. As for Ms. Winehouse, the freedom that I appreciate the most in this great land of ours is the freedom of the “off” button.

  2. BigSteve

    I’m not a big fan of mach schau anyway, but it really doesn’t work if you’ve got thirteen people onstage, and eleven of them are doing pretty much nothing, and two of them are in hyperdrive. The soul singers they are supposedly imitating were much more subtle. These guys look like they were edited in from an aerobics competition.

  3. Yes it’s exploitive bullshit.

    But I like it.

    She’s just as talented and far more together with her strat and her white boy band, but who the hell wants to listen to/look at that?

  4. I liked it when The Black Crowes had the two black female gospel singers (1991) for like three shows until they saw the extreme drug and alcohol use by the band and both quit. Now bands know to keep the AARC for special events and not take them on tour.

  5. Mr. Moderator

    BigSteve, thanks for pointing out the “double-time” moves of the dancers. I thought that was strange too.

    Jungleland2, I did not know that Black Crowes story. Excellent addition to our knowledge base!

    Diskojoe and Shawnkilroy, I get what you’re saying. More than fair!

  6. hrrundivbakshi

    I call major performance deficit disorder on dancer guy without a hat! Check out how he totally lazes out with the hand jive at 1:54. Dancer guy in the white hat is fully bringin’ it — hands twirlin’ and fingers splayin’ — but the other dude is falling down on the job big time! Dude needs a major attitude adjustment — fire his ass, Amy! Then go eat a couple of cheeseburgers, woman — you need to put some *meat* on them bones.

  7. hrrundivbakshi

    In that Letterman clip, I mean.

  8. BigSteve

    Isn’t it even possible to watch or listen to Winehouse anymore without reference to her sordid backstory?

  9. I think I’ll reserve total judgment until I can see Amy do her current style of act SOBER, though I do agree about the hyperactivity factor w/the dancing. It’s guys in ’60s suits dancing like Hip Hop dancers. Doesn’t really match up, but they ARE Brits, no? Incongruous visual/musical hodgepodges like that seem to happen quite frequently in the Brit-pop world.

    In any case, I don’t think I’d take it so seriously as to call it “exploitative”. I would hardly say those poor African-British guys need to be saved from the degradation of having to perform like this behind the drunken, crack-head Jewish girl. It’s the music biz, 2009; I’m pretty sure those dudes have the power to say “NO!” if they want.

  10. If one was to deem this exploitative, you would have to deem the whole idea of a white woman (or man) performing this kind of R & B music exploitative. But besides Sharon Jones & a handful of others, what most African-Americans (& the rest of the populace) term ‘R & B’ or ‘Soul’ these days, is usually a very, very shiny, yet soulless, polished turd of PRODUCT.

  11. Mr. Moderator

    Bobbybittman, you make some fine points. I am tempted to lean that way, but I do think this case falls into the broad gray area of what we’re examining. What concerns me, when I see this stuff, is its role in the the possible perpetuation of certain black stereotypes in our culture. The retrofitted backing singers don’t seem to be as important as singers as they are culturally significant window dressing for the awkward star attraction. I don’t know…I worry that something’s not right. It’s not as bad as the reaction I have to Gwen Stefani’s Japanese “pets” who spice up her performances, but it’s on that path.

  12. Mr. Moderator

    Bobbybittman wrote:

    If one was to deem this exploitative, you would have to deem the whole idea of a white woman (or man) performing this kind of R & B music exploitative.

    Do I? I’m not challenging you or disagreeing with you, but I have not felt that a person of any background styling him- or herself after a person of another background is that offensive. It can come off silly if not done extremely well, but at least the artist is putting him- or herself on the line. If Winehouse, for instance, wants to pretend she’s Bessie Smith or whoever, more power to her. She can get a tight perm and paint herself in blackface for all I really care, but the way she has those singer/dancer guys – Heshima and Zalon (I should show them that much respect) – wound up and on a Mission from God to spice up her act is what I find questionable. She’s only putting their asses as risk, in this case, not her own.

  13. I kinda get what you’re saying, but are not both Gwen Stefani’s “pets” & these back-up singers/dancers not complicit in their respective circus acts? I’d say they are, and while it may bother nerdlingers like us, who tend to stare into these matters longer & harder, I don’t think it has any deeper impact on the general public than anything else in the generally puddle-deep pop music world. It’s here & then it’s gone, as someone once put it.

  14. I just realized that there was one too many “not”s in the 1st sentence above. I meant to write “…but are not both Gwen Sefani’s “pets” & these back-up singers/dancers complicit in their respective circus acts?”

    And tonight I’m gonna rock you, tonight.

  15. Paul Weller didn’t seem to get out of bed in the morning without checking for his requisite ‘soul’ when The Style Council was up and running (are they still? I don’t pay much attention); I think that dude in Simply Red didn’t even bother with his, probably going on the idea that the back-up singer had the better gig, and so decided to become his own. And so, the tradition continues. Now, when I was a young’un in the ’80s, I thought it rather quaint and sporty on the artists’ parts, but now I’m not so sure…

  16. dbuskirk

    This is the first time I’ve gone through these clips, I mostly know Winehouse from the gossips pages (I thought the zaftig Amy was kinda hot, these days she looks like Stiv Bators in a wig) and the “Rehab” hit, I’ve sort of kept my distance. Similarly, Elvis’ Sun Sessions are cornerstone recordings for me, but I don’t own any Shakin’ Stevens records.

    Anyway, that Zalon twenty seconds of vocals gave me one of those visceral thrills that Ms. Winehouse, pleasant as the act is, just doesn’t. With Zalon’s virtuosic moment it’s hard not to fall back on the basic power relationship that says, “look at that talent! They work for me!”

    I’d rather brave any oldies-act musk a modern day Ann Peebles might possess than deal with the music as costume party mojo acts like Winehouse bring. Bring the music to me as something that still has some modern emotional relevance, not some kitschy time-machine fantasy.

  17. Mr. Moderator

    Well said, db!

  18. dbuskirk

    Maybe more concisely, I have a problem with dressing up your African-American employees in pre-civil rights era costumes. Well, maybe Dr. King could have been wearing Zalon’s suit but it definitely isn’t post civil rights-era clothes. I’m sure it would be a turn-off to her audience if Heshima and Zalon showed up to the next gig in dashikis and afros.

    (And looking at the unaddressed voter harassment that has happened in recent elections, I’m not sure “post civil rights-era” is a very accurate term…)

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