Well You Don’t Say: 10 White Singers We Once Thought Were Black
Just a heads up, if you were thinking this was going to be one of those posts that idolizes “blue-eyed soul singers” or says folks are out here trying to “sound black” (as if there’s one way to sound black), you’re mistaken. This is a list about a few individuals with voices that we accidentally assumed at one point and time belonged to black people. It wasn’t until videos popped up for some of our favorite jams that we didn’t see a black man or woman, but a white man or woman–and it surprised the hell out of us. A lot of these singers are probably your personal favorites by now, some you may have never heard of, but don’t lie, you know you were telling your friends at one point or another, “Oh snap, I just assumed he/she was black…”
You’re not the only one.
This guy influenced this story. A few weeks back, I made the morning jam on our social media Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love.” The video posted was of the singer and his band performing the beloved track live, and while most people reminisced on how much they genuinely loved the song back in the day, many people made it a point to let the world know they didn’t know he was white. In fact, the comment most “liked” on YouTube is by an individual saying they could have swore he was black. Pure surprise. Maybe because this song just played, and played, and played on the radio for all these years without most people trying to seek out some sort of video (there doesn’t actually seem to be an official video). But not only does he happen to be of non-black status, but he was a lover of mullets and ponytails. That’s the jam though…
When I was younger, riding in the back of my mother’s van, the local hip-hop and R&B stations used to play the mess out of some “Been Around the World,” so for many years, I just assumed that Stansfield was a black woman who really missed her baby. That was until I clicked to a video channel called The Box one day and finally saw a video for the song. Boy, was I shocked to see that black woman with the powerful, rolling voice was a white woman with really dark, really short hair who liked to wear WAY too much makeup. Either way, that song has stayed in my iTunes rotation for years.
Okay, so unless you knew Robin Thicke when he first started his career as Thicke, a hippy-dressed soul singer with long hair (don’t care), you, like me, were probably shocked to find out that he was NOT black. I became a fan immediately after first hearing “Wanna Love You Girl,” and my first time hearing it was on the computer, before the music video came out, before he had done a public performance of it. So when the video dropped and my sister bought me his CD, I was pretty confused. I wasn’t mad though, because I remember thinking, “damn, he’s kind of cute!” I’m sure Paula Patton agrees.
Many British singers with deeper voices tend to get the “blue-eyed soul singer” card thrown at them whether they love it or hate it. Joss and her heavy voice, known for being breathy one minute then growling the next, was someone I assumed was of the black persuasion when I first heard the song, “Fell in Love With a Boy.” Well, she wasn’t of course, and since then, she’s garnered a lot of success and love, including some big ups from iconic singers like Patti Labelle and the chance to sing alongside The Roots, James Brown and more. And if kick-off-your-shoes Patti likes her, you’ve got to love her!
LOVE her. Maybe songs like “Genie in a Bottle” didn’t have you thinking her melanin count was up, but for years, I’ve heard older people who’ve heard her sing say they thought she was a black woman. To many, she has the compelling voice of a modern day soul singer who just happens to not “look” like one. Stepping out from the teeny-bopper pack with their rail thin voices, Aguilera’s pipes have acquired her a lot of love and recognition. She was ranked number 58 on the 100 Best Singer’s of All Time list by Rolling Stone, making her the youngest singer on the list.
“I Keep Forgettin.” “What a Fool Believes” (with The Doobie Brothers). Listen to those songs and hear Michael McDonald and you will understand why there were so many people way back when assuming that Michael was a black man. Psych! Michael McDonald wound up being a white man with a wealth of facial hair, a husky but beautiful voice, great songwriting skills, and the ability to record some pretty killer duets (“On My Own” with Patti Labelle, “This is It” with Kenny Loggins, and “Yah Mo Be There” with James Ingram). And you know your voice must be banging when folks let you cover Marvin Gaye’s hits and love it.
Yukimi Nagano of “Little Dragon”
If you don’t know the group Little Dragon, PLEASE look up their music. Back when I was working in retail, I used to hear a song by them called “Constant Surprises” and wanted it so bad that I went home and did research on Google to find it. After hearing the song about umpteen times and assuming it was a black woman and her band, I was surprised to learn that not only was she not black, but she was Japanese-Swedish and the rest of her band was a group of white Swedish men. Her voice, as well as the beats and rhythms created by the group as a whole reminded me of some new wave of R&B, but instead, they are classified as everything from electronic pop to neo soul. Check ’em out!
You might not know his name, but bet any money, I’m sure you know his voice. Unless you had a deprived childhood, you’ve heard Sheldon singing School House Rock jams like “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill.” While his voice reminded me of that older black neighbor you have that always asks you how your parents are doing and what you’re up to, Sheldon is actually a white jazz and bebop singer who made learning about the Constitution awesome!
Okay, so some years back when funk singer Nikka Costa dropped the songs “Everybody’s Got Their Something” and “Like a Feather,” I was pretty sure she was a black woman. Her voice, even to this day, reminds me of the voice of strong black singers like Leela James, and her songs were soooo funky, I just assumed…Well, you know what they say about assuming. Either way, a lot of people are fans of her distinctive voice, even Prince. The purple one and Costa have performed together on multiple occasions.
Where would this list be without Lady Tee!? The late singer was probably one of the first singers out there to confuse the listening public with her soulful, powerhouse voice back when she made her debut. It was also probably because when she first came out, her debut album, Wild and Peaceful, didn’t have her picture on it, and her hit song, “I’m Just a Sucker For Your Love” placed on the “Black Singles Chart” (no such thing now). Black or white though, Marie’s voice was one of a kind. “Square Biz” is my ish by the way!
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