When I go to Baltimore Soundstage Sunday night for the Goapele concert, it will mark the second time during the past several months I’ll get to enjoy a live performance by an artist or group frequently categorized under the “neo-soul” or “progressive soul” label. Last fall, I got to see Tony! Toni! Toné! deliver a first-rate performance at the Lyric Baltimore. They treated a charged-up audience with all their hits, and it became a singalong on songs including “Anniversary,” “Feels Good,” “Whatever You Want,” “Just Me and You” and “It Never Rains in Southern California.”

The audience represented a range of generations, and I was there with my daughter and one of her best friends — both millennials. Gen-X was certainly well-represented, and I saw a fair number of baby boomers like myself. The music was infectious, joyful and filled with sensuality. The music of Tony! Toni! Toné! is characterized by stories of romantic longing. It is, without a doubt, soulful.

The group’s Raphael Saadiq, who is identified with neo-soul as much as any singer or musician, actually dismissed that labeling in a 2002 interview.

“Neo-soul is disrespectful for me because you’re calling something new soul.”

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“When did it stop? It never stopped. I understand it for marketing reasons. But people who really love music cannot respect that because it’s not new soul. You either have soul or you don’t.”

“The Revival” was released by Tony! Toni! Toné! in 1990. (Wing Records)

Among the earliest applications of the term is when it was used to describe “Sons of Soul,” the Tony! Toni! Toné! album released in the summer of 1993. The album, which eventually went double-platinum, paid tribute to soul groups and singers of the 1960s and ’70s who had influenced group members Raphael Wiggins (who later changed his last name to Saadiq), his brother D’Wayne Wiggins and their cousin Timothy Christian Riley. The album stood out during the hip-hop-dominated 1990s for its use of live instrumentation, particularly at a time when drum machines and sampling from previous recordings were becoming the standard.

Soon, the neo-soul label was being applied to stars such as Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Angie Stone and Musiq Soulchild.

Goapele’s “Closer” first surfaced as the title track of her self-released debut album in 2001. The album sold about 5,000 copies independently. “Closer” was rereleased on Goapele’s 2002 follow-up, “Even Closer,” her first nationally distributed album. Once Columbia Records brought “Even Closer” to a worldwide audience, “Closer” became one of the songs most identified with neo-soul. It also carried broader significance.

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Writing for The Grio, Janelle Harris Dixon called the song “an enduring anthem for the dreams and goals of Black women.” For artists like her and Badu, self-realization is a big part of what they’re expressing to their audiences.

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We hear it from Badu on “Didn’t Cha Know”:

I’m trying to decide which way to go; I think I made a wrong turn back there somewhere.

It’s the kind of message Aretha Franklin brought the world decades ago with “Respect” and “Natural Woman.” Dionne Warwick expressed a similar theme in “Don’t Make Me Over.”

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“This is what they call the neo-soul sound,” D’Wayne Wiggins recalled in a 2016 interview. “We didn’t know that. We didn’t call ourselves neo-soul. We just called it soul, real soul.”

“Baduizm,” released in 1997, was Erykah Bad’s debut studio album. (Universal Records)

On a cool, late-summer night, I think in 2008, I sat in the Audi convertible I owned at the time with the top down, at a traffic light on University Parkway. I had my car stereo turned up louder than I ordinarily would. The tape in the cassette player was one I had inherited from my father’s collection.

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I sat there, momentarily lost in thought, caught up in “The Sweeter He Is” by the Soul Children. The 1969 song has the kinds of ingredients shared by so many great soul records. It has the powerful lead and background vocals of Anita Louis, Shelbra Bennett, John Colbert and Norman West. It has beautiful harmonies from other women singing background vocals. The horns and gospel-sounding piano drive the song.

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It’s on the Stax label and composed and produced by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. They were the inventors, the innovators, the founding fathers responsible for establishing much of what soul music would become. And like so many other hits Stax released, Booker T. Jones is on keyboards, Steve Cropper is on guitar, Donald “Duck” Dunn is on bass, and Al Jackson Jr. is on drums. That’s Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

Before the light changed, a voice caught my attention: “What do you know about that?” said another Black man of my generation, in a big SUV in the next lane, smiling just slightly as he acknowledged the music coming out of my stereo.

“Man, I was raised on that,” I said.

His smile widened a bit as the light changed and we both pulled off.

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“Closer,” from Goapele’s “Even Closer” album, is considered a neo-soul anthem. (Skyblaze Recordings)

I was telling an undeniable truth. In my earliest memories, soul music is playing. It was my older brother’s Motown records — the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye and various others.

My father’s collection was wide-ranging. Mixed in with all his jazz and blues albums were plenty of Aretha Franklin and The Impressions, first with Jerry Butler as lead singer and then with Curtis Mayfield. Ray Charles records could be found in both my father’s and brother’s collections.

I was absorbing all of it, even if I had to play their records without permission. The records were prized possessions. My brother’s had his name on the album covers or center labels, so he could get them back after taking them to a party.

The soul music on AM radio, WWIN and WEBB (which James Brown once owned) in Baltimore, was our musical lifeblood. Otis Redding, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes and Dionne Warwick were playing all the time. This music has remained with me all my life.

My coming-of-age music was the Isley Brothers; the Ohio Players; Earth, Wind & Fire; and more Marvin and Stevie. My romantic intentions were inspired by the male vocal groups — the Dells, the Spinners, the Stylistics, the Delfonics and the Chi-Lites.

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Robert Flack’s versions of “Let It Be Me” and “Do What You Gotta Do” spoke directly to every heartbreak I ever suffered.

On any give day, at any given hour, I’ll still feel the need to listen to “The Love We Had Stays on My Mind,” with the Dells’ soaring harmonies and Marvin Junior’s booming baritone singing lead. The Spinners’ “He’ll Never Love You Like I Do,” with Phillipe Wynne’s marvelous tenor, permanently resides in my YouTube playlist. The Main Ingredient’s “You’ve Been My Inspiration” is all gratitude and desire.

D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” album was released in 2000. (Virgin Records)

This past holiday season, I think I listened to the Ohio Players’ “Happy Holidays” 500 times. When “Heaven Must Be Like This” is next on my playlist, it never fails to evoke a particular set of feelings and experiences, all visible in my head.

That’s also the case with D’Angelo’s 2016 hit, ″Really Love.” With the acoustic guitar and string arrangement, old is new.

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What I’ve found out is that while the performers and musical tastes are ever-changing, what’s expressed in soul music is certain to endure. The music industry will never be able to label or market that out of existence.

It’s the talent and inventiveness of the singers and musicians. It’s the messages about love and lovemaking. Soul interprets the Black experience in America and allows the world to hear its heartbeat through the words and the rhythms. It’s joy, longing and heartbreak.

The music delivers what we need to hear and feel during the joyful moments but also when the joy comes crashing down.

Mark Williams is The Baltimore Banner’s Opinion Editor.


The Baltimore Banner welcomes opinion pieces and letters to the editor. Please send submissions to communityvoices@thebaltimorebanner.com or letters@thebaltimorebanner.com.

Mark Williams is Opinion Editor at the Baltimore Banner. He is responsible for selecting and editing opinion articles, essays, and letters to the editor. He also contributes essays that explore the culture and history of the Baltimore region and the people who live here.

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