What Beyoncé Know(le)s and Diamond Could Learn.
I have been following music over the last couple of decades closely enough to pick up one or two meaningful things.
Most recently, I found myself obsessing over Beyonce’s much talked about VMA performance. Still quite a distance from the stage capture that rendered Michael Jackson the undisputed king of everything music, but good enough to catch my attention for more than the moment it seemed to take to perform it.
Clearly there is something that Beyoncé know(le)s (I hope you get it by now) that even the much touted heirs-apparent to Michael’s thrown:- Usher, Chris Brown and Justin Bieber (to name but a few) have missed out on.
Most artists are a product of the industry’s prevailing influence at the time of their rise to stardom. Michael Jackson represents a dying breed of artistry that gained its footing into the industry at a time when the stage was the mainstay of the industry. Before breaking through on radio air waves, an artist had to do rounds performing in live gigs to gain name recognition. So before Michael famously infused his style with everything James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, and Elvis Presley, the King of Rock, there was Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra whose showmanship and stage mastery gave birth to pop music as we know it from the clutches of Broadway’s musical tradition. Michael Jackson went on to redefine and master to a fault not only the stage experience, but more significantly the other two critical off springs of the music industry: the studio and the video experience.
So, as a result of this orientation informed by the source of an artist’s influence while in their formative phases, I have derived three types of artists: 1) stage artists (mostly before 1970s), 2) studio artists (mostly 1970s - 80s) and 3) video artists (mostly 1990s - 2000s). Michael Jackson is arguably one of a trio of artists worldwide who mastered all three to a level that is often hard to comprehend.
But it is Micheal’s grounding in the live stage experience that is most evidenced in his artistry and arguably what sets him aside from the pack most. I have said in the past that the highest level of artistic achievement for a musician is to become one with the stage such that the artist is the stage; as Micheal demonstrated at the peak of his career having amassed such a mastery of the stage that he could drive a crowd ballistic by pretty much doing nothing more than offering them a chilling gaze behind his iconic silver tint aviator shades.
Musicians are called performers because they are expected to perform their musical output in a live environment. Being a stage artist enables the artist to understand what his or her music does to the audience unlike most studio or video artists who often focus on the product as opposed to the people who will consume it.
Watching Beyonce’s performance, I could see her channeling this powerful lesson from Michael’s treasure trove. Beyoncé, who is ‘technically’ a product of the video era, has figured out what made Madonna, ‘technically’ a product of the studio era quickly adopt video and merge it with the stage to create a visually sophisticated experience that may have even made her ‘mentor’, Michael, take some notes.
Social media, a force of technology, may be responsible for yet another type of artist - the ‘social’ artist. First evidenced through Justin Bieber and his YouTube debut and now even through the mind boggling following enjoyed by our very own local brew of artists like Nasib Juma (Diamond) and Ali Kiba; changing completely how music is channeled to and enjoyed by the end consumer.
Beyoncé seems to know this too, opting, in recent years, to promote and drop her new products exclusively through her network of socials and most recently lending her influence to draw traffic towards her husbands ailing streaming platform - Tidal. Sadly, though, the ‘social’ artist is the furthest removed from real artistry; as in many instances the following they enjoy through social media is more significant to their definition of artistry than the art itself. The social artist is the fasted and cheapest to create but the hardest to maintain in the long run.
But, interestingly, for this very reason, technology after a brief moment of confusion for industry insiders, has taken music back to where it all began - the stage. Globally, live performances have become a significant part of a musicians compensation when compared to the physical or virtual sales of their output. The fact that the stage survives technology comes as no surprise simply because it is truly where performing artistry is defined and cannot be replicated, to effect, anywhere else.
If ever you doubted MIchael Jackson, for whatever reason, all you had to do was to step into Michael’s church of live artistry and you would be immediately converted into a believer. That is the power of the stage and MJ, knowing this, went to great lengths, often at paralyzing costs, to tap into it to develop his iconic brand that continues to remain in formidable shape years after his passing.
It’s easy to see now why Beyoncé seems to be treading on a level almost of her own. Her music is not studio or just video laden; like Madonna and Michael Jackson before her, her latest music is made for the live experience incorporating audio visual complexities that make you want to be there when she is performing. With this sort of focus on the most critical audience for a musician - the live audience, we are most likely to keep hearing from Beyoncé for a while.
Our very own Nasib Juma aka Diamond, very much the studio artist, has quickly adopted video (Nataka kulewa, Number 1, Mdogomdogo and Nana) and social to great result but has yet to fully make clear his stance on mastery and incorporation of the stage and live experience (in as much as he still very much ahead of the pack) in his mix. His latest effort ‘Kidogo’ (featuring P Square) is a testament to his towering potential making it clearly my favorite Diamond song. Apart from it being Diamond’s most ambitious dance single (most of his catalog comprises of mwambao infused lyrically laden subtly danceable ballads), ‘Kidogo’ is also a song made for the stage. If what Beyoncé Know(le)s is to mean anything then Diamond could easily assume the top most position in African popular artistry simply by incorporating the live staging component into his creative process.