On January 2, the indie music blog Brooklyn Vegan posted a set of photos from a December 30 show that Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings had played at Brooklyn Bowl. Based in New York, they’re at the forefront of a widespread vintage-soul revival that also includes the Budos Band, Mayer Hawthorne, Eli “Paperboy” Reed, Kings Go Forth, and Nicole Willis—and of all the artists involved, only Amy Winehouse, whom the Dap-Kings have backed in the studio and on the road, is better known.
Jones, a short, voluptuous, middle-aged black woman, appeared in most of the pics. She wore a tight red dress, and in quite a few shots she’d pulled audience members up onstage with her. In one she was dancing with a smiling young white guy in horn-rimmed glasses; in another she was dancing with a smiling young white woman with a fauxhawk.
It’s a pretty typical scene at a Dap-Kings show, but apparently some people have a problem with it.
The first comment on the post reads, “wish she would bitch-slap those hipsters back to the midwest . . . “
The second comment: “Right now, I am so ashamed to be white.”
“You know, I read that and it disturbed me,” Jones says. “I read it and I didn’t want to make a comment, but since you asked, it hurts me to hear. Most of them were about race, not how good it was, not how great this show was—it was about race. That was disgusting.”
As Jones and her band close in on mainstream success, the demographic that helped get them there seems pretty divided about the process.
Jones, 54, a former wedding singer and Rikers Island corrections officer, doesn’t have much use for the term “hipster.” Sidestepping the word’s connotations, she calls that demographic “college students.”
“I started up with the college students with the Web sites, and they were calling it ‘underground’ and saying my audience is mostly white college students,” she says. “I don’t pay attention to it.”
“So what’s that term mean to you?” I ask.
“Oh, you know, I guess like in The Jeffersons, when the white guy came downstairs in bell-bottoms or something and somebody said he was a hipster,” Jones says, laughing. “You know, like a nerd trying to be cool.”
Dap-Kings bassist and mastermind Gabriel “Bosco Mann” Roth, 35, who’s white and Jewish, doesn’t find the word “hipster” so amusing. He cries foul before I even finish asking my question.
“That’s bullshit, man. I don’t cater to any hipster market,” he says.
Roth is an award-winning, Ampex-loving audiophile and engineer (he shared a Grammy for his work on Winehouse’s “Rehab”) and a cofounder of Brooklyn-based Daptone Records, for which the Dap-Kings are the house band. Among the retro soul gems in the Daptone catalog are all four of their albums with Jones, including I Learned the Hard Way, released last month. Roth says the label is in the business of making music “that sounds good, feels good, speaks to that thing that makes us human.”
Roth may not cater to a hipster market, but the Dap-Kings are on the roster of Motormouthmedia, which calls itself a “boutique PR firm specializing in cutting-edge music and pop-culture accounts” and also represents Yeasayer, Bon Iver, Dirty Projectors, and Animal Collective, among others. This goes a long way toward explaining how an Apollo Theater-authentic soul band whose records would make fine Father’s Day gifts has gotten so much coverage on the indie blog circuit.
Joe Tangari, a soul aficionado and senior contributor at Pitchfork Media—one of the blogs in question—has another theory. “Let’s turn the clock back and imagine them and where they’d be playing 40 years ago,” he says. “If the band formed in 1965, they might be touring on the chitlin circuit. Motown was just about to break that door down, and now there is no chitlin circuit and they have to play the same venues all these indie-rock bands have to play. If they play a show at Pianos in Brooklyn or Schubas in Chicago, they might find themselves on the bill with indie-rock bands by default, so it’s kind of inevitable that they would ultimately be exposed to an indie-rock audience.”
Still, Roth seems exasperated that the subject of white hipsters has even come up. “We only have to deal with this in interviews,” he says. Well, in interviews and whenever they read their own press. Time Out New York called Jones a “hipster-soul star” in a blurb on the Dap-Kings’ early-May shows at the Apollo, the Los Angeles Times headlined a 2007 story on the band “Hipsters have nothing on Sharon Jones,” and a blogger for the Vermont alt-weekly Seven Days commented, in an otherwise gushing review of a concert in November 2009, that the band belongs on the blog Stuff White People Like (there’s already a post for “Black Music That Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore,” but it doesn’t mention soul).
Eli “Paperboy” Reed, who’s also white, told Austinist in September 2008 that he’d much rather see random teenagers, middle-aged couples, and yuppies at his shows than the “fair share of hipsters” they attract. This isn’t an antihipster stance, though, so much as it’s the way any artist who wants a big audience has to think. Asked if he thought his music’s accessibility and lack of ironic distance limited its hipster appeal, he replied, “I think it just broadens the scope of who you can get to be interested in your music.” In fact he thinks this lack of irony is why he has a hipster audience at all—and why, as the Boston Herald put it in an article on the Dap-Kings in 2005, soul has the potential to be “the latest vintage music to inspire a new generation of hipsters.”
“There’s so much irony in pop music today and aloofness when it comes to audiences, especially in kids my age,” he told NPR’s Morning Edition in 2008. “I want [audiences], at least for the 45 minutes that you come to see me, to just get caught up in the moment and the emotionalism and let your hair down.”
Roth agrees. “We want to make people who don’t normally dance, dance, and people who don’t normally sweat, sweat,” he says. “Our music is for anybody: white, black, Mexican, Vietnamese, old, young, plumbers . . . “
Yet it’s not who the music is meant for that makes such easy copy in Dap-Kings reviews. It’s who shows up at the gigs, or who the reviewer imagines might show up.
“It’s been bandied about that Jones and the Dap-Kings are icons of the ‘underground soul’ scene, whatever that is,” Boston Globe music columnist Siddhartha Mitter wrote after a 2005 set. “If this show was any indication, that scene is young, self-conscious, and overwhelmingly white. It felt as if Williamsburg had invaded . . . and when Jones brought a few boys from the audience onstage one by one . . . they displayed cringe-inducing attempts at dance moves.”
Mitter recently gave I Learned the Hard Way a positive review, but when I spoke to him he was still uncomfortable with the racial and social politics surrounding the Dap-Kings. He didn’t want to be quoted, but many of the sentiments in his 2005 review still hold true: “The entertainment of white audiences by black performers is an American tradition and not inappropriate in itself,” he wrote. “Still, an odor of exploitation hovered in the room. . . . Perhaps it had to do with the fetishizing of old-style soul, which often carries the false corollary that there is no good new soul and R & B.”
Tangari thinks he understands Mitter’s trouble. As an example of what bothers critics like him, he cites the closing number at a May 2009 show to push 4AD’s Dark Was the Night indie all-star benefit compilation (which includes the likes of Cat Power, Sufjan Stevens, Spoon, and Feist).
“All these indie-rock groups come out and there’s this big sing-along to ‘This Land Is Your Land,'” he says, “and then Sharon Jones comes out onstage and says something like ‘Isn’t that cute, now let me show you how it’s done’ and does a funk version of ‘This Land Is Your Land.'” But where Mitter might see this as insulting to Jones—that is, as a big sassy black diva being trotted out by white indie rockers as an amusing counterpoint to their restrained self-effacement—Tangari interprets it in a more positive light.
“I think one reason some have latched onto Sharon Jones, along with bands like Animal Collective or Dirty Projectors, is because they stand out for doing something really different and have a strong force of personality,” he says. “Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings aren’t doing that kind of cutting-edge stuff, but they bleed personality.”
Particularly distressing to Roth is the suggestion that he and the Dap-Kings have benefited from some sort of bohemian white guilt. Sure, nobody’s going to put it the way Jack Kerouac did in On the Road (“Wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night”), but the phenomenon persists. It’s more likely these days to take the form of exaggerated solicitousness by white people toward black people—and that in turn can provoke backlash.
When Brooklyn Vegan posted in late January about Jones’s upcoming SNL duet with Michael Bublé—the site’s 84th post tagged with “Sharon Jones” since October 2005—the first commenter asked, “can BV or an enlightened commenter please remind me why we’re supposed to like and care about this lady and her band? there must be a posting on her every other day.”
The first reply: “Indie affirmative action . . . “
When I repeat the exchange to Roth, he sighs. “That’s pretty strange, man,” he says. “That’s a very strange interaction. That has nothing to do with what we’re doing.”
Tangari agrees, but he thinks it’s fair to ask if the Dap-Kings would be as popular if Jones were white.
“That’s really hard to say, but I kind of don’t think so,” he says. “She’d just be coming from a different place, and it’s also unlikely they’d have the same sound they do, which is part of what helps them.”
Tangari credits the band’s success in part to the fact that they travel in indie-rock circles, where “emotional intensity” like Jones’s is relatively rare.
“I can’t say too much on how they’d be perceived, but I think that is a point—if Sharon was white, or if there was no Sharon Jones and in her place they were trying to do the same authentic soul thing, there would be skepticism,” he says. “I think the reason Amy Winehouse—and I hate to use the phrase, but we’ll say got away with it—was because she had a distinctive personality of her own. She wasn’t a white woman trying to be Etta James. She was Amy Winehouse. And if they had an Amy Winehouse fronting the Dap-Kings, it’d probably be the same level of acceptance, but not if it was a white woman trying to be Aretha Franklin.”
Of course, Jones doesn’t think about this kind of thing when she’s onstage.
“Everybody’s entitled to what they have to say,” she says. “But to me, I don’t look at color when I’m out there.” In YouTube videos of the Brooklyn Bowl show, she can be heard asking for a “sister” to come up and join her, but only after the stage is pretty crowded with women of other colors.
“Coming up, the reason why I didn’t make it and it took so long to get my first record out was because of that same thing—people telling me I was too black, too fat, too short, and, once I passed 35, telling me I was too old,” Jones says. “Now I’m making it, so I’m glad that they’re accepting it. As long as they enjoy good music, that’s just the way it should be.”
Plenty of “college students” seem to agree with her. The 11th comment on that Brooklyn Vegan post from early January says, “[It] isn’t about being a hipster or being a yuppie. It’s not about being black or white. It’s about great music.”