Introducing ‘Brown butter’: a playlist spotlighting dark-skinned women in R&B
Colorism is well and alive in one of Black music’s most popular genres. Everyone who listens to R&B needs to help combat it.
Note: This blog post provides background to why I created Brown butter. If you already know all about the effects of colorism in the Black community and the Black music space, feel free to skip over my educative spiel and scroll down to see the playlist. If you have an artist you want to see on the playlist, you can find a Google form link for that at the bottom of this post, too. 🤎
As someone who listens to mostly R&B, I’ve noticed that our present generation of commercially successful, female R&B artists is framed by colorism. And though colorism has existed for as long as racism, I feel like now, more than ever — as the African diaspora continues to grow increasingly diverse, and thus, so do its shades of brown/Blackness — we need to face and dismantle the system of colorism.
“Being manifestly mixed race, ethnically ambiguous, or simply lighter in complexion than brown- or dark-skinned Black women will get you farther in Black music than being, quite physically, closer to black/brownness.”
This specific type of prejudice not unique to the Black community. It’s a byproduct of racism, and thus, like racism, it exists on a global scale: in all of the Americas; in the U.K. and Europe; in numerous regions of Asia and Africa. And, in all of these places, women with (what are seen as) “darker” complexions are seen as less desirable, less attractive — because the beauty standards women most commonly face, even outside of the Western world, are, of course, Eurocentric. Colorism is also a system in which those with lighter — whiter — skin are privileged, while those with darker skin face hate and systemic (and, in some regions, institutionalized) discrimination.
In the context of Black western culture, colorism is the primary reason light-skinned women are widely seen as prettier and more feminine than dark(er)-skinned women; it’s the reason Black people in the sunken place convince themselves having babies with a non-Black person, or a Black person in close(r) proximity to whiteness (e.g. a light-skinned person), is the move.
In music, in particular, a majority of “marketable,” female R&B performers would pass the colorist brown paper bag test just fine. Black women in music have long realized that being manifestly mixed race, ethnically ambiguous, or simply lighter in complexion than brown- or dark-skinned Black women will get you farther in Black music than being, quite physically, closer to black/brownness.
Colorism in the space of R&B is hard to quantify, admittedly. But it isn’t hard to see. It is no coincidence that a majority of today’s most commercially successful contemporary R&B songstresses — Kehlani, Jhené Aiko, Chloe x Halle, Jorja Smith, Ella Mai, and copious others (the list is literally endless) — are all light-skinned, vastly outnumbering brown- or dark-skinned performers of the same commercial caliber, like SZA, Summer Walker, or Lizzo. The same trend exists in independent or “left-of-center” R&B spaces, too, even when music discovery relies on algorithms, live shows, and press coverage.
Right now, I feel like Black women are most cognizant of how colorism oppresses other Black women in music; but it goes without saying that anyone who listens to Black music (R&B, in particular), should be aware of how their listening habits are shaped by virtue of colorism and systemic prejudice against dark-skinned women. But still, even awareness isn’t enough — because, as with racism, fighting colorism and creating equity for all Black female musicians requires action. We must be anti-colorist.
“For me, in the context of music, the foremost way I can be anti-colorist as a consumer is to simply listen differently…making a conscious effort to stream, hype up, share, and outwardly support brown (like, actually brown) women in R&B is necessary.”
For me, in the context of music, the foremost way I can be anti-colorist as a consumer is to simply listen differently. And I think that’s a good starting place for anyone who has realized mFost of their R&B faves just so happen to be light-skinned. Keep in mind that because colorism is systemic, evening the playing field for light- and dark-skinned female artists won’t be easy. The algorithm is already working against these women. But making a conscious effort to stream, hype up, share, and outwardly support brown (like, actually brown) women in R&B is necessary. That’s why I’ve made this playlist, Brown Butter. — it exclusively features the music of dark- and brown-skinned women working in all subgenres of R&B.
Right now, the playlist is a little over 60 songs, but I plan on adding to it every time I discover a talented, dark-skinned female artist in need of more love. My goal for this playlist is to underline the talents of all dark-skinned women (both on the come up and already poppin’ — because colorism doesn’t just stop when you’re famous) in R&B by giving myself and you all an easily accessible place to listen to their music on repeat.
Brown butter. is not the end all be all to ending colorism in R&B, obviously. But, again, it’s a starting place where all of us who enjoy R&B can try to create equity in the space; I hope it encourages those who follow it to start doing their own work to support the work of dark-skinned female artists they were previously unfamiliar with, and add that music to their regular rotation. (Also, I’ll have y’all know that the music discovery efforts that went into creating this playlist took me 10 times as much labor as it would have if I were making a playlist featuring only light-skinned women — which says a lot.)
A week or so ago, I tweeted about wanting to create something like Brown Butter., and a mutual of mine, writer Iyana Jones, told me she’d already been putting in the work to be anti-colorist in her listening habits. “It’s really crazy that even within a space made for us, we still aren’t highlighted,” she said, and I couldn’t agree more.
To know that whiteness still shapes Black art in this way is not only wild but disappointing. And I pray that by making conscious efforts to appreciate these Black women artists — and engage in frequent, thoughtful conversations about colorism, in general — our community won’t have to feel so disappointed anymore.