Xscape's Homage to Black Barbershop Harmony
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
Barbershop harmony is an African-American tradition of singing developed in the late 1800s by African-American Southern men. It is a style of music typical of unaccompanied consonant four-part chords in a primarily homorhythmic texture—which forged the way for group and ensemble performances, the pinnacle of Motown and the alike. Xscape’s unique approach to closed harmonies and masculine performativity is the most reminiscent adulation to the Barbershop Harmonies of the late 19th century. Kandi Burruss, Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, LaTocha Scott, and Tamika Scott androgyny identity of wearing men’s clothing and singing tight four harmonies acapella has galvanized their connection to a long-forgotten historical lineage that no contemporary female group has comparatively embraced. Allow me to discuss the historical correlation of barbershop quartet singing and Xscape reverence to a genderfluid interpretation of Barbershop musicking.
During the late 19th century, African Americans were barred from access to public theaters and concert halls. African Americans began a vocal culture for amusement at home in singing parties, leading to closed harmony barbershop quartets. While the origins of barbershop singing were initially for pleasure and relaxation, it soon turned to a new practice of troubadour vagabonds where ensembles would sing from backrooms of Black-owned businesses and eventual hired by White companies to woo women and melt hearts. Xscape has a similiar originstory, starting for pleasure and entertainment then miraculously finding themselves in the music industry. The Scott sisters started with amusement singing in church, then they went on to meeting Kandi and Tiny at Tri-City High School in he where they begin performing in talent shows, which led to bigger venues such as Jermaine Dupri’s birthday party, who ultimately offered the group a record deal.
Barbershop quarteting unique approach to harmonizing was also known as “crackling” or making it “weird,” turned colloquial tunes into an improvised cornucopia of cerebral homophony. In like fashion, Xscape is well-known from taking popular tunes and making them so original that the audience also assumed they were in fact the creators on the song. Such is the case with the well-known song, “Who Can I Run To?” initially performed by The Jones Girls. It would not be until decades later that I would learn the song was initially sung by a different group. With flawless vocal and original harmonies, Xscape was a paradoxical coexistence of contraries in the musical divinity. Collectively the group developed a sound that was calore and amoroso, or "weird" when needed. They created imagery with their vocals that were effusive and liberament developed an erotic frivolity of the decadent epoch that is the paragon of "crackling."
Xscape’s effortless vocal abilities of LaTocha Scott and Tamika Scott carried melodies with a sostenuto accurate. Whether they were singing ballads or ballabile bops, Tamika brought a cantilena to their melodies and harmonies unimpaired in expression. Kandi Buruss always provided a unique taste to the ensemble. With an extensive vocal range, she sang some of the lowest and highest harmonies in the group. One could go from feeling lugubrious to scatenato by the shrill of Kandi’s falsetto in a single phrase. I preferred her contralto notes as they provided the ensemble with declamando pensieroso that remained unmatched in a female ensemble singing to date. Tiny Harris’s voice was a dolente as it is dolcemente. She provided the ensemble with a lontano that floated into a sognando cerebellum that encapsulated the listener’s ears and heart and always left you wanting to hear more.
The unique styling of the late 19th-century barbershop quartets was an equal combination of “weird” vocals and handsome attire. The picturesque imagery of four men dressed in matching colorful clothing from head to toe is revered the than the actual singing or singers of the genres. In like fashion, Xscape was revered for their masculine attire, where they choose a genderfluid approach to wearing men’s suiting and hip hop clothing. Although it is common in many cultures, genderfluid dressing has usually been considered an exceptional phenomenon to which Xscape’s form of artistry promoted a level of individual creativity that would otherwise not be acceptable to womxn.
Xscape’s androgynous representation embodies a mythical artistic creation that symbolized the wholeness of fusing the sexes. Their physiognomy contained subtle hints of masculinity, while their music was the embodiment of sheer impractical femininity. The beauty of their non-conformities identity inclines both inwardly toward feminine ideals with a hardcore hip-hop street edge of outward masculine performativity.Their expression not only paid homage to the creators of the barbershop quartet, Black men in finely tailored suits, but transcends to a divine cosmogonic motif that the divinities of cosmic fertility are non-binary; alternate between male and female sex in successive.
Others noted that their expression was a crucial strand of contemporary intersectional, queerness, and anti-oppression expressionism similar to Little Richard and The Runaways. Their resistance to occupying traditional female vocalist expression was a grey zone between categories such as social and cultural, creating didacticism employing openly and explicitly expressing resistance. This form of resistance to cultural patterns was the aesthetics of informality. They were more revolutionary than any other male or female group of their time because their framework in defining freedom of action was less restrictive and historically referenced.
Xscape’s ubiquity and historical continuity of non-binary expression attest to archetypal status four-part singing. They were by far supreme in musicality when compared to their contemporaries. By creating a sound and visual of conceivable opposites, they made a mystery that many in the time considered too avant-garde, as they received ambivalent responses provoked by the ambiguity of their outward appearance and behavior. Xscape’s revolt against establishment thinking created much conflict with male-dominated music industry as they aimed to ignore and undermine ‘the establishments’ normalization of female identity in popular music.
One cannot but draw parallel to the similar deposition of Black men starting barbershop singing for the barring from entertainment in white establishment. Through persecution true art prevails and the purveyors of art always gravitate towards eccentric and eclectic artistry. What are your thoughts on Barbershop harmony? Do you feel that Xscape is a solid representation of tradition Black male singing?
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