The second a black girl contestant pops up on The Voice, I’m rooting for her by default. We deserve to thrive, succeed, and achieve our dreams in a world that screams that we’re nothing more than loud, ghetto, welfare queens, even as we continue to scream back the statistical data that shows otherwise. I mean for starters black girls are the most educated group in America, statistically speaking, but I digress.
So when Sa’Rayah, a Chicago single mother from a broken home herself, takes the stage on Night 2 of The Voice’s season 11 premiere, I’m filled with hopeful jitters. It’s almost as if I’m standing on that stage right beside her. It appears that she’s already touched the hem of the Hair God’s garment. The Amazing Shoes God has already blessed her. Please let the Voicebox God be available for duty. Then she opens her mouth.
Sa’Rayah delivers a raw, emotional performance of Ray Charles’ Drown In My Own Tears so soul stirring, it leaves the audience screaming, and two of the Voice coaches losing their minds. But only two. Although she has quickly climbed the ranks to become my favorite contestant so far, and the judges adorn her with praise, a dark thought gets comfortable chilling in the back of my mind: She’s probably not going to win. A black girl has never won The Voice. In 10 whole seasons. Sa’Rayah or any black girl contestant’s victory would be a statistical miracle.
It’s not for lack of talent. They almost always deliver the range, power, and soul that produces standing ovations, only to ultimately get booted off fairly early in the competition. The Voice trophy/title almost always ends up in the hands of a blue eyed soul or country singer whose vocal ability is objectively less impressive.
Season 4 of The Voice introduced the world to Sasha Allen, whose soaring and seemingly effortless vocals were at times almost unbelievable. Her performance of the Etta James classic At Last still gives me chills to this day. She didn’t even make the top 5.
Season 6 unleashed the vocal beast that is Sissaundra Lewis delivering performance after performance of goosebump producing grandeur, reminiscent of black girl greats like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. This woman is all skyscraping notes, tasteful vocal acrobatics, and power. She didn’t make top 5.
Season 8 gave us a Black Girl Triple threat with Kimberly Nichole , Koryn Hawthorne , and India Carney . Despite throwing her incredibly powerful, agile voice down on top of genre bending song choices, Kimberly Nichole didn’t make the top 5. Koryn and India were eliminated on the same night , exactly one week before the finale, despite their incredible tones, power, and the consistent emotional depth of their performances.
Season 10 produced Shalyah Fearing, a teenage powerhouse who’s gravelly dynamic vocals also called to mind the black girl greats who had come before her. After her performance in the Knockout round a couple of the coaches pegged her as the eventual winner of the entire competition. She didn’t make the top 5.
So what is it if not lack of talent? After watching Sa’Rayah get only two chair turns, another black girl Wé MacDonald ropes all 4 coaches in for a standing ovation with her quirky yet powerful rendition of the jazz classic Feeling Good. Adam Levine, one of the coaches who didn’t turn his chair for Sa’Rayah, hinted at one of the problems in his critique of her “I felt like I was at church and I’m more of a temple kind of guy”. Black girls who sound too black get boxed into the gospel singer category. An alienating and unpopular mold to break out of. Blackness is an alientating and unpopular mold, that’s the second problem. Black girlhood just isn’t marketable.
No one wants to see a black girl be black. Traits ascribed to blackness are perfectly fine when present on people of other races however. Josh Kaufman won season 6 riding the wave of his “thing” which just so happened to be being a white boy who sings soul music. Tessanne Chin a Jamaican woman of Asian ethnicity won season 5 with her powerful vocals reminiscent of aforementioned black girl greats Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. This isn’t to say those winners weren’t talented. They were. But if soul and power are all you need to win what about Sasha Allen? What about Sisaundra Lewis? Kimberly Nichole? Koryn Hawthorne? India Carney? Shalyah Fearing?
This misogynoir driven overlooking of black girl contestants isn’t reflective of the cast, crew, or producers of NBC’s The Voice. It’s reflective of America. Ultimately, the American viewers vote to decide who stays on in the competition and who gets the boot. It goes without saying that America’s prejudices and love of blackness so long as it’s not attached to a black body goes way beyond this competition.
To give a couple examples, there’s the rise and continued popularity of the Kardashian/Jenner clan, namely Kylie Jenner who, with her lip injections and “boxer braids” both Christopher Columbuses and profits off of looks that have been mocked and ridiculed on actual black girls. More recently, the as yet unnamed white girl who went viral on social media for being a white girl who can successfully manuver through the movements of the TZ Anthem Challenge (a dance created by and ususally performed by carefree black kids) appears to have made it onto her local news station. For being a white girl who can do a dance created by black kids. It’s only a matter of time before she gets to appear on the Ellen show or something. While the actual black kids who created the dance and perform it much better get….what?
I say all this to say that the misogynoir of The Voice’s viewers isn’t The Voice’s fault. Although technically it does fail in it’s original purpose: choosing a winner based on their voice alone and not their background or appearance.
The show shot to commercial success mostly due to it’s prolific approach to the tired out reality singing competition formula. It introduced the concept of blind auditions: contestants take the stage and the coaches listen with their backs turned. If they like what they hear they press a button to turn around and the contestant is granted a place on the show.
The only problem is that while the coaches are “blind”, America’s eyes are open throughout the entire competition. Winners ultimately are chosen based on an amalgamation of looks, personality, and talent, with talent getting pushed somewhat to the background, just like every other reality singing competition ever. I never heard Sawyer Fredericks, The Voice season 8 winner change octaves, do a single run, or hold a note for longer than 1 second. But the blue eyed blues singer amassed a following of fanatic, teenage girls who, when interviewed by the show’s producers on the finale episode, said they voted for him because he was cute and they loved his long hair.
Maybe the only true and fault-proof medium for a reality singing competition would be radio. Maybe one day America will stop boxing in black girls. Maybe one day America will stop overlooking us and praising our traits and talents when they see them shining in everyone but us. Maybe pigs will fly. At any rate I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Sa’Rayah.