Don’t Expect ‘Leave the Door Open’ to Save Black Music

Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s first Silk Sonic single is a dope soul throwback, but it’s not a savior

Bruno Mars of Silk Sonic performs during the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards broadcast on March 14, 2021. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Earlier this month, power duo Silk Sonic — a collaboration between Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak — dropped its first single, “Leave the Door Open.” Produced by Mars and D’Mile (written by Mars, .Paak, D’Mile, and Brody Brown), it is, I suppose, a hit. It is everywhere. Given how the music industry has moved the goalposts to count streams as a portion of sales, if it isn’t a hit, nothing is.

And, because the song taps into historical Black musical forms and Mars is attached to it, we all have to have an argument about it.

Part of what’s interesting about the criticism of this song is that if Mars wasn’t involved, the chances that anybody lobbing accusations of style-glomming would be next to none. Mars unfortunately drags the albatross of appropriation with him wherever he goes, which is frustrating here because the song is legit. I’m not a Mars fan, and where I believe he’s derivative, I say so. “Uptown Funk,” his 2014 riff on 1980s funk, was truly boring to me, and all comparisons to Prince were inflated at best. (Does no one remember Cameo? Because it sounds like one of their songs more than it does anyone who ever practiced Minneapolis funk.) So I’m not making a case that Mars is above a bit of biting. I’m just saying “Leave the Door Open” is intuitively better and more artistically rendered than what he’s been doing when he deigns to tip his hat to the past.

I don’t get caught up in taste arguments, but I don’t mind applying a little empiricism to a decent debate about what a song is trying to do and whether or not it succeeded in that mission. “Leave the Door Open” is original enough to stand on its own two musical feet. Now, if what .Paak told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe is true — that “delta swamp blues was what we were going for” — I’ll tell you as an annoyingly proud blues man that this isn’t even close to that. “Leave the Door Open” is firmly a soul song in the Four Tops/Spinners tradition with some neo-soul sprinkles on top, and as such is a good and successfully executed song. If it sounds like other songs you may know from the distant past, then that means it’s largely doing what most music has always done: referenced its influences.

But let’s get to what this is all really about: Who gets to keep the gate on the legacy of Black music.

Mars and .Paak have made no secret about their love of that legacy. .Paak may not know what delta blues music sounds like, but he knows enough to know such a thing exists. And Mars drops more old school R&B/soul artists’ names than a Newport-smoking, fresh-out-of-jail uncle at a cookout. Is it really stealing when you name your muses aloud?

But there’s a more insidious question behind the appropriation charges regularly levied against Mars and artists who dip their toes in similar waters: Who else was going to bring that music back? Who else in the pop mainstream was shining a light on those influences? Audiences don’t do that on their own; otherwise we wouldn’t have old school artists living hand-to-mouth. There can be debate about who gets to make that awareness happen, but it’s almost never an organic thing. Someone has to decide that they’re going to put that music in front of people so that new audiences can appreciate it.

You can’t blame artists like Mars for liking something enough to record it and sell it. It’s dope music. If Mars was doing a crappy version of it, I’d be mad. But the people who should be blamed are the gatekeepers and influencers — or rather, the lack thereof. If people who love the music aren’t out championing it on their platforms, then we can’t expect audiences to do it on their own. It’s how Black folks lost the blues and never got it back: because we don’t want it enough to keep it home.

.Paak may not know what delta blues music sounds like, but he knows enough to know such a thing exists. And Mars drops more old school R&B/soul artists’ names than a Newport-smoking, fresh-out-of-jail uncle at a cookout. Is it really stealing when you name your muses aloud?

Will songs like “Leave the Door Open’’ kick off a trend of artists dusting off classic Black music styles and presenting them to new audiences? Let me answer that question with another question: Was there a funk renaissance after “Uptown Funk”? Nope. We just debated about who he was robbing and then moved on. In truth, more people get led to older music by a Verzuz battle — the rare case of converting social media cachet into actual sales.

Underappreciated music in any form will always need champions, and in this moment .Paak and Mars are ambassadors, not thieves. Asking random listeners to dig back into music history and preserve the legacies of forgotten artists and styles is asking audiences to be something that they’ve never been: art students. Neither labels nor radio stations are the things holding back the legacies of classic Black music. Those are the vehicles designed to drive music exactly where it’s been going — into the ground. The things holding back that collective appreciation are current Black audiences. It’s how jazz got White. It’s how Elvis became the King of rock ’n’ roll, and Chuck Berry didn’t. The only reason we haven’t lost gospel is because its practitioners still own the places where it happens.

Do you expect to see Gamble and Huff songs back on Billboard charts because Bruno got an itch? I hope not, because that’s not how that happens. It happens when people are sold on the merits of good, classic music. That’s work, and there aren’t a lot of people looking to do that labor. Don’t conflate people liking “Leave the Door Open” with people having a hunger for soul music. They’re not even looking for other artists who are putting that kind of music out right now. They just like this one song. If they heard more of it, things might be different. As it stands, we’re having arguments over work that too few music journalists (or too many of the wrong ones) are bothering to excavate. People who care about lost music should be normalizing it by exposing others to it as frequently as possible — sharing love, not just links.

Writer and poet holding down Columbus, Ohio

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