Is Empathy the Essence of Soul Music?

The genre’s sound, sentiments, and politics all aim for the same connection.

Ray Charles in 1997
Denis Balibouse / Reuters

One of the saxophonist Kirk Whalum’s earliest memories is of hearing beautiful music in the black Baptist church where his father pastored, and detesting it. “I love the Lord, he heard my cries,” the congregants had sung, with each syllable landing upon a different note. The hymn “reminded me of my grandmother,” Whalum said in a session about “The Genius of Soul” at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is cosponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “My grandmother was a domestic. And so she cleaned people’s toilets. That expression, the essence of a culture, boiled down into these notes: It took me into a place of shame.”

Years later—after a prodigious career in jazz and pop, which included him playing the triumphant saxophone solo on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”—Whalum has come to appreciate the power of the sort of music he heard in church, and how it fits into an “artistic, musical, sonic diaspora of empathy.” There are many ways to label that diaspora. But the most apt might be the most indefinable: “soul.”

Genre distinctions are often thought of as terms of commerce—used to carve up the marketplace—and terms of technique, referring to specific sonic features. But what if the essential aspect of soul is simply a feeling, or a way of connecting? “What I’ve learned is soul is the total mosaic,” the singer-songwriter Clint Holmes said on stage. “When I was growing up, James Brown was soul and that intimidated me, because I couldn’t touch that as an artist. But then I realized that soul is the feeling that emanates from us to the audience.”

That may sound like a gauzy and somewhat self-serving definition that practitioner of other genres, like heavy metal and hip-hop, might also want to claim. But it’s clear that soul musicians feel they are tapping into something ineffable yet very real. When the a cappella group Take 6 joined Whalum and moderator Adam Gopnik on stage, they talked about how their sound has defied music-industry attempts to pigeonhole them. Formed as a gospel barbershop group, Take 6 were first signed to a country label. Over the years, they’ve navigated the line between contemporary and traditional, and gospel and Christian music (distinctions that are more about race than anything else). They said they even lost one awards-show gig because they were deemed too “jazzy.”

“The genre-fication of music puts limits on artists, just like they do in life,” observed one Take 6 member. “Because of the way they sell music now, you have to stay in your lane in order to make a living. Just like they tried to do, politically, in society: try to make you stay in your lane. Our job, as artists, is to push those limits. Push back and say, ‘It could be more. It should be more.’”

The political subtext of soul—visible in the social-justice messages of James Brown and Ray Charles and Nina Simone—is indeed intrinsic to the music. Which is “problematic in a way, now,” Whalum observed. “We’re in an epoch where I leave the house trying to forget what I just saw on the news. I’ll walk on stage and I’ll have this dialogue with myself: ‘Man, these people here’”—he gestured to audience—“‘you don’t know where they stand. So you have to be cool.’”

“The problem is,” he continued, “go all the way down to the root of this music ... and every single step, it was addressing something. It was responding to something.”

This notion of authenticity in connection—a twining of meaning, intention, performance, and audience—presented a challenge, too, for the singer Kyla Jade as she competed on the reality-TV program The Voice. She loved soul music above all else, but the show kept pushing her to sing pop. “The problem was that there was no subject for me [in those songs],” she told Gopnik. “it didn’t speak from a place that I could go along with.”

She traces her resistance to pop to her youth of singing in church, when her mom would tell her, “Listen, baby, if you can’t feel this song, sit down. … Sit on down, until it means something to you.” On TV and elsewhere, for Jade as for many soul musicians, “it was important that anytime I touched the microphone, I said something that was from my experience lived. If you don’t sing in honesty, then it’s just a pretty song.”