En Vogue and Funky Divas: Afro-Futurism

Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest spoke for a great many of us when he said “I used to have a crush on Dawn from En Vogue.” I actually had a crush on everyone from En Vogue, though. Dawn, Maxine, Cindy, and Terry. They were incredible singers, of course, but good gracious were they fine.

It wasn’t until recently, while watching VH1’s 40 Greatest R&B Songs of the 90s, that I realized how much of my early musical taste was dictated by my prepubescent sex drive. At the age of five, Chilli from TLC was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and thus became my first crush, and thus TLC became my favorite group. The sight of Mariah Carey in shorts in the video for “One Sweet Day” was enough for me wear out a song that, today, I wouldn’t take two seconds to listen to. Aaliyah showed me what it meant to be a sly seductress and that’s all I’ve ever wanted since. And Janet Jackson… well, she was Janet Jackson.

It’s terribly shallow, but En Vogue wasn’t any different. I listened to their songs on the radio, but what made me a fan was seeing their videos on MTV. Which is why its taken me this long to truly appreciate their musical contribution.

In the present, we remember the early-mid 90s in black music for the proliferation of hip-hop. The genre was going from novel fad to legitimate pop mainstay. We also remember this time for the national exposure to police brutality in urban neighborhoods, via the Rodney King tape/trial/uprising. Hip-hop had predicted such an incident for years, and now everyone wanted to hear what rappers like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and more had to say.

Lost in the current remembrance of the time is that R&B acts were delivering some strong material, particularly the women. Enter En Vogue. They had a big hit with “Hold On” from their 1990 debut album Born to Sing, and went platinum. Their success spawned a cluster of imitators, and over the next few years a number of “girl groups” would appear, including SWV, Xscape, and others. It was like a new sub-genre of R&B music.

Dawn, Maxine, Cindy, and Terry wouldn’t limit themselves. Their follow-up album, 1992’s Funky Divas went triple platinum and in a lot of ways was a precursor to the sonic experimentation of latter day Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, Nicki Minaj, etc. Funky Divas managed to find the space between funk and in-your-face sexiness of their forebear Betty Davis, the polished sophistication of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ R&B, the aggressiveness in MC Lyte’s emceeing, and a secret desire to be Nirvana.¬†All that, and their voices still managed to sound like they were honed by days, months, and years belting out choir solos in a black Baptist church.

“Free Your Mind” is a hard-rock inspired track of the type we often say we wish pop stars would release more of, one with a message about prejudice (with some nice shots at slut-shaming). “My Lovin'” finds them asserting their worth to would-be suitors that simply are never gonna get it. On “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” they reinterpret the Curtis Mayfield penned, Aretha Franklin performed song from the original Sparkle soundtrack and put their own stamp on it. They delivered the traditional R&B and hip-hop inflected tracks with equal ease and comfort.

They had the misfortune of releasing this album two years before TLC would become the biggest girl group of all-time with their attention-stealing/genre-defining album CrazySexyCool. After that, there was TLC and everyone else. En Vogue primarily became known as the women who sang “Whatta Man” with Salt-N-Pepa.

It’s a discredit to their legacy, as they deserve so much more recognition for the trail they blazed. Their recent re-break-up via Twitter isn’t doing much to help re-imagine that legacy either. It’s unfortunate, but the bright side? Man, they are still fine.