In an age where no one bats an eye at Justin Timberlake for crooning soulfully or Travis McCoy for fronting a rock band, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when music was categorized as “black” or “white.” But this was certainly the case as recently as the 1980s and ’90s, a phenomenon that recording artists sometimes reacted to by taking part in interracial musical collaborations, of which 10 notables are below.
Traditionally in the music industry, white artists and black artists were supposed to sound markedly different from each other and have their music featured in entirely different outlets. Accordingly, artists who defied convention and embraced a sound associated with a different race were met with a great deal of surprise. And when recording artists from different ethnic backgrounds collaborated on tracks, they generated major industry buzz.
Can you name some of the noteworthy interracial musical collaborations from the 1980s to the present? Jog your memory with the following list.
“Ebony and Ivory”
Today’s listeners might find the 1982 single “Ebony and Ivory,” performed by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, a tad precious. After all, the ode to racial togetherness features this refrain: “Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony/Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh lord why don’t we?”
All jokes aside, “Ebony and Ivory”, which appeared on McCartney’s album Tug of War, topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts for seven consecutive weeks following its release.
When you consider the historical context the song was written in, you can’t really blame audiences for embracing it so. The nation was still reeling from the assassination of civil rights leaders in the late 1960s, the rise and fall of militant groups such as the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement in the 1970s and violence over busing black schoolchildren to white schools in 1970s Boston. With this in mind, it’s fair to say that the nation earned this track about racial harmony, however cutesy.
“The Girl is Mine” and “Say, Say, Say”
Apparently Paul McCartney was the go-to guy when it came to interracial duets in the 1980s. In 1982, not only did the former Beatle record with Wonder, he also appeared on “The Girl is Mine” with Michael Jackson. This number didn’t do as well as “Ebony and Ivory” but reached a respectable No. 2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. The next single to be released by McCartney and Jackson—“Say, Say, Say”—made it to No. 1, where it remained for six weeks.
“Walk This Way”
By the mid-1980s, hip-hop was rapidly advancing as America’s next greatest music form. Blending the old art form of rock with this new genre, rap group Run-D.M.C. collaborated with rock band Aerosmith on a cover of the band’s song “Walk This Way.” The single not only did better than Aerosmith’s original release of the song, it also became the first rap song to break into the Billboard Top 5. The song is widely credited with introducing hip-hop to the masses.
“Smooth” and “Maria, Maria”
The most successful interracial collaboration ever is arguably 1999’s “Smooth,” performed by Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas. Featured on Santana’s album Supernatural, “Smooth” spent 12 weeks in the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It also won Grammys.
Even without Thomas, Santana struck gold. Another Supernatural single, “Maria, Maria,” produced by Wyclef Jean and featuring his protégés The Product G&B, reached No. 1 as well. The track would ultimately top the charts for 10 weeks.
“N 2 Gether Now”
The 1990s saw an explosion of rap-rock bands. Among them were Limp Bizkit. The band’s 1999 album Significant Other debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. “N 2 Gether Now,” an album single, stands out for its teaming of Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst with hip-hop heavyweight Method Man. Moreover, rather than pair rap vocals to rock music, “N 2 Gether Now” features the melodious rhythms of esteemed hip-hop producer DJ Premier. The single peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles Chart.
“Over and Over”
St. Louis rapper Nelly had been proclaiming his country ways since his 2000 album “Country Grammar” dropped. Still, it came as a shock when four years later he released a slow-paced track called “Over and Over” with country music hit-maker Tim McGraw. “Over and Over” became a crossover sensation, charting at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In 2004, rapper Jay-Z and rockers Linkin Park joined forces on Collision Course, a six-single EP featuring tracks composed of blends, or mash-ups, of the artists’ songs. Initially, Jay-Z and Linkin Park teamed up simply to participate in a concert show called “MTV Ultimate Mash-Ups.” During the creative process, however, they entered the studio together and decided to release their tracks on an EP produced by Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda, who has Japanese and European heritage. That move paid off, as their EP rose to No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
This track performed by Colombian superstar Shakira and Haitian-American rapper Wyclef Jean topped the Billboard 100 for five weeks, and the U.S. Billboard Hot Latin Songs for two. On the track, Jean makes reference to both his and Shakira’s ethnic backgrounds and the significance of such a duo doing a musical collaboration.
“Why the CIA wanna watch us?
Colombians and Haitians
I ain’t guilty, it’s a musical transaction
No more do we snatch ropes
Refugees run the seas ‘cause we own our own boats.”
And there you have it, ten of the most noteworthy interracial musical collaborations from the 1980s to the present. These joint ventures went from cheesy to edgy, from black and white partnerships to include the contributions of Latinos and Asian Americans. Who knows how music will fuse along cultural lines in the future?