It’s easy to listen to Amy Winehouse and get lost in her voice. Few artists have a sound that somehow rings with both ugly affect and enviable ease. Her lyrics are raw and simple, her stories are relatable, and her early death haunts her songs with a sadness that makes pressing pause an impossibility.
All of this helps give the late Amy all the credit for the songs we’ve always ascribed to her. But in reality, she owes much of her success to black musicians. She slipped Motown–inspired soul into a white package, and people fell for it head–over–heels.
But music that was predominantly meant for black Americans influencing a white artist is not itself a bad thing. Recognizing the excellence of any artist and drawing from that is exactly how music evolves. The issue lies in failing to credit those who deserve recognition, especially when those people have historically been left out of the conversation.
As Daphne A. Brooks wrote for The Nation, Amy Winehouse took her entire act from soul icons, except the most crucial piece of it all: “a lesson from Motown’s legendary etiquette coach Maxine Powell, who taught her charges to exude grace and a classic Hollywood glow.” And this grace was not simply for the spectacle. As Brooks puts it, for people like Diana Ross and Mary Wilson, it played the crucial role of “affirming black dignity and humanity amid the battle to end American apartheid.”
Brooks’ article was written before Winehouse’s death, and it misses the enormous issue of substance abuse and addiction that Amy dealt with until her death. This lack of grace was not entirely due to lack of respect, but to Amy's struggles with addiction.
So, Amy Winehouse owed almost all of her act to black influencers. That’s not to say she was any less of a talent, but she was simply inspired by people who typically go uncredited and perpetuated the uncredited use of black artistry.
On the other end of the spectrum, listeners may jump to use Winehouse’s addiction as a scapegoat, ignoring the larger issue that is the disrespect of black artists’ work, which we’ve seen in everything from the Grammys to Miley Cyrus. Amy was sick, not lacking in grace, but that doesn’t mean her music can’t be used as a point in the argument for musical appropriation. Winehouse is not the only musical figure to effectively exploit, whether or not she wanted to, the music from a culture other than her own. It's important to recognize where your inspiration comes from and credit that place appropriately, especially if that place typically goes unappreciated.