Back to Black: how the music industry reckoned with race this year

Black Lives Matter sparked overdue changes – but if deeper prejudices go unaddressed, they could be all too fleeting

“In the wake of George Floyd” is a sentence I have both read and written too many times this year. His brutal and racist killing forced an elevated conscience across every industry: suddenly, organisations cared about Black lives and everyone wanted to amplify Black voices.

The global music industry acknowledged the tragic event in May particularly strongly because so many global superstars, if not Black themselves, are influenced by Black music. Universal Music Group duly pledged $25m towards a “change fund”, while both Sony and Warner Music each pledged $100m for social justice and anti-racist causes – laudable, but ultimately minuscule compared with the value Black artists and creatives have brought to the industry.

In light of this, Atlantic Records executives Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas launched #TheShowMustBePaused. The initiative held a “blackout Tuesday” that sought to allow the music industry to reflect on the injustices faced by Black people. “The music industry is a multibillion-dollar industry. An industry that has profited predominantly from Black art,” their website reads. “Our mission is to hold accountable the industry at large, including major corporations and their partners, who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people.”

An Instagram user shares a #BlackoutTuesday post.
An Instagram user shares a #BlackoutTuesday post. Photograph: Mark Trowbridge/Getty Images

It was an important statement, but received a mixed reaction. Spotify added eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence – the amount of time police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck – to select playlists and podcasts, a protest in the language of its own exploitative streaming technology. The day of action also spread beyond the music industry, as social media users all over the globe performatively posted black squares in solidarity with Black people. It almost felt comical: influencers who had been silent on Black struggle now offering a silent protest.

White people loudly “doing the work” they should already have been doing wasn’t the only thing that changed. Black artists, given a licence to create politically charged music with less fear of a backlash or blacklisting, created sounds and visuals that reflected the times. Terrace Martin, Denzel Curry, Kamasi Washington, G Perico, and Daylyt teamed up on Pig Feet, a track that incorporated live recordings from the protests and embodied their energy. In the vdeo for FTP, YG took to the street to capture the heart of the movement and showed crowds of energised protesters chanting “fuck the police”. In Hella Fuckin’ Trauma, Juicy J raps: “When they gon’ stop killin’ niggas, man? Enough is enough … I can’t sit back, let ’em take my life.”

Black Lives Matter also gave Black artists the space to talk about the racism that they had faced. X Factor winner Alexandra Burke was told she needed to bleach her skin; Misha B said she was left feeling suicidal after being accused of bullying on the same show; Sugababes’ Keisha Buchanan needed therapy after the “trauma” she experienced in the industry. The year threw up stories like this that we all knew deep down to be true, but had never been told in public.

Alexandra Burke speaking about racism on her Instagram account.
Alexandra Burke speaking about racism on her Instagram account. Photograph: Instagram | Alexandra Burke

Another watershed was reached regarding the word “urban” to describe Black music. It has been a contested label since the 80s, used to sell Black music to white audiences and radio stations, pigeonholing black artists with little regard for the music they make. “Whenever we – and I mean guys that look like me – do anything that’s genre-bending, they always put it in the rap or urban category,” Tyler, the Creator said at the Grammys in January. (This goes both ways: when Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road was released in 2019, it wasn’t allowed in the overwhelmingly white country charts). On 5 June, Republic Records, home to artists such as Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and the Weeknd, announced it would no longer be using the term urban, saying: “It is important to shape the future of what we want it to look like, and not adhere to the outdated structures of the past.” Shortly after, the Grammys announced they would stop using “urban” in its award categories.

These successes, though, are still outweighed by much larger injustices faced by Black musicians. In a viral Instagram post on Blackout Tuesday, academic and writer Josh Kun wrote: “If the music industry wants to support Black lives, labels and platforms can start with amending contracts, distributing royalties, diversifying boardrooms and retroactively paying back all the Black artists and their families, they have built their empires on.” His post was shared by artists such as Kelis and Erykah Badu and touched on an issue that is racialised: young Black artists from low socioeconomic backgrounds often take deeply unfair record deals.

As the entertainment lawyer Tonya Butler explained to Vice in October: “Anybody can get a bad deal – but because of the inequities in education, and the economic disparity that exists, Black artists and brown artists are more susceptible to getting a bad deal. I liken it to Covid: everybody can get it, but Black and brown people are affected more intensely than others because of systemic inequities.”

There is a lack of sympathy for Black artists, too: there was endless support for Taylor Swift when she was attempting to buy back her masters from Scooter Braun, but when Megan Thee Stallion spoke about her label 1501’s unwillingness to renegotiate her deal, many on social media turned into scornful experts on contract law.

Moreover, when she was allegedly shot by Tory Lanez (who has since been charged over the incident), the internet was rife with unforgiving and judgmental opinions on Megan. “Black women are so unprotected & we hold so many things in to protect the feelings of others [without] considering our own,” she wrote on Twitter. “It might be funny to y’all on the internet … but this is my real life and I’m real life hurt and traumatized.” People questioned why she didn’t report the incident to the police when they arrived on the scene, but she explained on Instagram Live that this was to protect both of them, given the “aggressiveness” of the LAPD and the history of police brutality even towards victims.

Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion in the video for WAP.
Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion in the video for WAP. Photograph: YouTube

In another instance of blatant misogynoir, the release of the video to her hit track with Cardi B, WAP, was met with much criticism: congressional candidate James P Bradley described the song as “what happens when children are raised without God and without a strong father figure”. Russell Brand waded into the discussion to say that women are complicit in their own oppression by showing skin. Despite the explicit sexual content in, for instance, Ariana Grande’s Positions, there always seems to be more outrage when Black women claim their sexuality in music.

Black artists still go shortchanged, mislabelled and unrecognised in other genres, such as dance music. There has been a historic lack of accreditation for Black women dance vocalists despite them helping to shape the sound (an ongoing struggle explored by Jumi Akinfenwa), and misogynoir still plagues dance music. In Mixmag’s Blackout series, five Black women detailed their experiences within the music industry, particularly in dance, and described worrying patterns of not only racism, but colourism, fatphobia and erasure. In the same series of articles the house music pioneer Marshall Jefferson wrote about how he quit DJing because of the difficulties Black DJs faced in the industry, particularly regarding recognition and fair pay.

It has been an eye-opening year for the industry. Uncomfortable conversations about severe imbalances of power and the exploitation of Black artists are finally taking place. UK Music’s 2020 diversity report showed a rise in ethnic diversity in the industry over the last two years (though the rise was much slower at senior levels), and the formation of groups such as Black Music Coalition will help to maintain that drive for change.

But as “the wake of George Floyd” calms, Black artists could so easily be silenced once more, entertaining the white masses while feeling unable to complain about racism for fear of being seen as ungrateful. Any structural changes made this year in response to racism and police brutality, meanwhile, sit within wider capitalist structures. As long as Black communities suffer from systemic poverty and neglect, artists from these communities – without adequate legal support or relevant connections – will be easily exploited. And as long as racism exists in society – as long as society is set up in a racist way – it will underpin and inform the music industry.

Music executives and labels have demonstrated compassion and care this year, but they must continue to act – and go further than the rest of society. By elevating the Black artists and staff that are innate to its success, the industry is well placed to make itself an example to others. But it is not enough to give a Black people a voice if they can’t speak their truth.


Chanté Joseph

The GuardianTramp

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