The Music Industry Was Built On Racism:
“Black Lives Matter protests have shed a spotlight on discrimination that plagues the business”
I’m deeply deflated. Of all the shocks the past few weeks have delivered, from police brutality to acts of ignorance on social media, one stands out the greatest: as a Black man working in the creative industry, it astounds me that people are just now realizing that anti-racist activism is more than calling someone out for derogatory actions or posting a square-sized meme on Instagram.
I want to believe I am free to be myself. However, my experiences tell me otherwise. I studied opera, classical singing, and cello for over 13 years throughout my childhood, and I still recall being treated as the black sheep in the room. Conservatoire was deemed an endeavor strictly for rich, white kids. “Are you adopted?” a friend’s parent asked me at a grade-two cello lesson. Back then, I was oblivious to what that question really meant. Music is supposed to unify, not disqualify. However, the industry is full of prejudice — which I’ve experienced first-hand — and has ultimately scrambled to show its support for the Black community.
The killing of George Floyd outraged society and awakened a mutual understanding that racism derives from the exploitation of Black and brown people who bear the brunt of systemic biases. While acknowledging racism through statements issued by record labels carries some weight, an industry that shamelessly exploits Black music must take further action against discrimination. Racism in the music industry flows to the very core of its structure, affecting employees, the media, and the artists themselves.
The American entertainment industry is in the midst of a reckoning relating to representation or rather, a lack thereof. A study conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith finds a profound lack of diversity on Billboard’s Hot 100 between 2012 and 2018, reporting that only eight out of 1,093 producing credits (sampled across 400 popular songs) went to women of color. The Recording Academy’s Grammy Award for Album Of The Year, the music industry’s most covetable prize, is more likely to be taken by white artists. In the entire history of the Grammys, only 10 Black artists have won the distinction.
These statistics paint a far from the equitable picture. Research by Susan T. Fiske notes that, over time, overt racism has become less acceptable, pushing people to express prejudice in more subtle ways. However, discrimination still takes place. At the end of the day, white people in positions of power must grapple with their own privileges and hold racially driven conversations, as uncomfortable as they may be, to make real change.
The disparity in music stems from colonialist beliefs. An essay by critical theorist Nebal Maysaud argues that Western appreciation for certain genres of music, particularly classical music, is innately racist. “Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness. It’s a combination of European traditions which serve the specious belief that whiteness has a culture — one that is superior to all others,” the theorist writes. “Its main purpose is to be a cultural anchor for the myth of white supremacy. In that regard, people of color can never truly be pioneers of Western classical music. The best we can be are exotic guests: entertainment for the white audiences and an example of how Western classical music is more elite than the cultures of people of color,” he concludes.
“White people are still the majority when it comes to the power brokers in the music industry, and I think that doesn’t allow the space for BIPOC artists to create and to be represented in a nuanced way.” — Jayda G
Maysaud’s research and its connotations, which reveal deep-seated prejudice, are rarely acknowledged in today’s music industry, which is predominantly run by white executives. The lack of diversity in the industry’s workforce doesn’t reflect the music these companies are financing. The term R&B was coined, after all, to replace race music mirroring a reality that glosses over Western imperialism and its cultural implications. Race music has bolstered the charts for as long as Gen Z can remember, dominating the airwaves and serving global audiences for decades. DJ and producer Jayda G agrees: “White people are still the majority when it comes to the power brokers in the music industry, and I think that doesn’t allow the space for BIPOC artists to create and to be represented in a nuanced way.” To grapple with white supremacy is also to challenge the framework of the music industry. Considering that contemporary music is dominated by hip-hop and R&B, it seems strange that record labels are white-run yet Black-fueled.
Black artists are still penalized for their contributions to music. As reported by BBC, singer-songwriter Alexandra Burke spoke up about the oppression she faced at the hands of the music industry. In a 15-minute-long Instagram video, the artist explained how white executives would chastise her for sporting hairstyles that wouldn’t appeal to a white audience. On the flip side, Connecticut-hailing artist ANoyd reports that blackface among white artists abounds. “Many Caucasian women artists came in looking totally different from who they are now,” he says. According to ANoyd, white artists will style themselves with lip injections and dark makeup to make themselves look, Black. “Literally stripping the African American identity as if it’s just a costume, just for acceptance into hip hop culture,” he explains.
To shift the balance of power, music must acknowledge the crucial contributions Black and brown people have made to the industry throughout history. “There’s an average folk who believes rap is all Afro-Americans produce, not recognizing that African music has been the root of popular genres for more than a century,” Brighton musician Michele Brivio reflects. If we fail to acknowledge the labor of minorities, whose practices have established a legacy in music, then we have completely lost the plot.
“Many Caucasian women artists came in looking totally different from who they are now. Literally stripping the African American identity as if it’s just a costume, just for acceptance into hip hop culture.” — ANoyd
Music, just like fashion, is an art form that is supposed to break down barriers rather than build them up. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, discussions of global race relations in popular culture have amplified, as many artists begin politicizing their music with renewed urgency. Record label and publisher BMG recently pledged to address historic inequalities in the record contracts of black artists. In an e-mail sent to managers and performers, BMG CEO Hartwig Masuch said the label was “mindful of the shameful treatment of black artists,” and would begin a review of historic record contracts, vowing to address major cases of “inequalities or anomalies.”
Today’s world is drastically different than decades past. Racist language was once an accepted part of everyday vocabulary. Bigoted comedians and unflattering stereotypes were the norms. However, the demands of activists throughout history have been repeated again and again. Anguish, rage, and sadness have been expressed by marginalized communities many times before. Reasonable, open-minded people across generations have had the same conversations on race that we’re having right now. Each generation feels the end of racism and prejudice is near simply because they are more progressive than the one before. This way of thinking encourages complacency.
We cannot continue to overlook or remain complacent about the music industry’s response to racism. If we are to have a serious conversation about racism, individual and corporate accountability must be taken. For instance, an industry blackout during a pandemic — when most members of staff are furloughed, venues are closed and gigs are pushed back — has been championed with little sense of irony or self-awareness. Unless we’re careful, mindful and vigilant of one another, companies that profit from racism will be able to attach their logos to anti-racist slogans, quotes and earnestly written Instagram posts in order to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement for their own gain, as they’ve done previously with feminism and Pride.
While protesting is an integral part of the cause and is of course important for the visibility of a cause, protest alone is not enough. Being informed about the issue is important and the sharing of books, documentaries, songs, films, and resources is definitely a step towards the right direction if perhaps a little misguided.
“Prejudice can never be erased. Only constantly addressed, monitored, and highlighted.” — Tank God
How much harder do Black artists need to work in order to achieve success? For there to be meaningful change, we must acknowledge the consequences of exploitation. As a society that claims to champion equality, there is a scandalous lack of representation in music that restricts Black artists from excelling beyond the confines they are forced into by Western dominance. As American producer and songwriter Tank God puts it, “Prejudice can never be erased. Only constantly addressed, monitored, and highlighted.”
The music industry is a pool of wealth and it is important that those with influence use not only their words to combat racism but also their resources. Substantive change will require constant education, dialogue, and pressure. It’s difficult to change ingrained ways of thinking, but that is precisely what needs to happen for any real progress to take place. We’re in it for the long haul.
Chidozie Obasi is a UK-based journalist, reporter, and writer. His editorial roles specializing in trends, fashion, entertainment, and cultural affairs. Working across news and features, Obasi has compiled in-depth pieces and short reads on a variety of subjects, ranging from social activism to game-changing supermodels. You can connect with Obasi on Instagram and his website.