#BlackoutTuesday started the conversation, but the real anti-racism work in the music industry begins now

While predominantly white industries took a pause, black artists and music professionals didn’t get the day off. Jenessa Williams explores the numerous ways that real change in the music industries can be enacted in the fight against racism.

On Tuesday June 2, Clara Amfo cried on national radio, and across the country (indeed the world), hordes of black listeners cried with her. Her pain and suffering was palpable. In response to the violent murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, USA, social media has been awash with #BlackLivesMatter content that ranges between informative and performative, black grief mingling with white voices that are, hopefully, finally, beginning to get it. 

“People want our culture, but they do not want us. In other words, you want my talent, but you don’t want me.” Clara said. “There is a false idea that racism – and in this case anti-blackness – is just name-calling and physical violence, when it is so much more insidious than that. One of my favourite thinkers is a woman called Amanda Seales. I feel it deeply when she says: ‘You cannot enjoy the rhythm and ignore the blues’. And I say that with my chest.”

Her frank discussion as to the impact that watching yet another black life be taken by police brutality had on her mental health felt generous and timely, but her tears should never been the UK’s music industry’s necessary wake-up call. Racism, in both violent and insidious ways, has been a virus on society for far longer than any of us have been alive. Although the current conversation is understandably US-centric, there is significant work to do here in the UK too, and as an industry built on the backs of black labour, music is one key area in which significant reform needs to occur. 

Started by Jamila Thomas and Brianne Agyemang, both black women who have held senior marketing positions at Atlantic Records, the #TheShowMustBePaused hashtag was their way of demanding that the industry take the time to look at themselves and decide on a plan of action for change, muting their own voices in favour of platforming the work and expression of black people. Although it was intended to create space for fruitful introspection and self-awareness, it’s co-option as #blackoutTuesday meant it’s message got lost in translation – throughout the day, a plain black square appeared on many artist, label and PR agency’s twitter and Instagram feeds, squashing the truly informative posts of the #blacklivesmatter hashtag under a layer of blank silence. Some followed this up with donations and positive actions – many didn’t. Some chose to take the day off – others couldn’t, because for them, racism didn’t enter their consciousness two days prior – it’s a lived experience. 

For a person we’ll refer to as F, her Tuesday was spent in difficult and ultimately dissatisfying conversations at the record label in which she works as an A&R executive. A forum designed initially to hear the concerns of employees quickly dissolved into a discussion as to the many ways they sympathised and the hard work they encouraged to transcend race, without acknowledging the physical actions they could take to improve. 

“We don’t need assurance; we need solutions,” she explains. “There’s been countless times at a major label where I was the hardest worker, knew everything like the back of my hand; I sold 2.4million records at my previous job, and they didn’t even realise until I was leaving. They refused to promote me because they didn’t want to upset my white counterpart who came in straight from University and started four months after me, despite the fact that I had a two-page CV of work as a publicist, a product manager, and a broadcaster. Imagine how I feel when I just get told that I have to work ten times harder, when I’m already working this hard and getting the door shut in my face?” 

For me, my Monday was spent supplying links to friends, colleagues and editors who could have probably googled them for themselves, and begging the comment moderators of the AF Gang, the popular Facebook fan group set up in tribute to ‘political’ band Idles, to reverse their decision to remove all posts discussing Black Lives Matter and anti-racism, for fear that it was getting ‘too divisive’. The moderators have since apologised, and pledged to be more committed to removing racists than to censoring discussion, but the fact remains that having to argue for the recognition of your existence is exhausting, particularly among folk who you assumed would be on your side. It’s a telling lesson that even the ‘woke’ places, the ones who clearly aren’t intentionally racist, still have work to do if they are to understand what it means to be actively anti-racist. 

While #theshowmustbepaused might have felt like something of a weak gesture, a more optimistic reading hopefully sees it as something of a start. Late, while desperately frustrating, is better than never, and with the conversation on the table, the real work can begin. People have been asking for advice, so here it is; hire people of colour. Not just one, but multiple, and be prepared to support them when they inevitably face the many micro-aggressions that they are set to face in their journey through the industry. Help them gain the higher positions of influence. Hip-Hop, Rap and RnB are bigger commercial genres than ever before, founded and performed by majority black artists, but are still being marketed by predominantly white teams. Someone like F has spent years as a minority in her team, and consistently has to place herself in uncomfortable conversations with white higher-ups in order to best protect the young black artists she works with.

“They want us there to look after their black artists but they don’t necessarily want to give us enough capital to actually execute things to a high standard, unless it’s like Stormzy level.” She explains. “It’s insane, because I’ve seen these labels allocate stupendous amounts of budget to white artists with 500 followers on Instagram, because they say they ‘believe’ in them. Why is that belief not being expended elsewhere?”

From A&R managers and playlist makers to editors and journalists, there is also a responsibility to support black artists in ways that don’t shoehorn them into categories they have no interest in being part of. Moses Sumney, Aluna and Denai Moore more have all spoken recently about being pigeonholed in racialised categories or grouped on ‘best of black music’ lists, when they want to be free to explore expansive sounds. ‘Urban’ divisions at major record labels are still commonplace, tied up in problematic ideas of class and exoticism that hark all the way back to the marketing of ‘race music’ in the 1920s. What does ‘urban’ even mean, and why does it still title so many of our radio shows and playlists? Why does it hide in late-night slots and supplementary sections instead of taking centre stage? Why do the black writers and presenters only appear on mainstream platforms when they are covering traditionally black acts? 

It’s also about holding artists to account. Not every young music fan identifies with a label, but they are inherently familiar with the mouthpieces of their roster. Matty Healy, while often trying to mean well, has used Twitter to put his foot in it time and time again on matters of race, and Lana Del Rey’s recent tirade against double standards in the industry, which routinely pitted her ‘soft, delicate self’ against women of colour, coded as aggressive and sexually deviant, raised infinitely more concerns with every ham-fisted update. Cancel culture may not be the answer, but pay attention to the artists whose effort extends longer than the week – Mura Masa’s touring team’s initiative to get more black women into live sound goes above many of his peers, and artists such as Zara Larsson, Los Campesinos! and Paramore have routinely spoken eloquently and respectfully about race issues in both fandom and wider society, without falling foul of centring themselves. 

It’s also on you and us, the fans ourselves. Do not wait to be told by your favourite artist that racism is bad. Do not post your square and then go back to listening to rap without absorbing the context of its creation, or force your way to the front row of the concert of a black artist when you know that that moment would mean so much more to a young black fan. A singular fan voice on social media can feel small or performative, but it doesn’t have to be if used in the right way; K-Pop fans in particular have proven that they are capable of moving beyond the brush-tarring racism and homophobia in their communities to mobilise in protection of black protestors. Use your platform to challenge your favourite festivals to be more inclusive with their booking, and ask your favourite magazines what they are doing to better platform artists and contributors of colour. Vote with your wallets and with your lobbying emails – ask that streaming platform why their playlist curation minimises black contributions, and question the ethics of conglomerate online stores that rely on unprotected POC labour to deliver cheap musical products. Call out racism at shows and in online fan discussion. Stop singing along to the N word. 

For Morad Khokar, co-founder of Yala! Records and a person of colour, #theshowmustbepaused was a valuable opportunity to extend this conversation outside of the echo chamber. “As someone of BAME heritage, my duty is to stand as visibly as possible at the forefront of what we do as a label and business.” He says. “Firstly as an example and a support to other up and coming BAME individuals with aspirations and hopes to work in this business, and secondly to disrupt wherever I can the learned behaviour – many times unconscious – in colleagues and partners that holds us back from progressing as a business and as a society.”

“It needs people in powerful positions to truly and profoundly acknowledge there is a problem, then to allow for BAME partners, colleagues and stakeholders within those organisations to lead the movement for change. Whether that be education, companywide recruitment initiatives, community outreach, corporate codes of conduct, changes to genre terminology, transparency of information regarding pay and reporting lines, the point is this: music without BAME employees, artists and fans is nothing. It’s incumbent on all of us to continue to speak in one unyielding voice and shape the future we want to see.”

There’s a fear that allyship might be viewed as performative, of saying the wrong thing or speaking when it’s not your place. Morad’s commitment to leadership is valuable, but it is somewhat telling that in the request for comment on this topic, he was one of the rare few record label owners that responded to our email. The onus shouldn’t be on people of colour to fight for change alone. 

If you’re white, speaking up on this will be exhausting. It will likely be long, and difficult, and it will require you to put your own ego and guilt aside long enough to accept that you might not get it 100% right all of the time. Black people have a right to be suspicious of the temporality of your commitment, but this is an excellent time to prove us wrong. Music, at its very essence, is a space of community and catharsis that, used for good, can have enormous positive influence on the wider political and social landscape. If you’ve read all of this and don’t see some part of yourself that you’re able to change, really, ask yourself – are you as anti-racist as you think? 

#Theshowmustbepaused initiative continues – more information at TheShowMustBePaused.com

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