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The Music Industry Fails Black People Every Day

Black Lives Matter is exposing a flawed industry predicated on the abuse of Black talent at the hands of white executives, publicists, and newsrooms.
KC
Queens, US
June 3, 2020, 3:58pm

Black people are dying, and someone asked me to listen to their artist. Black people are dying, and a publicist asked, did you receive my press release? Black people are dying, and I am Black, working at a company that has benefited from its proximity to hip-hop in a predominantly white newsroom. "Now more than ever," is what the emails say, but the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the many other names that have become hashtags, and the incalculable other names that have not, are not a strange new phenomenon. There is a bounty on Black lives, and society pays the price for valuing us as entertainment instead of people.

The music industry and the media surrounding it capitalize on the buying and selling of Black art, ideas, and employees, for the sake of looking progressive or diverse. It is an exchange of social clout, with predominantly white gatekeepers popping in and out of Black culture as they see fit. It is a universe in which the artists who are signed and the people making editorial decisions are curated from a white gaze. "Now more than ever," the Black community needs the people who have lined their pockets by banking on Black culture to speak up.

The Black Lives Matter movement and its uprising expose a historically unjust system, including a music industry predicated on the abuse of Black talent at the hands of white executives, publicists, and newsrooms. Black culture is not your cash cow.

"It only makes sense to me that the first word those captured understood was 'SOLD'," writes famed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni in Black Ink. Stolen from their continent and separated from the families who spoke their native tongue, enslaved Africans used songs to communicate through the Middle Passage. It's no surprise, then, why genres like blues, jazz, country, reggae, and rap are products of Blackness. Music has always been a direct response to corrupt systems. The stories laid over smooth saxophones, steel pan drums, and 808s became so appealing that everybody wanted in—even if that meant erasing the work of Black artists or building an industry that exploits them.

In 2017, hip-hop became the most popular genre of music in America, accounting for nearly a quarter of all song streams. Rap's presence as the new mainstream came with hefty record deals for its top sellers, but there was less clarity on who was actually profiting from the genre. Last year, Goldman Sachs projected that music revenue would hit $131 billion dollars by 2030. "Currently music streaming sales are dominated by top R&B and hip-hop artists such as Drake, Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, Migos, and Cardi B," a Forbes article detailed. "Music publishers and labels also stand to profit greatly from the rise of streaming, led by Black listeners who are the largest user group." Universal Music Group earned over $3 billion in revenue in 2018, with labels under its umbrella like Capitol, Def Jam, and Interscope reaping those benefits.

This week, those labels, along with others, participated in #BlackoutTuesday, a protest organized by Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, two Black women in the industry. In a statement released by Def Jam, the label is promising to "do MORE," but what does that mean? If you can't confidently pledge to dismantle the systems that uphold white supremacy and its residual effects, like predominantly white boardrooms, you don't deserve entry in those communities.

The industry's failure to protect the humanity of Black artists is often inextricably tied to the lack of diversity in music journalism. In April, layoffs at historically Black publications rendered outlets like VIBE a skeleton of the rich, cultural legacy of its prime. Artists have been burned so badly by tone-deaf reporters that peer-led interviews are being passed off as journalism. Can you blame them?

Music publications' voyeuristic coverage of rap's drill and trap scene has had serious ramifications. In 2013, Chief Keef violated his parole because Pitchfork decided to take him to a gun range for an interview. In 2015, Noisey's blind spots landed members of Migos in jail after an episode of Noisey Atlanta showed the rap group wielding weed and guns. The fetishization of street life doesn't stop at newsrooms filled with bright-eyed white men from middle America. After signing a seven-figure deal with Epic, Bobby Shmurda received no word that the label would help fund his $2 million bail. "When I got locked up, I thought they were going to come for me," he told The New York Times from prison in 2015, "but they never came." When the gatekeepers are also spectators, rap music—and Black people—become a commodity, and later, an aesthetic. But these mistakes have consequences that live beyond a deal or a deadline.

For the last two years, I've made it my business to bring attention to the industry's oversights at the expense of Black artists and more importantly Black people. Despite artists like Kendrick Lamar, Solange, and Beyoncé declaring that Black protest music could be commercially viable without sacrificing the integrity of the art itself, institutions were still playing catch up. To Pimp a Butterfly, A Seat at the Table, and Lemonade were snubbed for larger categories at the Grammys, being relegated to the label of "urban" music. SZA and Ari Lennox put out stellar R&B projects that served as a soundtrack for Black millennial women and were shut out completely. Lil Nas X had to put Billy Ray Cyrus on "Old Town Road" to be considered country when Justin Timberlake can be in the woods one minute and in the hood the next. As an institution, the industry is failing those who are shaping it.

For writers like me, who are the only Black face in a room covering music and culture, the load is getting heavier to carry. Every day on the job is a day I intentionally center Black stories and the details that make us human. It means I've gone to school twice as long to be considered a "qualified candidate," but will probably be paid half as much. Sometimes, it takes days to find the words because as the unofficial spokesperson for the Black community, I feel inadequate if I don't have some James Baldwin-esque soliloquy rumbling inside of me. The images of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are an endless loop of trauma I don't get to "unplug" from.

For non-Black people who insist on inserting themselves in Black culture, consider this: Before sending your "How are you feeling?" texts, ask yourself "How am I utilizing my privilege to fix the problem?"

Kristin Corry is a staff writer at VICE.