Unpaid Royalties is a series about the myriad ways that the music industry exploits Black artists—and what's being done to change them. Read more here.
This June, George Floyd's death inspired a cultural reset. Paired with the collective mourning we felt for Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, his death struck a chord in us all. We wondered what we could do to call out the forces that uphold white supremacy and seek tangible change. For some advice, The New York Times' Jon Caramanica had James Bernard and Reginald Dennis, former editors at The Source, on the Popcast to discuss how the magazine they worked for covered the 1992 LA Uprising following the acquittal of the four officers who brutally assaulted Rodney King.
"I remember that there were a couple of people who didn't get it at first," Bernard said on the Popcast. "Didn't understand that we may have a different kind of access to people."
While much of the news coverage at the time only reinforced negative stereotypes about the Black community—in an echo of that, today's coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement put much of the focus on the $1 billion in property damage—The Source sent two reporters to ground zero, including Bernard, who headed to Los Angeles the morning after the acquittal. Instead of relying on the accounts from major news outlets like CNN, they went straight to the heart of the movement, talking to characters mainstream media would typically overlook, like rioters, west coast rappers, and members of the Bloods and Crips. "We're running towards it, while everyone else was probably trying to maintain a safe distance, and when you read some of James's story, he's part of it," Dennis said.
The call to "amplify Black voices" only further magnified how many had been silenced, and still are.
On the Popcast, it's clear that Caramanica views The Source's coverage of the riots as revolutionary and necessary writing for the past and present. He commends Dennis for "really painting a picture… from a perspective that was radically different from how the mainstream was covering Los Angeles in that moment." And yet, he fails to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Rap coverage as we know it was built off the seminal work of journalists like Dennis and Bernard. To credit their reporting as being groundbreaking for its immersive style of journalism is only one part of the truth; the other key factor was the reporters’ Blackness.
It's a glaring omission for Caramanica, a white critic who gets unprecedented access to everyone from Pop Smoke to Kanye West and has made a career out of telling Black stories. Amid the turmoil of a pandemic that has disproportionately affected the Black community, during an ongoing movement that demands justice for Black Lives, there's never been a moment riper for a robust Black press. The call to "amplify Black voices" only further magnified how many had been silenced, and still are. Days after protests erupted in response to George Floyd, Black staffers in predominantly white newsrooms were banned from covering protests. Other outlets were accused of only paying white editors for video appearances. During a time when Black lives and voices are on the line, who can we trust to record history? And how did we end up in a media landscape with very few options for Black writers?
The narrative around Black music is often about how it's been co-opted, transformed, and repurposed back to us, as it was in the commercialization of rock 'n' roll, country, and house music. But far less space is dedicated to the role the music media itself has played in this process and the weight of the stories that are lost when that media is majority white.
Black music coverage dictated by white supervisors isn't a phenomenon unique to our current reality. According to Dennis, even The Source's coverage of the LA Riots almost didn't happen when he pitched it to John Shecter, the magazine's co-founder and editor-in-chief. Shecter, who is white, "thought the mainstream media would do a competent job in covering it and there really wouldn't be anything for us to add," Dennis said on the Popcast episode.
That initial pushback seemed to Dennis to be antithetical to the mission of The Source, which billed itself as a “magazine of hip-hop, music culture, and politics.” The brainchild of four Harvard students (two white and two Black) who bonded over Boston's underground rap scene, its transformation from a campus newsletter in Massachusetts to a widely circulated hip-hop publication meant it was tackling rap, and most importantly, Black culture, in a more nuanced way than mainstream media, one that was reported by people who lived and understood the culture.
"I was totally appalled by that because this was the reason we made the magazine," Dennis told the Popcast. In his mind, separating the struggles of Black people from their music, despite the overwhelming evidence that Black music is protest, was not, and should not, have been an option.
When the LA riots story came out that August, The Source staffers chose Too $hort as their cover star—not because he was more important than the state of Black America, but because The Source was one of the few outlets that would give him a cover. Their decision to run a profile about a rapper who glorified Oakland's pimp culture alongside their coverage of the rebellion wasn't an attempt to have the most salacious cover. It was a decision to honor the complexities of Black Americans: Celebrating Too $hort, a man whose joyful party music didn't preclude him from being painfully aware of the commodification of Black people in the industry, while paying respect to a community fed up with being treated like second class citizens.
By the late 90s, The Source had proved there was an appetite for its "for us, by us" approach and the kind of sharp rap reporting and criticism it yielded. Known as the hip-hop Bible, its coverage was held in high regard by its readers and peers. Its reporting and coveted five-mic barometer for reviews expanded the definition of what rap coverage could be. Competitors didn't understand rap, but The Source did, emphasizing how rap mirrored their everyday lives. Its journalists approached journalism as participants, not spectators—and led the charge for other music writers, specifically Black ones, to follow in their footsteps.
Since the founding of Frederick Douglass' The North Star to John H. Johnson's Jet to the current influx of Black writers putting out newsletters on their own, Black people have had to create their own forums when they've been shut out of the prestige of mainstream newsrooms.
But it didn’t last. Two years after its revolutionary LA Uprising coverage, The Source staffers found themselves in an editorial dispute with the company's white founders after one of them, David Mays, started managing a group rapper Benzino was in. After Mays snuck in an article about the group, despite the conflict of interest and without consulting the rest of the staff, Bernard, a senior editor, quit. "[Mays'] fatal flaw was that he had a ghetto phase," Bernard told Pitchfork. "And he needed the approval of those he saw as real and authentic. The Source, at some point, was positioned to be VICE—we were there first." Mays' working relationship with Benzino provided him with a new level of access into Black culture—and it cost him the magazine.
Those in the orbit of The Source began accusing Benzino, the new co-owner, and others of mismanaging funds and intimidating staffers into providing favorable coverage for their friends, and Kim Osorio, the magazine's first female editor-in-chief, eventually sued the magazine and its owners for sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and defamation. The Source's decline has left them without an editor-in-chief since Osirio's exit in 2013.
Since the founding of Frederick Douglass' The North Star to John H. Johnson's Jet to the current influx of Black writers putting out newsletters on their own, Black people have had to create their own forums when they've been shut out of the prestige of mainstream newsrooms. The media is a notoriously unstable industry (even VICE’s music site, Noisey, folded into vice.com last year), and the Black music press has been hit especially hard. In April, Vibe was hit with massive layoffs, shuttering much of its editorial department. Last month, Penske Media Corporation, the parent company of Rolling Stone, announced a merger that gives Penske control of the "daily operations" of Vibe and partner magazines. Like in radio, the consolidation of media companies and what they control only further dilutes the work an outlet like Vibe—which was the first magazine to give Barack Obama a cover ahead of his presidential run—is capable of doing in this social climate. Meanwhile, majority-white publications like VICE, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone have spent the last decade branching out increasingly into hip-hop coverage, absorbing the interactive reporting and razor-sharp reviews of the Black press while effectively shutting out the voices of those who started it.
As a college student, I'd read album reviews and longform interviews, then Google everything I could about the author. As an aspiring culture critic, I was indulging more than just curiosity. Sifting through bylines was my way of discovering their path to writing professionally, as a way of figuring out how to forge my own. The more I read, the more I dug, and the more I felt like I lacked two major qualifications for success in the digital age of rap criticism: being white and male.
Media in its current state will allow you to believe that there are a finite amount of positions reserved only for "the best candidates for the job." That's a myth. In reality, nepotism is still the rule of the day—reducing "diversity" to the status of company programs or one-off initiatives, rather than a principle that is actually practiced. It keeps very few Black people in the room to begin with and ensures that even fewer of them have the power to change its structures. It relegates Black writers to the freelancer pool, just to be overlooked in the end anyway. It judges Black writers based on their qualifications when white writers with the same credentials (or fewer) are given the opportunity to grow on the job.
Even today, there are white critics who admit that rap was their entry point to Black culture, even if they'd never hadn't met any Black people until they left their hometowns. There are white critics who seem determined to obscure their identity as such, setting random cartoon characters or worse, using images of Black artists as their default photo on Twitter like a form of digital Blackface. These are the people the industry deems as custodians of culture. And just like the minstrel artists of the 19th century, who traveled the country singing songs impersonating Black performers, they benefit from a system of privilege that makes it harder for actual Black people to find work—while watering down Black narratives in order to make them more palatable for white audiences.
The path forward is unclear, but the key to its much-needed overhaul, like larger societal issues, starts by dismantling it all—proverbially burning all this shit to the ground and starting fresh.
By not having the infrastructure to support a fully-functioning Black press, we stand to lose the ability to give voice to those who weren't deemed worthy. It eradicates the unfiltered accounts of anyone who doesn't fit the mold of what's American. Historically, Black music is a response to systemic racism. How can those who are not oppressed accurately relay the message while simultaneously pretending those issues don't exist?
The path forward is unclear, but the key to its much-needed overhaul, like larger societal issues, starts by dismantling it all—proverbially burning all this shit to the ground and starting fresh. It starts with understanding the value of Black stories told by Black voices and the innate perspective that comes with that. There's no magical quota of hip-hop album reviews that grants you the experience of being Black in this country, which is why when Caramanica needed to understand how to talk about the death of George Floyd, he sought help from two Black men.
The Source wasn't just a magazine, and pioneers like Dennis and Bernard, and the slew of other journalists found on other mastheads, weren't just other journalists. Their Blackness was their press pass. And just like Little Richard, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and DeFord Bailey—they were there first.