BLM protestors in London
Photo: Alex Rorison

How To Fix Racism in the Music Industry, By People in the Music Industry

Here's what people of colour across the music industry would like to see change.
October 21, 2020, 4:20pm

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.

It’ll take more than black squares and vague statements of solidarity to address racism in the music industry, but things need to change. Whether it’s labels locking Black artists into exploitative contracts, workplace harassment or the fact that 10 out of 12 music industry bodies in the UK don’t employ a single black woman, every level of every sector needs to be rethought.

As VICE Staff Writer Kristin Corry put it earlier this year: “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.”

In response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black citizens at the hands of US police, Atlantic Records executive Jamila Thomas and Platoon Records Senior Artist Campaign Manager Brianna Agyemang called for an industry-wide “Black Out” on June 2nd, rolled out with the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused.

The day was intended to be disruptive – a time for what Thomas and Agyemang described as “an honest, reflective and productive conversation about what actions we need to collectively take to support the Black community”. But things quickly spiralled from its original intention, and #TheShowMustBePaused became “Blackout Tuesday” – a viral trend that saw millions of people posting a black square to Instagram and then going about their day. Several companies that took part in the action were later called into question, as former employees spoke out about their experiences of racism and misogynoir at DICE and Complex, among other places.

Writing for Rolling Stone at the time, Elias Leight says the conversation started by “The Show Must Be Paused” is twofold: “First, can the music industry use its vast resources and wide influence to help reduce police brutality and combat systemic racism? Second, can the music industry finally face down its own history of racism and build a more equitable future?”

We know what the problems with the music industry are, and in many cases we know how to fix them. The question is how long will it take. There’s lots we can do to protest racial injustice in the music industry right now as consumers, and plenty more to be done behind the scenes. In an effort to envisage a truly equal and diverse music industry, we asked people of colour working across various sectors in the UK – from artists and sound engineers to those in events and management – what they would like to see change.

“The very fact that white people get to handle Black music is rooted in racism and privilege”

The charts are filled with people of colour – but when you start working in the music industry and see behind the scenes, it’s not reflected at all. You end up with artists not controlling their own image or art.

Instead, it’s white people deciding how Black art is being shared, and often it thrives on stereotypes. There’s a lack of ownership. The very fact that a white person or white people get to handle Black music is rooted in racism and privilege. There’s been so much force against Black people’s advancement within the music industry, and there’s a massive obligation for whoever is running music companies now to really check themselves.

When you’re the only Black person working in any industry, you end up feeling like a token. If it’s something about Blackness, you’re always the one they come to to ask what you think. Of course, I get it, and that is handing over a bit of ownership, but I really just want to do my job. – Ruby Savage, DJ & Label Manager at Brownswood

“A lot of people think they've done enough if they've just got a Black body in the room”

This moment has really forced everyone to reckon with something that Angela Davis said: this music is really alive, and if you care about the music you have to care about the people it comes from. It’s quite a big deal for me, watching fairly privileged people make money off a culture that they're not really invested in politically.

The conversation about race is being aware that there are things you never have to think about if you’re white. If you’re light-skinned maybe there are things you’ve never had to think about, and when you throw class into the mix, there are a whole bunch of things that people never have to think about.

A lot of people think they've done enough if they've just got a Black body in the room, but I don't think that's what the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is asking for. I think it's constantly asking us to think about the legacy of colonialism and look at lineups and ask: “What else do we need to do to ensure that no one's left behind?” There are so many ways in which different kinds of people are excluded all the time. If you're intentional about wanting to create a world where that isn't the case, you have to keep challenging yourself.

If you’re going to ask for that support from Black people, think about how you can support them properly too. Be mindful of putting additional pressure on someone who was already under a lot to begin with. If you're someone with resources – and a lot of this is also a conversation about redistributing resources and equity – think about what they need. – Tej Adeleye, NTS

“Black women in particular need more access to management and leadership training”

Off the back of The Show Must Be Paused, quite a few companies came forward and pledged funds to the Black community. I want them to take that one step further and ensure that those funds are being managed by Black people.

It’s all well and good putting up a pot of money, but if there are a ton of loopholes to access it or the people deciding where those funds are distributed aren’t from within our community then it doesn’t make sense. No one knows our community or our needs or what is going to help us move forward better than us. In the same vein, there should be mandatory racial bias and sexual harassment training for all, to get rid of the excuse of not knowing better.

Another thing I think we need is an independent report that looks at gender pay and ethnicity gap across the industry. It’s so important for transparency, and the numbers [at the moment] are truly unacceptable.

There are brilliant black women all over the industry that have been pivotal to success but were often put in positions to serve, not to lead. That needs to be addressed. Black women in particular need more access to management and leadership training to be primed and ready for these C-suite and executive roles that we’re underrepresented in. I don’t believe that people should be prematurely promoted to tick a box, but companies need to truly skill us up in that area so that we can thrive.

I also think there needs to be an anonymous method for communicating issues within these companies. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable speaking to HR or their line managers for fear of repercussions. We need an independent board or union – people who will lobby and communicate for us. What I’ve learnt over the last few months is that a lot of white people appear to be completely unaware of our experiences and of their privilege, so we really can’t bank on people knowing that they’ve misstepped.

There were announcements about removing the word “urban” from the industry, but that’s a knee jerk reaction that doesn’t necessarily speak to the breadth of black people across the industry. It shows you’re not really listening to us. You want to be seen to be doing something, but we’re not even in agreement within ourselves about whether the word “urban” should be replaced with “Black” in our titles. Why do we even need that at all? Why does someone need to be the Head of Urban Music, why can’t we be the Head of Music? Is that not still pigeon-holing us into genres and skill sets? – Whitney Asomani, Artist Manager, Marketing Executive and Co-founder of Twenty:Two Agency

“I feel like the responsibility lies mostly with the first generation of Black execs in positions where they can help people more”

There’s never been much support for young Black people, especially young Black women, who are trying to start out in the music business. Some labels have schemes in place, but what happens is someone will get a job for a year where they’re not really paid any money and then they leave. I’ve never seen that person end up as a senior member of staff. There’s no infrastructure in place, no blueprint for their path.

When people in senior positions move to different labels, they always bring their friends with them from previous jobs, which means it’s always the same people on a carousel moving around with no one else being able to push through. To hire people you have to be in a position of power, but the people in the positions of power are a product of [nepotism].

I feel like the responsibility lies mostly with the first generation of Black execs in positions where they can help people more. Those who have been through it and risen up the ranks. There are a few senior Black execs at most labels, but I sometimes feel like people spend so much time trying to fight and trying to win themselves that they’re not trying to help the next generation.

The music industry can be such a scary and daunting place. It’s so social but it can feel really lonely, especially for someone without connections or people to ask for advice and support. If [Black people] kept the same energy that white men historically have, which is to look out for your friends and open the door for the people behind you, I think we’d be in a different position. Whether that manifests as mentorship schemes or work placements I don’t know, but I do feel like there’s a lack of sticking together because we’re always fighting against white people. – Phoebe Gold, Artist Manager and Founder of Up Close Mgmt

“We have to be more independent and collaborate with each other to become stronger together”

Music companies and media outlets have a lot of work to do in terms of decolonising their whole format from top to bottom. How many Black female executives [do you have]? Are you offering the same contracts to Black artists? Should unsigned artists have a voice? A handful of major companies have taken over the airspace in a monopolistic way, which has contributed to narrowing the narrative in terms of how women from African descent are represented and the messages that are allowed to go mainstream.

We have to be more independent and collaborate with each other to become stronger together. Being signed to a major label shouldn't be the only way to be heard, and if that's the case then we need more Black-owned labels, publishing companies, agents, festivals and magazines, and music lovers should find the most direct way to support their artists. I didn't have a chance to work with female producers until I became independent. I’m excited about aligning myself with artists, brands and companies that know where they’re coming from and what footprint they want to leave behind. – Shingai Shoniwa, Musician

“I have hope when I talk with my non-white friends and we discuss ways we can rely less on the top dogs in this industry”

I think a lot of big companies will be freaking out and trying to fill self-imposed diversity quotas without actually taking the time to educate themselves on systemic racism and the way they contribute to it. They need to remember that they’re hiring people, not statistics.

White people in this industry need to get used to being called out on racist behaviour. They’re all too worried about keeping their peers happy and preserving a good image, but being “called out” doesn’t have to be seen in an aggressive way. Listen, and then educate yourself. There is room for growth!

A lot of people and companies in this industry have shown themselves up in the past few months, and it’s hard to have hope when you’re constantly let down by popular DJs and media outlets. Companies that have dissolved after having their racist behaviours exposed will most probably re-form under different names whilst maintaining relationships with powerful people within the music industry. DJs that have been called out on racist behaviour will still maintain a (most probably) white fanbase that continues to legitimise their behaviour. Agencies will continue to represent artists who openly express racist ideologies.

More radical steps are already being discussed by Black people and POC in the music industry – burning down the structures that exist and creating our own spaces so we no longer rely on the powers that we’re constantly let down by. I have hope when I talk with my non-white friends and we discuss ways we can rely less on the top dogs in this industry. I feel hopeful that there is going to be change, it's going to come from us, and it’s going to be FOR US! – Anu Ambasna, DJ, NTS Radio Host and Illustrator

“There are more Black people on covers of magazines than in 1995, but there is still a big problem with who is writing and researching these stories”

White people in music need to stop complaining that Black and Brown people aren’t applying for jobs or coming up on their “radar” and acknowledge that their existing networks are biased and reproduce white supremacy in music. They should invest time, energy and money into hiring and amplifying Black people that are already doing the work.

We also have to ask ourselves why there could never be a Black Tim Westwood, Gilles Peterson or David Rodigan? Why are the gatekeepers of Black music culture always white men? It’s great having more non-white people in an organisation, but are they being forced to assimilate or are they being put in positions to affect change?

The lack of coverage of Black music in journalism is a big problem and it’s an old problem. There’s a great transcript from a symposium with Frankie Knuckles, Moby and Frank Owen from 1995: Moby talks about how it was only when white kids started making house music that the media took it seriously; while there was endless coverage for Aphex Twin and Orbital the same couldn’t be said for DJ Pierre. Frank Owen went on to talk about the resistance to put Black people on the cover of Melody Maker and the sighs of relief when white British guys started making the same music.

There are more Black people on covers of magazines than in 1995, but there is still a big problem with who is writing and researching these stories – like when the Evening Standard reviewed a Skepta concert and lamented that he “kept restarting the track”. Black artists, especially those who explicitly try to centre Black people/Black experience, are often interviewed and reviewed by white journalists with no understanding of the themes and importance of their work. – Baile Ali, Artist, Sound Engineer and Co-Founder of Sable Radio in Leeds

“We need more minorities given the platform to write about music and remind audiences where the vast majority of the music they listen to came from: Black culture”

In the long term there has to be fundamental structural reform. Tinkering around the edges with a token gesture here and there isn't going to cut it. Arts funding and support needs to be reshaped to directly support Black and other minority artists and collectives, both from public and private sources. While it definitely is up to white people who have created this fundamentally racist industry to fix it, they are not the solution.

The problem isn't just that Black and Brown artists don't get enough coverage, it's much more deep-rooted than that. When you look at genres that come from Black culture – in particular most forms of electronic and dance music – much of the music press seems to have completely forgotten that that's where the music came from. Black artists are almost treated like “guests”, but in reality it should be the other way around. Yes we need more coverage of ethnic minority artists, but beyond the surface level we need more minorities given the platform to write about music and remind audiences where the vast majority of the music they listen to came from: Black culture.

For the first time ever, I do see white gatekeepers actually listening and acknowledging that they're part of the problem. But I haven't seen any real change take place just yet, and the sudden wider interest in this issue has started waning. Structural racism is so deeply ingrained across society in the UK that it's very hard to see it getting fixed in any sector.

That being said, I do think the younger generation really get it and want to see reform, but it may require a complete turnover in the upper echelons of the music/arts industry for that sentiment to actually translate into real change. Those of us who want to see an end to structural racism need to keep on pushing otherwise it will never happen. – Rob Farhat, Promoter, Manager and Artist Mentor

“While it's accepted for white people to like Black music, people seem to still struggle with the notion of a Black woman liking guitar music”

Traditionally, radio PR has always been a white boys club. At this point in time I could name a handful of white female radio pluggers and one Black female radio plugger that work in the independent sector. There’s an inaccessibility and secretiveness to it that can feel impenetrable at times, and it can be a lot more relationship-based than people would admit. If you’re trying to develop a working relationship with people you don't necessarily have a lot in common or share certain spaces with, it can be really difficult.

Black women in the independent music industry get tokenised. People want to employ you so they’re seen as being diverse, but don't give you the necessary support you need. I’ve seen companies attempting to sign Black artists and using Black female staff to court them even though it's not in their job description, and I've seen companies parade “diverse hires” out at public occasions to underline how “forward-thinking” they are.

You get overlooked in the sense that, once you’re in, you should be happy that you’ve been given access to a space that has little to no Black female presence. It’s a kind of “chosen one” mentality. These roles are predominantly junior or mid-level and there tends to be no room for progression. The few Black women that do progress to senior roles have really stayed the course and probably waited longer to be able to be in the position they are in compared to a white peer.

Companies need to create opportunities for role advancement and invest in career development for all employees of colour, rather than picking one individual to invest in and perpetuate the stigma that there’s only limited room for Black women to progress. It’s an archaic notion and ultimately creates tension and unrest amongst employees as they feel they are constantly in competition.

It’s also the case that you’ll get fetishised, and this is especially true as Black woman working in a predominantly white straight guitar scene. While it's accepted for white people to like Black music, people seem to still struggle with the notion of a Black woman liking guitar music. People find it unusual and ultimately “exotic” to see Black women in these spaces, and this contributes to the fetishisation of black women within the scene.

We really need to normalise Black women being in these spaces, but the only way that will happen is if the environments are made more inclusive and the white frame of mind is changed into actively making them more inclusive. Companies need to examine their culture and make sure that they have systems in place to support the emotional, physical and mental wellbeing of existing employees, which will enable them to pinpoint and put into practice the necessary measures to support Black women within their working environment.

As production teams diversify and become more open to people of varied backgrounds, I’m hoping this will allow for a larger racial and gender mix in the plugging world moving forward. One thing that I noticed about five years into my career was that there was a community of publicists who shared information and helped each other. I wanted the same thing for the plugging community, so we started a pluggers network. We call it the “new school vs the old school” way of thinking about plugging and it provides a network for information sharing and support, which has been really invaluable and I hope it can help break some barriers down long term. – Jess Kangalee, Director at Good Energy PR

“If we don’t reflect the society we’re selling to, how can it ever be a level playing field?”

“Fundamentally, I want to see change. The independent side of the industry is not innocent and I don’t think it’s fair for major labels to pick up all the slack. That’s my biggest concern, having come from that side of the industry before working at a major.

I still only know of two Black women in fairly senior positions. The independent music world really likes to pride itself on being anti-racist and all of that, but I’ve been working at a major label for about a year now and I’ve seen far more representation. It’s still not great, but there’s so much more representation in terms of actual Black product managers and people working on artists who aren’t “urban”.

As a Black woman, I realise that there’s always focus on able-bodied and straight Black people. I want to see more disabled Black people and Black people with mental health issues in the workplace. I just want my workplace to reflect my real life. If we don’t reflect the society we’re selling to, how can it ever be a level playing field? – Eki Igbinoba, Founder of Diaspora Darlings & Brand Partnerships at Universal Music

“I'd love for companies to take an intersectional approach to inclusion and diversity”

“I'd love for companies to take an intersectional approach to inclusion and diversity. I think colourism within the music industry is a really big problem as well as racism and misogynoir, but none of these problems are unique to the music industry. They’re part of a broader kind of inflexibility where companies have this cookie cutter idea of what an ideal employee should be.

They don't allow for people to break the mould in any way, which stifles creativity and means they're not getting the best people doing the jobs. Instead, they're getting the people who conform the best or tick the right boxes. For instance, a publisher that I previously worked for used to really push back against people working from home and that inflexibility ultimately forced me to go part time.

I just think a lot of the bigger companies can be quite monolithic and really slow moving. I've been in artist management for three and a half years and a lot of people are still very old school. – Yasmin Lajoie, Artist Manager & Chairperson at Intersectionality Committee, shesaid.so

“I think we ultimately all just want to be seen”

I always get annoyed about the difference in language when talking about the risks associated with predominantly Black events versus predominantly white events. Each type of event has its own risks, but I’ve not seen local authorities or police get as involved with white events as I’ve seen them get involved with Black events.

[Printworks] collects data across every show. There’ll be an Event Control and logs kept of the different types of incidents – whether that’s drug-related, alcohol, violence, inappropriate behaviour – and all of those events are kept as a log and we review it after every show, as well as yearly with the council. I’m often more worried about white events because statistically I’ve had more problems with them, but no one will ever talk about that. I would love to see other venues do the same and for that data to actually be shared, because I think that will perhaps change the way we talk about and perceive the difference in these events.

I rarely see Black women in leadership roles working on the operations / production side of music events, particularly large events. I want to see them, I want to hear their stories, I want to feel like I’m not alone in this. I think we ultimately all just want to be seen. Access to opportunities, representation and the grace to be able to fuck up without it being a big deal – unless it really is a big deal – are vital to us succeeding. – Fiona Aber-Taruona, Operations Manager at Printworks

@nanasbaah, @jumiaa, @niluthedamaja & @nattykasambala

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.