A letter to the Black art community
Written by Sarah Martin
In 2020, it feels like the extent to which white supremacy is entrenched within our power structures has been revealed. Due to the pandemic, BIPOC and our allies finally have a rare opportunity to envision, nurture, and mold the future.
The murder of George Floyd and the following protests have led to mental restructuring in and out of the Black community, forcing people to reevaluate their definition of ‘normal’. We’ve been compelled to look at the systems of government, our Black and native history (of which not much is left), in order to demolish the status quo that kills us, and uses our Black bodies as currency.
To the white folx that profit from Black culture… Stop taking what’s ours
In order to predict what the future of the music industry may look like, we have to look at the mistakes and abuses of the past. Throughout history, the US and Western world have used Black bodies and intellect as currency and entertainment. BIPOC are still often paid less than our white counterparts and nothing close to what the white executives make off the backs of our creative labor.
The West has been known to steal and rebrand our music to suit their white audiences. Many classic songs we know and love were made famous by white artists, but were actually written by Black people. For example ‘Hound Dog’ was made famous by Elvis, but was actually written by Big Mama Thornton several years before. Regardless of whether people are directly plagiarizing or taking ‘inspiration’ from Black artists (i.e. house/techno/jazz/blues/rock and roll), we very rarely have received the credit nor the monetary gain/class mobility that we deserve for creating whole genres and cultures.
Let’s talk Black economics
In the past several years, there has been an effort to restimulate the Black economy. Support for Black owned businesses on Yelp has increased 7000% as reported by Forbes compared to this time last year. Black Folx are slowly rebuilding their sense of community, that which has been repeatedly stomped out by the US government and white supremacist pawns such as the FBI, CIA, and police forces.
During segregation in the US, there was a growing Black middle class in places like Tulsa OK (aka “Black Wall Street”) which was home to some of the wealthiest Black Folx in the US. It didn’t last long before the government and other whites found a false flag excuse to destroy our accomplishments and incite violence with the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
Nowadays, artists like Killer Mike have made pioneering efforts to rebuild and stabilize the Black economy, by working with candidates such as Bernie Sanders and directly with the community in his series Trigger Warning. Financial literacy is also discussed here for those who weren't lucky enough to receive generational wealth. These are major steps that will help to spur change within our systematically flawed art/music scene.
Without physical safety and financial stability, we lose the freedom to explore and express ourselves because our focus shifts to survival. We also lose the ability to control our output and negotiating power with regard to record deals, for example.
The entertainment and sports industries have been some of the only opportunities presented to Black folx in the US to climb the economic ladder. When we lack financial stability, we lose our bargaining power and the luxury of choice. White executives take full advantage of these facts. Financial literacy means the freedom to invest in ourselves, the freedom to take risks, to travel, to educate, to create, to destress, and negotiate terms.
There are plenty of top performing artists that are BIPOC but more often than not, there’s an old white guy executive pulling the strings behind the scenes and raking in the profits. There are almost no notable Black executives within the current music industry, except for the extremely lucky few such as Jay Z, will.i.am and a handful more, but the difference is they own their own enterprises. We’re specifically lacking diversity when it comes to the executive branches in the tech sector of the music industry with services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and Live Nation having almost zero BIPOC on their higher up payrolls. In 2016 Billboard released their The Power 100 which lists some of the most prominent people in the music industry (aka the higher ups) and less than 10% of the 141 individuals listed were people of color.
With all this being said, it’s easy to say, ‘well, just get out there and take those executive positions!’ But ultimately the systems in place are strong and deep rooted against Black Folxs. We’ve got almost zero generational wealth and redlining, housing and lending discrimination are just a few of the bureaucratic hurdles we’re facing.
As a recent statistic showed, Black Bostonians median net worth is an astounding $8, compared to $247,500 for their white neighbors. This can be attributed to white flight and lending discrimination with studies showing BIPOC often pay higher interest rates on mortgages and more intense refinance fees. Heavy duty policy reform is required to achieve financial stability. This economic stabilization will help BIPOC creatives flourish, and strengthen our collective bargaining within the music industry.
It’s not going to be easy, but there are ways to do it ourselves
Often, you hear stories about horrible record deals that artists get trapped in; Migos just recently opened a lawsuit alleging financial malpractice against their label QC and lawyer (who also represents the label - which is a conflict of interest) who intentionally tied the trio into a deal that banned them “from ever being free of paying excessive compensation to QCM, from ever being signed to any other record label, and from ever obtaining negotiating leverage to secure reasonable terms in connection with the distribution of its musical recordings.” This is often the case for young artists, especially people of color.
With DIY culture, people are taking control of their equity in the music industry and this mindset is finally beginning to reach mainstream audiences. Artists like Chance the Rapper have found major label success without signing a record deal. He sells out stadiums and works with a team that he’s personally assembled, with no label oversight. He doesn’t charge for his music and earns 100% of his merch sales and performance revenue. Because he owns the rights to his music, he was able to leverage $500,000 from Apple Music in 2017 for them to exclusively host his album Coloring Book for just 2 weeks. He’s one example of people beginning to take charge of their careers with the technology and resources we now have available.
The Black Social Network
The Black community needs to start forming structures and communication networks - something like a modern day Greenbook of the music industry, outside of the white sphere. Formerly, during segregation, we had our own music industry, recording studios, and record companies. One of the downfalls of integration was the absorption of most of our Black industries into the white stronghold. This diluted our financial strength in the economy and took away our freedom to create on our own terms in the art community. Because of this, as previously mentioned, often people of color look to the sports and entertainment industry as the only ways to achieve class mobility.
BIPOC ought to pursue careers in lighting/sound design, as booking agents, and in executive positions to flood the industry and build enough confidence to create our own network.
When we create our own music industry, we shouldn’t just make a Black version of the already existing one, but a better version - centered around artists, not middle men capitalising on our creations. A system that supports BIPOC artists emotionally and spiritually and isn’t rooted in capitalism.
I believe that being ‘realistic’ in these times is a massive waste of an opportunity for substantial change. There will be growing pains, but that just means we’re going in the right direction. Much like the police system, the issues in the music industry are part of its very definition. Will it ever be enough to merely integrate more BIPOC into the industry? To keep building on the dangerous and unstable foundation? We need to take this time to be bold - to steer away from the safety of reform and to envision and create something we were told is impossible. To work outside of the rules and what people tell us is ‘achievable’. This definition of what’s possible is determined by the very system we’re trying to eradicate. We must be innovators and abolish the systems that have bound us. If we don’t strive for a dream; a utopia, then of course it will never come.