In the weeks following the killing of George Floyd — a black man whose life was taken on 25 May when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes — a sense of collective grief flooded the world. Black communities in Belgium and France, the UK and the US have taken to the streets in protest, mirroring the online rallying call for substantial systemic change and the urgent demand for governments, institutions and industries to make it known that they both value and care for black lives.
The music industry has come under intense scrutiny during the fallout. In a business that continues to profit from black art, there have been lingering worries heightened by recent events around how companies within this space handle their black staff, their black listeners and the connection with the communities that serve as a pipeline to many of the artists they work with.
Music journalist Aniefiok Ekpoudom examines how and why the music industry must start to make meaningful positive change.
Black music is black culture
Black community and culture are laced into black music, our stories buried deep in every drum snare and weeping horn. Carried in the throats of black artists who have stepped from crowded cities in New York and silent suburbs in Paris and out onto national and international stages, are the cries, joys and real-life experiences of the places they call home.
British MC Kano sifted the woes of the Caribbean Windrush generation, some of whom were wrongly deported by the British government in 2018, through his most recent album Hoodies All Summer. In the US, a rallying call for black activism was spread through Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Nigerian Afrobeats giant Burna Boy sought to connect a scattered diaspora with fourth album African Giant, while Solange Knowles’ A Seat at the Table was both a celebration of black American culture and a raw look at the traumas that arise when black death is broadcast across mainstream media and social media.
In the outcry of these songs, of every dancehall hook, every neo-soul verse, every rap lyric, black is there in its regional iterations, thumping and thumping, always alive, ever breathing. These artists and their music — critically acclaimed and mass consumed — serve as signposts, subtle reminders that we are more than our song, more than our dance, more than our art. To gloss over the realities depicted, while basking only in the deep bass of the instrumentals, or blindly profiting from the reach of their voices, is to have somehow missed the message. As British broadcaster Clara Amfo recently recalled of actor and poet Amanda Seales’ words, “You cannot enjoy the rhythm and ignore the blues.”
It’s time for record labels to proceed with purpose. The industry needs to hire more black people — with parity of pay, too. Among the black staff already in the building, as well as those who will arrive in the future, tastes are broad. Don’t limit them to working only across black music. When the time comes, promote them into positions of power — with meaningful roles that allow for an impact on company culture.
There is a real need for the industry to forge deeper ties with the communities their artists are drawn from. Reach into and work with these communities to discover new executive talent. Invest in grassroots black organisations, charities and community organisations that are in need of support — both now and always. For those who aren’t already, a sustained commitment to these causes is key.
Change is now being demanded. On 2 June, the music industry engaged in a social media ‘blackout’. #TheShowMustBePaused was a day of silence for George Floyd, a day of disruption during which conversations were intended to be held about how organisations could take tangible steps towards supporting the black community. The work of US music executives Jamila Thomas, a senior director of marketing at Atlantic Records and Brianna Agyemang, a senior artist campaign manager at Platoon, spread through social media like wildfire, with the accounts of major artists, labels and industry figures ‘blacking out.’ As the movement spiralled, what began as a day for organising, building and listening, was seized in some circles by brands and companies who used the blackout as viral online performance in a surface-level response that would not stretch past social media.
But from its founders, the intent of the day remained pure. Whitney Boateng, a promoter at Metropolis Music, led the digital demonstration in the UK and recently told British trade paper Music Week that “this is not a one-day issue. We must continue to do the work. A lot of companies have said they value black lives, now I need to see follow-up action.”
It is a message to be heeded by all. In this period, where community anguish and sorrow spills out across social media and the streets of small cities and big towns across the world, the music industry faces a reckoning moment, a marker for how an industry so deeply entrenched in the business of black music will seek to join with the staff, communities and artists, who for a long while, have been demanding their furthered support.
That pressure has seemingly begun to bear action. Earlier this month, Sony Music Group committed $100 million (£79.7 million) “to support social justice and anti-racist initiatives around the world”. It’s an encouraging beginning, that despite its promise, does not deny the need for intense scrutiny to ensure that pledges of the moment will not peter out when the news cycle inevitably moves on.
Across the board, there is a need for organisations to listen to their black staff and employees. Both internally and externally, the industry needs to hold conversations that meaningfully and aggressively tackle the variety of issues raised by their employees.
Urban versus black
It’s time to call black music its rightful name. During the ’70s, black New York DJ Frankie Crocker coined the phrase ‘urban contemporary’, an umbrella term for the commercial R&B, soul and jazz artists whose music he described as “what’s happening in the city”. The term was a placeholder, the consequence of a time where radio executives and DJs keen to broadcast black music to all corners and all races, wanted a subtle codeswitch in order to do so.
The phrase has since spiralled. As it stands in 2020, ‘contemporary’ has been peeled from the backend, leaving just ‘urban’, a sweeping classification of black music that spans regions, continents and countries. Whether reggae or grime, R&B or Afrojazz, black artists of all variations are often brushed under its wings.
“I don’t like that ‘urban’ word,” Tyler, the Creator told reporters, moments after claiming Best Rap Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards in January. “It’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word, to me. So when I hear that, I’m just like, why can’t we just be in pop?”
‘Urban’ fails to capture the depth in heritage and the varied terrain that pools into the music of black experience and cannot depict the gallery of cultures and influences that rove across all sounds, including rock and house. While some, like Tyler, demand to be unshackled from the quarantine of labels altogether, there is also an increasing call for record label departments and radio programmers to strip the word from its signpost and to label black music as it is.
The wider industry is waking up to these calls. In the aftermath of the day of disruption, US label Republic Records stepped forward and announced that effective immediately, the word ‘urban’ will be banned within their institution.
In the UK, an array of black music industry executives have banded together to form the Black Music Coalition. With members that span major labels, streaming services and management companies, the new coalition this week published an open letter to music industry leaders demanding action. Among the action points that sought “mandatory anti-racism/unconscious bias training” for all non-black members of staff and “a specified annual budget to financially support black organisations” was the removal of ‘urban’ from company verbiage, replacing it with ‘black music’. The message is clear.
Labelling black music ‘black music’ is more than just platitude. It’s a reminder that these songs stretch past entertainment, that black stories and black life are buried deep in their fabric. The communities that endure the racism that stole George Floyd and are left dry to suffer the traumas, often lay the drumskin for the rhythm the world beats to. They are the pulse that steers pop culture. These are the stories and people to be remembered, the murals lit up whenever and wherever our song plays.
It’s time to respect those stories. It’s time to respect black music.