Is The Music Industry Finally Ready To Make Real Change?

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It’s been almost two weeks since social media fell silent in order to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, leaving many to wonder “what’s next?”

On Tuesday, June 2nd, the day deemed #BlackOutTuesday was born garnering nationwide attention. Black screens filled our timelines as a way to show support, educate ourselves, and take a much needed moment of rest and reflection following the deaths of George Floyd and countless other innocent black lives.

It’s no secret that the music industry would not be the entity that it is today without the contributions of black artists, black ideas, and black cultural influences. So of course it took two black women to push the pause button on the industry; sparking #TheShowMustBePaused initiative. Rising executives Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas created the movement after feeling the overwhelming affects of racial (and gender) inequality in our communities and in the workplace; specifically the music business.

The initiative prompted several labels to show support by speaking out against racism and donating funds to social injustice organizations. Both Warner Music Group and Sony Music Group pledged to donate $100 million, while Universal Music Group pledged $25 million. And although their monetary support was appreciated, many industry professionals agree that much more needs to be done in order to see a real change in the offices and boardrooms of major labels.

“Black people contribute immensely to the music business, and that has to be reflected in terms of representation & equity in the companies that benefit from black music and culture,” says Markell Casey, Senior Director of Creative at Pulse Music Group, via Rolling Stone.

Since it’s inception, the record industry has been known for its lack of diversity alongside a well-known history of racism, sexism, and colorism. Black executives have often felt unheard, unappreciated, underpaid, and underrepresented compared to their white counterparts. Many executives, specifically black women, often struggle with an internal battle to maintain professionalism without sacrificing their integrity, in order to move up the ranks. And even then, there seems to be an unsurpassable ceiling for black execs working tirelessly for a seat at a table that WE built.

In an anonymous letter published on Billboard.com, a major-label executive profoundly explained some of the issues that blacks execs face daily. “The racism we experience at a record company can be the worst we experience anywhere. Very seldom has anyone ever blatantly been racist, but that’s why it hits deeper. We have to constantly check our culture at the door. Sometimes being black isn’t professionally appropriate, but it sure as hell is good for the bottom line.”

VP of A&R at Atlas Music Publishing, Latoya Lee, is one of the many black executives that have been extremely vocal about the continuous displays of racial inequality within the music business. Lee’s social media has been flooded with posts demanding major labels do more to support the black creatives who are responsible for their mainstream success.

For decades, labels have been known to accumulate millions of dollars on the backs of black artists, while the artists receive only a small portion of the profit. R&B veteran Raphael Saadiq recently spoke out against record labels and streaming services “looting” from artists without their knowledge. Other artists such as Kelis, super producer Hit-Boy, and Grammy Award winning songwriter Bryan Michael Cox also made social media posts (and reposts) regarding their experiences with inequality and what they feel needs to be done to evoke change within the industry.

Several entities are now taking strides to be more inclusive to black artists, but many believe that their efforts appear to be only surface level. Republic Records (home of Drake, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande) announced their removal of the term “urban” from company verbiage while the Recording Academy followed suit; posting new guidelines and renaming specific categories for 63rd Annual Grammy Awards. But many wonder if these efforts will actually encourage much needed structural changes or is it just a small bandage being used to cover a bullet wound.

Back in January, Tyler the Creator called out The Recording Academy after receiving the Best Rap Album award for his album, Igor. During his interview backstage, Tyler explained, “On one side, I’m very grateful that what I made could just be acknowledged in a world like this. But also, it sucks that whenever we, and I mean guys that look like me, do anything that’s genre-bending, they always put it in a ‘rap’ or ‘urban’ category. … I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. To me, it’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word. Why can’t we just be in pop?”

Over the years, several artists have made this same complaint after feeling pigeonholed to one specific genre. While their white counterparts are not only welcomed, but encouraged to experiment with sounds influenced by black culture; black artists are often put in a box and withheld from crossing over into genres outside of Hip-Hop and R&B.

So what can be done at this moment to push the black music agenda beyond board meetings, donations, and social media posts? The first sign of change must start from within.

Those in positions of leadership have a responsibility to help groom and mentor the next generation of leaders, executives, and artists. Especially young black creatives who are unable to obtain the same educational resources and opportunities as those of other races.

Thea Mitchem, EVP of Programming at iHeartMedia and Program Director at New York’s Power 105.1, explained this concept during an interview with Rolling Stone as well. Mitchem stated, “The lack of diversity at the top executive levels and board rooms is the biggest challenge…And it’s one that can only be solved with a robust strategic plan of action that has to start with how we train, mentor and empower young black executives. You must fill the funnel.”

Images via Instagram