An open letter to the Black Music Industry by a Black Music Creative:
The Black creative community stands with you in your fight for equality on the executive side of music. But there is still a lingering question: Are you your brothers’/sisters’ keeper? I’m referring to an element barely mentioned in your narratives, the Black creative: Black artists, songwriters, producers, musicians, engineers and more that you represent. As a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, composer, creative advocate and industry veteran of 15 years, the increasing mistreatment of the Black creative by executives within our community is alarming.
Some may ask about the timing of this message. However, the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. It’s been more than two months since the initial call for accountability and reconciliation with regard to systemic racism in the music industry. While there may have been some headway created for execs, public silence seems to indicate that those voices have been pacified and it’s back to business as usual.
It’s no secret that most of you have been limited in your abilities at labels. However, there are some who’ve had the ability to do more but just haven’t. We’re all aware of the history of countless Black artists being denied basic artistic rights like publishing, promotion and — as simple as it sounds — room and board. We also know about Black artists who’ve had music stolen and repackaged by white artists.
The part of the story that keeps getting overlooked is how that mistreatment brought about the use of similar tactics by Black execs against their own. It’s known within our community that you prefer to sign white artists doing Black music because of the monetary bottom line. However, you have no problem hiring a Black songwriter, producer, musician, vocal coach and more to help these preferred artists be acceptable in the Black community.
“That’s just the way it is,” you say? Sounds like something Black artists in the past heard while signing away their publishing because they couldn’t afford legal representation. Guess what? Many Black artists still can’t afford attorneys. So how are we supposed to also have the records, clothing, videos, stage shows, direction and a budget? Would Stevie Wonder or Whitney Houston have been marginalized because they didn’t walk into the room with a specific number of followers and their own budget? That’d be hard in any year considering how many Black people grow up at or below the poverty line. It’s even harder in the year of COVID-19.
The music business is full of risks. That’s common knowledge. But while some of you are too afraid to take any risks, others will only execute business that benefits them on multiple sides of the transaction. When A&R’s commandeer the budgets of signed artists and steer them to exclusively work with the songwriters and producers they manage in order to get paid on the side, sometimes the quality of music suffers. This business practice and others by executives across many levels might be called “business as usual.” Most in the creative community call it “unethical.” Do you intend on doing more of that with expanded powers? Or are you seeking job security when those practices aren’t successful?
We’ve created and waited while you’ve claimed to have our best interests at heart. We created for you while you promoted the false narrative that R&B was dead when, in fact, it was alive and well; being performed by artists with faces of a different color. All while you’ve acted as though there was no room for more than a few Black artists of a remotely similar nature at a time. All Black people aren’t alike, and neither is the music. For some reason, that’s not of interest. This criterion doesn’t seem to be as prevalent in other genres for some reason but I know it’s just a “part of the hustle.” Honestly, there’s always been a place for hustlers in this industry. Right now, however, there seems to be too many hustlers and not enough music people on the executive side.
We don’t entirely fault you for subscribing to the generational curse of doing bad business. Some of you did so unwittingly. Others did it in order to gain access to the system they used to want to change. Some are just continuing the cycle of mistreatment that they experienced. We’ve seen your actions and you don’t entirely look like victims. We’ve seen some of you using artists as scapegoats for failed business decisions. We’ve seen others monetizing access to the same industry that you wouldn’t have been able to afford getting into. We’ve seen you shut down people’s careers because they had an opinion or stood up for themselves. We’ve also seen the few of you who understand the bigger picture, but won’t act or speak up. We’ve seen you but have you seen yourselves?
We’re in the midst of a historical moment of change we may never see again in our lifetimes. This change can actually be an enduring one, so it should include all of us. These are the conversations that have been going on for years and continue at the present. You’ve initiated the larger conversation but there’s more than one side to it. Black creatives who are in the trenches every day want to sit down with you and have meaningful conversations about sustainable change. Where are the plans for music business literacy, viable pathways for Black creatives across all genres and more accountability from you, among other things?
The legacies of great Black music executives like Berry Gordy, Clarence Avant and Quincy Jones bring the responsibility for pushing the Black music community forward and leaving it better than you found it. You don’t need permission from white executives to do right by your community. But will you? Are you doing it for the culture or to the culture?