Black Lives in Music Survey: Exploring the Systematic Racism and Discrimination of Blacks in the UK Music Industry

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The music industry has been built to an extent off the labor of Black artists and executives yet racism and discrimination are still prevalent. Several black industry professionals have complained about extortion of blacks, sexualizing of black females, and placing of tags. The Black Lives in Music (BLIM) Survey, the largest ever survey of data focuses on the experiences of black musicians and industry professionals serves as an important landmark as it directly sheds light on the encounters of black music professionals in battling indirect discrimination, overt racism, microaggressions, pre-assumptions, lack of opportunities, and gender discrimination for black women.

Here are some experiences that were gathered;

Kienda Hoji, Law Consultant and Principal Lecturer in Media Law and Music Business at the University of Westminster

According to Kienda Hoji, “the unfair contracts being handed out to black people in the music industry are becoming widespread due to insidious and subconscious practices… when an artist is about to be signed, the label will make an assessment of an artist’s potential profit and then make an offer in the form of an advance or royalties. Where the problem lies is that a pop artist will often be offered a bigger advance than an R&B artist because black music genres are very under-assessed.”

He goes on to explain that various organizations in the music industry do not really possess the knowledge of marketing artists. While a pop artist would be able to negotiate a deal for the label to own the masters for about 15 years, the record label masters black artists for an indefinite time thereby allowing them the opportunity to capitalize on the profits of the artists through advertising or other avenues without gaining anything.

Hoji ends his note by pointing to an admission made by the publisher of the BMG record label that black artists on their roster are paid less than white artists. While he sees this disclosure as a step forward, he asserts that once black music is properly assessed beyond the boundaries of the genres, people will begin to see the wealth and potential earnings for music with black origins and this can be done through gathering data on the wealth of the industry, education around systemic racism, and, most importantly, building Black-owned infrastructures.

Hakeem Stevens, Music Lecturer at University of West London and former music executive

The music industry during the late ‘90s and early ’20s when Hakeem Stevens worked as a label executive was a different place. Early in his career at a label, Stevens decided to create an urban department and build a street team of young people of color who would help spread the word about new releases. Only a few months into the creation of the team, HR complained to Stevens that there had been thefts in the office and pointed the finger at the street team. He explained: “The people that were on my team in London, a lot of them were students. It irked me a little because I’m like, he’s never taken time to actually find out about these kids. You’ve just assumed that because they’re on the street team that they’re from working-class backgrounds, that they’re not educated, and that they would come into the office and steal things.”

As one of the few Black people at the organization, Stevens found himself fighting for change at the label. In meetings, his colleagues made expensive jokes about black people by mimicking their accents and doing funny hand signals.

When Stevens moved to an A&R position, he discovered that his £25,000 salary plus expenses did not come close to the average salary his white colleagues were receiving, which was £60,000 plus a 1-5% cut on record sales. His worst moment was when he overheard a white colleague in an argument with the UK garage artist, MC Bushkin. He slammed down the phone and said ‘fucking’ and used the ‘N’ word.

The constant backlashing of black artists in the industry outweighed Steven’s endurance so he decided to create a legacy to fight for better salaries which got him fired and he was made to sign a Non-disclosure agreement(NDA). Stevens still has high hopes for change in the industry but believes that someone has to push for it. In his words: “The only way that things are going to change is affirmative action. You have to force these people to do things that they don’t want to do because they won’t do it.”

Estée Blu, singer-songwriter

Blu’s experience of the music industry as an artist is one where Black women are rarely taken seriously and often seen as specific forms of entertainment. She stated: “I was approached by TV production companies I think about four times within the span of two years asking if I wanted to participate in a few talent shows and I declined those offers because I didn’t feel that they were right for my journey.” According to Blu, you have to be obsessed with music to remain in a career like this that discriminates against people based on gender and color.

After completing a master’s degree in Music Business Management at the University of Westminster in 2020, Blu saw behind the curtain of the industry, viewing it as a “system that seeks to exploit” artists which can be detrimental to their mental health. She recounted an experience when she was exchanged with a mix-raced singer on set. Blu is focused on how she can still honor the black culture through what she loves doing and also feel safe. She intends to use her art to redefine what success looks like as a dark-skinned Black British woman operating in an oppressive landscape.

Sheryl Nwosu, Lawyer and Chair of Black Music Coalition

Although lawyer, Sheryl Nwosu only began working in the music industry a year ago after she joined as chair of the Black Music Coalition, to her the music industry operates like many other industries. “It’s been working in a way which largely benefits the powers that be, from both a power perspective and a financial perspective, and the fact is that those powers that be are not diverse”, she says.

The industry may look perfect from the outside due to the number of black artists enjoying career success, but it’s a different story behind the scenes.  she says. “We see Black artists dominating the charts and making money, but [race and racism] still affects those artists careers, and the careers of Black execs working in positions behind the scenes”, she further asserts

According to Nwosu, the conversation around race is flourishing but the movement kicked up very recently with ‘Black Lives Matter’. Black people need to hold the industry accountable for the promises made. Thus, Nwosu says, is where organizations such as Black Lives in Music, and the Black Music Coalition come into play. To make the right noises at the right time so the complaints can be duly noted.

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