Learn How to See Me: Racism in the Music Industry and the Influence of Black Artists
IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé (August 2018)/PHOTO CREDIT: Tyler Mitchell for Vogue
Black History Month: The Playlist
YOU do not need me to tell you…
IN THIS PHOTO: Prince/PHOTO CREDIT: Steve Parke
that there has been racism in music for decades - black artists being overlooked and given less attention than anyone else! We are midway through Black History Month and I have been thinking about black artists who have changed music…and continue to do so. I am not able to include all the fantastic black artists working today – most of my playlist is of established artists – but I know for a fact there are so many terrific examples working in the underground. Cover most genres and showing immense talent; I wonder whether their path to the mainstream will be fraught. I know things have improved over the past few years in terms of award show nominations and visibility but we only need go back to the 1980s to realise how black artists like Michael Jackson struggled to get on music T.V. It was okay for black musicians to have their music heard but when it came to having their faces on the screen…that was a different matter! I wonder how far things have come and whether there has been any genuine movement. Back in 2015, when the VMA nominations were announced; Nicki Minaj was omitted. There was a lot of talk, Minaj among them, of a racial bias regarding nominees:
“When the VMA 2015 nominations were announced on Tuesday 21 July, we figured we already knew the results. Sure, Taylor Swift would need to accessorise her designer dress with one of those shopping bags on wheels to cart about all of her awards, and of course Ed Sheeran would rack up two or three (or four, or five, or six) nominations for himself, too. And obviously Nicki Minaj – whose video for Anaconda broke the VEVO record for the most views in 24 hours when 19.6 million people watched it in the space of a day – was a dead cert too”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Nicki Minaj/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
“But despite the video’s undeniable impact, Anaconda was only nominated for two awards – Best Female Video and Best Hip Hop Video – missing out on the Best Music Video of the Year category. And Nicki’s collaboration with Beyonce, Feeling Myself, didn’t make the cut at all.
Of course, this is the 21st century, so Nicki took to Twitter to question MTV’s judging process. ‘Hey guys @MTV thank you for my nominations. Did Feeling Myself miss the deadline or…?,’ she tweeted, before adding: ‘If I was a different “kind” of artist, Anaconda would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year as well…If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year.’
And the depressing thing is, she’s not wrong. She’s not being a sore loser, and she’s not making a fuss about nothing. Because whatever you think of Nicki, or of her music videos, there’s no denying the fact that racism is still rife within the music industry (and the rest of society).
To put it simply: When Britney Spears got naked and covered herself in sequins for Toxic, she was nominated for Best Music Video. When Emily Ratajkowski got naked next to Robin Thicke in Blurred Lines, he was nominated for Best Music Video. When Miley Cyrus stripped off and broke a million health and safety rules by riding a piece of construction equipment, she wasn’t just nominated for Best Music Video of the Year – she won it. All of the above videos have been controversial, but they were acknowledged by the industry for their impact nevertheless”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Rihanna/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
That news story generated a lot of talk regarding racism in music and whether black artists are being overlooked. A lot of the heavy press and debate occurred in 2015 and there followerd black power/rights anthems from the likes of Kendrick Lamar (which I shall talk about). Another artist who was speaking about racism in the industry (in 2015) was Rihanna. Like Minaj and many of her peers; she had to (and still does) fight against racism and getting less attention than her white peers:
“I have to bear in mind that people are judging you because you’re packaged a certain way – they’ve been programmed to think a black man in a hoodie means grab your purse a little tighter,” said Rihanna. “For me, it comes down to smaller issues, scenarios in which people can assume something of me without knowing me, just by my packaging.”
With regards to the music industry, the ‘Umbrella’ performer claimed the racism “never ends”.
“When I started to experience the difference – or even have my race be highlighted – it was mostly when I would do business deals… That never ends, by the way. It’s still a thing. And it’s the thing that makes me want to prove people wrong. It almost excites me; I know what they’re expecting and I can’t wait to show them that I’m here to exceed those expectations”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Kendrick Lamar/PHOTO CREDIT: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Given these stories that came up in the press; a lot of protest and anger came from black artists who felt they were being snubbed and put down. In fact; one can look back earlier than 2015 in regards that vocalisation and anger. This article in The Guardian highlighted artists like Kendrick Lamar and how they responded to race issues in music – and racism in wider society in the U.S. It is an illuminating read:
“The sound of Kendrick Lamar’s Alright rang out like a clarion call this year, from clubs, cars and house parties to police harassment protests. With prevalent, uncompromising lyrics like “Nigga, and we hate po-po/Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho,” the standout moment of To Pimp a Butterfly was quickly established as the year’s definitive political anthem.
In the months following Killer Mike’s impassioned pre-show speech that went viral after the Ferguson grand jury decision in 2014, discussion of US race relations in popular culture has amplified, with many artists politicising their music with renewed urgency. To Pimp a Butterfly was a visceral outpouring of this pain, which, in some cases, provided the language in which to fight back. It’s an album that uses nuance to deal with complex emotion , and its humour rewrites the mono-narrative of the NWA-era angry black male. That the hip-hop group’s biopic Straight Outta Compton came out in August affirmed the timelessness of these issues.
It was, however, D’Angelo’s release of Black Messiah at the end of 2014 that ignited an explosion of musically charged revolts. The album carefully moves between uncontrolled rage and considered production; a political shift for the artist, who wrote many of its tracks as a reaction to watching the Ferguson protests. His first album in 14 years touched on themes of systemic racism (1,000 deaths) and structural power (The Charade) through country funk, silky R&B and metronomic basslines”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Aretha Franklin/PHOTO CREDIT: RB/Redferns
I think there have been some minor changes and steps but I feel like there is still a long way to go. I grew up around so many great black artists. Everyone from Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin to Michael Jackson and Prince made their way into my ears. Now, I listen to a lot of Hip-Hop and Rap and fantastic R&B; brilliant black Pop artists and, in truth, I never see skin colour as an issue. It is stilly to have to say that but I cannot understand why there are these prejudices and stereotypes when it comes to black artists! I cannot get to grips with all the brilliant black artists who are pushing boundaries, changing the scene and breaking ground. I will end with a playlist but, as this article shows, black artists are evolving music and subverting expectations – from the surprise album drop through to mixtapes; they are among the most compelling, original and inspiring artists around:
“Black musicians today continue to experiment. New subgenres of music, such as drill, footwork, and trap, have made gains in the hip-hop and electronic music world. Last year’s Billboard charts featured both black and white artists making trap or trap-influenced music. Derived in the late 1990s and early aughts from Southern black hip-hop artists, trap has proven to have immense staying power, with artists in such disparate genres as pop (Miley Cyrus), R&B (Jeremih), and EDM (Diplo, Hudson Mohawke) experimenting with its sonic textures.
The most consistent change to the music distribution model is the surprise album drop. First popularized by Beyoncé, the practice gained traction in the early to middle part of the current decade through artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Kendrick Lamar. Artists establish themselves in the consciousness of music listeners, simultaneously surprising and delighting”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Erykah Badu/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
“I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve done it,” Beyoncé told Vogue on the day her self-titled fifth album dropped. “I am bored with that.” In the online documentary Self-Titled: Part 1—The Visual Album, the singer expresses frustration over the current release-hype structure that prioritizes singles over complete albums. It would take a performer with a keen visionary sense to attempt to redirect the conversation surrounding album releases, and someone like Beyoncé, newly liberated from previous management and revered enough by a consistent and loyal fan base to take a risk with something new, would have be the one to do it.
Like their rejection of structured release cycles, many black artists are now bypassing labels entirely. Frank Ocean released his visual album, Endless, which technically fulfilled his contractual obligation with Def Jam Recordings, one day before he self-released Blonde, his second proper studio album, to critical and commercial acclaim. “While the credits at the end of Endless name Def Jam, the metadata on Blonde simply credits ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ which is also the title of Ocean’s new magazine,” wrote Pitchfork about the release. Since then, Ocean has rejected other musical institutions, namely the Grammys, which he claimed in an interview with the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica, “just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from and hold down what I hold down”.
PHOTO CREDIT: @chrisbair/Unsplash
“Can black musicians remain revolutionaries? From the creation of music genres such as blues, jazz, and rock and roll to the utilization of the mixtape for creative experimentation, black musicians are not afraid to experiment stylistically, sonically, or structurally to express themselves. History and our very understanding of American music and pop culture have proven the success of black musicians as genre creators and genre breakers. From capitalizing on the surprise album drop to rejecting music labels altogether, black musicians prove they have as much room for creative freedom as ever — as long as they pursue it. The future of music was black. The future of music will always be black”.
You only need look back through the years – and the fantastic artists in music now! – to understand how pivotal black music is. Many assume it is a genre but there are genius black artists playing in nearly every genre. Maybe it will take a while longer before there is equality and stereotypes are replaced with respect; award shows and festivals take a look at their racial breakdowns and greater respect is provide to black artists. As it is Black History Month; I have compiled a playlist contained inspiring and fantastic black artists. Spanning decades, genres and tastes; it is a playlist that, to be fair, only scratches the surface. There are so many brilliant black artists making music today and it is rather dizzying. My biggest hope, following Black History Month, is those in the music industry look at how black artists are perceived and celebrated – less fervently than white acts – and they make changes…
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images