In the eight years I’ve worked in the music industry, the heights of my career have been offset by instances of racism. I have often been confused with other black people who work in the industry at events, meetings and panels – at a gig one night, this happened three times.
For the first part of my career, I worked in the independent sector, which is not known for its diversity. My isolation as one of the few black people working in this field has often been explained by my white counterparts: I’ve been told that black people just don’t listen to alternative music, but that doesn’t explain why Whites are overrepresented. when working in black music. When asked about my outlook, I’m often asked to do the heavy lifting, as if structural racism is a problem black people should solve rather than white people creating it. When I was new to the industry – younger, more uncertain of my race and trying to navigate a sea of white faces, my attempts at assimilation were often overwhelmed by a sense of otherness.
A recent study by Black Lives in Music concluded that the majority of black music industry professionals in the UK experience racism, from racist language to instances of micro-aggression. The report distinguished between the experiences of music creators and music executives and found that their experiences differed, with 63% of creators witnessing an increase in direct or indirect racism among professionals to 73%.
These findings will largely come as no surprise to black people like me who work in music. I’m not trying to paint a picture of an industry that is always knowingly aggressive and violent. For the most part, I enjoy my job, and while there are no overt incidents of racism every day, it is persistent and widely felt by black people working in music. It accumulates, causing mental fatigue that minimizes our ability to work at full capacity. Much of this racism is implied or unspoken. Although consciously most white people in the industry do not intend to be racist, instances of unconscious bias and other insidious forms of racism have lasting effects on us – not just on our ability to succeed in our work, but on our mental health. Indeed, 36% of music executives believed their mental health had declined due to the racism they faced. An industry committed to combating racism needs to be more aware of this.
The different experiences of music creators and executives highlighted in the report demonstrate a disturbing hierarchy. Black people – and especially black men – who are creators experience a relative form of privilege that black people working behind the scenes in music do not have. Black creators are more often immune to the worst forms of racism experienced by others: since it’s the artists who make everyone else’s money, white people are more likely to be deferential.
Would it be wrong to ask these artists to use their relative power to uplift us all? The report still shows that the effect of racism on creators is still high, so it’s ultimately up to white people to enact changes, but it’s worth noting that many racial equality initiatives put in place as a result of Blackout Tuesday, the call for the music industry to stop for a day to protest the killing of George Floyd, were made by black women, the demographic that the report says is suffering the more mental health problems and is the most underpaid. The implications of this are enormous. If we want a music industry as diverse as its talents, we must create an environment that is not hostile to its most undervalued workers.
Last week, I moderated a panel at the Wild Paths Festival titled Anti-racism in the Music Industry – One Year On. One audience member noted that anti-racism movements existed in the music industry long before Blackout Tuesday – how do we know then that recent efforts will actually produce lasting change? Each of us on stage struggled to figure out exactly why this time was different. We all agreed that was partly because the murder of George Floyd, the Blackout Tuesday initiative, and waves of Black Lives Matter protests made the pressing issues they raised during the pandemic lockdown inevitable. It’s hard to know if there will be any lasting changes, and findings like the Black Lives in Music report make it hard for black people in the industry to be optimistic.
But I feel like at no other time in the history of the music industry have black people been able to speak directly to a wider audience about their experiences, especially the racism they have had to endure making the music they love. Reports like Black Lives in Music are one step closer to better understanding these lives and the work that needs to be done. It is now up to white people to help us enact the change the music industry desperately needs.