Where would the music industry be without black artists?

Little Richard

“Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

Right now it is more important than ever for you – whether you are an artist, consumer, or both – to recognise that if you enjoy any form of the popular music, you therefore enjoy art that has its roots with black creators. Failing to acknowledge this is simply discrediting the black pioneers who have provided you with the music that you love today. Rock, metal, punk and all the other adored sub-genres of alternative music would not exist without the innovating black musicians who made it all possible – not to mention the entirety of hip-hop which was built on the basis of pain and injustice, turning it into a beautiful means of self expression. It almost feels wrong – dismissive – to talk about anything else right now. 

CIRCA 1959:  Musician Little Richard performs on the recording studio at a microphone and piano in circa 1959. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Rock & Roll pioneer Little Richard circa 1959 // Credit: Michael Ochs

There is huge social significance behind rap & hip-hop culture. Today’s rap music reflects its origin within the strong culture of young, urban, working-class African-Americans; its roots shining through its function of being the empowering voice of an otherwise still glaringly underrepresented social group. The popularity of hip-hop has grown tremendously within the past few decades, the rhymes becoming a form of resistance against the racially unjustified system. Alongside this, the genre became very commercialised and appropriated by the white-dominated music industry through the years, its original cultural roots slowly blurring into the background and being ignored despite the fact that the music was constantly rising in the mainstream.

Rare NWA photo In Word Up Magazine
Gangsta Rap pioneers NWA circa 1980’s

Of course, rap tracks sometimes appear lyrically violent in comparison to genres such as country and classic rock – but it’s necessary to remind possible critics that rap itself stems from a culture that finds itself in a seemingly endless fight against social, economic and political oppression. Anger is justified. Music is art, and art is expression. These black hip-hop artists are being confrontational for a reason; they are confronting the racial discrimination that they have to shield themselves from every single day. They are using their platforms and their voices that they worked for. They have no choice but to get involved in an industry which is largely controlled by capitalist society and its deep-rooted racism.

Although sometimes theatrically exaggerated for the media, the ‘gang culture’ lifestyle (which was popularised by this genre) is a reflection of the discriminatory issues created by society and rather than negatively influencing the youth, it is encouraging them to challenge the pre-existing inequalities that have always been lurking within the world that they grew up in. Deviating slightly, rock ‘n’ roll was completely built on the foundations laid out by black pioneering artists such as Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke in the 1950s, yet by the time Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, the scene had become hauntingly whitewashed – despite the fact that the term “rock ‘n’ roll” initially represented an interracial form of music which was revolutionary for its time. This is the perfect example of the many ways in which the music industry has always been inherently discriminatory.

Chuck Berry // Credit: Don Bronstein

Relating back to today, you’re probably sitting there wondering how on earth you can begin to play a part in creating an impact and avoid showing the dismissive attitude that is so ignorantly displayed by many. There are certainly a few small ways that you can help to protest against the racial prejudice that is in the music industry right now… buy music and merch (directly) from black artists and black-owned record labels; give back to black communities that have been exploited by white consumerism. Consider the fact that the artists you’ve been streaming on services such as Spotify and Apple Music only earn a tiny fraction of royalties; fight for fair pay for musicians by purchasing your favourite records, whether they be digital or physical. Read and share the work of black musicians and journalists! We all know that sharing work with your own networks is a huge help – be conscious and shift the lack of representation. 

It is so important to use your voice, no matter how many people you think will listen to you. You must explore the inequalities, not only teaching yourself but also educating those around you. If you are heard, then you are lucky – speak as loud as you can about what you believe in. It has always been exceptionally important to challenge our unfair and unjust reality, especially when these issues arise within an industry which should be the most accepting, loving and free space; it just isn’t, yet. Not until a change has been made. During this time, we (as consumers) need to give back to the black communities and artists, and it is imperative that we continue to make this a consistent approach in the future. Mere consumerism is simply not enough, it never has been and it never will be.

Summer Frost