In October, Black Lives in Music (BLiM) launched part one of its groundbreaking report into the experiences of Black people in the UK music industry. The survey of 1,718 performers, creatives and staff revealed microaggressions, pay disparities and discrimination are rife, and that Black women are the most likely to face significant barriers to entry.
The organisation — co-founded by Roger Wilson and Charisse Beaumont in March 2021 — was built to act as a catalyst for meaningful change, provide opportunities for musicians at grassroots level and support and empower Black artists.
As 2021 draws to a close, President of PRS’ Members’ Council, award-winning songwriter Michelle Escoffery, spoke to Charisse at length about the results of the survey, the industry giants that sit on BLiM’s Board and the legacy she hopes to create for Black women in music.
'I want to see equality across the board. But we have to deal with where the buck stops and where it’s the worst, which is with Black people.'
Michelle Escoffery: Firstly, I need to ask — as the owner of Beaumont Media Worldwide, chief executive of Fight for the Dignity of African Women and Children, board member of Help Musicians and chief executive of Black Lives in Music — where do you find the time?
Charisse Beaumont: Doing something that is quite public facing, while other roles you’ve mentioned are not — it’s a learning curve. With Fight for the Dignity of African Women and Children, I operate and I have a team that do the frontline work, whereas Black Lives in Music, for example, is the total opposite. It’s a lot of external facing, hard negotiating, speaking, nurturing, creating partnerships — it’s constant.
How’s it been for you? I know that’s a broad question.
It’s been exhilarating. It’s been really fulfilling. As a mother, I do a lot, we all do. But I’m fulfilled. I don’t have to worry about anything. I have a beautiful family, beautiful children. But by helping people I fulfil the sweet spot that’s in me, but obviously being able to do something that’s as close to my heart as diversity and inclusion is important to me. It’s not just for our communities — Black people — I want to see equality across the board. But we have to deal with where the buck stops and where it’s the worst, which is with Black people. I don’t have a hero’s mentality. I’m just grateful that I get to do that — it’s what drives me.
It was tough in the beginning because people would say, 'Oh, are you BLM, Black Lives Matter?' A lot of doors shutting, ‘Who are you?’ It’s so good now — a year later — the same people that were shutting the doors, the same people that were telling us ‘No,’ are all standing side by side with us asking 'how we can partner with you?'
How do you see yourself as different from, say, the Black Music Coalition?
If you see it as a race, we’re all trying to get to the same finish line — we all want to see equality for Black people. We all want to see a level playing field. We’re standing next to the likes of Power Up and it’s not a race to see who wins. We’re working in line with one another. If we all play to our own strengths and stay in our lanes, it can work concurrently.
For example, at BLiM, we do research those other organisations can use for the work they do. Power Up empowers mid-range experts and Black entrepreneurs and artists by utilising our research. Black Music Coalition empowers executives and are galvanising the major labels and independent labels for equity and change. We don’t do that. But we go in there as a backup or side by side with them, so we complement each other very well.
Looking at the stats from the Being Black in the UK Music Industry report, 63 percent of Black musicians have experienced racism in the UK industry. 86 percent of Black music creators and 88 percent of all music professionals agree that there are barriers to job progression. What was the most surprising statistic that you came across?
None of it was a surprise. I guess the one, ‘Oh, I didn’t know the gap was that big,’ was on Black women in music. We always knew there was an issue there, but what the report illuminated was that Black women are the most disadvantaged group in the music industry. Reports you might have seen prior to this and what our report complements is, ‘Black women don’t really have these jobs,’ but no one knew the figure in terms of the pay gap, in terms of the racism and the sexism, in terms of data and stats and percentages. No one knew what impact all of this had on mental health, which is so important.
'It’s not equal because as Black people we are forced to become entrepreneurs. We have two or three jobs just to try to live an adequate life.'
Since being in the music industry, 39 percent of Black women said their mental health has declined. 15 percent of have sought counselling. That means there’s work to be done to ensure that Black people in the music industry — especially Black women — get the support they need. Racism and mental health issues are not isolated. If you’re faced with microaggressions or direct racism every day, barriers to progression, seeing other people surpass you or get more paid more than you — you know you’re not getting the same opportunities as other people. It will affect your mental health. 25 percent of Black professionals are earning less than 25 percent from making music this compares to 5 percent of White professionals and only 38 percent of Black women are earning 100 percent of their income from music compared to 73 percent of White women.
If you look at funding — a huge issue — 39 percent of Black women are successful with their funding applications, or at least one of their funding applications is successful. White women — 73 percent. Why? It’s not equal because as Black people we are forced to become entrepreneurs. We have two or three jobs just to try to live an adequate life. Where someone else can sit and go into their 9-to-5 and get promoted, promoted, promoted, and live their best life. That doesn’t happen for most Black people in the music industry. Of course, all these things affect your mental health.
What has been the most encouraging results for you from the report?
We have our research arm and then we have another model that works with organisations to look at their governance, recruitment, marketing and the way they attract talent. One of our partners is an orchestra in a remote part of Ireland. There are no Black people in the area. None. So how are they going to get Black people in? They are willing to run a programme where they will employ, pay for travel and accommodation and host and these Black musicians, just so they have a chance to be a part of that orchestra. They paid the same contracts as everyone else but they are willing to go the extra mile and cost to diversify. The model is already there, but they’ve never done it for Black people. In addition, we have to also help these organisations to create an environment where these players can thrive. Let’s just activate.
We’re doing some work with another organisation who do music supervision to make sure we get Black composers’ work on film. Through the programme they train Black composers, and teach them how to become music supervisors. When you’re creating those pathways and those programmes, there’s nothing like it in the world, and that’s the fruit that we will see in a few years’ time.
You’ve got some real heavyweights on your taskforce, including Paulette Long OBE, Yvette Griffith, Jazz Refreshed, Shabaka Hutchings and Orphy Robinson. How did you go through your selection process and how have you found working with such strong-minded individuals?
You want to know why we appear so hard? (Laughs) Our tails are getting kicked behind closed doors. I call them the mighty taskforce for all the right reasons. They challenge us — we’ve been schooled. In terms of the selection process, we just asked them, ‘Please, please,’ and they came. But then when they came, we didn’t realise they were going to come like a hurricane. I remember the first meeting, man. (Laughs) I’m still scarred by it.
They were on us, ‘Get it right. Change that. Do this. Do that.’ May I add without Paulette Long there would be no BLiM. She has been a rock and a pillar for our organisation: an advisor, a sounding board. She will come into meetings with us as well, ensuring that, ‘You need to listen to us.' We’ve also received advocacy from other charities such as Help Musicians which blew the door wide open for us and made it a lot easier.
'We’re not saying anything new, unfortunately. People have been fighting for change in the music industry for over 40 years.'
Do you have a musical background or do you just have a love for music?
I cannot play or sing a lick. I’m out of tune, I don’t have the patience to learn an instrument, but I have an incredible ear for music. I know music. I understand it. I can hear it. I know who’s a good artist. I used to run my own record label. I used to have my management company and I can say categorically, not on a show-off thing, my artists went to the top. My artists won Grammys. My artists topped the Billboard charts. I never knew where this love or passion for music came from, then recently my grandfather on my dad’s side passed away from COVID. I was never close to him. At the funeral I found out he was this soundman. He could sing, but most importantly he was able to find good artists and bring them together, and he created his own sound. He travelled the world. He did all this. And I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, that’s me.’
That’s where you got it from.
That’s where I got it. I couldn’t pinpoint it from my mum, I couldn’t pinpoint it from my dad, all my uncles that I was around — nobody did music. I just couldn’t figure out why I love music. Then in my grandfather’s eulogy I was like, ‘What? That’s me. Oh, my gosh.’ This is the first time I’ve shared this story. That’s where it comes from, my grandfather who passed away. He was an amazing soundman. He had a great ear for music, and I’ve got the same. It comes from him.
What is the legacy that you want to create for Black women and also those coming through BLiM?
I don’t know why I’m getting emotional. If we could see women actually running Spotify the MD’s or CEO’s — not just a Black division — actually, running YouTube Music. If we could see orchestras that were inclusive that were a blend of all different colours, not just white. It’s a simple ask. Give us that level playing field. I think we can do it, if people are honest with what they pay and if people create pathways and move out of the way for people of colour who they know can do it. You will see change you will see a more equitable industry a more profitable industry. That is the legacy I want to see, which is what we’ve been crying for from the top and what everybody has been crying out for. We’re not saying anything new, unfortunately. People have been fighting for change in the music industry for over 40 years. I understand it’s taken a lot to get to this point, and there’s a lot of work to do. People’s hearts have just got to be willing.
If you can create a corporation like Spotify, you can level the playing field. If you can create a charity like Help Musicians or a new channel on the BBC, or a new business model in your organisation if have the mind to do all these things and make the investment needed to make these companies work? Why can’t you make any investment in equity? I don’t get it.
'It’s a big ask to eradicate racism, that’s almost impossible. But you can make the music industry more diverse and more inclusive.'
Most of us were born and raised in this country. To be the only one or the only one of very few in a room — of course that’s going to influence your state of being because you do not see yourself. In the last six months or so I’ve seen myself when I go to certain events, I see people that look like me. If we can multiply that, how much more powerful will that be? How much more normalised will it be?
Absolutely. I mean, if we’re going to the cinema — I know it’s a silly example — you see everybody. If you go and watch a film, you see everybody watching. So why if we go into an awards show, why am I seeing one and two people of colour, in the audience especially one and two women of colour? Or on a panel. As you said, over the last six months, that’s changing and that should be celebrated 100 percent. But there’s still more work there. Everyone is talking about it because everybody knows the lingo. Old White Boys Club, elitism and so on. Let’s not talk about it, let’s be about it.
The report was designed to say, ‘Here you go, music industry, here’s a mirror, this is what you look like. And unfortunately, there are a lot of issues here, and race is one of them.’ Let’s deal with that, and let’s deal with it together. I really want to see all of us get together. I know with all our minds we can eradicate this thing. It’s a big ask to eradicate racism, that’s almost impossible. But you can make the music industry more diverse and more inclusive.
What’s next for BLiM? What’s next for you?
We’ve got our three to five-year-plan and we’re on track. But now we’re at delivering and we want to see change, and we’re now putting the onus on the industry as a whole, with an industry wide code of conduct and quotas being put in place. That is what I want to see over the next two to three years. After that, well, I would like to see BLiM in other countries and continents. You know, I would like to see BLiM in Africa. I would like to see BLiM in America, in Europe. But we have to deal with our own backyard first, the UK music industry.
Michelle: What are your hopes for your children and the next generation?
Obviously, I want the best for them. I want them to enter into a world where they don’t have to deal with [racism], but that’s never been seen for us, has it? I want that, and we have to play our part to make that happen. The same way that we’re dealing with climate change — it’s an emergency. The youth are powerful, they are quick thinking and they have the keys to unlock this. The only thing is they don’t have much of the lived experience. Gen Z and younger are my favourite people because they are the ones that are going to truly change the world in a way that we have never seen before. They’re going to turn this world upside down, in a good way. And I’m here for it.
Well, personally, I just want to thank you for the work that you’re doing. It means a lot to a lot of people who are out here in the trenches trying to make this movement — as Paulette Long says — trying to make this movement happen.
No, I’m blessed. This is beyond me. When I mentioned the taskforce and Paulette and yourself, you’re right, there are people in the trenches. We just joined, mate, we’re newbies. We’re fresh blood. That’s all it is, and we are just connecting into what’s already happening, and I’m grateful for it.
If you’re an organisation and you’re interested in making a change, become a member of Black Lives in Music. For more information visit the Black Lives in Music website.
This feature originally appeared in M Magazine's End of Year Special. Read it in full on Issuu.