On Tuesday 2 June 2020, the music industry came to a standstill in response to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black citizens brutalised by the police.
#TheShowMustBePaused initiative was spearheaded by two African-American women and music executives, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang with the intention of making the music industry stop and reflect.
Thomas and Agyemang explained in a statement on the website: ‘The music industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. An industry that has profited predominantly from Black art. Our mission is to hold accountable the industry at large, including major corporations and their partners, who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people. It is the obligation of these entities to protect and empower the Black communities that have made them disproportionately wealthy in ways that are measurable and transparent.’
Alongside the posting of black squares on Instagram, a wide cross-section of the international music industry — from the major labels and musicians, to companies within the independent sector — all observed this blackout, making various statements and pledges.
Unlike our American counterparts, Britain is a nation that still struggles to talk openly about race; more explicitly, its relationship with the Black African and Caribbean diaspora. With its failure to critically engage with its own history, primarily within mainstream education, politics and the media, the strong global movement around the social media blackout saw industries like music implode. It was forcibly asked, probably for the first time, to both acknowledge and to also be accountable.
Reflecting on some of the improvements made since June 2020 by no means absolves those in positions of power of their historical and systemic failure to give equal opportunities, credit and fair remuneration to Black British artists and music professionals. Particularly when it comes those who are even further marginalised within the Black community — dark-skinned Black women, the Black LGBTQ+ community, Black working-class people, Black disabled and neuro-diverse people, those working outside of rap, grime and R&B as well as those whose lived experiences meet all those intersections.
But it’s important to highlight that this movement has opened up conversations about the mistreatment, discriminatory practices and subsequent racial trauma that were previously never given this kind of platform. Black people finally had a chance to discuss how we really felt, demand change, talk about our mental health, grieve, hold each other and — importantly — begin to heal.
In an Instagram post written in the early hours on 5 June 2020, I wrote: ‘If you care about Black lives, then don’t forget to care about Black Women too,’ and it’s true that I’m still left wondering about equal access to opportunity for dark-skinned Black British women.
I wanted to open the conversation up to some incredibly talented, independently operating Black women to get their thoughts on progress a year on, but also their biggest hopes for the future, where the music industry is concerned.
I spoke to Emmavie - DJ Jazzy Jeff and Soulection collaborator, north-west London singer-songwriter, producer and DJ; and Tailor Jae - east London bass DJ and MixMag certified technical whizz.
Estee: What progress, if any, has been made over the last year (collectively and/or personally for your career)?
Emmavie: After 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, following George Floyd’s murder that sparked worldwide protest, there was a global shift in consciousness that shook a lot of people up. The music industry took a huge battering with a number of Black artists calling out the racism they’d experienced. I think it made a lot of white and non-Black people 1. worried about their contribution to being part of the problem and 2. concerned with covering their tracks, making sure that they didn’t appear racist or alleviating themselves of guilt — having been completely passive to some very obvious and century old issues.
What a lot of people don’t understand is that being racist is not just in cases of overt violence, abuse and discrimination towards Black people, but it’s within the covert stuff like not giving Black people access to certain resources and opportunities, and in music, we see this with Black culture and artists being exploited and the lack of Black people in senior management. If there has been any progress, I feel like it’s happened out of guilt. It shouldn’t have taken the death of several Black people for anyone to start realising that they needed to be anti-racist. If you’re in solidarity with anyone, it means you get up and stand beside them, you stand in between them and danger, you stand up for them in the room and you talk up when you see issues. It’s shocked me the amount of people I’ve seen who’ve put Black Lives Matter in their bios now but previously would never have centred a campaign around a Black woman. Awareness is a huge part of progress and a lot of people have simply been forced to stop ignoring racism and address their deeply ingrained biases. I worry about how long that window is open for Black artists considering so much activism is performative.
Personally, I’ve seen opportunities arise for me and worried that it’s because I tick a lot of boxes. I am a Black, queer and masculine presenting woman that can produce, sing and write. I’ve feared that I’ve been a token hire and also booked to do the job of three people. I hate that because it’s lazy, but I am the person that fits the bill because I’ve worked so freakin’ hard. I also doubt very much that I’m paid the same as other women in some instances.
Tailor Jae: Being a DJ, I would say there has been an effort to highlight more Black people in general by certain publications that for some reason chose not to highlight our efforts before. You could say that there’s been progress with that. How much of it is political? I don’t know, but at the end of the day things are being done. I think most of us feel a certain level of tokenism at play, box ticking to avoid backlash, it’s a double edge situation because it’s great getting the opportunities but how much of it is because we’re genuinely rated? I have an agent now and that was through word of mouth, and I’m getting a lot of work but I don’t know whether that’s due to the industry looking for change or being found by the right person at the right time.
I’m happy that Black women are making their way to be able to be at the forefront of electronic music. But I also think that there needs to be more of an effort to open more doors for Black people and not just rotate the same few that have been rotated for years and say that’s progress. There is still work to be done and it has to be genuine. But some progress is better than none.
Estee: What does your ideal music industry look like?
Emmavie: An ideal music industry is one that’s fair. One that looks at everyone as a human being and as an individual, not a product or commodity. I believe, in the beginning, everyone who enters into the music industry is full of ambition to change it, but once they get in there, they’re stifled by 60-year-old protocol and company guidelines that aren’t human. Music professionals lose that spark because their industry — built around capitalism and exploitation — affects human relationships and fails to safeguard people in terms of contractual agreements and opportunities for more leftfield artists.
I think the pandemic has caused a lot of people to challenge working practices and pay across all industries. I’m happy to see that, everywhere in the world, people are saying their jobs need to make more sense, contracts should be more humane and pay should be better. You shouldn’t have to sign your life away and workers are saying no to the first greedy contract they’re offered. The music industry had us convinced that it was standard practice to be in debt to a company that own your masters forever, get rid of you and say, ‘Good luck!’. We’re entering an era where we’re no longer going to sit down whilst millionaires continue to exploit artists, especially having all experienced massive loss. I think that the industry is going to be forced to become more human because of this.
Tailor Jae: I think that everyone should be valued for what they bring to the table regardless of who they are and what they look like. In an ideal world people wouldn’t be so sheepish and the industry and certain publications wouldn’t be able to dictate so much of what’s valuable or good, they have way too much power at the moment which can make or break a career. But sadly, we live in a generation where the media controls the thought process of music fans. A lot of people wait to be told something is cool or good rather than seeing that person for who they are. Again — in an ideal world — artists would give out their art freely, not thinking about judgement or press, just letting people enjoy it. People would also be honest and support musicians and DJs not because of their follower count on social media, but because they are good at their craft.
Estee: How can we collectively meet that vision for you?
Emmavie: I immediately think of ownership and education. It’s important for me not to be tied down to contracts for any long period of time. They’re often not designed in a way that looks good even a year after you’ve signed it. Artists need to understand what they’re signing and companies need to offer more freedom of movement so that we’re able to take our intellectual property elsewhere without a traumatic legal battle. There needs to be way more transparency throughout every process in this business. It just simply shouldn’t be a danger to sign to any contract or agreement. These deals already do not favour artists so imagine what this means for Black artists that are too often unfairly compensated and have their work undervalued. The music industry needs to be less racist. That’s the bottom line. A lot of what music and popular culture is built on right now derives from Black culture, and I don’t think many people want to acknowledge that because then we could start asking the question, ‘What qualifies non-Black executives to dictate the value of Black art and decide who and what is worthy of mainstream success?’ It looks a little too much like exploitation and appropriation when none of those executives are Black. We need white people to be honest about their role in commodifying Black culture.’
Tailor Jae: I would say that if you genuinely like something that someone’s done, share it and don’t worry about whether or not it’s a trend. As an industry, people need to do a bit more research about what’s going on and new artists. Maybe actually going down to open mic nights and actually physically looking at the art, rather than relying on online personas. I also think it needs to be less of who you know, regarding publications. In terms of fans, share the music online, videos, artwork, if you can come and support your favourite DJs. Again, I’m happy to see the progress, but moving forwards, once we artists and DJs start getting platforms, we can also open the door for other people.
As the famed novelist and poet James Baldwin once put it: ‘You always told me. ‘It takes time.’ It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?' Last year signified the start of something revolutionary. But true progress looks like seeing myself and other Black people across all intersections reflected, respected, and having ownership in a music landscape our cultures have built.
As it pertains to Black women, who still aren’t afforded the same commercial opportunities as our male, mixed-race and white counterparts, it’s clear that the industry still has some way to go.