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Black Out Tuesday was just Act One, campaigners insist

By | Published on Wednesday 3 June 2020

The Show Must Be Paused

Much of the music industry participated in Black Out Tuesday yesterday, a united stand against racism and prejudice in response to the controversial death in Minneapolis last week of George Floyd and the protests that have since erupted across the US and beyond.

Those events have, of course, reignited anger over police killings of black Americans in particular, and more generally put the spotlight back on the impact racism and prejudice continues to have on black and ethnic minority communities all over the world.

Initially instigated late last week by US music industry execs Jamila Thomas at Atlantic Records and Brianna Agyemang at Platoon, people and companies across the entire global music community quickly embraced the Black Out Tuesday initiative. Even if – because of the speed with which the protest came together – there was some confusion as to what the day aimed to achieve.

In their original call to action, Thomas and Agyemang wrote: “The music industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. An industry that has profited predominantly from black art. Our mission is to hold the industry at large – including major corporations and their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and success of black people – accountable”.

“To that end”, they added, “it is the obligation of these entities to protect and empower the black communities that have made them disproportionally wealthy in ways that are measurable and transparent”.

As the initiative gained momentum and swung into action, some in the music community expressed concerns. Might the day of protest provide a music industry that has too often talked about but failed to tackle its own diversity issues with an easy opportunity to appear to care, to appear to do something, and to then get away with doing nothing at all?

Would the big brands of music – like the big brands of corporate America – get the kudos of opposing racism and discrimination on their social channels without ever putting the spotlight on their own policies and practices, and considering how they facilitate and benefit from the racism and discrimination they claim to oppose?

Would the music industry’s big stand even make much of an impact? The live sector is already in the middle of COVID-caused shutdown, and most of the industry’s offices, studios and stores are still closed too. Would anyone actually notice when the whole music community stood down for one full day? Especially as the music itself continued to stream away unhindered on the platforms operated by Apple, Amazon, YouTube and Spotify.

And with the kind of events currently unfolding on the streets of America, was now really the time for the artist community and their business partners to fall silent? Or even worse, as those supporting the initiative posted black squares to their social channels – many including the hashtag #blacklivesmatter – would that actually drown out more important messages being published online by those protesting on the ground?

Posting to Instagram themselves, Thomas and Agyemang stressed that the purpose of Black Out Tuesday was “never to mute ourselves”, but rather “to disrupt”. And their website had already stated: “This is not a 24 hour initiative. We are and will be in this fight for the long haul. A plan of action will be announced”.

To what extent the various concerns raised were legitimate depends very much on what each member of the music community actually did with Black Out Tuesday. Or – perhaps more importantly – what they intend to do with Back In Wednesday.

The one thing nobody in the music industry really has much of is lots of spare or excess time. And when all you can do is glance at a TV screen or social feed while your brain is busy balancing the seven urgent projects you have ongoing this week, there isn’t much time to listen, to learn, to process, to plan. Or even notice how the events filling your screen and feed are impacting on your colleagues.

That is why many people suggested that Black Out Tuesday should be used to press pause on all those other projects and to instead spend that time reading and listening to those with first hand experiences of racism and discrimination. To those people who have too often felt the impact and harm of prejudice. And who have been battling the systems that tolerate, allow and enable racism and discrimination for years, if not decades.

And also to ask those people what the music community could and should do – today and tomorrow – to better tackle the industry’s own diversity problems first, but also to support those leading the charge to reform the political, justice and social systems that make prejudice, in the US and well beyond, too often the norm.

We know there are projects and initiatives and courtesies and practices that have already begun to tackle discrimination within the industry. How can we ensure that a music community that often feels like it has too little time can nevertheless find the hours that are needed to expand, extend, amplify and elevate each of those things? How can we ensure that the budgets that are required are provided by those who can afford it?

Beyond the music industry itself, what role does the music community have in encouraging and facilitating and demanding wider social change? How can it support and empower the artists, creators, entrepreneurs, activists and heroes in the music community who have a key role to play in making all that happen?

To begin that process, a number of people within the music industry used Black Out Tuesday to go public with their own experiences, and to make both short term and long term demands and requests of their colleagues within the industry.

Among them, industry veteran and former chief of UK Music’s diversity taskforce Keith Harris. In an open letter to the “captains of the music industry” he recalled his own experiences of prejudice during a long career in the music business.

His letter concluded: “I would like to remind you all that this awareness of racism in the industry should not last for one day, or one week, or one year. This should last forever. I would like to see other young black people in the industry rise to the positions of authority and seniority that their talent merits. We have had many false dawns in terms of equality in the industry, let’s make sure that this is not another one”.

Sony/ATV chief Jon Platt also published an open letter. Noting that he is the only black CEO of a global major music company, he wrote: “As a music community, we are anchored at the heart of black culture, and our industry has an unrivalled role and responsibility to help lead society out of crisis and onto the path of true justice and equality”.

“Music companies have rushed to pledge solidarity with the black community since the atrocity committed against Mr Floyd”, he went on. “But I often remind my team of a fact that might seem odd for a music man to point out: ‘People see better than they hear’. Timely action must follow the industry’s lyrics. Otherwise, words are ultimately empty”.

He added: “We must create a platform that provides each and every colleague the encouragement for true self-expression. For people of colour, this means the comfort to connect, mourn and heal in authentic ways that might be unfamiliar to, or uncomfortable for, some colleagues. But I encourage you to lean into that discomfort”.

Radio 1’s Clara Amfo also delivered a powerful message at the start of her show for the station yesterday, beginning by explaining why she had not been on air the previous day. “Now as you know at Radio One, we talk a lot about mental health, and mine was in a really bad way yesterday”, she stated. “In fact, it has been for the past few days in particular in relation to the death of George Floyd”.

“I didn’t have the mental strength to face you guys yesterday”, she added. “To ask, ‘hi, how was your weekend?’ like I usually do with my happy intention, because I know that my weekend was terrible. I was sat on my sofa crying, angry, confused, and also knowing, stuck at the news of yet another brutalised black body, knowing how the world enjoys blackness and seeing what happened to George, we black people get the feeling that people want our culture but they do not want us. In other words, you want my talent but you don’t want me”.

“There is a false idea that racism, and in this case anti-blackness, is just name-calling and physical violence when it’s so much more insidious than that. One of my favourite thinkers is a woman called Amanda Seales and I feel it deeply when she says this: ‘You cannot enjoy the rhythm and ignore the blues’. And I say that with my chest”.

After highlighting special shows appearing on Radio 1 and 1Xtra yesterday as part of Black Out Tuesday, Amfo concluded: “I want to say to our black listeners that I hope you feel seen and heard today. And to those of you that have already let me know that you are doing the work to be committed to doing better – I see you, so let’s do this. Let’s all be anti-racist”.

Meanwhile, back where Black Out Tuesday began, Thomas and Agyemang wrote: “To our black friends and family: please take the time for you and your mental health. To our allies, the time is now to have difficult conversations with family, friends and colleagues”.

Then, last night, keen to ensure that 11.59pm on 2 Jun 2020 was the start rather than the end of the music industry’s united stand, they posted on Instagram: “You just witnessed Act One”.

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