Black creatives seek systemic changes in UK's entertainment industry

Not enough is being done to redistribute power in the industry, say Black creatives in the UK, with some urging fellow artists to unionise.

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    Awate, one of the UK's most talented hip-hop artists, urges Black artists to unionise [Courtesy of Jake Lewis]
    Awate, one of the UK's most talented hip-hop artists, urges Black artists to unionise [Courtesy of Jake Lewis]

    Black culture is undoubtedly the most popular form of entertainment throughout the world. From music to fashion, it has permeated all areas of life, transcending issues including class and religion.

    Whether it is the underground rave scene of New Delhi, where the emcees switch up their flows like a taxi driver in central London changes lanes during rush hour, or one of the many jazz venues scattered across Europe, where guests jovially bop their heads to the rhythm in unison - as if it was choreographed - Black culture has changed the globe for the better.

    Without it, rock 'n' roll would not exist. Not to mention jazz, hip-hop and grime. Which begets the questions, why do Black creatives still face racism and what can they do to achieve systemic changes in the entertainment industry?

    'Exploited'

    Awate, one of the UK's most talented hip-hop artists, told Al Jazeera that racism affected every part of his life, including his career.

    Born in Saudi Arabia to Eritrean parents and raised in north London from the age of two, Awate entered the entertainment industry with his debut album Happiness.

    He is the first musician to be awarded a residency for the British Library's nationwide project, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. He recently completed the project after spending five months using the institute's vast sound archive to create a long-form musical piece, exploring migration and diaspora.

    But he said racism has held him and many of his peers back.

    "The music industry exists because of us, because of Black art. But we're exploited," Awate told Al Jazeera.

    "Racism impacts every part of my life. So, of course, it's hindered my career. I've been refused entry to gigs where I was performing because the bouncers didn't believe that I was on the roster," he said.

    Boycott

    Earlier this month, the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday dominated social media feeds as part of a campaign initially sparked by two Black women, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, who work for Atlantic Records and Platoon respectively. 

    The pair coined the initiative, #TheShowMustBePaused, and called on the music industry to acknowledge the exponential profits that it has made from Black artists and to recognise its responsibility to empower Black communities.

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    Important record labels, streaming services and social media users participated in what evolved into a virtual campaign, with many posting black squares on their social media accounts in solidarity, while pausing their online activity for a day to reflect on the death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white policeman in the US.

    Awate, however, boycotted it and called on his fellow Black musicians to unionise instead, describing the event as nothing more than "virtue-signalling" by the important labels.

    "The initial campaign was well-intentioned. The lack of diversity in the music industry is ridiculous. Not to mention the racism and exploitation. But the companies that took part in the initiative aren't doing anything to change this," Awate said.

    "The labels are just waiting for the next poor and traumatised Black kid on the conveyor belt to scoop up and offer a 360-degree-slave deal, while getting them to perpetuate the same Black stereotypes that oppress us," he said.

    "First and foremost, the labels need to protect Black artists and challenge systemic racism. That's why I called on artists to unionise, as everything depends on us. For example, too many young Black artists are going on tour without financial or mental health support," he said.

    Racial privilege

    Some artists have chosen to recognise their racial privilege. Eminem, for example, said in his song White America in 2002: "Let's do the math. If I was Black, I would've sold half. I ain't have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that".

    Meanwhile, Black American rapper, Mos Def, on his track The Rape Over in 2004, said hip-hop was run by the "old white men" who occupy corporate America, while claiming that Black artists have allowed themselves to be exploited, so that they could be successful and "cash in".

    Awate said he wants systemic change, which is why he chose not to participate in Blackout Tuesday. The small daily aggressions that he experiences cause him considerable frustration, but he sees it as just the symptoms of a bigger problem, he said.

    "I want to see a call for structural change in music, football and all other industries, including the police and prison industrial complex. The media tend to focus on the trivial incidents, like white people mesmerised by our afros and trying to grab our hair. But it's much bigger than that. When you think about rock 'n' roll, who do you think of? Elvis Presley? But rock 'n' roll is Black music!"

    Tangible effect

    Adam Elliott-Cooper is an academic, focusing on policing and anti-racism movements at the University of Greenwich in south London. He acknowledged the importance of Black people being properly accredited for their cultural contributions, but is unsure whether it will have a tangible effect against racism.

    Anti-racism protests held across Europe (2:08)

    "I see racism as a mode of governance. It's a system of control focused on maximising profits. Whether we acknowledge that Black people have made substantive contributions to culture or not, I'm dubious about whether that would have an effect on the need to use violence to uphold the racial order," Elliott-Cooper told Al Jazeera.

    Like Awate, Elliott-Cooper thinks Black artists should unionise.

    "One way for Black artists to increase their power is unionising. That way, if record labels are exploiting them, they can go on strike. They'd have stronger negotiating power and could also use different forms of industrial action and resistance. It's one way to erode the power and influence of the multinational corporations which dominate the music industry."

    Last week, a number of short films aired on Channel 4, one of the UK's popular television channels, every weekday as part of the Take Your Knee Off My Neck series in response to the killing of Floyd. The films explored the effect that Floyd's death had on Black Britons.

    Lucy Pilkington was one of two executive producers for the series, which attempts to reckon with the historic trauma of British slavery and racism, while striking an optimistic tone about the future during a galvanising historical moment.

    She said the industry's diversity figures have improved from when she started her career more than 20 years ago. However, she acknowledged that a lot more work still needed to be done.

    "There's more people in senior positions from diverse backgrounds. But we need more diversity across the board, especially at the independent production companies. However, more funding is needed to achieve this and it needs to be ring-fenced," Lucy told Al Jazeera.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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