Institutionalized racism fuels the lack of diversity and representation of Black artists in the music industry. Black artists are frequently and unfairly restricted to specific genres and categories of music. Historically, contributions of Black artists have been consistently appropriated and whitewashed.
The system is an inherently exploitative one that continues to discriminate against Black musicians. While Black Lives Matter sparked a racial reckoning, it is essential to acknowledge that these issues remain entrenched and pervasive within the industry.
The Grammy Awards Diversity Controversy
On November 24, 2020, the Recording Academy’s announcement of the nominees for the 63rd Grammy Awards left many people with a sour taste in their mouths. In an industry notorious for questionable choices often mired in questions of corruption, racism, and sexism, the Grammy Awards’ latest outrageous call is also the most flagrant in the history of the award show.
Canadian pop megastar The Weeknd had zero nominations for the 2021 Grammys, despite being the most dominant force in the music industry for most of 2020. Neither his chart-ruling single “Blinding Lights” nor his wildly popular album “After Hours” received any nods from the Recording Academy, much to the anger of fans, fellow musicians, and The Weeknd himself. The Weekend tweeted following the nominations, “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency…”
It is undeniably absurd that The Weeknd should be excluded from this year’s class of nominees given the monumental success of “Blinding Lights” and “After Hours.” Sadly, this baffling exclusion is a repeat offense by the Grammy Awards in a long series of injustices against non-white musicians. Over the years, the Grammys and its “Big Four” awards (Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist) have been oversaturated with white artists. Meanwhile, equally and arguably more deserving Black and minority artists have been pigeonholed into specific, racially-connotated categories like R&B, rap, and “urban.”
While the exclusion of The Weeknd from the 2021 Grammys may be, on the surface, less racially charged than past award show infractions (with several black artists like Beyoncé, Black Pumas, Megan Thee Stallion, Roddy Ricch and DaBaby receiving nominations in the big four awards this year), it is still an unfortunate example of the fact that this problem in the music industry is as pervasive as ever.
Institutionalized Racism in the Music Industry
One of the most memorable and divisive reactions to last year’s onslaught of blatant systemic racism across America was the “blackout tuesday” movement following George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests. As part of the blackout, millions of social media users posted images of black squares and went silent for the day with the intention of giving the Black community an opportunity to spread their content and messages through social media platforms.
Well-meaning on the surface, this wave of hashtag activism rapidly became synonymous with people doing the bare minimum to prove their support for Black Lives Matter without doing any real or meaningful work. This copout activism was unintentionally ironic for many people, perhaps most of all for the major music industry players that participated.
High-profile record labels like Columbia and Interscope made posts to demonstrate solidarity with Black people, while continuing to uphold the pillars of an institution that exploits the Black artists that line its pockets. Corporate America is notorious for white men in power dictating decisions and the corporate underbelly of music is no exception.
Modern-day segregation is and has been highly apparent within the music industry for a long time. Music genres and the charting that occurs within them are split very noticeably down racial lines, with white artists tending to dominate genres like rock and pop while Black artists have the best chance of hitting it big in categories like rap and R&B.
Any crossover that occurs between these segregated genres almost always favors white artists, while Black artists attempting to gain popularity in typically white genres are silenced with more force. Take, for example, Lil Nas X. His hit “Old Town Road,” which deftly blended country and hip-hop for really the first time, was removed from the Billboard country charts for not meeting the “criteria” to chart as a country song.
Any Black artists breaking through in genres not typically populated by non-white artists are likely to receive varying degrees of pushback. The Austin-based psychedelic soul duo Black Pumas, after receiving Grammy nominations for both Record of the Year and Album of the Year, were primarily met with reactions of surprise and confusion. Who the hell are Black Pumas? A Black psychedelic group nominated for major awards? And not just in the categories like R&B, rap, and “urban?”
The civil rights movement did not stamp out segregation, just disguised it to sneak by societal standards while still prioritizing the gain of whites over Blacks—the music industry is one of the biggest perpetrators of this. Confusion at the success of a group like Black Pumas or the outright rejection of an artist like Lil Nas X in spheres where Black artists tend not to succeed is a painful indicator of this, and not the only one.
The Cultural Appropriation and Whitewashing of Black Music
Nearly all the most popular music today would not exist without Black artists. Countless genres as we know them today developed out of the artistic innovations of Black people; from the origins of techno with working class African Americans in Detroit, to the development of rock music out of early black blues artists, to the creation of rap and hip-hop by Black people in the Bronx borough of New York City.
The modern music industry was forged out of the creations of Black musicians, and is still upheld by them today. However, the industry pays no respect to these origins and instead overlooks the whitewashing and appropriation of their music.
Consider the aforementioned instances of Black artists that broke through in white-dominated genres and were met with confusion and backlash. What if white artists attempted to dominate genres typically run by Black artists? It is likely they would succeed.
As far back as the 1960s, Black blues artists influenced bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones; their music is built upon the groundwork laid by Black artists. When this proved to be a successful formula, the music industry branded such bands as the standard bearers of rock ‘n’ roll, a legacy that lives on today at the expense of the toil of Black musicians, the very thing that enabled these bands to achieve legendary status.
Techno music, long branded by the music industry and groups such as Kraftwerk as a white innovation, is dominated by white DJs today. However, techno was truly born out of the work of people like Juan Atkins, who saw the post-Motown industrial waywardness of Detroit and channeled it into something fresh and exciting.
Additionally, hip-hop and rap, famously born from the inner-city Bronx communities of African Americans and Latinx people, is the most glaring example of the one-way genre crossover permitted by the music industry. From the Beastie Boys, to Eminem, and Post Malone, white musicians have been able to dominate in hip hop and receive critical acclaim while the reverse remains a hard-to-attain dream.
The scenario becomes laughable, even, when an artist like Machine Gun Kelly can transition seamlessly from rap to rock and succeed at both while the music industry restricts any Black artists who may dare to attempt the same.
The whitewashing of music and the music industry’s acceptance and promotion of this occurrence is not merely a poor look for the guilty industry organizations. These actions have real implications that are felt by Black musicians.
In an interview with Honeysuckle Magazine as a member of the organization Make Techno Black Again, techno artist and theorist DeForrest Brown, Jr. (also known as Speaker Music) discussed the struggles of being a Black musician in the industry.
Speaking from both the perspective of an artist and music writer, Brown, Jr. noted the feeling of insincerity and obligation behind critics that gave his music the time of day. According to Brown Jr., any such attention either came as a favor or an afterthought to gawking at artists like Taylor Swift and Waxahatchee. The experience of Brown, Jr. is a microcosm of how the music industry has always treated and continues to treat Black artists.
Addressing the Lack of Diversity in the Music Industry
The vast injustices committed by the music industry towards the Black artists earning it a large portion of its profits are plain for the world to see. The real dilemma, then, is what to do about it. How can we address such a deeply rooted problem dating back decades?
Perhaps the most effective solution (as suggested by Make Techno Black Again during the aforementioned interview), yet the least likely to occur, is the resignation of many of the white people in positions of power. This, combined with ensuring more Black and minority representation within positions of leadership in the music industry could help solve racial inequities that the current heads of industry are so reluctant to confront.
While this outcome could solve a myriad of the music industry’s problems, it is not likely to happen anytime soon, if ever. So, in more realistic terms, what else can be done? If the leadership of the music industry is going to remain predominantly white, they need to act to eradicate the culture of segregation.
Ridiculous occurrences like shutting Lil Nas X out of the country music charts and confining music by Black artists to racially-connotated categories of music need to stop. The ability to succeed in any genre of music needs to become a two-way street that works for all musicians regardless of race.
It is this desire to uphold the success of white musicians at the expense of Black musicians that leads to instances like; The Weekend getting snubbed at the 2021 Grammys, the designation of Black Pumas as a head-scratching nominee choice rather than an exciting one, and Lil Nas X being denied country music success lest it dethrone the white critics’ darlings of the genre.
We can lash out at the music industry’s injustices without having the real industry power to affect change. .However, in addressing the issue and holding the proper people accountable for these actions, we can leverage for real change, not just during Black History Month, but all the time, so that Black musicians finally receive the credit they truly deserve.