How the music industry is taking action to support the Black community

From AU to the Grammy Awards, the music industry is changing

How the music industry is taking action to support the Black community

"The_54th_Grammy Awards - we are the music" by is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.  Photo provided by Creative Commons.

Efforts to make the music industry more inclusive have expanded since the recent Black Lives Matter protests following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others. 

On June 2, the music industry observed Blackout Tuesday, a day of collective action and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The initiative #TheShowMustBePaused was started by music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang to hold the industry accountable for benefitting from “the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people,” the website says. Now, recording labels, music award shows and educators are reevaluating their approaches.

One highly visible example is Republic Records, the recording label for artists such as Drake, Taylor Swift and John Mellencamp. The label added a web page dedicated to social responsibility and leadership. Republic Records promotes a diverse group of award-winning artists, but, like many record labels, is still working to become more inclusive. Its website lists petitions and places to donate to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Columbia Records also boasts a wide variety of award-winning artists, including Beyoncé, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Adele and Leon Bridges. Among the megastars, Columbia Records also has some lesser known artists signed to its label. While Columbia Records participated in Blackout Tuesday, the record label has not listed any other inclusivity efforts on its webpage. 

A New York Times report indicates that despite the top record companies’ representation of a number of Black artists, the music industry has a poor record of hiring Black people for top positions. Calls for more representation in leadership positions continue to grow in a push for systemic progress in the music industry overall.

“I believe many U.S. consumers are more aware of the way mainstream popular music reinforces stereotypes and are interested in artists who draw attention to and comment on those boundaries,” said Kendra Salois, an assistant professor in American University’s Department of Performing Arts.

Music categories at major awards ceremonies like the Grammys have evolved in recent years, and some awards ceremonies have made categories more representative, following demands that Black musicians be included and recognized. Chris Rock demanded more inclusion of Black entertainers at the 2016 Oscars, which he hosted. In preparation for the 63rd Grammy Award ceremony in 2021, four music categories were changed to make the rules fairer and more transparent, according to its website.

One of these categories includes Best Progressive R&B album, previously known as Best Urban Contemporary Album. Another is Best Melodic Rap Performance, previously known as Best Rap/Song Performance. The last two include Best Latin Pop or Urban Album and Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album, which were previously known as Latin Pop Album and Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album, respectively.

John Simson, director of the Business and Entertainment Program in AU’s Kogod School of Business, served the Grammys board in various capacities (including being president of the D.C. Chapter twice) between 1997 and 2014.

During his time, Simson said, “There were a number of initiatives to recruit and retain minority executives and artists as members of the Recording Academy.” 

Simson added that the Grammy organization donated $1 million to Color of Change, which moves “decision-makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America.”

Universal Music Group is also making efforts to combat institutional racism by donating $25 million to a task force committed to inclusion and social justice. The American music corporation states that it aims to examine and reform its existing policies in offices domestically and worldwide. 

In the classroom, music professors have also made explicit efforts to cover music beyond the Western world.

“The goal, thus far, has been to be more musically inclusive and to make these wonderful areas of music available for all who are interested,” said Nancy Snider, a Department of Performing Arts professor.

The discussion of representation of people with different backgrounds and identities within the music industry is also present in AU’s music classes.

“In my classes, we have worked with a number of LGBTQ artists to understand how they interface with the entertainment industry,” Simson said. 

Students have had influence over the music curriculum at AU. Individualized instruction is provided for students who want to examine an area of music that is not currently covered by curriculum.

“My students have influenced my courses. Every time I teach a course, I learn so much from what my students bring to it, and I frequently incorporate their recommendations in the next semester,” Salois said. 

Snider also discussed a new combined degree program, which involves a bachelor’s in music and a master’s in teaching, focusing on nontraditional forms of music education.

AU’s efforts to be more inclusive in its music curriculum have been praised by its professors. The wider music industry is beginning to look toward a more just and representative future as well.

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