Ivan Barias On Silence As Complicity, Holding Major Labels Accountable & How To Be A Non-Black Latinx Ally
For Ivan Barias, the GRAMMY-nominated producer, engineer, songwriter and Recording Academy P&E Wing leader, George Floyd's death is "a wake-up call for the nation." The tragic deaths at the hands of police, he believes, is the alarm waking up the whole country to the racism it has been sleeping on.
A Black Dominican who migrated to the U.S. at a young age, the Philadelphia-based producer behind albums from Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild and many others knows racism's effects firsthand. While for some the video showing Floyd's death in Minneapolis in broad daylight may have been a disturbing reality check on racial bias, Barias has been aware of how deeply rooted racism is in U.S. culture and society, and how it systematically continues to oppress Black communities, as well as all people of color.
While public support has risen substantially on the left—and from politicians on both sides of the aisle—in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement, Barias notes the Black Lives Matter Movement, which formed in 2013 after the acquittal of the man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, continues to be misunderstood and associated with violence. "I think it gets such a bad rap because of the idea that Black people protesting and demanding equality goes against the ethos of supremacy. I'm going to just be real. White [supremacy]," he says. "There have been policies that have been created over the years, whether consciously or subconsciously, that have been exclusive, and not inclusive in giving equity to African Americans."
Despite the harsh realities for Black people and people of color, the producer doesn't feel hopeless. He wants the tragedy that happened in Minneapolis to be a motivator for people to vote this year, among other actionable ways to stay involved. "This is when you have to really double down," he says.
In a phone interview with the Recording Academy, Barrias spoke more on his views of race in the U.S., how the music industry can help create change, the tough conversations Latinx need to have now, why he thinks people need to stay politically active and how his support system is helping him through it all.
How are you?
I'm good. Considering the circumstances and everything that we've been dealing with, I'm managing. [I] tell you, it's been a heck of a week compounded by a heck of a year, so far. But the last three months have been really crazy and then we are dealing with this on top of that.
Definitely, what a year it's been. We wanted to get your thoughts on what's going on now. How would you describe our current racial climate?
I describe it as a wake-up call. It's a wake-up call for the nation. It's a situation that is troubling. It's saddening, it's angering, it's confusing, but one thing that we cannot ignore is that institutional and systemic racism has played a huge role in what we're seeing ... Now people are more aware. Watching a murder across all of our social media platforms, TV screens, not just relegated to certain spaces, [the video has] been playing all over the world. One thing that people have been saying for years is that police brutality, predominantly in the African American community, has been something that has needed to be addressed. [Yet] what we've been seeing is the Black Lives Matter movement demonized. We've seen people like Colin Kaepernick trying to bring attention to a situation we're talking about here, peacefully. You're talking about an athlete using his platform to peacefully protest and people conflated that with disrespect for the country, disrespect for the military, disrespect for the flag because he chose to kneel in a silent protest.
Now, with [what we've seen,] protesters and how it went from peaceful protest to the rioting and the anger—even though you had some agitators and some agent provocateurs, the news has shown there have been people that have been instigating and agitating. Regardless, I think that the energy that's out there is a rage that has been suppressed for years. I think we're being forced to deal with this. Instead of being proactive, we're being reactive now. I think that change, however you can institute change, it's a wake-up call for us as a country to really address these things that are egregious.
You bring up a really great point. Why do you think some people have associated negative things with the movement?
I think it gets such a bad rap because of the idea that Black people protesting and demanding equality goes against the ethos of supremacy. I'm going to just be real. White [supremacy]. There have been policies that have been created over the years, whether consciously or subconsciously, that have been exclusive, and not inclusive in giving equity to African Americans. And the idea of white superiority has been something that has been dominant in a lot of the narratives in several industries and in several sectors of our economy. When you see the [Black Lives Matter] movement, it's a very powerful movement. It has this abrupt support of people in the media, athletes, entertainers. I just think it makes people uncomfortable. I think that the original intent of the movement was to say all lives will matter when Black lives matter. It was never to say that Black lives are more important than any other lives, or that African Americans or Black people should be higher in a pecking order than any other ethnic group. It was to say, "Hey look, we matter, also. Yes, you matter. But we also matter." And it's just the inherent biases that people have that make them not want to share equity with other ethnic groups that they deem inferior to them. So it's just the stain and in our history that's still perpetuating those stereotypes.
You posted a screenshot on your Instagram of a story printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, with a headline that read "Buildings Matter, Too," arguing that while protests are a just response to the inequality going on, people need to think more about the consequences of damaging property. Could you talk more about how you think that is problematic?
Well, listen, I'm going to say this: I don't condone rioting. When people go out there and they riot, and they loot, I just think it could be perceived as taking away from the original intent of why [people] were protesting or why the protests are the [way they] are. However, I think that the headline—which they changed—they saw the error of their ways and they changed it to something a little bit softer in tone. But when you say buildings matter, too, that comma after "matter" really has a different energy. That's a silent energy. To imply that, "Hey, yeah, we get it. We see what you're saying... we see your little protest, but don't forget, these buildings have been around longer than you and you should not destroy them." It's such a dismissive statement .... I think what [that kind of thinking] does is insinuate more of the stereotypes that [these protests] are about the destruction of property, rather than the protest of lives being taken by police forces. Law enforcement has a history of killing Black lives right on the spot. I am charging you, I am trying you and I am issuing your sentence right here. Anyone else would look at the reasons why police would intervene and stop people and try to arrest people [and would acknowledge they are] for things that aren't even worth the time in a court of law. Not to say that, "Look, I'm endorsing lawlessness."
You look at what happened in Central Park. And you could parse from what I'm saying. You don't have to take everything I'm saying so literal. When you look at the situation in Central Park with Amy Cooper with the gentlemen bird watching in which he told her, "Hey, do you mind putting your dog on a leash?" This area of the park explicitly said that she should have your dog on a leash. And she went crazy on him and called the cops. And immediately went to all of these different tropes associated with Black men and created a scenario. Dramatized the scenario for the [cops] to imply that she was being attacked by this man who was just simply telling her, "Can you put your dog on a leash." A lot of the interactions you see between the police and people of color are interactions that are based on fear. And also the idea that you must be committing a crime. Therefore, I must stop you. And then, when you're watching, when you see those videos, [your perception is] they did something. They had to have done something crazy for that police officer to use the type of force that he used: "I, a non-person of color, interact with the police and I've never experienced that level of aggression from a police officer. Therefore, in my mind, I am pre-programmed, predisposed to think that you have had to have done something extreme that can be met with such lethal force."
And the reason why "buildings matter" is problematic is that it further enhances the trope that all things are equal, reducing Black lives. You're reducing a Black life to something static. Something that is not even a real object. You're objectifying a Black life the same way you objectify a building. And until we start seeing Black lives as lives, as people, as humans, as citizens, as Americans, as our neighbors, you will not be able to tear down these walls of bigotry that exists.
I'm Latina, and I've seen inequity in the Black and brown neighborhood I grew up in. But I couldn't really name it, or I couldn't really identify it. I became more aware of it in college when I majored in ethnic studies. You're obviously aware of it. How did you gain your awareness of these issues?
Well, let me be honest here. I am a Black Dominican. I was born in the Dominican Republic and I came here at an early age and my experiences have, because of how I look, people quite often think I'm a Black man, right? And my features, I'm of mixed heritage. I've identified with the Black culture because of hip-hop, the music that I grew up listening to and sports. The athletes that I idolize, the music, the sports, the culture, my friends, all of the different things. Me being immersed in a culture, being accepted, allowed me a front-row seat to seeing all these things. And then these things became things that were part of my life. [When you grow up,] you start seeing that things aren't as equal as they are. You believe in the American dream when you're young and you feel like you can be anything you want to be. But then when you start seeing that there are cultural barriers of entry, where you have people that don't have the same opportunities because of generational wealth, all things are interconnected. When you have someone who doesn't have the ability to amass economic power, simply because of redlining districts where you will not get approved for a loan if you lived here, and things like that.
If you have an ethnic-sounding name, you might not get the call for a job. If you have an ethnic-sounding name, you look ethnic, you might get a different type of care in an emergency room. So all of those things start to shape your perspective. You start to see things are a little bit more nuanced than you are led to believe when you're younger and you start seeing that there are certain blind spots that people in society who have certain privileges have. They tend to be myopic towards real issues that affect people of color in ways that they will never experience. And it's been a gradual thing. As you get older, you see things a little bit clearer. Now I'm really seeing how oblivious people may have been to a lot of these issues. It's interesting that it took this for a lot of people that I know of, a lot of my friends and colleagues [to realize all this]. This has affected them deeply. They didn't know they live in a country that had these deep-rooted issues that are now playing out for the world to see.
It's not just one isolated incident. We're not talking just about George Floyd here. We're talking about Breonna Taylor. We're also talking about Ahmaud Arbery all in the span of four months. Tragic killings at the hands of police, or racist-driven murders that you're finally seeing footage of. That you're saying, "Oh my God, this is unacceptable. I can't believe that happened." That you've taken yourself from your specific set of circumstances [and you've put] yourself in those individual's shoes. You really empathize and you see that you you really feel the pain. And that's why so many people are out there protesting. It's such a diverse protest that it's not even, you can't just call it a Black protest. It's just a protest in favor of Black Lives Matter, Black issues. But the number of people you see out there, young, old, Black, White, Latino, Asian, straight, gay. It's not specific to one demographic. And I think that this really shows that people are finally starting to wake up and they're starting to empathize with what a lot of people have been dealing with for years. Not even years—decades and centuries.
It's definitely brought up conversations on allyship. When it comes to the Latinx community, some grew up in the same communities as Black friends, Black neighbors, some like yourself are Afro-Latinx. In your opinion, what do non-Black Latinx need to do to show allyship?
Reach out and talk to your friends. Reach out to talk to your Black friends and allow yourself to be educated on these issues. Understand how unconscious bias, which is a privilege, plays a role in systemic and institutional racism. You could be Latinx and have your eccentric features and speak with a diction that's a little bit more acceptable and appropriate for the corporate world. Even within our communities, you might have a Latinx person who may be Afro-Latino, who may not have the same opportunities you have.
Within the Latinx culture, there is a polarizing issue that tears us all, and that's colorism. Even in our own culture, we have to examine these tropes that have existed for centuries and are part of how a lot of our countries were colonized. It's how you have the caste system and how people have grown up with these inherent views on race and race matters. So I would say, allow yourself to be educated within your own culture and outside of the cultures. Understand if you have privilege, learn why you have that privilege. Fight for equity. And continue to speak on injustices. I think if you stay silent, you are complicit. If you are an immigrant who has been given preferential treatment because of those things that I mentioned, and you don't speak out, I think you are silently a part of the problem. And sometimes we don't know we're doing that. I think one of the most dangerous things that you can do is be a part of an out-group, and you achieve in-group acceptance, and you start denigrating other people in the out-group, just to make the people in the in-group that you're a part of happy and to continue the privilege and dominance over any authority over the other groups.
You have to refocus your lens and ask yourself if you are doing all you can to be an ally. Are you really supporting these things? Are you truly moved? Are you truly empathetic? Do you truly understand? And if not, figure out how you can do more. As I said, talk to people, be educated. Your point of view shouldn't be anchored. It has to be one that's in constant flux because this thing has grown into a different type of virus. And it is adaptive. And we all have to figure out how to eradicate it.
What does change look like to you?
I say it looks like comprehensive police reform. I think that we have to examine policing methods. The current administration undid a lot of the consent decrees that existed from the Obama administration justice department ...
with respect to how you should be a police officer. There's certain lawlessness that exists and I think what we have to reform, but we have to really reform policing. We have to really examine the idea of what a police officer should do. We have to retrain our officers. We might have to even raise the bar and use a different set of metrics for who should be a police officer. We have to stop investing so much in law and order and invest in people. You have to invest in your community as opposed to policing methods for your community.
It takes a lot of hands on deck to actually do all this heavy lifting. And again, this is not just a Federal issue or just a state issue, or just a municipal issue. It's an across-the-board government issue. Everyone has to work together in tandem to find solutions so that these things don't happen. So that we have proper methods for how you use lethal force and when it should be used and how to really protect people. Because we've seen the police being called just to do a wellness check, and it results in the death of a Black person. I think those things have to be talked about. We have to really address how police should stop feeling like it's an us versus them type of mentality that dominates the thinking amongst a lot of police officers.
We know historically the music industry has profited off Black artists. How can the music industry and community at large contribute to change?
One of the things the recording industry needs to do is establish funds to assist. Whether you're talking about social justice funds or educational funds to assist with helping people in impoverished communities. They have to really open their wallets. I saw Warner is contributing a hundred million dollars to social justice causes. That's great. When you look at the top three major labels, [they made in 2018] a combined $19 million a day in streaming and revenue which amounts to about $7 billion a year. That's a small slice of the pie. I think there should be a social responsibility when it comes to the recording industry because I think that they have a duty to—and I'm not talking about censoring artists or infringing on people's first amendment rights—but they have a duty to be socially responsible when it comes to the music they put out to communities that are the ones that are the most at risk. And they promote stereotypes to me that continue the cycle. So, not an attack on the industry, I just felt like we need to be more socially aware of the artists that we're giving a platform to. Those things are important.
Also, give artists community equity, and create a better profit-sharing model, so that they can be assets in their own communities. Here's what I'm saying: if you don't know how to help, if you are one of the top execs in the music industry and this is not your community and you don't know how to help, aside from opening your wallet, empower your artists. Make them economically viable to be able to build these things in the communities they come from and help with the existing wealth gap by making sure that there's better equity, and better profit-sharing model for those artists to partake in. That's a great start right there.
What are some of the things that you've been doing?
On my end, I'm supporting social justice groups and I'm encouraging people in my community to activate. I'm using social media and I'm reaching out to people in my circle. I have several threads of music industry executives, managers, artists, performers, I mean a variety of different disciplines across the industry. These are the things that we're talking about and we're sharing resources. We're sharing links here. And we're making sure that we're spreading the word on how we can all help each other and help people in our communities with these resources. I'm also doing a lot of advocacy, as well. I helped establish a group called Philly Culture United, a few weeks ago to address the mayor's budget. We noticed there was $0 allocated to arts and culture. And we had an office. We had an office here that was the office of arts culture and the creative economy. They eliminated the office, zeroed out that line on the budget for arts and culture, and increased the budget for law and order. Police, prisons, and courts. So you're talking about 40% going to law and order, against zero as divestment in the arts and culture. So, we convened, and we were talking about how we're going to address this and create a campaign to target the members of the city council, to let them know how egregious this was. And mind you, this is before Memorial Day when George Floyd was killed. Then we saw the protests. Since then, we're starting to see other cities move away, resources that they had allocated for policing, and law and order. There's a certain level of urgency now that exists for the city council to see that an investment or divestment from your own citizens, is basically saying, "I am okay with removing arts and culture, which historically has allowed people the means to protest and express themselves peacefully." And you're saying, "We don't believe that arts and culture is an essential asset for our citizens. And we feel that these resources could be better allocated to putting more police officers on the street." And I think that when you send that message to a community, I think you're really going down a slippery slope. And what we're advocating for is that you not only restore but maybe increase the budget in the arts and culture and creative economy. To me, that is an essential service that gives your citizens equity and allows them to participate in ways that they can express themselves, they can speak and amplify other voices that are speaking on issues that we've been covering in this interview. So I think that that's something that a lot of people should figure out how to be a little bit more active when it comes to advocacy in their own cities and state. And that's part of American democracy. You have to figure out if you have a voice, how to amplify other people's voices. And that's what I am doing. And that's what I'm challenging a lot of my colleagues to do. If you can't march and protest, okay, then support. And if you can't support, then be politically active, and encourage people to vote. Voting has not only national implications but local implications. A lot of the things that I mentioned earlier, like redlining, and gerrymandering, and really suppressing people's views and voices through political means, to where you can never really get out of these pitfalls that have been created that aren't your doing. And constantly allowing for the support for law and order that disproportionately affects you. If you vote, and you vote for policies, and you vote for people that are share in those ideals, you can demand accountability and transparency. So that is something that I'm passionate about and I try to challenge everyone to at least exercise that right.
I've been talking to some friends who are undocumented and they're like, "I wish I could vote." They obviously can't. Do you have any words for Latinx and other people out there who are undocumented and can't vote?
Your voice is still viable. They don't even understand how their story is so impactful. By making people who have the privilege to exercise their rights. They should be made aware that there is a class of people that are a part of this American culture who don't have that right. And the lack of having that voice and exercising that right continues oppressive practices that disproportionately affect them. So I would say, urge your friends and your colleagues who have that right to really think about how this really affects people who believe in the American dream. People who, if given the opportunity, will stay in a line for 12 hours to cast that vote. That to me, that's very meaningful to share your stories and not hide. And there's no shame in saying, "Hey, I'm here. I'm undocumented, and I'm here. And I think of myself as an American, and I believe in the American dream and I believe in the United States constitution and what it affords every person who comes to this country." And definitely, I would say, you really have to drive that point and make people understand how privileged they are to cast a vote during every election.
Last question, how are you coping through all of this?
I have a support system. I'm staying in touch with a lot of my friends and colleagues. And I'm on several texting threads where we're sharing stories, and tweets, and things that come across our own social media pages, and resources, and having conversations to where you don't feel like you're at it alone. And I think that that's what people need. You need to have a support system so that you don't feel like you're the only person dealing with this and I think what it does is it empowers everyone. Everyone is lifting each other up. It gives you the strength to fight and fight for what's right and to continue to demand accountability. When you hear that other people share your sentiments and they're feeling exactly the way you're feeling, it makes it a lot easier for you to find the strength to continue and not give up. Except I think I'll tell you that, I have so many friends in a lot of these threads wondering if it's even worth voting. We had voting here in Philadelphia, our primaries were on Tuesday [June 2] and so many people were saying, "I'm not going to vote. Why? It doesn't even matter." That's when I said, "No, this is when you have to really double down." And you have to keep motivating people. And we motivate each other. So I don't know how I would be coping if it wasn't for the various threads and people in my life. I don't know how I would be able to maintain. Having a support system and having people that you could talk to is very important. And even people, friends who aren't from my community have reached out, expressing support, and asking how they can help, and what can they do, and how they can be better allies. And that to me is very important.