Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas
Photo: 2020 Billboard Women In Music/Getty Images for Billboard
#TheShowMustBePaused Leaders Brianna Agyemang And Jamila Thomas Reflect On The Movement’s Progression One Year Later
America’s threads, historically grounded in racism, notoriously began to unravel at new levels during the height of the pandemic last year. The worldwide protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor caused a ripple effect seen in various sectors—especially the music industry. On June 2, 2020, Brianna Agyemang, senior artist campaign manager at Apple’s Platoon, and Jamila Thomas, Motown Records’ VP of artist marketing, combined their business acumen with a shared plight for equality to target change in the entertainment industry. The result was the founding of #TheShowMustBePaused.
The movement called for the major players in the music industry to prove their accountability after decades of profiting off Black people’s talents without disclosing equity. #TheShowMustBePaused occurred simultaneously with the Blackout Tuesday protest on social media, an initiative that called for the pause on activity on timelines suggesting instead that people take the time to reflect on racism and police brutality in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement; The action was visualized through the use of black images on Instagram. But the ladies urged that their message bringing awareness to the exploitation of Black creatives not get lost from the flood of performative black squares being posted by some as a sign of superficial allyship. While controversy emerged for the latter, Agyemang says their call reached screens across the world.
“Jamila or I never really knew how far it would spread. We were thinking that it was going to be almost like a mini protest amongst our industry peers,” Agyemang tells GRAMMY.com about the #TheShowMustBePaused’s first anniversary. “But it became a global movement. It really [showed us] to never underestimate your voice.”
Since the movement’s launch, music companies have hired Diversity & Inclusion officers, and major labels have reportedly donated millions to social justice organizations. But the co-founders stress that this work is only just scratching the surface.
“Although we're in a competitive business, it's really important that we stay united in the fight and not lose focus,” Thomas explains. “I hope that we can continue to be compassionate to one another and reach out with intent to work as allies. There’s power in numbers and we could do more together than we could apart.”
GRAMMY.com spoke to Agyemang and Thomas over Zoom to break down some of the key changes they’ve witnessed within the music industry since the movement’s launch and how they’ve implemented self-care through it all.
As Black women in this music business, we're always trying to fight for our voices to be heard. I thought it was inspiring that this was not founded by white men, but people who understand the depths of the industry’s issues.
Jamila Thomas: It was important that Bri and I came from a perspective that we know firsthand. We were very careful and conscious of who we spoke on behalf of. I think people wanted us to have a conversation for all people of color at first. And we were very clear that this is a Black perspective. We are in alignment with our brothers and sisters of color, but we were only able to speak as Black women in [the music] business. This is what we're going through. Through us being honest and transparent, so many people from different backgrounds spoke up. That created a synergy [with] the community that we currently work with and continue to fight for. Representation of who we are is what matters the most.
I don't think that we see enough people that look like us and come from our backgrounds in the C-suite being able to make decisions from the top down. We felt like it should come from us directly. We didn't want to rely on a partner or someone who we thought may have more power to “manslate”it: “Let me take this and go into the boardroom for you and pitch it.” No, no, no. We don't need you.
I think people were caught off guard about how willing we were to collaborate. We genuinely, to this day, want to work alongside people to make a change—there’s power in numbers. It started with just the two of us, so by the time we had the summit, there were nearly 2,000+ people on the phone discussing how to fight and how we wanted to get through to the other side. So it's never just about us.
It's important as we move forward, that we keep in mind that we always represent what we went through. If there's someone going through something similar, the door's always open to discuss it and we can figure out how we can work together. But also acknowledging that it's a human decency issue when it comes to social injustice. At the time we were coming into an election, and we had to wrap our heads around a bigger picture. It became bigger than Brianna and I, and that's why “The Show Must Be Paused” is not just about injustices and having equity in the music business, but its overall social responsibility.
What have been some of the challenges that you’ve faced over the past year?
Agyemang: We didn't intend for this to be what it was. But with that being said, we had to step up to the plate. If we were able to get all of these people to stop and listen, it was our responsibility to continue [with the movement]. Now we have not only people, but corporations listening. We have to make sure that we're using our voice as a vehicle for the people who don't have the ear of some of the corporations at the moment. Jamila and I still have our day-to-day responsibility to the corporations that we work for, to our families that we're members of, to relationships, to friendships, to everything. We also became freedom fighters in layman's terms, so it was another thing that was added to our plate.
I also think a lot of people experienced [the same thing during that time] last year. All of a sudden, employees who are part of marginalized groups in large corporations have people asking [them], “What should we do?” You're just like, “Let me do some research. I don't have the answers. But if you're going to take the time to ask, let me use this opportunity to help make things better.” Now we're just caught up in this whirlwind of new responsibilities. That was a big undertaking. It's not always easy, but I guess things in life that are worth it really aren't [easy].
The one thing that I liked about the movement is the transparency that came out of it. The music industry hides a lot beneath the curtain, and you asked companies to release audits that broke down their staff’s diversity.
Agyemang: We always like to pride ourselves on being members of the community. Yes, of course, we caused this pause. But the community is what really brought it up to the top of the conversation. So we were pushing for transparency in our list of demands that we put out three months following the pause. You don't know what you have to fix until you know what's really in front of you. I remember seeing Instagram pages popping up with [people acting like] vigilantes posting what the breakdown of C-suites and organizations were not only in music but across all industries. It took everyone holding hands and being like, “Okay it's not just going to stop at one day. This has to be an ongoing thing.” And if you're not going to call it out, then there are people in the community that will. Companies realized that they had to get in front of it.
So then they started to put out updates and bringing on people to help take a better look at what's going on and how to make it a more equitable place. But especially across different industries like beauty and in the film industry, I remember seeing a lot of those pages popping up in regards to what the percentage breakdown looked like. It's really the people that everyone has to answer to. It's not just Jamila and I.
Black women don't often have the luxury to implement self-care. There were so many other things that were happening from the protests to the election. How have you been taking care of yourselves?
Agyemang: That has been a priority of mine in the past year, even a month before “The Show Must Be Paused” happened. I started a new job [around] when the pandemic started and Black people were getting killed left and right, as always. We're literally locked in the house and people are dying. It was just a lot at once. I really do enjoy my face mask and working out, but it really does start with your mental space.
So taking the time to really focus on what you need, and that looks like something different for everyone. I do think that as Black people in general, we can all benefit from therapy. We go through or see traumas every single day just existing. So it’s acknowledging that some days will be better than others and that it doesn't happen overnight, but also working towards that. What I've come to terms with in the past year was that I'm not going to get everything done and that's okay. That helps me a lot.
Thomas: Amen. To echo Bri's point, I was going to say that knowing that something will be left on a to-do list is okay. Not being a superhero and reminding myself to give myself grace is important. I've moved, I've started a new job. A lot has changed since the pandemic started and even since we paused the show. Part of the thing that I do is make time for family and friends. It's one thing to say, “Let’s do brunch” and then I'm not present at the table because I'm answering emails on the weekend and not giving myself a mental break. One thing I have picked up becoming closer with Bri throughout this process is she enjoys the outdoors. I'm always looking at her [Instagram] story from the house, like “Why am I not outside?”
Seeing one of my good friends enjoying life on a Saturday is a reminder to put the phone down, get dressed and go outside. Going out more, whether it's not taking a Uber and choosing to walk to the store is something to give myself that hour of grace. That's how I've been getting through it because things are slowly opening back up, but mentally we're still in the brute of it every day. We still have jobs and it's a demanding business but I'm no good to anyone if I'm not good to myself.
So beautifully said by you both. We previously discussed the uptick in transparency, but are there other changes that you loved seeing since this movement has begun?
Thomas: I will say the amount of DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] officers that have been hired, the number of roles that have been created, and different HR opportunities held by people of color and by women let us know they made that much progress in a year. I can't wait to see where we [will] be in another year and a year after that. I'll also say the amount of money that has been committed. We're very clear that it takes time to donate large amounts of money. You don't just throw it out the window and just give it to whoever's asking. You have to really make sure that each organization is legit and that you're serving grassroots organizations just as much as the big ones.
Just knowing that they the Big Three [Sony, UMG and Warner Music Group]immediately responded by dedicating almost a billion dollars in a six-month time span, that's incredible. That wasn't happening prior to. The fact that they got together with the Recording Academy to make a joint statement to be in alignment with “The Show Must Be Paused” is one of the things we're proud of, too, because no one's ever gotten together like that ever. Those are the things that may seem small to the public eye, but those in the business know that it took an enormous amount of work and dedication. So I had to really [commend] our partners to be willing to put the competitiveness aside to be on the right side of history. We're proud of the work that's being done by everyone on a daily basis in that space.
I remember thinking, “Whoa, they're actually feeling the pressure!”
Thomas: I don't think people really understand, it was a big deal. And it wasn't about donating money to “The Show Must Be Paused”, it's donating money to the people in organizations that are on the ground trying to fight for police justice and paying legal fees of protesters. There's people really doing the work. If we were able—by using a big stage that we put our artists on every day—to draw a spotlight to social justice needs and how to create a more equitable business for Black people, then that's the stage that we built.
As we continue trying to make this industry more equal and more democratic, what else needs to be done?
Thomas: Oh, there's a whole list of demands. I would say people could revisit paragraphs three, four or five [on our call to action]. I think that we have time to make change. It's just about identifying the immediate goals as some things are more urgent than others. We genuinely put thought into that list and hope that companies are using it as a guide because that came from people that are in the business. Every company structure is different and it's not tailored in one specific way, but we hope that people at least use that as a starting point to do the right thing.