Central to any historical movement that helps to push social and political cultures forward, the power of music is a cornerstone for freedom, connection and unfiltered creative expression. However, in regards to its widespread influence and potential power in participating in the fight for social change, the music business has often fallen short to this task of moving the needle.
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As the world continues to shift around the impacts of COVID-19 and the reignited fight against racial injustice and police brutality, 2020 marks a huge opportunity for comprehensive shifts in practice by the hands of executives, labels and the broader music business as we know it. Artists, their fans and the industry itself, are depending on it.
On Tuesday, Aug. 12, GRAMMY U hosted "Music & Activism: Enacting Real Change," which focused conversation on utilizing music and its surrounding communities as an engine for affecting social and political change. Further, the discussion emphasized avenues that artists and industry professionals can take in order to mobilize a more equitable future for young Black artists specifically within the recorded music industry as it evolves following global attention on dismantling systemic racism today.
The conversation involved Killer Mike and El-P of GRAMMY-nominated rap duo Run The Jewels, alongside Columbia Records’ Co-Head of Urban Music Phylicia Fant and political culture, race and Black music scholar and UCLA Musicology and African American Studies Professor Dr. Shana L. Redmond. The panel was moderated by Recording Academy Chicago Chapter President and GRAMMY-winning poet and spoken word artist J. Ivy.
Despite the creative power of music as an engine for mobilizing, according to Dr. Redmond, the music industry has not always cropped up to be the, “Animating device that we need it to be in movements towards freedom. It’s become actually one of the bull-works, one of the impediments,” she said.
Dating back to the Classic Blues movement of the early 1920’s, she referenced the pushback on artists from the industry, which has included deterrence on creative processes, struggles to live sustainably while also balancing career, separation through genre definitions driven by profit motives, and general dismissal and large absence of gender and racial equity by industry decision makers. She noted that the interest in advocacy for change by artists has mostly lived through rebelling against business practices.
“I hope those interested in the industry work and its future will actually pay attention to what needs to be radically and foundationally changed about the music industry,” she said.
Considering the future of the music industry by many accounts lies solely in the interest of creating a business that goes beyond inclusion and diversity on any surface level. Killer Mike, who throughout his career has vocalized similar concerns on both an industry and national level, stated that perhaps the most imperative concern is truly committing to being a more fair place for the Black artists who often help to stratify the business socially, culturally and economically.
“We need everything from street teams to CEO’s to be reflective of the people who are really from the culture. For the most part, we know that those people are going to be Black and brown, but we also know that there are others who are not, that are honestly with us,” he said.
“We’re 15 percent of this country, we want to be 15 percent of this company, and we want to control 90 percent of the budget that goes to artists like us. We have to demand and make sure that the people behind-the-scenes, the content creators, directors, that we’re building a trade within rap and hip-hop music that allows for young people coming out of high schools and colleges to go right into those trades and access the next level of it,” Killer Mike added.
As an executive at one of the world’s largest labels, Fant is working constantly towards these concerns through close relationships with artists and advocating for their best interests on both a business and personal level.
“A lot of us within these systems have fought to make sure that they are seen as human, especially artists of color. Once you bring humanization into the conversation, you recognize that there are certain things that you just deserve.” She mentions that things like access to financial literacy and mental healthcare are not to be considered business luxuries, but necessities to the wellbeing and sustainability of artists operating within the space of the industry.
Additionally, Fant added that from a business perspective, empowering artists to speak up for what they believe in is in the best interest of labels and the longevity of creators alike. “The artists that tend to fall off, don’t stand for anything. When you stand for something, you have a chance at having a longterm career,” she said.
Further, El-P emphasized that in terms of activism, the interest in appearances around current issues, or showing up strictly for the sake of optics, should not always be an artist’s primary concern. While there can be a lot of pressure to currently stand up and speak out, he says that only posing to be genuine or invested in community and politics isn’t necessarily what artistry is all about. Rather, the importance of creating space for mistakes, and a commitment to learning and evolving as both a person and an artist, should be more of the focus. Plus, there’s a certain appeal he mentioned in growing alongside a fanbase over time that can’t be manufactured.
“For anyone who’s young and getting into music and wants to make a statement about who they are, it’s okay to not be who you are yet,” he said. “It’s okay to not be who you will be yet. Your job is to create room for yourself. Right when you come out the door, you need to say ‘I have all the room in the world to evolve as a person, and I’m going to make sure that my music reflects that.' The eloquent translation of the human experience as it occurs to you is incredibly valuable, even if you know nothing about politics.”
He continued, “It is a valuable tool in the way that music heals people and in the way that it will connect with fans. And if you can make that connection for people to understand that you’re not about knowing everything, but you’re about learning, then there’s a connection. People are all searching, that’s something they can relate to.”
You can watch the full discussion, premiering on the Recording Academy Facebook page on Aug. 19 at 2pm PDT.