Racism In The Music Industry: What Your White Bandmates Might Not Realise

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Words & Header Image by Karum Cooper

We’re 6 months into the year and we’ve already witnessed environmental disasters, escalation towards WW3, a global pandemic and the very public murder of 46 year old George Floyd, which has lead to protests across the planet. Floyd was murdered by Minnesota Police Officer Derek Chauvin, since charged with second degree murder. Unfortunately we’ve heard this story many times over, it’s become a wearisome occurrence. People of Colour the world over have had enough. A global awakening has commenced, a powerful message is felt throughout, giving impetus once again to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

POC are having their voices amplified louder than ever. Yet we still see people arguing that “All Lives Matter” or that U.K. protesters are “Jumping on an American Bandwagon”, insistent that Britain doesn’t suffer from the same level of injustice as our US counterparts. It’s sad to say, they’re wilfully wrong. 

As an active member of the UK music scene, I’ve always thought that there is a distinct lack of people that look like me  – especially on the alternative side of things. After all, black musicians are responsible for the development of almost every popular music style that exists today.

I spoke to Grace Jones bassist, Malcolm Joseph (who’s performance accolades include Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack). He parts with me some wisdom from over 35 years of music industry experience. “I come from a generation where MTV would show Black artists at non-viewing times from 3-5am in the morning, avoiding any recognition of black music during peak time.” He spoke.

He continues to add that he always knew there would be barriers for black & brown folk in popular music. “In the UK at a time, you would see very few POC on Top of the Pops and even less on the radio. It took longer than expected for the music industry here in the UK to recognize the importance of music from varied cultures, but we still have a long way to go” 

Malcolm is now the head of music & arts at the ‘Academy for Innovation in Education’ – a non-profit organization that works in education for the underserved community. 

Scuzz TV, Kerrang! And occasional Radio 1 presenter Sophie K echoes Malcolm’s sentiment – stating that this isn’t a new fight for black people in music. We both agree that the media is especially culpable. “They (the media) treat their experiences of racism as voyeuristic opportunities to see a shocking story, turn the page and forget. It is evident this type of coverage won’t create change.” 

The radio show host believes that the biggest problems are much deeper than surface level: “The music industry is difficult because its entire model enables structural racism. The only way for change is to change from the inside.” She hopes that the constant campaigning will cause the industry to look inward unto itself. 

Joe Green, frontman for now defunct alt-rock band EMP!RE performs with his new group Death Is A Girl and follows up Sophie K’s statement, adding that “POC in Rock and Metal are so rarely seen in the mainstream music media”. Adding that because of this, white fan bases may have a certain predisposition about people of colour and their lack of presence in alternative music. Like us all, he feels incredibly underrepresented in the alt rock scene.

It’s not just the media that’s responsible for downplaying our efforts as members of our industry, our often unassuming fanbase can harbour harmful assumptions that undermine us as dedicated artists. My experience in the music scene of the deep South West has had its less than desirable moments. As we all know, small town mentality breeds an onslaught of ignorant views. People ask if they can touch my hair before asking when my band is playing. They ask how long I’ve lived in England before asking how long I’ve been in the music industry. People don’t see someone that works hard for the local community, they don’t see a businessman or a booking agent. They see a colour, a novelty, a person of intrigue.

In addition to what Joe mentions above, Liam Hesslewood from alt-metal band Neshiima shares his thoughts. “People have misconceptions of what they feel a PoC would listen to. They don’t want to share their little corner of ‘music’ with someone they don’t identify with. People can be precious with ‘things’. Like most ‘things’, selfish people don’t like to share their music taste, their views, their country with people they don’t relate to or identify with.” 

He underlines this by reeling off a few ignorant phrases we all know and hate:

“Wouldn’t you rather listen to hip hop?”

“Did it take you a while to understand metal?”

Alongside Neshiima, Liam is also a producer, graphic artist and web designer.

“Really didn’t expect your band to sound like that when I saw you onstage! Didn’t expect you to play guitar like you do either!” adds Ash Cook who works for Radar Festival as well as performing with Prog-Metal band Valis Ablaze

“Throughout my entire life, I’ve been subject to all forms of racism. From as young as I can remember in school, up to a few days ago in a supermarket.” 

“Friends of my parents have been visibly shocked when black people turn up to events that my father was invited to because he didn’t think he had to tell them he married a person of colour.”

I spoke with poet and spoken word artist Malaika Kegode who performs with her band Jakabol

“When you enter a new space as a black artist, there are pre-existing expectations that you feel the need to dismantle. I’ve been referred to as an “urban poet” or a “street poet”… I grew up in Devon! People assume that I rap, or draw comparisons to other black artists when introducing me or describing what I do. I have a huge amount of respect for the artists that they cite – but these comparisons are lazy and incorrect, they remind me of growing up in a predominantly white area and being told I look like ‘X black actor/singer/TV presenter’, not because I looked anything like them but because they had no other reference point.”

It’s clear that racism holds no preference for genre. Eli Jitsuto from Bristol-based jazz outfit Snazzback says “Pick up a book and inform yourself on why we fight”. Referring directly to the injustices that we face as musicians, he recommends reading Elias Leight’s Rolling Stone articleHow Racism Shapes the Music Industry’.  “We all owe so much to Black culture.” He continues. “We should not have to explain how much our culture is embedded in life. The business was built on racism.

Everyday issues are downplayed by our so called leaders, news broadcasters and even people that live on the same road as you. The education system can no longer be selective. Teaching children Black and White history for what it really is, should be a starting point. Black dehumanisation is engraved in our species’ past” Adds the Bristol jazz guitarist.

Racial prejudice rears its ugly head in a manner of different disguises here in Britain; from the most brazen to the exceptionally abstruse. It’s these subtle microaggressions that often go unnoticed by our white peers yet weave themselves into our societal norms. It’s time to normalise the idea that BAME groups are everywhere. We’re here, we’re powerful, we’re passionate and there’s nothing you can do about it.

We’re creators, innovators, artists, educators, academics, business people and there’s no stopping us. 

I’d like to end this article with a quote from Sophie K:

 “As a nation we need to question ourselves and our actions. We need to accept the word RACIST, to stop people having petulant meltdowns at being called racist. People need to stop calling black friends to proudly boast about educating themselves as an attempt to quash their own guilty feelings and instead sit with those feelings and not forget. It is uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as having a police officer kneel on you until you die a slow painful death.” Sophie K


Please head to these links provided to find out more about each person in this article. I urge you to support them not only now but in the future.

Malcolm Joseph – https://www.facebook.com/Malcolm

.Joseph.Bass.Legend

Academy for Innovation And Education – AIESTEAM.ORG

Sophie K – https://www.instagram.com/iamsophiek/

Kerrang! Radio – https://planetradio.co.uk/kerrang/ 

Joe Green – https://twitter.com/shoutjoegreen

Death Is a Girl – https://spoti.fi/2BTvtk9 

Eli Jitsujo – https://www.instagram.com/jitsuto_/

Snazzback – https://spoti.fi/3dRGj8c 

Liam Hesslewood – https://www.instagram.com/liamhesslewood/

Neshiima – https://spoti.fi/2MJgsU3 

Malaika Kegode – https://www.malaikakegode.com/

Jakabol – https://spoti.fi/37inPLN 

Valis Ablaze – https://spoti.fi/2AXPjdm 


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