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  • G. Zhou

Racism Against Black Musicians in the Industry

By G. Zhou
Posted on March 1, 2024
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Beneath the enchanting melodies and rhythms of music lies an unsettling narrative of discrimination and exploitation that has deeply impacted Black musicians in the United States. Reaching as far back as the 1900s, Black and exploitation that has deeply impacted artists have greatly contributed to the development of vernacular music – everyday music, such as folk or jazz – and have helped shape the development of American music. Traditionally African-American styles like ragtime and blues were combined with the then-mainstream music of the 19th century United States to create what is recognized as popular music today. Black roots can be found in every genre created in America, creating a unique culture from the amalgamation of diverse perspectivesInfluential Black singers and instrumentalists such as Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe served as the inspiration for wildly successful white artists, including Elvis Presley, and have affected music in the U.S. more than most are cognizant of. 

Moreover, extensive research by scholars demonstrates that underlying racism against the Black community in the United States has caused discriminatory practices against Black artists, and a lack of proper representation and compensation in the music industry. As society looks to take action for social justice and equality, it has become increasingly more important to not only recognize the way that Black influence has shaped the country, but also how the Black community can be uplifted instead of oppressed moving forwards.

Throughout history, many scholars have explored direct and indirect effects of racism, and an atmosphere of hesitance and close-mindedness, in the music industry. In his historiography, John Diliberto, a writer for Billboard, details the recent developments in genres, including Celtic music and Native American spirituals. Mainstream music has been largely dominated by white artists, with styles such as pop, hip-hop, and country, and as new age categories have begun to infiltrate the exclusivity of popular music, Diliberto remarks that these ethnic works are not be widely accepted. The manifestation of xenophobia in the music industry introduced by Diliberto is corroborated by Jeremy Yudkin, a music professor at Boston University, who argues that widely accepted opinions on vernacular music are and have been subject to severe bias and omit analyses from underrepresented groups. In his approach at highlighting discrimination in the industry, Yudkin focuses on the effect of authors in the field of music, most notably the disregard that writers belonging to one or more minorities, or that writing concentrating on works by minorities, face. Yudkin references a successful music educator, Edwin Barnes, who published American Music: From Plymouth Rock to Tin Pan Alley in 1936; a large section of the work focused primarily on African American musicians, and though it covered an extensive portion of history, Barnes’s book was never discussed in future literature. Diliberto and Yudkin conclude that racism permeating the music industry has resulted in the widespread neglect of ethnic artists, in direct and indirect ways. Diliberto highlights the immediate effect of discrimination, which is the negative reception of music — Yudkin, however, scrutinizes the prominent writers in music, and the way that their writing, an influential aspect of the general music opinion of the public, has consistently overlooked artists of color. Although each author takes a different perspective, both of their ideas illustrate the subsequent effect of xenophobia on musicians of color, and the evidently higher level of difficulty that such musicians may face in reaching the same level of success or recognition as white counterparts. 

One marginalized group that has faced particular discrimination in the music industry is the Black community, and two experts agree that the mistreatment of Black artists has long since been exemplified in legislation. From the Michigan Journal of Race and Law, Candace Hines describes copyright law as ignorant of a long history of African-American oral tradition, within which music is passed down from generation to generation. Hines also concentrates on the differences in Black music culture compared to the predominantly-white music culture, claiming that American copyright laws are not adapted to the stylistic mannerisms of Black-influenced music (such as improvisation, as found in many works of jazz). Because of legislation’s failure to take into account the culture of various ethnicities and thus making it more difficult for ethnic musicians to correctly hold copyright ownership over their pieces, Hines condemns copyright law as restrictive to Black musicians’ artistic creativity and integrity. Hines’s argument aligns itself more specifically with the example of ‘race records’,  mentioned by Erin Blakemore, an author for HISTORY.  Race records — recordings of Black musicians that catered to the Black community rather than the white population — boomed in popularity in the 1920s. However, Blakemore emphasizes that the rights to these works lay in the hands of white-led record labels, rather than the musicians themselves, and many Black artists had found themselves stuck with unfair contracts, in which they could be easily exploited and deprived of their royalties. Contrary to Hines’s argument that copyright laws are not well-suited to Black music culture, and thus have disadvantaged Black musicians, Blakemore focuses centrally on the legislative loopholes that white label employers have utilized for over a century, and allow Black musicians to be legally discriminated against in regards to artistic ownership as well as monetary compensation. 

In a predominantly-white music industry, the Black community has also been consistently underrepresented. Ben Sisario, a journalist for the New York Times specializing in music, argues that the music industry, heavily reliant on the creative labor of people of color, has systematically underrepresented those which it depends on. Sisario reviewed data from institutions such as the University of Southern Carolina, encompassing information from over one hundred companies and over four thousand executives. Sisario calls attention to the study’s findings – under twenty percent of executives were from underrepresented ethnic groups, under forty percent were women, and in the uppermost leadership positions in all corporations, almost ninety percent of employees were white males. The USC research most notably sheds light on the consistent decline in the amount of minorities and women occupying higher positions in corporations and record labels.  Looking through a narrower lens, on the other hand, the League of American Orchestras conducted a study on minorities of professional orchestras around the country, and only 1.8 percent of orchestra members were reported to be of African-American descent. The League of American Orchestras’ research lends itself directly to the idea of underrepresented racial groups in the study of classical music performance, while Sisario’s analysis correlates to the underrepresentation in the production and release of music. The evident lack of Black voices in the music production, as demonstrated by Sisario, may also potentially have caused the overarching atmosphere of the industry to lean towards a white-dominated career field, and thus, less representation in all areas of music, including performance. In such a manner, the evidence brought forward by USC and Sisario leads to the conclusion made by the League of American Orchestras. 

The strong data and historical evidence brought forth by not only Blakemore, but Sisario and the League of American Orchestras as well, raises awareness about the significance and net influence of Black artists on what is recognized as modern music. Though Yudkin, Diliberto, and Hines form more thematic arguments, and draw from historical events or writing to make their cases through reasoning, all six authors emphasize the ultimate result of discrimination in the music industry: the discrediting and mistreatment of the Black community. Despite their intensive research, the scholars’ compiled arguments still leave behind questions — how will the industry react and adapt to the issue of discrimination? What substantial steps can be taken to combat the problem, or will Black artists continue to be overlooked in most genres of music? Though xenophobia throughout the industry is evidently prevalent, the turn of the twenty-first century — and thus, more progressive social justice movements —  introduced Black artists to the music world more successfully with the growth of new genres like rap or hip-hop, two massively popular categories developed from the music of Black artists. Despite an increase in representation, a growing concern is that Black artists might be restricted to only certain styles of music that are mostly considered to be Black-dominated. The stereotypes created by such rigid expectations could result in less representation and encouragement of Black musicians in specific sectors of music (i.e. pop, classical, etc.) — a potential concept for future research. 

Music is often reflective of a society as a whole. In many ways, music even transcends cultural boundaries, bringing together peoples of diverse backgrounds and perspectives under one commonality. Music has, and will continue to influence the society and climate of the world, the country — and in the history of the United States, music tells a story. From gospel to blues to polkas, waltzes, R&B, Black music has been intrinsic to the development of American culture.

Yet household names like Ma Rainey or Duke Ellington remained wholly unknown to the vast majority of white society due to systemic and sustained discrimination that would only begin to be addressed almost ninety years later. The entrenched racism of the U.S. has created systemic difficulties for the Black population living in the nation, and has ingrained itself into the music industry. Even now, budding Black musicians are vastly underrepresented in many areas of music, with most left unsupported in their aspirations. By providing a just opportunity for success to Black artists, society can ensure that its culture continues to progress and develop in the future. To recognize the hardships and discrimination that Black musicians face is to take one step towards fixing the issue at hand, and one step towards a healthier society with music that can be cherished by all.

Works Cited

“African American Song,” Library of Congress (accessed May 14, 2023).

Blakemore, Erin, “How ‘Race Records’ Turned Black Music into Big Business,” HISTORY, August 7, 2018 (accessed May 11, 2023).

Diliberto, John. "Navigating the shifting terrain of new age music: the evolution of a genre,

from world to folk, classical to space." Billboard, April 6, 1996, 44+. Gale OneFile: Fine

Arts (accessed October 25, 2022).

Eaglin, Maya, “The soundtrack of history: How Black music has shaped American culture

through time,” NBC News, February 21, 2021.

Elbourne, Roger, “A Mirror of Man? Traditional Music as a Reflection of Society,” The

Journal of American Folklore 89, no. 354 (1976): 463–68.

Hines, Candace, “Black Musical Traditions and Copyright Law: Historical Tensions”,

Michigan Journal of Race and Law, 10 MICH. J. RACE & L. 463 (2005).

Leight, Elias, “‘Separate and Unequal’: How ‘Pop’ Music Holds Black Artists Back,” Rolling

Lewis, Steven. “Musical Crossroads: African American Influence on American Music.”

Smithsonian Music, December 15, 2018.

Morgan, Marcyliena, and Bennett, Dionne, “Hip-Hop & the Global Imprint of a Black Cultural

Form,” Daedalus 140, no. 2 (2011).

Sisario, Ben, “New Report Paints Bleak Picture of Diversity in the Music Industry,” The New

York Times, The New York Times, 15 June 2021 (accessed January 23, 2023).

Vann, Matthew, “Lack of Diversity in Top Orchestras Remains a Major Challenge for

Musicians of Color,” NBC News, July 13, 2018.

Yudkin, Jeremy. "Chasin' the Truth: The Lost Historiography of American Vernacular Music."

American Music 26, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 398+.

[The End]

[Writing Editor: An anonymous contributor]


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