“I Was Told To Shut Up & Write Songs”: Black Artists On Racism In The UK Music Industry

·10-min read

“When I came into the industry, the first thing I was told was to change my name,” remembers Nigeria-born, Wales-raised Kima Otung. “I like my name, that’s who I am, I don’t want to change it. But they were so adamant, they sent me a whole list of new names that I could have. I think they saw me as this project – let’s change everything about you, make you into this thing, and then you’re ready to go forward. I was like, this isn’t going to work.”

With music previously featured on Love Island and BBC Radio 1, R&B and neo-soul artist Kima Otung is just one of many Black musicians in the UK music industry who have reported feeling pressured into altering their name, appearance and style of music to meet record label expectations – something that was found to be a widespread phenomenon in the Black Lives in Music study when it was released last month. Surveying 1,718 performers, creatives and industry staff, it is the first landmark study of its kind and has revealed eye-opening systemic racism at all levels in the music industry.

When I had the first song with Beyoncé, I was going into the deep end with a lot of conversations with different people, and I was told by my management at the time to ‘shut up and write songs, that’s all we want to hear from you’.

Carla Marie Williams

Sixty-three percent of Black musicians have experienced racism in the UK industry, with a staggering 67% having witnessed explicit racist language or different treatment because of their race or ethnicity. Findings showed that Black women are the most disadvantaged across all areas of the music industry.

What’s in a name? Many artists of colour will know that your name can be a proud marker of your cultural identity, your history and where you’re from. This erasure of ethnic identity and ‘whitening’ of names to be more marketable is just one example of the racial discrimination faced by Black musicians. “It goes to the very core of who you are, as these are things you just literally cannot change about who you are,” adds Kima.

For Carla Marie Williams – a Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer who has worked with Beyoncé and Britney Spears – it was instances that worked on more subtle and insidious levels. “Sometimes it was more reverse racism than outright racism,” she says. “I wanted to be a rock soul artist and got my lip pierced very young so then it was like ‘You’re not supposed to look like that, you’re supposed to look like this and be like that.’ I was like, what is the stereotypical ideology of what a Black woman should look like?”

It’s apparent that Black artists have little freedom to explore the rigid boundaries set for them of what they are expected to be, look like and sound like. This physical stereotyping extends to frustrating typecasting within specific genres, as Zimbabwean-Irish artist shiv has experienced.

“The pigeonholing of Black music into the ‘urban’ category is very frustrating, because it doesn’t describe anything except a race,” she says. “I don’t think I necessarily make music that is catered towards Black people or that is ‘Black music’ but I was put into the category of R&B. That was what was expected of me because I’m a Black female artist. It’s frustrating. You’re not trying to understand what the artist is trying to say, or what the artist is trying to be, it’s just more a presumption and a lazy assessment of how the industry presents Black females. The music industry still hasn’t really made space for us and there isn’t much room for a nuanced discussion on what Black music entails.”

I’d already had warning from a friend that was borderline suicidal. Everything about herself was being broken down by people who felt the freedom to share kind of racist vitriol and stereotypical views with her.

KIMA OTUNG

In addition to being crammed into one homogenous ‘urban’ category, Black artists have also said that there is often very little opportunity at all for showcasing their talents, with many vying for the ‘one’ spot on bills or at record labels. “There are companies and publishers in the music industry that make you very aware there is only space for one Black artist at a time, and their roster will be full of indie artists that have a crossover sound, but they only have one space for that ‘insert Black music genre here’,” says shiv, who recently dropped her independently released EP The Love Interlude.

A culture of silence and “a boys’ club that obviously consists of white men” is known to permeate the inner workings of the industry. The survey further revealed that 71% of Black music creators have experienced racial microaggressions, something witnessed by 73%.

“I’ve been through many different situations in the industry where I felt alienated and victimised and I was verbally abused,” remembers Carla. “A lot of people used to think that I just ranted on Twitter about these things. So then I became a kind of an industry joke, like ‘she’s always moaning’. And when I had the first song with Beyoncé, I was going into the deep end with a lot of conversations with different people, and I was told by my management at the time to ‘shut up and write songs, that’s all we want to hear from you’.”

This incident led Carla to found Girls I Rate, an organisation pushing for change and creating opportunities for young women in the entertainment industry.

This widespread racism is endemic in the industry, often forcing musicians out of traditional routes in order to preserve their mental health. Findings from the survey highlighted that 42% of Black women believed their mental wellbeing had worsened since starting their music career.

“I’d already had warning from a friend [in the industry] that was borderline suicidal,” says Kima. “They were told to change literally everything about themselves. ‘Black girls can’t do pop’, ‘You have to change your hair like this’, ‘You’ve got to speak like this’. Everything about herself was being broken down by people who felt the freedom to share kind of racist vitriol and stereotypical views with her. And obviously, that’s her career. If she doesn’t please these executives, then she doesn’t get ahead, and then she doesn’t get the label pushing her forward.”

After being strongly advised by other Black musicians in the industry to go down the independent route to preserve her identity and mental health, Kima has remained self-managed – often a daunting prospect with no support – having to “climb my way up, bare-handed and scale this massive place.”

It sometimes made me feel like I wasn’t beautiful, or I wasn’t smart, or I wasn’t important enough for certain opportunities. If you’re being chosen for certain things to fill a quota, then that makes you doubt your ability. Like, okay, am I here because someone has to do this to make their boss happy, or am I here based on my merit?

shiv

For shiv, her lived experiences and that of working in the music industry as a visible Black woman have gone so far as to permeate her psyche permanently, with the constant code-switching negatively impacting her mental health.

“It’s double the effort to make yourself feel seen, make yourself feel heard, make yourself feel worthwhile or worthy,” shiv says wearily. “I think it’s made me a little bit more inclined to dilute certain aspects of my personality because I feel like maybe they won’t be accepted. I have to be passive or I have to be agreeable because I don’t want to come off as the angry Black woman.”

“When that is repeated constantly, it becomes your reality and it does settle way into your soul and becomes the way that you view the world,” shiv continues. “It sometimes made me feel like I wasn’t beautiful, or I wasn’t smart, or I wasn’t important enough for certain opportunities. If you’re being chosen for certain things to fill a quota, then that makes you doubt your ability. Like, okay, am I here because someone has to do this to make their boss happy, or am I here based on my merit?”

Chief executive director of Black Lives In Music, Charisse Beaumont, spearheaded the report in the wake of George Floyd’s death, after being asked by an organisation to put together a business case on how they could help. “I couldn’t find any data; there was nothing,” she remembers. “We all know that data is gold, data informs and is the best way we could communicate the need for change. I was like, well, that’s what we need first. And the disparities between Black people and our white counterparts are stark.”

The survey revealed huge economic disparities, with white women in the industry making on average more than £450 more a month than their Black contemporaries. “It’s a 25% gap, in regards to our white counterparts,” says Charisse. “[Before the survey] I didn’t know it was that big.”

After years of being minimised, dismissed as overreacting or being made to doubt their realities in the face of racism, there is widespread relief that Black musicians are finally being seen. The results of the survey speak for themselves and demonstrate an undeniable need for change.

“My greatest fear is being gaslighted and not heard,” says Charisse. “If you’re not heard, you’re doubting your reality. And acknowledgment is the first action for change. We’ve got evidence now.”

Carla agrees, adding: “It’s good we have people like [Charisse] going out of their way to find the proof and stats. Sometimes people try to make out like it’s in your head, but we can see it’s not. Here are the facts and truth, let’s make a change.”

When it comes to next steps, one thing is unanimous: change needs to happen across the entire music industry ecosystem, at all levels.

“There needs to be more Black people behind the scenes, or just an education and understanding of Black culture and the fact that we are not a monolith,” says Kima. “In any other industry, you have some sort of HR function and we just don’t have [that] in the music industry. It’s a bit like the Wild West.”

There needs to be more Black people behind the scenes, or just an education and understanding of Black culture and the fact that we are not a monolith. In any other industry, you have some sort of HR function and we just don’t have [that] in the music industry. It’s a bit like the Wild West.

Kima Otung

Going forward, Black Lives In Music will be an annual survey in order to track progress and scale change within the industry. So far, Charisse has underlined that they have 45 partners “that are rolling their sleeves up to get their hands dirty” but she is adamant that this permeation of the entire music industry at all levels is necessary in order to enact change.

“More Black professionals are needed at senior management level, and let’s see investment in grassroots education – whether it’s financial access or instruments – where young Black musicians don’t usually get an opportunity,” she says. “And most importantly, we want to see diversity – can we see at least 30% diversity? And I’m not just talking about Black people. I’m talking about all ethnicities, everyone within senior management levels.”

As it stands, record labels seem like the unyielding ivory tower of outdated, damaging practices and mentalities. For Charisse, that’s the next frontier.

“We’ve already got some DSPs [digital service providers] but the record labels…” she laughs. “That’s the belly of the beast – and we’re walking into that hoping for change. We’re ready, and we’re gonna do what we need to do to make sure it happens.”

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