You want to know what it’s like to be a black executive in the music business? Here’s the first major lesson you’re taught: You have to work twice as hard for half the accolades of your white counterparts. Fifteen years ago, when I was starting out in the industry, this was rationalized because the overwhelming share of music industry revenue was generated from pop projects and white artists. But it was foolish of us to assume the playing field would be leveled now that Black Music dominates the streaming platforms that saved the business.
For the one or two of us who do prove to be successful time and time again, there’s a head of Black Music title waiting for us. In that role, we will have to report to a white executive about our own culture. Our boss is only there to make sure we do our jobs “right.” We have never had the ability to make sure they handle their jobs right. Later on, it may dawn on you there has never been a head of white music title given to any executive. Just imagine if there was a head of white music and that guy was black — it may sound ludicrous, but that’s a much longer conversation.
Nashville has long had its own culture and infrastructure, and no one from outside the country community attempts to dictate what’s culturally relevant or how to develop its talent. The same is true for Latin artists and their divisions at each major record company. But when it comes to black music, that same respect is not given. White executives with titles like head of urban music sit at the head of the table (more often than alongside us) and dictate to black executives what needs to happen in our music. If you can’t call us the N-word in conversations, don’t play us music with the N-word in it and then ask us what we think. I always cringe when a white executive plays a song with the N-word. I can’t help but to ask myself: “Do they say it when we’re not around?”
The racism we experience at a record company can be the worst we experience anywhere. Very seldom has anyone ever blatantly been racist, but that’s why it hits deeper. We have to constantly check our culture at the door. Sometimes being black isn’t professionally appropriate, but it sure as hell is good for the bottom line. We already know the bad qualities of the black executives who came before us are a dark cloud. We’re fighting just to prove we’re not like them, while knowing if we do “well,” another person who looks like us will have a shot based on how we behaved. White executives don’t have to pay for the sins of their predecessors. And when we realize there is a ceiling and begin to build alternative creative opportunities and businesses, we’re considered shady or are flat-out shut down and labeled as “one of those guys you have to watch.” In the meantime, our white counterparts are celebrated for being executives and managers, publishers, producers and entrepreneurs.
A powerful man in the record business recently wrote a letter saying the industry needs to spend more money on black music. We would rather give $3 million to a new artist with no proven track record than invest in the next great black executive. This attitude has led to disproportionate investment in us. It’s like you want our talent, but you don’t want someone who looks like the talent to have a real voice. As soon as you are trying to sign a hot black artist, you call all the black employees into the room to act like we’re friends, to show the artist you are “down.” If only that artist knew you won’t speak to us again till the next time a new hot act shows up. So we’re left with no choice but to go out and create our own companies and break several artists before we can be seen as a worthy investment. Will the next person to run Def Jam be black? Who is being groomed to sit in that seat? It should be someone who is of the culture and doesn’t have a different agenda.
We’re having these conversations with one another on a daily basis. The issue is that most of us haven’t had the professional success that would afford us the opportunity to speak honestly with our white counterparts. We don’t want to be punished for being honest. Hell, I don’t want to be punished for what I’m saying right now; I wouldn’t have said anything if the question wasn’t asked. But if we want to change the systematic racism in any field, we need to first change the system and make it equal and allow us to run the culture we create the same way country music and Latin music do.
This letter is asking for nothing more than a permission slip. We’re asking for permission to lead our culture. We’re hoping someone white gives us a chance to be leaders in a community we have to live within. Nothing will make us feel safer than seeing someone who looks like us, understands us and speaks our language at the top of a company. Someone who realizes that the true power is the transference of that power to the culture creators. Someone who wants to develop the next batch of people that looks like them and who wants to leave black culture and music in a better place than it was left before them. That’s something we all dream of.
If this letter offends anyone, I respectfully ask you to attempt to remove your privilege and read it again. We’ve seen all the texts and posts asking, “Dear black friends, what can we do?” Well, this is a start.
This letter, written by a major-label executive who has worked at all three major record companies, has been circulating through the industry.