On Tuesday, June 2, two young black women pushed the pause button on the multibillion-dollar music industry — and remarkably, it ground to a halt.
Tired of the racial injustice they saw both on the streets and in the halls of companies profiting from black music, former colleagues and rising music executives Brianna Agyemang, 32, and Jamila Thomas, 35, had been on the phone with each other the Friday before (May 29) in their New York apartments, contemplating taking a day off from work to process it all. Outside their windows, protests were growing as public outrage mounted over the latest tragedy — the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. And as the two women mulled over their own personal plans, they started thinking bigger — much bigger — deciding before they hung up that a day of reflection and conversation was urgent not just for themselves but for the entire music industry.
So Brooklyn native Agyemang and her Bronx-bred neighbor Thomas quickly designed a graphic and cobbled together a website that they launched that Sunday (May 31) for their new movement, which they dubbed #TheShowMustBePaused. Their message, printed in stark white letters against a black background: “Our mission is to hold the industry at large, including major corporations + their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people accountable … It is the obligation of these entities to protect and empower the Black communities that have made them disproportionately wealthy in ways that are measurable and transparent.”
Agyemang and Thomas — who became close in 2017 while both were working at Atlantic Records — then enlisted their network of colleagues and friends to spread the word on social media, spurring a flurry of plans both inside the music business and out to observe what some supporters began calling “Blackout Tuesday” and sending many companies scrambling to figure out how to participate. While Agyemang and Thomas hosted their own virtual summit, drawing 1,500 attendees, the three major record labels — Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group — called off their normal operations and organized workshops and discussions for their employees instead. Streaming services, radio stations and artists lent support as well. Apple Music canceled its Beats 1 schedule and offered a radio stream featuring the best in black music; Spotify added an eight-minute, 46-second track of silence in select playlists and podcasts in remembrance of how long Floyd was suffocated.
In an insular industry where white men still occupy most of the top corporate jobs, Thomas and Agyemang’s bold and wildly successful call to action suggests that up-and-coming executives like them have more power to change the business than their job titles might imply — and they say they’re prepared to keep using it. Steadfastly declaring they’ll be fighting for racial equity alongside the black music community for the long haul, the friends are now focused on what they’re calling phase two of their effort to “hold the music industry accountable and transparent in its practices across representation, social responsibility and holistic compensation as it pertains to its black artists, partners and staff,” as they explain in their new mission statement, which they updated June 11.
“We’re taking it one day at a time,” says Thomas, who is senior director of marketing at Atlantic Records and now works with artists including PNB Rock, Pardison Fontaine, DRAM, Ugly God, Jucee Froot and Ayanis. “No one thought they could black out the industry, but they couldn’t keep Brianna and me from trying.”
Adds Agyemang, senior artist campaign manager at Apple’s artist-services division, Platoon, whose current roster includes Victoria Monet, WurlD, Holly Humberstone and Kwesi Arthur: “We’re the least expected, but we’re here for a reason — and we’re not going away.” They talked to Billboard about what went right, what went wrong and what’s next.
How did the idea for #TheShowMustBePaused come about?
Brianna Agyemang: We had found out about George Floyd’s killing, after those of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, at the hands of police. It was just a really heavy week for the black community. And people still had to work. It didn’t seem like anyone had a chance to really take in what was happening in the middle of the coronavirus, which was also attacking the black community disproportionately. It was just a lot while trying to keep the show moving. So I called Jamila that Friday and said we should take the day off, that it’s not business as usual. Then we came up with the tagline #TheShowMustBePaused and some graphics.
Jamila Thomas: Brianna was saying, “No, I’m serious. I’m really tired.” And I said, “I am too.” I felt it was OK if we took a break to reset. And it was super important that we did it together. Then we started hitting up friends who were asking if they should share this privately or publicly. So we decided as friends to share it publicly, like, “What are we hiding for? We’re going to stand up for a day off to regroup and reset.”
Agyemang: As our friends began posting, it spread like wildfire. Then people started reaching out, asking, “OK, where and when do we want to pause?” It just kind of centered ourselves as a community. We wanted to make sure that if people were willing to take that pause along with us that we — if they were asking what they could do on Tuesday — would help provide them with things to do. So we went into planning mode.
Thomas: We immediately realized that we had to step up to the plate, because now we had called everyone to the carpet and they wanted to know what was next.
Was it your idea for participants to post the solid black box on Blackout Tuesday?
Agyemang: No. Our graphic copy explained the reason for the music business blackout. And at the bottom was the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused. That was always our hashtag. But it was like the game of telephone: Things get muddled in the communication. People started calling it Blackout Tuesday and also #TheShowMustBePaused. Others would use the Pause tag but also include #BlackLivesMatter. At some point between Monday night and Tuesday morning, people thought that a plain black box was supposed to be posted with the Black Lives Matter tag. That caused confusion because it was also pushing down vital information for the Black Lives Matter movement. That was never our intent, never any part of our directives. The goal was not to mute ourselves. The goal was to take a break from your daily nine-to-five duties to refocus and recenter. And that meant that you could take a pause and just breathe. Or take a moment to think or use that time to focus on what you could do within your community to make a change and help make progress as well.
Thomas: It was a little frustrating because our intent was pure, coming from a place of concern for the black community. People were sending me screenshots of things like people adding another D to the end of the word “paused.” People move so fast online. So we quickly took action to tell people about things they could do on Tuesday to help. We had to double down and tell our friends that we wanted them to communicate where people could donate, where they could march, pray or speak to a therapist. We had put together information for the summit we were holding that day. We wanted to let people know that now that we have you here, we want to talk to you all. That this wasn’t a date to be silent.
Agyemang: It was also the primary voting day for various cities, so we made sure to message that. We couldn’t control the black box going crazy, but we knew we could control our messaging. So we doubled down on that. As for the negative responses to the blackout, we kept our focus on the positive. We literally stopped major companies for a day to come up with plans on how to help the black community and move forward. It has been a success thus far, and it has only been a week. We’re just going to continue to move in a positive direction.
What happened at the summit you organized?
Thomas: We held three different discussions during that one day. We reached out to people directly, sending them invitations to join us for a community conversation. The turnout was overwhelming, with nearly 1,500 people joining overall, from top-level executives, artists and lawyers to interns. The idea was to talk to everyone about developing a realistic plan for moving forward.
Agyemang: There was a great group of women that came to us at the beginning and went right into helping mode. We now have a core committee because of those women as well. We’re talking the whole nine, with representatives from the major labels, [digital service providers], agencies, managers, songwriters, producers, coordinators and assistants … everyone who is a partner in this music space.
Who are some of the women working on your core committee?
Agyemang: There’s Karlie Hustle, who handles artist relations at Apple Music. Kristen Fraser founded her own agency called PVTL. Kristen was actually the first one to reach out to us. There’s also Rachelle Jean-Louis, a music supervisor [The Lovebirds] and artist manager for Victoria Monét and others. We also have Tanece Moore, an Atlantic staff member. She’s one of the youngest voices on the team, as we’re making sure to include the next generation coming in at the entry level.
What did the summit conversations address?
Thomas: Urban artists occupy most of the music charts, and we celebrate the genres [R&B/hip-hop] at industry events and the Grammys. But when that community takes a hit, it seems like it’s every man for himself. You can post something if you want. Or you can donate. But there’s never a united front. Progress is needed in the work space, and progress is needed in the streets. There’s no better time to do it than now, because the country is literally in a moment of transition. And music has to be at the forefront of that because of its influence. It starts with us working together. All those partners coming together on that call and blacking out on Tuesday was the first time that has ever happened. If we can just keep that same spirit going, then change will come.
Do you think top-level music executives will move beyond lip service this time?
Agyemang: The conversations were done in a safe space because we wanted to make sure people felt comfortable talking, being vulnerable and sharing their feelings or providing solutions and ideas. I wished we had had more time to talk that day. What I loved most is that it felt very positive. While we do have things that need to change, it didn’t feel like it was impossible based on those conversations. It definitely feels more like a whole music community now than I will say it felt in the past.
Thomas: After the summit, there were so many announcements from labels and other companies. I felt inspired from this. I didn’t think people would be so open and honest on Zoom, because you don’t know if it’s safe on the internet to talk about how you’re dealing with racism in the workplace. You would want to know that you wouldn’t get your hands slapped tomorrow after the blackout for joining the summit. So it was important that there was no sharing on Instagram of who was on, no posts of photos. You want them to come back to the table. The goal was to welcome people into the house the first time and let them know the door is always open. This was just the baseline. We can’t wait to see what happens. So many people want to jump into what’s next. They’re ready.
Did anything surprising come out of the discussions?
Thomas: Some of the men were kind of skeptical. They didn’t know if this was a label plan or what. But afterward, several of them — including a label head and a top-level [digital service provider] executive — let us know that they want us to be able to fight this wholeheartedly. That they’re protecting us at all costs, so don’t feel distracted or worried about backlash; that we should go into this with a clear conscience and be leaders. That was surprising, because not everybody’s willing to put themselves on the line. Brianna and I stepped forward first as the faces, and as people become more comfortable, we have no problem in sharing the moment because we’re not doing any of this alone. For them to say, “We’re going to protect you, sisters,” warmed my heart.
Agyemang: It’s a different level of confidence when a black man tells you that you are protected — that touches our core. It’s also great to have these companies reaching out to ask how they can help make sure our efforts are aligned throughout the process, because I think everyone’s realizing that some things need to happen now. But these heads are also very aware that it is a long-term plan. It’s going to take years, and transparency is vital. We’re just happy that they’re open to the conversation because I know that we’re the least expected [to be here], but we’re here for a reason — and we’re not going away.
So what does phase two look like?
Thomas: We’re formalizing various committees as we divide the organization into two branches. One branch will focus on social justice and systemic racism … from the boardroom to the boulevard. The other branch has to do with restructuring the organization within music industry companies to gain more room for growth opportunities for black people.
Agyemang: Someone recently told me, “Don’t try to boil the ocean.” So that’s part of the reason why we wanted to split everything into committees. We can’t fix everything, and we’re also new to this activism life. (Laughs.) But we also want to make sure that we use the talents and strengths within our community to be effective.
What’s the time frame for the phase two rollout?
Thomas: ASAP. There are some immediate, concrete actions that we would like to have happen sooner rather than later. This is an election year, and it’s so important to address voting.
As part of the long-term plan, were retroactive royalties to compensate black artists discussed?
Thomas: That was one of the proposals that artists mentioned during the summit. It’s at the top of their list. A lot of them have also reached out to work directly on that committee with us.
Was Republic’s decision to eliminate the term “urban music” discussed at the summit?
Agyemang: That’s definitely not something we anticipated coming out of the forum. But it seems like a great step toward progress. We would love to also know a little more about what the change means, like how it will actually affect the day-today in the building. How does it affect the artists? Will it now be “hip-hop and R&B,” or just “black music”? I would just like to know what that means for them as a company and how they see that being defined moving forward. It’s just one word, but it’s a strong word in the music industry.
What’s the one thing you want the industry to know about #TheShowMustBePaused?
Agyemang: I want people to know this came from pure emotion, anger and sadness at what was happening in the world. This was not thought out in advance at all. (Laughs.) It was not a march. It was not a rollout. When George Floyd died, it was like, “Here’s another thing after Ahmaud Arbery, after Breonna Taylor, after COVID-19.” It was a way for people to release and pause, because in the end we have to fix it and we have to heal as a society. And we can do this by changing the future.
Thomas: And this isn’t an ego thing. We didn’t put our names on the original graphic because it’s not about us. It’s about a movement for all of us. We’re humbled by all the support but we’re also not afraid. We’re assuming this leadership role, honored that people trust us to lead them to the next steps, working together as a community.