When Will They See Us? How Industry Practices Have Muzzled The Voices of Black Artists

A discussion of the adverse consequences of Black artists in the music industry not being accurately credited for their work.

Being familiar with the age-old ideals of Rahim Moore, pertaining to giving credit where it’s due, it is rather alarming to witness the way the music industry has often struggled to do so efficiently.

In what some may argue was an attempt to remedy this issue, Spotify launched its beta program for “songwriter pages” in February, which would allow users to click on the name of songwriters in a track’s credits to view a page with all of the songs they’ve written. By any use of logic, it would follow that this same courtesy be extended to the vocalists on these songs – unless of course you’re a soul singer on a popular dance track. 

A closer review of the matter would uncover that Spotify’s actions, while commendable, placed a band aid over a far deeper wound around the lack of credit given to vocalists on a multitude of major hits. 

MNEK: speaking on black artists in the music industry
British recording artist, songwriter and record producer MNEK

The even bigger elephant room that many have tiptoeing around is the less than subtle coincidence that a vast majority of these singers were Black. For artists like MNEK, the whole concept of popular music is rooted in erasure, often removing Black musicians from the narrative entirely.

When there’s a cultural smudging and you put a homogenised more Eurocentric friendly look to [the music] the erasure begins”, he explains, highlighting that the racism in the music industry is usually thinly veiled with words like ‘marketable’ and ‘accessibility’. 

Funk Butcher Tracks & Releases on Beatport
Label Head and Music Consultant Funk Butcher

These sentiments were echoed in a viral thread by label head Funk Butcher who shared how the insidious nature of the erasure of Black voices from popular culture had seeped into music videos and ”industry standard” marketing practices, so much so that in his words the powers that be would rather use cartoons before they use a dark-skinned singers’ real image. 

“Black women who are dark-skinned are usually omitted for marketing purposes, believing that they are not “accessible” to the predominantly white market they are targeting. Just pick a Black singer and chances are she has a story.” 

From Darlene Love in 1960 all the way Martha Wash in the 90s, the cyclical conundrum of the whitewashing of Black talent, is a frustrating reoccurrence that continues to plague the industry’s next generation as a result of its failure to proactively tackle the problem; and that’s before we’ve even delved into the [long] list of voices J Lo conveniently borrowed for a number of her hits. 

Despite its prominence across the Atlantic, the matter is far from exclusive to the US market. 

British Singer Kelli-Leigh

Fast forward to 2016 and the alarmingly familiar storyline was playing out once again before our very eyes. All that had changed was the uncredited leading lady, who in this case was British singer Kelli-leigh.  

Through a combination of raising awareness and frustration put together a playlist of songs which that featured her vocals but didn’t credit her. 

It appears that Black artists consistently receive exiguous compensation, credit, and recognition for their works, which remains a problem many still struggle to seek justice for. 

Speaking out about her experiences in an interview with BBC Kelli-leigh shared “Sometimes it’s hard to articulate yourself in the right way without thinking someone’s going to go – ‘Are you playing the race card?’ or ‘Are you playing the woman card?’ ” 

Fame and recognition, or the lack thereof, make up a small part of the matter.  The stifling of an artist’s career prospects and the subsequent financial implications where most are concerned, are in fact far worse, leaving a number of vocalists unable to leverage their recording careers into successful performing careers. 

If not for the ability to perform many artists like Kelli-leigh would have seen minimal return for their efforts at all. 

“I’ve made some money from being able to perform I Got U and I Wanna Feel alongside my own songs I’ve put out myself, but I haven’t been able to pay my bills like the people I’ve sung for have been able to.” 

In recognising this, the intersection of gender and race politics that have been in play since the beginning of the industry’s inception cannot be ignored as Charles Gallaher and Cameron Lippard explored in their book “Race & Racism in the United States: An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic” using the example of royalties. Instead of paying royalties, record companies, often owned by whites offered artists a flat fee for a song. Unaware of copyright laws, the artists would sign the contract, collect the fees — and lose all ownership rights (including future royalties) to the song. 

Fred Parris as a black artist in the music industry
Fred Parris

A primary example of this was Fred Parris, the man who wrote popular classic “In the Still of the Night” which went on to sell between 10 million and 15 million copies. The fruits of his labour at the time were an estimated $100,000 in royalties, but as a result of the contract he signed, Fred walked away with $783. 

While artists in the post-modern era are a little more cognisant of their rights the unnerving truth is that in a system predominately owned by white men, it is Black artists, particularly Black women, who perpetually draw the short straw. Adequate credit and ownership, therefore, remain the only sensible ways to create sustainable change in the industry that will birth tangible benefits for Black artists. 

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[…] heard on mainstream channels, be it radio, television, even to the point of social media. With Black artists [in the media] it’s never just straightforward there’s also some kind of negative spin, a […]

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