In the wake of nationwide protests, Local Spins columnist Tricia Boot Woolfenden reflects on the music industry’s “pattern of white-washing” and stealing black artists’ music — and how we can do better.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This started as an essay about the “challenges of returning to live music” by Local Spins writer Tricia Boot Woolfenden but quickly turned into something else due to the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed: a plea to lift up black voices in the music business. The Sunday feature at Local Spins.
Support our coverage of
West Michigan's music scene
This is not the piece I originally intended to write.
A few weeks ago when I chatted with Local Spins editor and long-time friend, John Sinkevics, we agreed I would contribute my personal perspective to his series on music in a post-pandemic world.
Sink, things took a different turn.
Everyone else, you’re welcome.
The world is spared my rather self-indulgent and somewhat meandering—800-plus-word COVID “think piece” about the beautiful pain of being a music devotee in a world where live performance is a public health hazard, and how difficult it was for me to enjoy music in the first few weeks of coronavirus-induced quarantine panic, and how I don’t know when the hell I’ll be ready to attend a live show without my own giant Wayne Coyne-style hamster ball.
(For what it’s worth, Local Spins has a comprehensive look at the wide range of responses to the “when are we ready to resume concerts” topic, and it’s better than anything I would’ve written.)
It’s not that I think the virus is now irrelevant. On the contrary.
Just because we’re sick of talking and thinking about COVID-19 doesn’t mean it’s done with us. If anything, as the State of Michigan opens up in response to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lifting of stay-home orders, we need to more critically consider what we’ll each do to personally protect our health and the health of those around us. (Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands.)
But the cultural revolution and political unrest rocking our nation — and certainly our own Grand Rapids community— is imminently more on my mind than the disappointment felt when seeing another canceled event on the calendar. Concerts and festivals will return; of that I’m certain. Live music will look different, yeah, but it will be back.
A far more precarious question? When will my black neighbors and friends have the same safe, worry-free experience as me—a privileged white woman—when, say, passing through security to get into an arena concert?
Or attending an intimate musical evening at a nice restaurant in a “nice” neighborhood? Or just walking down the street for that matter?
A SOCIAL REVOLUTION IS UNDER WAY AND WE HAVE A ROLE TO PLAY
We are in the midst of a pandemic and a social revolution that remind us in stark terms that total control is an illusion. The only thing we can truly control is our own actions and reactions.
The music industry has a long history of profiting off of and exploiting the creative labors of black artists, and the problem persists. In a piece titled “The 10 Biggest Cultural Thefts in Black History,” The Roots’ Michael Harriot writes of Led Zeppelin’s penchant for “cribb(ing) from blues artists” like Muddy Waters, and Elvis Presley’s success with “Hound Dog,” which earned Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, the song’s creator, a measly $500.
You can read much more about the industry’s pattern of white-washing, appropriation and outright theft here, here and here.
I’m going to speak now to my fellow white people, and I’m going to try real hard to stay in my lane. If I swerve, call me on it.
We have a lot of work to do. A lot.
As a music lover, I consume (and consume) the works of black artists. Janelle Monáe, Lizzo, Beyonce, Trombone Shorty, Gary Clark Jr., Solange, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Weeknd, Black Pumas, Otis Redding, the list goes on. I take and I take.
Like many other white music lovers, I enjoy black artists’ gifts of music, dance, joy, happiness, beauty, sorrow. What am I giving in return? I can start by lifting up black voices and demanding that the black artists I enjoy listening to are paid their due respects … and their due $$$.
It’s past time for me — for us — to do better. Our black neighbors have been carrying the burden for centuries.
They’re traumatized and they’re tired. We can’t control a lot right now, but we can control whether we choose to show up — emotionally, politically and financially.
HOW YOU CAN HELP: LINKS TO ORGANIZATIONS, RESOURCES
National Association for the Study and Performance of African American Music
New York Times Story: Musicians Push Industry to Support Justice with Money, Not Hashtags
Copyright 2020, Spins on Music LLC