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This page was last updated on 08/02/2007 12:12:23

 

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Record labels
07 February 2007

Old Record

Kay Smith looks at the prejudices, stereotypes and labels attached to music and musicians

What’s in a name? When it comes to music, it can actually be quite a lot. The label ascribed to a particular artist’s work will have a huge effect both on how it is marketed and who will listen to it. When musical genres become mixed up with race, the danger is that we are labelling more than just the music itself.

A black rock star doesn’t go unnoticed, even today

There are still many stereotypes about music and ethnicity, and they come from all directions. Eyebrows were raised when British indie group Bloc Party emerged on the music scene fronted by Kele Okereke, a Liverpool born singer/songwriter with Nigerian roots. A black rock star doesn’t go unnoticed, even today.

Different forms of music come with historical baggage. The term ‘black music’ encompasses genres such as jazz, soul, R&B, rap and hip-hop – music generally considered to be performed by black artists, and often referred to, somewhat euphemistically, as ‘urban’.

Joss Stone caused controversy when she was named ‘Best British Urban Act’ at last year’s BRIT awards. As a white girl from Devon, should a ‘Best British Rural Act’ category have been invented for her? Was the problem really that she wasn’t ‘urban’ enough, or was it more about her skin colour? And is it time to stop labelling music as coming from, or belonging to, one group of people?

Undeniably, there are links between music, race and culture. But filing music neatly into boxes that represent certain races, cultures or backgrounds is potentially dangerous as it limits artists, and discourages listeners from being open to different influences.

You only have to look at the faces in the crowds at gigs and concerts to see that many artists attract audiences from a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The black hip-hop artist Kanye West, for example, attracted a very mixed crowd at his London concert in February. So it must be a positive thing that musicians are challenging racial stereotypes in an industry that has often been guilty of exploiting them. In the past, record companies working behind the likes of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey were criticised for attempting to give the artists ‘whiter’ images through their styling, music and choreography.

musicians are challenging racial stereotypes in an industry that has often been guilty of exploiting them

While music has a relationship with ethnicity and culture, particular genres should not be seen as representing people from any ‘typical’ background. Musical genres can (and do) inspire, inform and educate people about cultures and traditions that are different to their own, without excluding them in the process. Certain events taking place in the UK are encouraging music lovers to be colour-blind, reminding us that music has the power to influence minds and challenge stereotypes.

The ‘Love Music Hate Racism’ campaign states that music ‘is living testimony that cultures can and do mix.’ It has organised over 200 gigs and concerts all over the UK, with support from high profile artists such as Kano and Ms Dynamite. There is a real attempt to feature artists from all musical genres, including soul, indie, garage and bhangra, and this is reflected in the audiences their events attract. The campaign also carries a political message, encouraging young people to ‘drive today’s Nazis like the BNP out of the mainstream and into oblivion’. Future gigs are planned for areas that are being targeted by the BNP, such as Barking and Dagenham in London, with audiences being urged to vote against extremist candidates in elections.

The British Respect Party recently held a ‘Jazz, racism and resistance’ show in London, an event that represented the link between jazz music and the struggle for justice. Jazz author Martin Smith argues that jazz has always ‘demanded respect’, and links the force of the civil rights campaign in the American south to the development of jazz music. At the show, pictures of troubled Palestinian women were juxtaposed with jazz artists, suggesting a connection between their respective struggles. People of many different races and nationalities were present, proof that a style of music can be used as a mouthpiece to speak to a universal audience.

But there are still many prejudices operating in the music industry today, from an unwillingness to allow musicians to move between genres, to the lack of support shown to artists whose ethnic origins may not fit with stereotypical ideas about what ‘colour’ different types of music should be. Indie magazines, such as the NME, have been criticised for the lack of black musicians appearing on their covers, preferring white artists like The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Muse and Pete Doherty. But is this an intentional omission or does it simply reflect a lack of black indie artists in the music industry?

magazines, such as the NME, have been criticised for the lack of black musicians appearing on their covers

Journalist Stevie Chick, who has written for NME, Kerrang! Mojo and Plan B, says that while music has proved to be a fantastic tool for overturning racial prejudice, he doesn’t see indie magazines or musicians as having anything to do with it. Magazines that cover musical genres have particular ideas about the kinds of artists they will put on their cover. Often this will mean an artist of a particular race, regardless of whether artists from other ethnic groups are performing the same type of music. While working on the now defunct Melody Maker in the late 1990s, Chick recalls a reader writing in to complain after picking up on the lack of non-white artists on the magazine’s cover. ‘I answered along the lines of, “well, would you expect The Source to put Oasis on the cover?”’ he says, adding: ‘although Melody Maker and NME were purportedly more wide-ranging in scope at that time than a niche magazine like The Source, so I think their criticism did stand’.

It remains to be seen whether or not a magazine like The Source would put an all-white RnB group on its cover, or whether NME would feature a group of black indie rockers. So is it an artist’s music or their background which determines the label their music is given? In an ideal world it would be their music; in reality, that may not always be the case. But either way, limiting them to one particular genre will only limit their creativity and make it harder for their music to reach a wider audience. And surely that’s bad for everyone, from the record labels, to the artists and the fans.

If you go along to a Love Music Hate Racism gig, take a look at the diverse faces in the crowd, combining an interest in the music with a shared political aim. Events like these suggest that maybe we should be thinking less about music’s past, and more about its future.

Kay Smith is a postgraduate magazine journalism student at City University, London

1 Comment
A very observant view ..........more work like this should be publicised but perhaps on a national basis. A well thought out article!
Nichola Wilson
06 March 2007


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Links

Love Music Hate Racism: Organised by the Anti-Nazi League, Love Music Hate Racism organises festivals, gigs and club nights, using the music scene to celebrate diversity and to fight against racism

Catalyst Music: all music-related stories past and present from Catalyst


Commission for Racial Equality

Publisher of Catalyst Magazine, the CRE works to create a just and integrated society, where diversity is valued.

openDemocracy

Independent political discussion and debate based on exchange and participation.

Prospect Magazine

A political magazine, Prospect also includes features on arts and culture, science, economics, history, social affairs and philosophy.

Runnymede Trust

The Runnymede Trust promotes a successful multi-ethnic Britain.

Institute of Race Relations

The Institute of Race Relations is a race relations thinktank.

EUMC

The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Social policy research and development.

For more links, see our new links page.

Search Catalyst

Search For:


Promote Catalyst

If you are able to promote Catalyst in your workplace, university etc, please download our poster, a pdf which can be printed at A4 or A3 size.

Small print

Contributor and illustrator information

Articles published in Catalyst do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Commission for Racial Equality.

For advertising or editorial enquiries, please .

rss logo | What is RSS?

This page was last updated on 08/02/2007 12:12:23

 

© Commission for Racial Equality 2007

 

CRE 30 years logo