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(Credit: Far Out / Black Lives in Music)


Emanuel Burton: My experience as a black musician in a racist music industry


Over the course of Black History Month we have focused on the past, present and future of the music industry and how it can be more egalitarian. The cold hard data displaying the uncomfortable truth that 73% of all Black music professionals have experienced racism in the industry and their earnings were lower on average (£1964 per month vs £2459 for white professionals) among a string of other startling facts elucidated a glaring reality. Emanuel Burton, an astounding talent who has worked with the likes of Little Simz, has brought us his personal experience within it.


I’d like to take us back to May 2020 with the tragedy that was the heinous murder of George Floyd, may he rest in love. This was the first time in a long time that it seemed there would be some change regarding the racism that we as Black people face today.  Riots, protests, strikes — there was a mass awareness of our plight around the world.  A lot of us anticipated what would really change, at least what we hoped for. Whether it be reparations or more inclusion in the professional industries.

I will honestly say that I feel like the white executives and CEOs that are governing the creative industry just “invite us to the party” and tick the box of diversity. In the NFL, the rule now requires teams to interview at least two external minority candidates at several levels of leadership, including general manager and other comparable front office positions. There were two Black coaches in the NFL in 2002, the year before the rule was adopted.

Why should we not expect to see more people of colour as owners of teams? Why not more Black major label owners and CEOs? It feels like the people in power are the ones who will never understand the struggle that people of colour have faced and continue to face.

Personally, I feel as though we need a lot more reparation and Black led infrastructure of economics. We need more ownership to continue to pass down to our younger generations. It is important we continue to create opportunities for our youth and change the narrative.

We don’t need to just be invited to the party, but we need to throw the party. Even though systemic racism is deeply ingrained in our society, there is still so much we can do to create a better world for us and our youth.

(Credit: Far Out)

My experience

Music began for me sort of innately. I was told I was always beating on pots and pans as a child. As I grew older, it extended to drumming on school tables with my hands and pens or almost anything I could get a good tone out of. My earliest introduction to music was most definitely church. I grew up listening and then began playing the drums at 6 years old.

I never had drum lessons as a kid, everything was self-taught. I do think that it’s not as affordable to go to music schools or get private lessons. For Black people, barriers to access continue to be a real problem. Growing up in a gospel church music meant so much to the black community. It’s a huge part of how we worship God and a huge emotional/spiritual outlet, these experiences constituted my music lessons.

As I got older, I went to university. I used to borrow school musical equipment for gigs, and I also did a GoFundMe fundraiser to get my touring kit for the Little Simz gig as it was my first professional job and I didn’t have a drum kit at the time. I now pay for my own lessons, but they are still expensive. Nevertheless, it’s a blessing to have the opportunity to invest in myself. How many young Black children fail to maintain their aspirations because the resources are simply not there for them? Opportunities to learn music should be for everyone and not the affluent few.

I’ve had two drum teachers that I’ve taken lessons from in university, one being white and one black. I developed great relationships with both. Over the years, my brother has been my biggest teacher and mentor. It’s not unusual for Black people to find role models in our own families. There are pitifully few enduring Black role models for us to look to in the music industry — if you can’t see it, you can’t be it! 

There needs to be more Black representation for young kids to feel like they can look up to someone who looks like them and has the same background.  The lack of Blackness in this sector makes Black people feel like they can’t get involved or the opportunities aren’t there for them.

My experience at university was incredible. It was a great environment to learn and network. The lecturers were all very understanding and helpful. However, I did have an experience where a member of staff said that I was “aggressively walking”. This was my first experience of being discriminated against in this setting.  I never heard the term used in the direction of any white people that I learned with.

Apart from that, I definitely was championed at university.  I also know that it was of benefit to them to have a young Black alumnus.  They were very supportive of my career endeavours and still are today, which is a blessing.  There were more white teachers than people of colour. This didn’t directly affect me, I’m a pretty resilient person but it was something that I noticed.

There was particularly talk that there wasn’t much light being shed on rap, R&B, soul and reggae music. There was definitely more focus on rock, indie and funk music but they were always encouraging us to be different and pursue our own sound.  The music of my heritage is important to me, it should be the same for everyone — music education more widely in the UK needs to reflect this thinking.  

(Credit: Far Out)

One of my main lecturers was Black and he had a big part in impacting my career aspirations. He is still my teacher to this day. Role models and seeing people of your own racial identity makes a difference. It was easy for me to maintain my identity throughout my learning experience because I knew who I was and where I was going. I was open to learning all styles, genres and learning about everything. I think it’s so important to be versatile and well knowledgeable. However, I am still learning so much more about my own roots and culture.

It’s a blessing to be a professional and share vibrations for a living, but I’m learning how much of a business this really is! I came into the game thinking that everyone had my best interest at heart, but I soon realised that this isn’t the case. Capitalism has things set in a way where everyone is just trying to get the best for themselves. I don’t want to be a part of what the industry stands for, I just want to create and share energy on my terms. You have to know yourself and stay true to who you are. It’s very easy to get bamboozled, especially when you are Black, history tells us so! 

I am the type of person who will knock the door down to progress and elevate myself. That’s not the same for everyone.  If you don’t have money or deep connections it’s very hard to succeed in any professional industry, not just music. It’s a huge investment financially, emotionally and physically.

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I think there definitely needs to be more people protecting artists’ and musicians’ mental health.  Last year’s report from Black Lives in Music revealed how much Black artists and professionals are particularly affected in these areas. I think we are being invited to the party though the industry is ticking a box of diversity, rather than genuinely letting the true music be heard and championed.  We need more people of colour as representatives. CEOs, A&R, Managers, in short, we need more inclusion.

I think it’s so important to see Little Simz thriving right now. It’s just a reminder that everyone can achieve what they want, and she makes it her duty to remind everyone. We are all the same, it just takes discipline, studentship, sacrifice and dedication. Sometimes all you need to motivate yourself is to see someone just like you, doing what you want to do or being where you want to be.

With Little Simz we can see it and we can aspire to be it! I also want to shout out to Misha B (Artist), Neicee Oakley (Tour Manager) and Casey Elisha (Tour Manager). Being able to see female Blackness bossing it in the industry is really inspiring. I salute the many other women of colour that are doing their thing in the industry. Changing the conversation, knocking walls down. Giving opportunities, diversifying, innovating — it’s really a blessing and inspiring to see. I hope we have more of it in years to come.

As Black people, we are the culture in a lot of ways. The slang, the fashion, the music — we often don’t get the credit for it and others may capitalise from it more. It’s a little sad but at the same time, it’s okay. I feel that we need to do a better job of packaging and marketing ourselves and running with it.

My vision for the UK music industry involves seeing Black culture and our own Black people thriving. Not just a box ticked but actually getting the finance, recognition and acknowledgement they deserve. Especially when we think of reparations, I would really like to see our people not suffering as much as they do just to survive. 

Emanuel Burton

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