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(Credit: Far Out / BLiM)

Music

Far Out Meets: Roger Wilson of Black Lives in Music - Addressing the racist realities of the music industry

@TomTaylorFO

Last year, the pioneering Black Lives in Music survey offered up an alarming insight into the racist reality of the music industry, or at least for those of us who haven’t had to suffer through it. 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: The music industry has a racism problem

While the same truth can be said for society in general, music’s potential as a unifying force should enable it to be a trailblazer for meaningful change not a paradigm of the current problems. Roger Wilson, the Director of Operations at Black Lives in Music (BLiM), knows this racist reality all too well, and he is steadfast in his aim to help remedy the situation.

Growing up in a challenging part of London where role models were few and crime and unemployment was high, Wilson knew first-hand the issues that austerity and urban decay were causing. These issues were furthered still by the ever-present plague of racism. Music, by rights, should’ve offered up sanctity, and in some ways it did, but barriers, backlash and bigotry would soon become apparent. 

“My salvation was music,” Wilson hopefully begins. “I was a child of an era where music education was free. Growing up in a single-parent family, we couldn’t afford music lessons. I was given a clarinet and sheet music by the school I attended, and I enjoyed free lessons – it was the opportunity I needed!” 

For years, Wilson relished making music and was the benefactor of all the skills that came along with it. However, as soon as he went to put his talent to a practical use, he encountered discrimination. “I wanted to join the army as a musician – the area I grew up in had a world-renowned military band. However, when I went to the open day, I decided against the idea after receiving some pretty heavy racial abuse while on the base.”

“I decided to try for music college, and I was successful. Although I was keen to be an orchestral musician, I changed direction as I didn’t think it was the right environment for someone who looked like me and had my background,” he continues. This, in itself, highlights the issue of diversity and representation. The problem remains to this day as even the perception of predominantly white orchestras creates an aesthetic barrier from the get-go for aspiring musicians. This is reflected in the fact that the survey found that 71% of Black music professionals felt that there was no traditional career path available for them in the industry. 

(Credit: Far Out)

Thanks to the trailblazing community figures of Gary Crosby OBE and Kevin Robinson, Wilson was able to get a footing in the industry as a member of the Jazz Warriors in London. “It was great to work with them, it was the first time in the profession that I felt I fitted in and belonged,” he explains. Wilson has been trying to open doors for people in a similar way ever since. 

However, the problem of racism in society permeated the industry. “At music college, I was certainly the subject of some unwholesome comments by faculty staff,” Wilson recalls. “Racism doesn’t just stop because you work in a different industry. It was perhaps a little more sophisticated – you might have overheard someone saying, ‘what are you doing here?’, implying that you were not of the right standard to be joining them on a studio session. I certainly got that question asked of me directly a few times in the early days.”

This systemic idea is directly impactful on the hiring of musicians as inherent notions persist. As Wilson explains: “Studios are tricky environments, there is a direct correlation between money and time. You must get tracks down within the three-hour session that you’re booked for, or money is wasted booking you. Your reading has to be first-rate. For some reason, there’s always been a myth that Black musicians play on ‘feel’ and can’t read music, let alone read complicated music.” 

This discriminatory perception still creates a barrier to this day, with inherent biases meaning that Black musicians are less likely to be hired for sessions. This is reflected in the fact that only 38% of Black music professionals earn 100% of their income from music, compared with 69% for their white counterparts. And even when that barrier is overcome, more than half (56%) of Black music creators felt their contributions to the music industry were not adequately recognised. 

Understanding this is vital moving forward as the often underrecognized issue of systemic racism is overlooked by an attitude of ‘Well, I’m not a racist’ and the problem is reduced to something that happens on an individual level alone. “Structural racism is about mechanisms and processes. Individuals may be racist but it’s the structures and mechanisms that perpetuate hard racism,” Wilson opines. “These structures and mechanisms exist outside the sector.”

As the Gil Scott-Heron collaborator and legendary musician Brian Jackson, who was part of the civil rights music frontier, told us when recently discussing the same problem, quoting Gene McDaniels: “’Still nobody knows who the enemy is ‘cause he never goes in hiding.’ I’d say that’s a fair observation of how things work in music.”

After all, Black people are 9 times more likely to be stopped by the police and there is an undisputed discrepancy in the numbers of Black people incarcerated in UK prisons. Wilson adds: “There are without doubt wider societal issues and influences that affect the sector. Industry sectors more generally reflect the values and norms of the society they represent.”

Thankfully, this data itself represents a means to remedy the industry, but when Wilson was coming through, things were far different. “As for platforms to tackle racism, erm, not so much – there was nothing,” he recalls. “I finished college just around the time of the racially aggravated murder of Stephen Lawrence. Institutional racism was everywhere, there was no awareness or natural instinct to tackle it – anywhere in society.”

(Credit: Far Out)

In recent times that has changed. “There is no doubt that the Black Lives Matter movement was a key agent in precipitating the zeitgeist of awareness of social justice,” Wilson states. “I’m convinced that a lot of things came together at the same time. More than anything, it was the right time. Nothing happens if it is not the right time but certainly the comprehensive approach of the movement played a substantial role in escalating the discussion.”

However, discussion is one thing, but when I asked Wilson whether these external cultural opinion-based changes reflect in the hard data and measurable implemented action, he responded with a resounding “Frankly, No!” Continuing: “Just because the industry might wish to make a change it doesn’t mean that we will see the diversity equivalent of the January sales on Oxford Street, with people queuing up to get through the door of inclusion.”

Adding: “There is a considerable hearts and minds job to do. Trust has to be earned and meaningful actions will play a part in this but not exclusively so.” Sadly, owing to the fact that no vehicles to change existed when Wilson was making his way in the industry, the remedy is hindered by history. “In terms of data, we simply have not collected enough data historically—data is truth, truth is hard to face up to, for all of us. Black Lives in Music will continue to gather information through its surveys, and it will continue to collate the data and present a real understanding of what change in the industry looks like through its reporting. It will be up to the industry to act or ignore, my view is positive, change is coming, it takes time.”

And time is of the essence. This Black History Month at Far Out, we have poured over race relations in the arts and it would seem that not only is racism a veritable reality in culture, but the same messages of change were extolled on the music side of the civil rights movement 60 years ago. Modern music, from its very origins on the abhorrent plantations of old, speaks of empowered unity. It etched itself as gilded poetry written in the margins of one of the darkest pages in history and gave triumphant voice to people bloodied but unbowed. 

As Nina Simone once said, “It’s all out of slavery times, out of depression,” this transfigured product of hardship should be able to illuminate the way forward to create a more equal and loving society for everyone. The hopeful actions of Wilson and the Black Lives in Music team represent a huge step in that direction and that is a cause for celebration for all of us. When we bring you the second half of our discussion with Roger Wilson, we’ll be looking at how we practically engage and fix the problem. 

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