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“Masters,” Music, and Money: Black Artists and the Record Industry

Black artists have contributed insurmountably to the music industry and popular culture alike. Though our presence and impact are undeniable, many artists have received the short end of the stick when it comes to the business side of the industry.  

Historically, record companies have lured artists into recording contracts with lofty advances (more appropriately termed “loans”) that must be fully recouped by the label before the artist receives any form of royalties. Yes – that means all the elaborate costumes, flashy cars, oversized jewelry, tour merchandise, and just about everything else you can imagine also come out of the artist’s budget.

In 1993, the late great Prince was notorious for writing the word “slave” on his cheek before he went on stage to perform. This public act was only one way Prince attempted to illuminate the tensions between artists and record companies; he also frequently deemed these arrangements “indentured servitude” and urged other artists not to sign “slave contracts.”




The legendary female group TLC is a prime example of a group that received shady treatment from their label. At the height of their career, TLC sold more than 10 million records, yet, each member only brought home roughly $35,000. Toni Braxton knows about the shade too; after selling 20 million records, she filed for bankruptcy due to overbearing expenses imposed by her record label.

Though the outlook remains bleak for aspiring artists looking to make it big in the record industry, we cannot overlook the success stories of those who learned from the mistakes of those who came before them. Most notably, we must not ignore the wave of independence rising within hip-hop and R&B.

It is arguable that Chance the Rapper is the face of this movement. As a 23 year old Grammy award-winning Black artist, Chance has reached acclaimed status all while retaining ownership of the masters and publishing rights for his records. This trend is becoming more and more prominent as black artists recognize the value of maintaining creative control of their art.

Audre Lorde said, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and that statement remains true for the music industry.  It is this reason that mogul Jay-Z invested $100 million of his own money to fund Tidal – a music and entertainment platform owned by artists instead of record execs or tech companies.




It is a complete paradigm shift away from the typical record label infrastructure allowing artists to have more control over their content and how it is experienced by fans. Tidal is a template for the type of ingenuity necessary to break free from the oppressive practices of the recording industry.

 

Clint Smith Explores Black Joy & Black Pain in New Book

Last year, we sat down with our friend Clint Smith, renowned poet and writer whose TED talk, “How to Raise a Black Son in America” is reaching millions of folks.


Smith recently published his first book, Counting Descent, and we got the chance to ask him a few questions. Pre-order the book here.

counting-descent-cover

In May, you became a Cave Canem fellow, which is a big deal for black poets. You’re also a National Science Foundation fellow. Two awards from two seemingly different worlds. How do you make sense of juggling all these hats? Academic, poet, journalist, teacher.

If you study the black literary tradition, you see endless examples of people whose work existed across mediums, genres, and spaces. Du Bois who was a novelist and sociologist. Audre Lorde was a poet and essayist. Carter G. Woodson was historian and journalist . The common thread is that all of them were committed to using a range of intellectual projects to push forward their larger political project — the freedom of black people. So, for me, it doesn’t feel unnatural to be both a social scientist and an artist. In many ways, I’m simply following the lead of those who showed me it was possible.

Speaking of great black scholars, Michelle Alexander said of your book, “So many of these poems just blow me away” and called it “incredibly powerful and beautiful.” How did it feel to have a scholar like her praise your book in that way?

I still can’t believe it. The New Jim Crow was such an important book for me and to have her think so highly of my work means the world.

Last year, we produced a video on you where we asked, “what’s the responsibility of the black artist?” How has your thinking evolved on this amid everything that has happened since?

Nina Simone once said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” I think that’s right. Great art tends to reflect the sociopolitical moment in which it was conceived. As of late, I’ve come to more fully appreciate that the black experience is profoundly diverse — we have different experiences and ways of seeing the world. So when we talk about the black artist’s responsibility, I think it’s important that we not impute a singular definition of responsibility onto a group of people who might have different notions of to whom their responsibility belongs.

So is your book a response to the current movement(s) we’re seeing in America?

I would say so. Like so many of us, I’ve been deeply impacted by all that has transpired over the past few years with regard to the state-sanctioned violence against black people. The book is largely wrestling with the cognitive dissonance of what it means to come from a family that celebrates you and existing in a broader world that often dehumanizes you. The book attempts to hold both of those things at once. Black joy. Black pain. The feeling of watching your parents dance to Maze & Frankie Beverly and the feeling of watching someone who looks like you being killed by police. Both of them are part of our lived experience. Both of them are stories I try to tell.

Over the last two years, your platform has grown tremendously, and you’ve touched on so many issues that are important to the black community. How do you select the subjects you address?

I spend much of my time studying the history of racial inequality in America. So a great deal of what I’ve been attempting to do in my research, art, and journalism are to put what is happening around us in historical context. I’m fortunate to have platforms that mean my ideas are going to be seen by a wide range of people — something I don’t take for granted — and my sense is that people are yearning for that context to explain some of what they’re seeing in the world today.

Which black writer has influenced your writing the most, and why?

I spent last semester reading all of the major works of Du Bois and that was transformative for me. Like I mentioned before, the way he moves across mediums — sociologist, historian, essayist, poet, novelist, journalist, teacher, activist — was something I found incredibly compelling. I also deeply appreciate the way that he allowed his ideas and positions to evolve over time, to admit when he got something wrong and to try and make it right so that his community would be better served by his work. He was tireless in his pursuit of justice and brilliant in how he communicated what justice might look like.

In ten words, how does it feel to publish your first book?

Thanks for taking me to the library growing up, Mom.

On a day to day basis, give us two ways you PushBlack.

Question everything, and remember that nothing about what our communities look like is an accident. It was built this way.

Order Counting Descent here.

Clint Smith is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, and the National Science Foundation. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and was a speaker at the 2015 TED Conference. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Guardian, Boston Review, Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. He is the author of Counting Descent (2016) and was born and raised in New Orleans.

“Masters,” Music, and Money: Black Artists and the Record Industry

Black artists have contributed insurmountably to the music industry and popular culture alike. Though our presence and impact are undeniable, many artists have received the short end of the stick when it comes to the business side of the industry.  

Historically, record companies have lured artists into recording contracts with lofty advances (more appropriately termed “loans”) that must be fully recouped by the label before the artist receives any form of royalties. Yes – that means all the elaborate costumes, flashy cars, oversized jewelry, tour merchandise, and just about everything else you can imagine also come out of the artist’s budget.

In 1993, the late great Prince was notorious for writing the word “slave” on his cheek before he went on stage to perform. This public act was only one way Prince attempted to illuminate the tensions between artists and record companies; he also frequently deemed these arrangements “indentured servitude” and urged other artists not to sign “slave contracts.”




The legendary female group TLC is a prime example of a group that received shady treatment from their label. At the height of their career, TLC sold more than 10 million records, yet, each member only brought home roughly $35,000. Toni Braxton knows about the shade too; after selling 20 million records, she filed for bankruptcy due to overbearing expenses imposed by her record label.

Though the outlook remains bleak for aspiring artists looking to make it big in the record industry, we cannot overlook the success stories of those who learned from the mistakes of those who came before them. Most notably, we must not ignore the wave of independence rising within hip-hop and R&B.

It is arguable that Chance the Rapper is the face of this movement. As a 23 year old Grammy award-winning Black artist, Chance has reached acclaimed status all while retaining ownership of the masters and publishing rights for his records. This trend is becoming more and more prominent as black artists recognize the value of maintaining creative control of their art.

Audre Lorde said, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and that statement remains true for the music industry.  It is this reason that mogul Jay-Z invested $100 million of his own money to fund Tidal – a music and entertainment platform owned by artists instead of record execs or tech companies.




It is a complete paradigm shift away from the typical record label infrastructure allowing artists to have more control over their content and how it is experienced by fans. Tidal is a template for the type of ingenuity necessary to break free from the oppressive practices of the recording industry.

 

The Truth on Crime

2016 was full of false news reports, stretched facts, and attention-seeking rhetoric. The Marshall Project sought to address these false claims by combing through 40 years of FBI data in order to set the facts straight.

Their findings? Wide variation in crime rates from community to community and supporting evidence that all crime is truly local.

Check out their findings presented in graphical form to see how changing the city, type of crime, or span of time studied can all affect how crime is changing.

It’s all about perspective.

 

Via The Marshall Project

Tech-Based Discrimination: Redlining Broadband Access

Redlining.

The practice of denying services, either directly or through selectively raising prices, to residents of certain areas based on the racial or ethnic composition of those areas.

In a recent post, the Atlanta Daily World reported that the tech-giant Google may be restricting broadband access in low-income, minority neighborhoods and, therefore, deepening the digital divide.

This attempt, if proven true, serves as another example of the discriminatory practice also evident in school zoning policies, voting districts and state-based funding procedures.

Read more on the Atlanta Daily World’s findings and how redlining historically impacted Black neighborhoods through discriminatory loan procedures. And, in case you missed it during it’s headline coverage earlier this year, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “A Case for Reparations” also chronicles the historic implications of this practice.

August Wilson’s Fences: from playwright to silver screen

Fences premiered this week to crowds of Black families who hit the theaters over the holiday. With a star-studded cast including Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, the film adaption of August Wilson’s original play has already garnered nods for two Golden Globes and three Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Though based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same title, much less coverage has been cast on the playwright himself. August Wilson, born in 1945, was a Black playwright who wrote a series of plays depicting the comic and tragic aspects of the African-American experience in the 20th century. With each play set in a different decade, Wilson’s stories included complex characters and told the raw truth. This commitment to authenticity remained as he wished only for a Black director to lead the film adaption of Fences in order to remain true to the authentic experiences and reality of Black culture.

Read more about August Wilson’s work and life here. And learn about the Fence’s road from play to the silver screen here.

Michigan Prisons See Benefits of Reform

Solitary confinement is a major pillar of criminal justice reform. As a punishment often outweighing the violation and impacting psyches years after it has ended, activists have held hunger strikes, filed class-action lawsuits and testified before the Senate in opposition to the practice. In order to balance against cases where solitary confinement is undue due to mental illness, or perhaps necessary due to physical attacks, prisons in Michigan have implemented a series of incentives to move men from solitary to lower-security status.

“Since it began in 2009, Alger’s Incentives in Segregation program has allowed the prison to transform one of its three 88-men segregation wings into a general-population wing. The program has spread to multiple prisons in the state, and the daily average number of Michigan prisoners in administrative segregation has dropped by nearly 20 percent, from 1,204 in 2008 to 982 in 2013.”

Learn more about this reform at Alger Correctional Facility here.

Via The Marshall Project

Progress for Black Political Power

While the need for Black political power could not come at a more opportune time, we wanted to share some positivity as young millennials continue to break ground in the realm of public service. Just last month and at the age of 21, Jewell Jones became the youngest member of the Michigan state legislature as a representative for District 11. In an interview with Blavity, Jones shared the following remarks:

“Politics is like real estate. It’s lots of moving pieces in it. If you play it right, it’s [a lot] of resources you can bring back to the citizens.”

As we transition administrations, groups at both the state and federal level are calling for more representation in government bodies. While the 114th Congress is the most diverse in history, Congress remains disproportionately White when compared with the U.S. population. For this reason, groups like the Senate Black Legislative Caucus has organized advocacy efforts to increase diversity amongst staff on the Hill, in addition, groups like the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation offer internship and fellowship programs to train our next generation of leaders. PushBlack congratulates the progress of young activists like Jewell Jones and urges others to get involved in their local political processes.

Via Blavity

 

 

Buy Black – But Not at Wal-Mart

Black Lives Matter activists once praised Walmart’s 2015 decision to remove Confederate flags from its online retail market. However, after Breitbart complained that Walmart sold “Bulletproof. Black Lives Matter” paraphernalia and the national Fraternal Order of Police wrote the retailer to ask for its removal, the multinational corporation decided to drop that merchandise, too. While the merchandise was sold through a third-party merchant via Walmart’s website, it was Walmart’s decision to remove this specific item.

According to James Pasco, the Executive Director of the national Fraternal Order of Police:

“The bulletproof thing goes to the new assertiveness of some violence prone individuals to take action directly against police. We find it offensive for that reason.”

Now, the merchandise isn’t even available with the original retailer, Old Glory. Which is not a black-owned business BTW.

The removal (or prevention) of Black-owned, or Black-related merchandise isn’t anything new. In the Jim Crow Era, Black merchants couldn’t sell their goods in White-owned stores. Further, ethnocentric or activist-oriented paraphernalia was relegated to mom-and-pop shops…much like it is today through individual social media marketplaces.

So, in case you needed yet another reason, please #BuyBlack this season: merchant, retailer and everything in between. After all, our lives depend on it.

Via CNN Money

Interrupting the Prison-Debt Cycle

While mass incarceration remains a serious problem for Black and Brown folks in this country, we’re proud of President Barack Obama for continuing to implement criminal justice reform during his final hours in office.

According to the Marshall Project, the prison-debt cycle has been interrupted:

“The Obama administration Tuesday unveiled a new regulation that allows incarcerated parents to reduce their child-support payments while they are in prison. Currently support payments pile up, though the average wage for inmate labor is 20 cents an hour. Upon release, parents face accumulated debt and with it the temptation to return to crime.”

Reforms continue to happen at both the state and federal level. And philanthropists, like George Soros, have also joined the fight. Soros, a well-known support of progressive policies, spent $11 million to support “reform oriented” local district attorney candidates. This sort of comprehensive tactic – from Executive and Congressional orders, to state-action, to individual donors is what is needed to impact this multileveled issue. However, major concerns over other sorts of debt – including legal debt – remain, burgeoning a cycle that debilitates inmates even after serving time. Nevertheless, these are steps in the right direction and big ups to Soros, the Administration and the thousands of other men and women who fight tirelessly for criminal justice reform everyday.

Via The Marshall Project