How Black-led music organisations are creating opportunities for emerging talent
Black-owned music organisations, radio stations and record labels are helping to create vital platforms for Black producers and DJs who’ve been held back by systemic disadvantage. DJ Mag talks to Black Artist Database, Sable Radio, NTS and Touching Bass about the importance of Black ownership within the UK's electronic music landscape, and their work in creating opportunities for emerging talent
Though all genres of Black music have been subjected to exclusion, commodification and whitewashing, Black ownership in music varies. While rap and hip-hop are largely still fronted by Black artists, and knowledge of the Black origins of genres like rock is gradually re-entering the cultural consciousness, Black electronic music seems to lag behind. From the Midwestern US roots of Chicago house and Detroit techno, to UK genres like garage, grime, drum & bass and jungle — the latter perhaps even a wordplay on the racialised epithets thrown at its Black originators — electronic music would not exist without Black musicians. But creation doesn’t necessarily translate to credit, or ownership.
Along with improper marketing for Black artists and lower rates for Black talent, profits are concentrated within top-selling labels and line-ups, and industry organisations are fronted by white representatives. It can be a struggle for Black-led organisations and artists to get a look-in. And once there is money to be made, ownership and compensation become more fraught, with the risk of exploitation. Now more than ever, electronic music needs more Black ownership.
BLACK ARTIST DATABASE
“Black organisations are held back by systemic disadvantage,” says Kay Ferdinand. He’s one of the co-founders of the Black Artist Database, a community-based platform that began as Black Bandcamp in early 2021. “We’re missing the connections, means and institutional memory to make massive strides into what has become a non-Black industry,” Ferdinand says. “The challenge remains to get access to the resources, spaces and networks that are hidden and unreachable to the most marginalised.”
During the “latest popular global wave of support for the lives and condition of Black people,” as the Black Lives Matter movement grew, the Database rerouted the electronic music scene’s focus towards improving the material conditions for Black artists. “We were focused on building an organisation that could harness and continue the action being done for Black people in music, and at the same time create safe, interesting and quality spaces for our community,” says Ferdinand.
Black Artist Database aims to be an open resource to find, hire and pay Black people directly, and to work autonomously from decades-old music industry structures. With over 3,500 profiles of DJs and producers, the Database is due to expand to other creative disciplines around music, featuring photographers, designers, writers and more.
“All of our decisions and efforts put Black people front and centre,” continues Ferdinand. “All the voices we showcase with our content are Black and, even as a small organisation, we strive to compensate everyone who contributes. The intended beneficiaries for our partnerships with other music organisations are Black people. However we act and operate, we try to make the industry and scene a better place for Black people.”
One of their most recent projects is their online shop, which is under development. Through this, fans can buy directly from Black artists via the Database. “We’re aiming to surface the richness of creative talent from the global Black diaspora, in pursuit of wage equity, transparency and stable employment for our communities.”
One area of electronic music where Black-owned organisations are thriving is radio. As the Covid-19 pandemic pushed entertainment further online, radio became an ideal, open space for Black-owned broadcasters to grow. Sable is a Black-owned, youth-focused online radio station, production company and creative platform that’s involved in multidisciplinary projects in Leeds, UK. They also run a mentorship programme for young Black people looking to work in broadcasting and for cultural events, like Leeds’ West Indian Carnival.
A big part of this programme is resisting the expectation that entry-level work in the creative industries will be unpaid. This includes the traditional radio broadcasting model, where performers are rarely paid for their research and hosting.
“For us, it’s about trying to get people to understand what we’re doing and why we do it,” says Sable’s creative producer and co-founder Baile Ali. “The business model for online radio is that you don’t pay people, so if we’re going to try and subvert that model... we have to be quite cut-throat about it.”
Looking to 2022, Sable will be working on a series of club nights. "With big arts or music institutions in Leeds, I feel like there are certain hoops you have to jump through which are very different to when you’re working [directly] with Black people,” Ali says. “Clubs that have been doing stuff for a long time kind of have a monopoly on spaces, so it’s quite hard to come up and say, ‘We want to do a club night which prioritises non-white people’, for example.”
They’ll also be looking to expand Resound Projects, a programme that focuses on getting 18-to-25-year-old Black people from Leeds hired for local creative projects. “Mentorship has been really useful for us, to see the ways in which other people do things. I think there’s a lot of lateral mentorship that can be happening within our communities.”
For decades, Black-owned radio stations in the UK were excluded from structural necessities such as licensing, funding and recording spaces. From this, pirate radio stations boomed. With DIY stations, often set up in artists’ homes or abandoned city spaces, and focusing on emerging Black genres such as garage, jungle and grime, Black artists created a peer-led arena to play, record and share music directly with listeners.
Of course, operations weren’t without their pitfalls. As an illegal form of broadcasting, pirate radio stations have been subjected to police raids and even prosecutions. From this historic tension between pirate radio stations and the police, current Black-owned stations, even legal ones like Sable, face difficulties.
“OFCOM, the DTI raids; they used to raid pirate radio stations and still do,” says Ali. “Peoples FM in Leeds have had their equipment taken, the last time being in 2019. These people have been pushing the culture without spotlights, without looking for institutional or mainstream recognition. They’ve just been doing this day in, day out; pushing people without a lot of support, and with a lot of repression.”
Though dance music fans in Leeds may be aware of Peoples FM, a reggae-focused station with a long history, there’s a lack of awareness about how Black-owned pirate stations continue to be targeted; because of this, they tend to face operational challenges alone. By networking with older pirate stations like Peoples FM and Fresh FM, Sable have adapted their model and have felt encouraged to be largely self-sufficient.
“[It’s about] recognising the barriers that exist,” says Ali. “When you go to funding outlets, like Arts Council England — a lot of it is just geared towards organisations that typically are going to be older. So they might say, ‘We need three years of accounts’. You’re not going to draw in that many Black-led organisations because of the very long history of discrimination against those organisations, of people being denied access to founding things or leading on projects. There's definitely work that groups like Arts Council England can do to make a more welcoming environment for newer, Black-led organisations.”
For Femi Adeyemi, founder of NTS Radio, one of the reasons that Black ownership is lacking in electronic music is something of a catch-22: there’s a lack of inspiration for young Black people, because there aren’t more Black people in positions of influence to learn from.
“It’s funny when another Black person finds out that it’s a Black person that started NTS,” Adeyemi says. “There’s a lot of music or programming that we do on NTS that isn’t very traditional; it’s like, ‘Oh wow, another Black person likes this?’ It’s more for the generation coming after. I think that I probably would have felt a lot more at ease starting off NTS when I did if I had seen more faces like myself in positions of power.”
Adeyemi is a Londoner of Nigerian heritage. He started NTS out of both a love for music and a frustration with mainstream radio. “There wasn’t any access for me, so I decided, ‘I’m gonna figure this out myself’,” he remembers. (To this day, the slogan for NTS Radio is: “Commercial Radio Sucks”.) As a young kid from inner city London, he struggled to make connections to people in the industry.
“A lot of people like myself from similar backgrounds — similar colour to me, similar tastes — they just couldn’t figure out how to get in there. Even when you did, the sort of shit you had to go through to cross over and get to the places you wanted meant that, by the time you got there, you’re kind of jaded.”
Since NTS started broadcasting in 2011, the station has expanded out of its original, makeshift studio in Dalston, east London; it’s become a global music and cultural platform for underground music, and now has permanent studios in Los Angeles, Manchester and Shanghai.
Adeyemi is passionate about the importance of championing the work of Black artists through the station. NTS has long-included Black artists and highlighted Black cultural contributions in its programming; shining a light on pioneers in music rarely hosted on mainstream stations, such as Larry Heard, A.R. Kane and their Black Opera series, among others.
Last June, NTS compiled an online directory of resources in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and went off-air for 24 hours, “in solidarity with everyone fighting racial injustice, stateside and beyond”. In place of their regular programming, both of the station’s main channels broadcasted “the names of those murdered through police brutality in recent years”, focusing on the UK and US. Various hosts also ran their own, genre-specific broadcasts dedicated to Black music and protest.
“It should be natural to anyone who runs a company like NTS,” Adeyemi says.“We make sure there’s a fair, balanced approach to how we do things, but we’ve never been one of those companies that when there’s a wave of popularity feel we have to speak up or do something. We’ve been doing those things anyway. Popular culture is Black culture; we would be doing a disservice if we weren’t.”
NTS’ plans involve working with The Black Curriculum for 2022, Lavinya Stennett’s project to include Black history within the UK national curriculum. They’re also looking to continue programmes to support young people who see themselves as radio hosts, musicians or working behind the scenes, like Adeyemi once did. “I think a lot of responsibility does fall on us as owners and leaders,” he says. “On a personal note, if a young Black person reaches out, I make a particular effort to look out for them.”
Touching Bass is the brainchild of Errol Anderson and Alex Rita. “More than anything, Touching Bass started as a response to not experiencing enough nights that felt like the kind of home I needed,” says Anderson. “Not only is that in reference to the eclecticism of music, but also the feel of community and warmth of the space.”
Based in South London, Touching Bass is a record label and a curatorial/creative studio. Anderson and Rita also host a club night, concert series and show on NTS Radio, all part of the Touching Bass universe. “We’ve always made a proactive effort to champion the work of Black artists and, more generally, those who are respectful of Black music,” Anderson says. “That goes from the label, to the artists we book for the club night and play on the radio show, which are as much about educating people about the wealth and breadth of Black music as soundtracking their dance moves, lunchtime and lounging.”
Recent artists on the label include Londoners CKtrl and Demae, who released the ‘Robyn’ EP and ‘Life Works Out... Usually’ album respectively in 2020, and Danish jazzy hip-hop trio Athletic Progression, who released their ‘cloud high in dreams, but heavy in the air’ album in 2021.
In terms of the wider challenges that prevent Black-owned spaces and organisations from thriving in the country, Anderson talks about the issue of co-opting by larger institutions and the problem of “culture vulture business”. “One of the things that I’ve started to notice is that whenever a Black-led entity’s popularity starts to grow beyond its grassroots foundation and becomes part of a more mainstream consciousness, their organisation is often acquired or sucked up by a larger one; too often run by Babylon.
“It’s as if the idea of an independent Black-run space operating at a large scale is too much of a threat to the status quo of the industry as it stands. Instead of openly championing what we’re doing and leaving it at that, they try to siphon off ideas,” he continues. “Using what we’re doing as a blueprint is humbling and heartwarming when it’s honest, but I’ll never forget when an A&R from one of the big indies ran up to me at one of our dances and said – and I’m paraphrasing here — ‘I’ve been going through your SoundCloud likes and suggesting the unsigned artists as potential signees at our A&R meetings, so thanks’.”
From the beginning, Touching Bass has employed multiple strategies to stay afloat and lessen the need for larger brands to swoop in and take them over. They made use of local haunts for their events and club-nights, such as bakeries and restaurants around the city. Selling self-funded merchandise has also allowed them to invest back into other work, such as the record label.
It’s their way of keeping things sustainable without having to compromise on ethics. “Touching Bass’ mission remains the same; creating space for our growing community,” Anderson says. “Next year, we’re diving even deeper into that, and also releasing some more beautiful music on the label. As we grow, I want to ensure that I continue providing more opportunities for more young people that understand those same principles.
“We are the creators and so often the originators of the culture we know and love,” he continues. “I’d like to think that having more people that look like me in powerful positions will mean more people [in the industry] with a level of empathy and understanding that can only truly be learned from being Black and brown. So hopefully that would mean less exploitation, for a start.”
In this, groups like Touching Bass, along with Black Artist Database, NTS Radio and Sable, can not just create Black culture and be credited for it, but own it. “The fact that a young Black and brown person from the ends will see themselves in the industry more frequently; the power of that is obvious, yet immeasurable.”
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