Blacked Out

Hip-Hop and R&B Artists MIA in Music Industry Struggle

However, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid says, "If there is someone who could bring together a wide range of people in a room to talk about these things and have them dealt with in a credible fashion, I think Russell is one of the few people who can really do it."

In a March 20 posting, "Recording Artists' Coalition fights to end '7 Year Statue law'; Rappers Silent in artists' rights battle," rapper Fat Joe was dismissive of RAC efforts: "These rock dudes? Their moms and pops be owning a fucking percentage of Colgate and shit like that. Some of these cats, their careers are hobbies. For us, this is our livelihood."

"There is the perception of those [black] artists who do know about these movements, who do get to hear about them—and many have not—that this is a white movement," says Harry Allen, "that this is something that white people are doing. And there is a distrust of white people and their intentions."

illustration: Josh McKible

The history of American Federation of Musicians (AFM) exemplifies how cleavages tend to develop over certain issues. Prior to blacks' being incorporated into the union, black musicians operated in segregated unions. And when black and white unions did finally integrate, it was at the expense of black musicians—who, despite being denied a fair share of lucrative jobs, were still expected to pay union dues.

The white unions "didn't service blacks or procure them work," says veteran musician, producer, and KISS-FM talk show host James Mtume. Mtume also attributes black indifference to both RAC and FMC to his belief that, by and large, "blacks don't have a tradition of organization"—though he acknowledges certain exceptions, such as the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and, most visibly, the black church itself.

Both Allen and Mtume share the view that some hip-hop and r&b artists may not have the kind of class background or social justice consciousness that would lend itself to joining organizations.

"You got to have a value for information," emphasizes Mtume. "And you got to have a value for understanding that organization is the best way to protect and preserve your art form and the artist who performs it."

Darrell McNeill, musician and director of operations for the Black Rock Coalition, the New York-based group co-founded 17 years ago by Vernon Reid and others, argues that black artists face a "double-pronged struggle."

While acknowledging that both black and white organizations have to deal with the same mainstream concerns, McNeill emphasizes that blacks "also have to deal with the realities of race and how it factors into our abilities to do business. It's not just a function of overall compensation, but issues of the types of music we put out, the kind of presentation we put out."

McNeill's statement alludes to the fact that blacks also have to confront the issue of whites defining what is and isn't "black" music. Jimi Hendrix played piercing, sonorous, lead rock guitar, but very few blacks since have been allowed to cross into rock. It's a struggle for cultural definition as well as economics.

Yet McNeill suggests another factor that might contribute to some blacks' coolness toward groups like RAC and FMC is that those artists are getting paid.

"I have to give it to the young entrepreneurs that came up in hip-hop," he says. "They have reformulated structures that compensate and do well for them. You can make the argument that they have become the new plantation owners. Right now the new young entrepreneurs who are coming up have a better grasp of the business."

His observation becomes even more poignant when one considers that both LaFace and Pebbitone, TLC's label and management, are black owned.

Black Star's Talib Kweli echoes some of McNeill's views. "Traditionally, black artists, because of our situation in this country, we've been almost forced not to have information about our careers. I think the hip-hop generation is the first generation to get any type of power on any scale. A lot of it seems to be undermined by people's egos and people wanting to make themselves famous as opposed to getting real power, but the fact of the matter is, we're making more money and owning more companies."

These companies may in fact be part of the new scheme of things. The major labels have increasingly outsourced music production to independent labels. In a report to the AFM, "The Irony of the Indies," CUNY's Center for Culture, Technology, and Work argues that outsourcing is an example of how the recording industry now divests itself of the physical means of producing records, but still partially owns or distributes independent labels. This situation has led to a decline in pay standards for all musicians, since indies are not signatory to agreements between the union and the major labels.

"When you're called for a session by a union signatory label, negotiations begin at the union scale," says guitarist Marc Ribot, who instigated the report. "When you're called by a non-union signatory label, by a manager or the artist itself, negotiations for what you get begin at zero."

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