Blacked Out

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

Hip-hop labels like Def Jam, Roc-a-Fella, and Bad Boy aren't really "independent"; they should be viewed, rather, as comprador enterprises acting as intermediaries within the production of music. They can't distribute without being part of a major label's network. Yet as intermediaries, the owners are far richer than the average hip-hop neophyte attracted to easy "cheese" and the bling-bling of life. May's issue of Black Enterprise, while touting the explosion of the "hip-hop economy," shows how the genre's version of black culture has become a nigga-cool marketing tool for major advertisers who want to attract a mostly white demographic at home and abroad.

As the forbidden obscure object of desire, "black male rage has become commodified," observes Reid, and as such it can easily be "discarded."

Another element in the mix is recent black history itself. The last major attempt to create an industry-wide, black music organization—the Black Music Association—ended in failure. The BMA came into being in the wake of the increasing incorporation of black acts onto major label roster. After commissioning the reviewing of the "Harvard Report," which in 1972 demonstrated the marketability of soul music, Columbia Records, now Sony Music, had begun signing a number of black acts.

illustration: Josh McKible

Realizing that black music was becoming the basis of major label profits at its own expense, BMA was born in 1978, in La Costa, California, organized by the legendary Kenny Gamble, of Gamble and Huff fame. The association sought to be a black representative force within the music industry. Yet, as Nelson George noted in his seminal The Death of Rhythm & Blues, BMA was undermined by "three contradictory dynamics." BMA was funded by the major recording labels instead of by blacks themselves; it was dominated by black record executives to the exclusion of black radio personnel; and it tried to address so many of black society's needs that it lacked definable goals within the recording industry.

Given both its lack of a self-generating economic base and black radio personnel bolting from the organization, BMA never became the industry player it wanted to be. Its twin legacy has mostly been the barely noticed designation of June as "Black Music Month," and the unintended consequences of showing blacks that it may be futile to either establish or join any organization centered on music.

James Mtume concurs with at least one aspect of George's "contradictory dynamics": BMA was "completely dependent on contributions of the labels."

"There are some issues that have to be addressed by the labels," he says, "but not [economically] supported by them."

Except for the NAACP's 1987 report "The Discordant Sound of Music," most major black institutions and intellectuals have neither taken an interest in the economic exploitation of black recording artists nor examined the economic consequences of black music. The omission of such an analysis regarding a very important aspect of black life and economics possibly validates Harold Cruse's acerbic contention that black intellectuals are, by and large, a "colossal fraud."

But not everyone is so pessimistic—Vernon Reid, for one, sees possibilities. As well as citing insiders such as Simmons, Roc-a-Fella's Damon Dash, and the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA as the sort of people who carry weight within the hip-hop community and music industry, Reid says others could affect change as well, because they have proven commercially viable.

"I do believe there are people like the Courtney Loves, the Alanis Morissettes, who will be listened to," says Reid. "The question is, Will they speak? Will they do it?"

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