Blacked Out

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

Unexpectedly, the legacy of TLC's Lisa Lopes, who died tragically in Honduras in April, will continue on June 11. Courtney Love, on that day, will appear in a Los Angeles superior court as a plaintiff in a countersuit against her record company, Universal Music Group. Love stopped recording for UMG/Geffen in 1999. UMG sued her (and her group, Hole) for not delivering five albums.

Love countersued, arguing that her contract was excessively long-termed. UMG filed a petition to have Love's case dismissed, but the court has allowed Love's claim to be heard next week.

Two years ago, in a pre-litigation move, Love circulated a well-known letter to fellow recording artists about a "fair deal" from the record labels. In her letter she cited TLC and Toni Braxton as "multi-platinum artists" who had "been forced to declare bankruptcy because their recording contracts didn't pay them enough." (Love's trial comes at an interesting time: June is Black Music Month.)

illustration: Josh McKible

TLC sold millions of albums for LaFace Records (a unit of Bertelsmann Music Group). Yet Lopes, Tionne Watkins, and Rozonda Thomas were only taking home modest sums of money compared to the hefty sums they made for Pebbitone Management, LaFace, and BMG. Federal bankruptcy laws would have allowed them to extricate themselves from their onerous contract, but they settled out of court. The recording industry, however, nervous at the prospect of other artists using TLC's and Braxton's settlement strategy,had the federal bankruptcy laws amended (see www.opensecrets.org's "Fine Tuning").

Notwithstanding the fact that both white and black artists have been exploited by the recording industry, blacks, due to the combination of race and class, have often suffered the most egregiously. Blacks, to a certain degree, are a neo-colonized "Rhythm Nation" within the recording industry's "structure of stealing," which depends on them to generate new musical styles and to provide cheap labor (i.e., talent).

"The details of [TLC's] story should be taught in every school in America for the next 100 years," remarks hip-hop activist and media assassin Harry Allen, who writes about music for the Voice and other publications and has worked with Public Enemy's Chuck D.

Yet it is questionable that most black artists have learned from what happened to Lopes and her trio-mates, or from the long history of blacks' interaction with the recording industry.

Some musicians, though, have. Over the past years recording artists such as Love, Prince, George Michael, Chuck D, Don Henley, and Sheryl Crow have begun to challenge the recording industry over a host of issues: royalty payments, transparency in contracts, the work-for-hire clause, seven-year-limit statute, the Internet, and health benefits, to name a few. Fed up with the industry's tactics over Internet royalty distribution (a/k/a digital rights) and its surreptitious amending of copyright law, West Coast recording artists founded the Recording Artist Coalition (RAC), spearheaded by former Eagle Don Henley.

At roughly the same time, Jenny Toomey, a Washington, D.C.-based musician, started the Future of Music Coalition. FMC has held two policy summits on music issues in Washington, in 2001 and 2002, examining Internet distribution and business models affecting music. FMC views itself as a think-tank wing to RAC's activist and lobbying efforts before Congress and the public.

Toomey applauds the fact that RAC has even come into existence. "Aside from the music unions, the last [person] who even tried to create this kind of organization was Frank Sinatra, almost 30 years ago." FMC has also begun working with RAC on the issue of health care for recording artists.

RAC has its work cut out, particularly if it is going to contend with the record labels' lobbying arm, the Recording Industry Association of America, which has been around since 1952. Understanding that, on the eve of the recent Grammy Awards, the nascent organization held several benefit concerts in the L.A. area to raise funds. It raised $2.5 million and plans to hold future benefits on the East Coast.

"The public needs to understand," said Henley in a New York Times article, "that the RIAA does not and never has represented recording artists."

Curiously missing, though, from the roster of acts performing RAC benefits were black r&b or hip-hop artists, who, like TLC and Toni Braxton, have borne the brunt of the recording industry's shady operations.

The lack of black acts, according to both Toomey and Jim Guerinot—who manages acts like Beck, Offspring, and No Doubt through his West Coast firm, Rebel Waltz Management—was not intentional. At least one black artist had agreed to appear but reneged at the last minute. Given the history of exploitation of black artists by the record labels, as in the case of TLC, the lack of any black acts, intentional or not, underscores the fundamentally different experiences that blacks and whites have had as recording artists.

Black organizations or artists seem either to have a different agenda, or simply to be indifferent, to the organizing that's being done by RAC and FMC. Or maybe black artists, especially in the hip-hop community, are more interested in attending star-studded confabs like Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Action Summit Network. While HHASN, run by former NAACP executive director Ben Muhammad (né Chavis), has been credited with keeping the peace in the hip-hop community, it is unlikely that it will advocate rappers' getting better contracts, health benefits, and owning their master recordings. After all, Russell Simmons is a record label owner within the Universal Music Group.

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 BET.com 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."

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."

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.

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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