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Rhythm and Business: The Political Economy of Black Music

Posted Mar 27 2006

Kelly has compiled a must-have collection of writings for anyone interested in social justice, economic empowerment, or making it in the music business. Contributors include Chuck D, Courtney Love, the NAACP, author Reebee Garofalo, and Artemis Records’ label head, Danny Goldberg.

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Kelly has compiled a must-have collection of writings for anyone interested in social justice, economic empowerment, or making it in the music business. Contributors include Chuck D, Courtney Love, the NAACP, author Reebee Garofalo, and Artemis Records’ label head, Danny Goldberg. They all address the issue of why African-Americans have developed so many musical genres yet have no real control or ownership in the industry. While this book focuses on the music industry, not just hip hop, it also examines the larger issue of Black economic development. More than just opinions, the book is backed by numerous statistics and examples, including a list of the smaller labels that are actually owned or partially owned by one of the major conglomerates (5 at the time of this printing). As an example, Bad Boy is a part of Arista, which is part of BMG, a German-based company.

Although much of the writings address the issue of race, the writers recognize that the issue is also about capitalism and exploitation across the board. The companies are looking out for their own self-interests, not those of the artists. The issue of economic class is also intimately tied into the power dynamics as various writers explain how upper class Blacks often tried to distance themselves from the typically lower class Black culture, including hip-hop’s urban, inner city roots; thus not adequately addressing the issue of economic empowerment for African-Americans. Nonetheless, there are middle-class African Americans with influence in the music industry, including Russell Simmons and Sean “P Diddy” Combs.
Furthermore, label heads ranging from Suge Knight, to Master P, to the aforementioned two, all went to college. Ironically, most of the corporate side of hip hop emphasizes a “keeping it real” image that glamorizes the worst aspects of the ghetto, including a rejection of formal education and personal responsibility. Yet, the success of these moguls comes from embracing values that they often espouse to reject through their music. Another point that is raised is that instead of artists dictating the market, the market dictates the creativity of artists in pursuit of the dollar, which rarely leads to socially conscious music. According to Yvonne Bynoe, president of The Urban Think Tank, Inc., “the Hip Hop industry’s decision to intentionally target White rap consumers means that overtly socially conscious and/or pro-Black messages have been substantially sacrificed in rap music to accommodate a “we-are-the-world” ethos based on hedonistic consumerism and general youth rebellion.” The overall theme throughout the book is who is profiting from the music, and in too much of hip hop, who benefits from the music’s seeming fascination with self-destruction? Even though there are examples of African-Americans rising to some prominence in the music industry, there’s no question that overall, Black artists continue to be exploited.

Another area that this book succeeds in is examining different types of exploitation and the context in which it occurs. There’s a list of songs made famous by the likes of Bill Haley, Elvis, and Pat Boone, which were actually originally sung by Black artists, including Big Mama Thornton and Joe Turner. There’s also an excellent quote regarding the significance of Black artistry being a “natural talent,” rather than a result of dedication, discipline, and intelligence. Essentially, “natural talent” is like air, thus abundant and ripe for the taking, justifying its exploitation. There is also an excellent piece on salsa, discussing the exploitation of Cuban artists and the political content of the music.

A downside to the book is that it doesn’t delve whole lot into the impact of the internet, peer-to-peer technology, and other technological developments. But that issue is through no fault of the authors as this book was published three years ago, a lifetime away in the computer world. Nevertheless, this is a minor point, as the book is packed with nearly every angle that be examined in this issue. There’s not a total bashing of the music industry, as label head Goldberg brings in the label’s perspective. Regardless of your interest, definitely pick up this book if you care about the state of Black music and economic empowerment in the Black community. As Kelly himself says, it’s easier to find a spoken word CD than a book critically analyzing the economics of the music industry, making it even more important for books such as these to be supported.

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