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The Modern Entertainer: The State of the Music Industry

The music industry is always a hot mess. In my personal opinion, in many spaces there is a lack of originality and more of a reliance on TikTok bops than actual craft and the centering of intersectional talented voices across cultural diasporas. If we are discussing the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards (for example), nearly every performance by a lot of white folks’ favorites was stale, dry, unseasoned and boring. Those who were really delivering were Chloe Bailey, Normani, Lil Nas X and dancers throughout the night. Aside from this, “artists” and entertainers were feeding us the same one-two step move with little emotion or excitement or swaying back and forth. Personally, when I am watching a performance, I want to be moved and feel as if the artists are truly doing something different while staying true to who they are. I want to be gravitated by the fact that they are clearly dialed into what they’re doing as well. Sunday’s performances, as well as in generality, never lived up to these measures. I refrained from using the word, “expectations” because with expecting entertainers who are clearly doing what they do because of privilege, there is no room for disappointment when the bar does not exist. But award shows are not the only problem. The music industry as a whole continues to be the embodiment of the very folks they choose to center: those who are white, light-skinned, able-bodied, thin, etc. We are well aware that institutions built by white people will always center and award white mediocrity and creative unoriginality. For example, why do you think when it comes to Asian representation in music, you are more likely to hear of folks like Olivia Rodrigo over Saweetie or H.E.R.? Why are artists such as Ari Lennox and Teyana Taylor often mocked for their appearances and are underappreciated for their work? Why are your favorite white entertainers all of sudden adopting a Blaccent?

These questions are rhetorical as they push for you to consider the ways in which colorism, cultural appropriation and Anti-Blackness show up in music, as no industry or space is exempt. I have always been puzzled by folks who reject the notion of “white-passing” being real because oftentimes than not, many of those who deny it are the very ones who are light-skinned themselves and are direct beneficiaries of colorism. Light-skinned and white-passing folks are able to navigate the music industry and world in ways dark-skinned folks can not. To deny that white-passing is impactful simply because your white favorite is being used as an example is to deny the systems of white supremacy through colorism, featurism and texturism. To deny the existence of white-passing privilege and systems is to deny the prevalent forms of Anti-Blackness which continue to impact Black and POC communities. If you enjoy Olivia Rodrigo’s music, great; however, there should be an acknowledgment of how white-passing artists like Rodrigo have privilege when it comes to what is considered representation versus what is not. As many continue to confuse representation with tokenism, essentially the message that continues to be affirmed is that the only image that matters when it comes to “representation” is someone who is light-skinned and can easily be palatable to a white-ran and controlled industry. Not to mention how these artists willingly engage with those benefits. Considering that both Saweetie and H.E.R. are Black and Asian, oftentimes, their intersectional identities are excluded because in Anti-Black rhetoric, how could they possibly be both? The erasure of Black folks from every marginalized community speaks to how society persistently places an indictment on Blackness. In music and every aspect of society, capitalism and the mindset of white executives is to center those who have the most proximity to whiteness. No matter whether a white-passing person has talent or not, the agenda is to continue Black erasure and to reflect a hegemony.

White supremacy is the basis and the power which allows capitalist Anti-Black foundations to expand. Colorism not only impacts Black artists (particularly Black women) in every imaginable way, but there are also multiple dynamics that allow that system and facet of oppression to expand. Ari Lennox (“Shea Butter Baby,” 2019) and Teyana Taylor (“K.T.S.E.,” 2018) are not only two talented artists, the Anti-Black and colorist vitriol often sent in their direction in social media is also indicative of folks’ own biases when it pertains to who is considered “beautiful” versus those who are viewed in the opposite way. This type of thinking represents historic systems that always center white, Eurocentric standards as what is considered to be beautiful and acceptable. There is a reason why these artists continue to be rarely acknowledged despite their immense talent. The disrespect Black women are subjected to by others is indicative of misogynoir and colorism because music is only loved and appreciated by the masses when a white or light-skinned mediocre artist delivers a bop. This sort of thinking is not just reflected in how music is consumed but more importantly the violence and erasure that is perpetuated against dark-skinned Black women and femmes. This leads us to the wide critique against Black women when it concerns us being unapologetic about sexuality and autonomy in music. From the performative outrage over WAP to the overt policing over Chloe Bailey’s songs and performances, the music industry continues to represent the dichotomy of hypersexualizing Black women through every avenue but when Black women exercise a love of our bodies and ourselves then such is an embarrassment and considered to be doing “too much,” not the fact that society and everyone should expect that Black women should have free reign to be unapologetic about whatever we want in any way we choose. The audacity for folks to believe that Black women are supposed to maintain a certain image while white women are applauded for “growing up” and “stepping into themselves” is all you need to know. I do not need to explain any further.

Many barely confront the continued acceptance of Blackface taking many forms. Miley Cyrus’ cultural appropriation escapade into stealing from Black culture is a prime example of how white entertainers love to steal what is not theirs and use it to the finest convenience until it is no longer considered to be useful. In my opinion, while artists such as Adele and Sam Smith have talent, there is a reason why many continued to be “wowed” by them; similar ways in which white folks were wowed by Elvis. Not only is there a certain voice and tone within those songs, but there are also strong Black cultural influences that are hardly ever credited or appreciated. Not to mention that appreciation does not excuse or should encourage white people stepping into spaces that are not theirs. White folks, in particular, love a “soulful” voice as long as there is a white voice to be the face of it. For every Elvis, there are Black artists such as Ma Rainey and Little Richard isolated and not centered for their contributions and their own triumphant constructions of the Rock genre. For every average white House artist, there is the erasure of Ballroom Culture and Communities and how every aspect of “mainstream” culture steals from those spaces.

For every Iggy Azalea, there is the lash of disrespect directed against Black rappers and artists from every part of the world, including the Western, Northern and Southern parts of the United States which cultivated Hip Hop and Rap. These platforms were not created as a joke in the late 1970s but rather as a way for expression about community, connection, culture and the nuanced experiences Black folks have in this country. For each of your favorite white artists invading Black spaces and co-opting Black culture, there is also the disrespect they have for that platform after they are done sucking it dry. To quote Billie Eilish in a 2020 interview, “​​There are tons of songs where people are just lying. There’s a lot of that in rap right now, from people that I know who rap. It’s like, ‘I got my AK-47, and I’m f*****’ . . .’ and I’m like, what? You don’t have a gun. ‘And all my b******. . . .’ I’m like, which b******? That’s posturing, and that’s not what I’m doing.” As she was not in the position to voice this, I guess she is the best to know about “lying” as the long nails, dialect, baggy clothing and hats are her own unique style with no influence or aesthetic pattern, right? Not only is all rap generalized, but Eilish and Cyrus have also offered unsolicited opinions about the platform through lens and perspectives as white cis women in the industry with immense privilege and “fanbases.” Both of them benefitted from aestheticizing and appropriating Black culture. Whether from Cyrus having no problem with  Black backup dancers as the backdrop, her accent and the twerking; with what, by the way? Never mind the fact Cyrus “apologized.” The energy and actions she put out before returning to her country, innocent white girl base (now with a Joan Jett punk style) will always exist and be an example of how she felt something often stolen was hers then when it no longer suited her image or what she expected, she also made it very clear that such a platform was not her style. White and white passing artists have the privilege of acting in any way they want regardless of consequence. For Black artists, being free and acting freely costs their careers. White and Non-Black folks have no problem “acting” Black yet never having that energy to address their Anti-Black racism and the importance of accountability and protecting Black people.

Many will always continue to view Black culture and folks as transactions while positioning the most mediocre and privileged as those who are the most “groundbreaking.” There is nothing original or authentic about how the industry and society continue to mistreat Black artists and steal from their work. There is nothing special about the music industry continuing to cycle in TikTok stars through record deals simply because of their social capital. All of these functionalities are indicative of all systemic issues, regardless of whether or not folks are willing to acknowledge that truth.

Nautia Smalls

George Mason University '23

Nautia Smalls is a writer, filmmaker, and an Integrative Studies major (with a concentration in Social Justice and Human Rights) at George Mason University. Her pronouns are (She/Her/Hers). Originally from the state of Georgia, Smalls is currently the Undersecretary of Identity Affairs in Student Government at George Mason.
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