My Speech For (MU) Motion 20: ‘Being Black in the UK music industry’

This is my speech to move the (MU) Motion 20: Being Black in the UK Music Industry, delivered at the TUC Black Workers Conference:

Good morning Conference. I am Millicent Stephenson, Musicians’ Union, and I am moving Motion 20, ‘Being Black In The Music Industry’.

Music is important and woven into the fabric of our society. It motivates, soothes, conveys ‘I love you’ and ‘good-byes’. It is a social, physical, spiritual thing which goes through our being. What would life be like without music?

Music is also a professional career choice on par with any other. However, within the music industry there are stratas and issues. One of which is ‘being black in the music industry’.

You may be familiar with Jazz music, songs like ‘Summertime’ and ‘At Last’, but did you know that it came from the black communities of the United States? Also, the root of Jazz is the ‘Blues’, the music of African people, the victims of transatlantic slavery. This genre was originally scorned because of its heritage, but then taken over and monetized by white-owned record companies, who gave no or very little money to black performers.

The ‘Blues’ gave birth to other genres like ‘Rock’ and ‘Country Music’ yet, despite history, I did not come to this knowledge until in my 50s during a music lesson with a white teacher. And, while at a restaurant which had a book corner, I browsed and came across ‘The New History of Jazz’ by Alyn Shipton. Reading it made me wonder, where is this information in the UK national curriculums?

Another element of being black is prejudice. To look at me, you will see that I am a woman. You will see my skin tone. I am a musician but you cannot see that. You cannot see the extent of my experiences or what I can bring to the table.

But some prejudge me, and other black people, based on our colour.

Despite our sterling contributions, opportunities are hidden, and barriers placed to hinder career progression.

Let me punctuate this with UK statistics. According to the report ‘Being Black In The Music Industry’ carried out by ‘Black Lives in Music’ in 2021:

  • 88% of all black music professionals interviewed agree that there are barriers to progression
  • 73% experienced direct or indirect racism
  • 80% experienced racial microaggressions
  • Black female industry professionals earn £1811 per month, which is £459 less than their white counterparts

I heard recently from a record producer that Reggae artistes, who are of the upper echelons of their craft, were not paid the correct fee for their studio work.

Amongst the harsh realities of being black, what others will never have to countenance, is that each day you don’t know when your colour may be a problem to someone, and when it does, you are left with a situation you have to navigate. This is frustrating and stressful. The ‘Black Lives in Music’ report states that 36% of black music professionals believe their mental wellbeing has declined, 39% for black women.

It is known in the medical field that there is a lack of understanding by health care professionals towards black people, which stops some of the Black communities accessing support. The Mental Health Foundation also states that ‘Black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than White people’. Where do Black musicians go for the support they need when facing racism at work?

The answer, is to have more black professional therapists and counsellors; Courses like the MA in Music Therapy training, decolonized, because to-date statistics show that people from ethnically diverse backgrounds make up only 9.6% of the qualified clinical psychologists in England and Wales in contrast to 15% of the population.

More resources must be invested in tackling racism, identifying Black community’s needs, removing the ethnicity pay gap, and making available accessible mental health support. The Government must put more effort into implementing the recommendations of the CRED report.

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