Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Political Economy of Black Music (REDUX Originally Posted 9/16/11)


HWP | Black music exists in a neo-colonial relationship with the $12 billion music industry, which consist of six record companies: Warner Elektra Atlantic (WEA), Polygram, MCA Music Entertainment, BMG Distribution, Sony Music Entertainment, and CEMA/UNI Distribution. These firms, according to New York's Daily News, "supply retailers with 90% of the music" that the public purchases (rap accounts for 8.9% of the total, over $1 billion in 1996; these firms are currently being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for price-fixing CDs ). While there are black- owned production companies like Uptown Records, Bad Boy Entertainment, La Face Records, Def Jam, and Death Row, which make millions, these black-owned companies do not control a key component of the music making nexus, namely distribution, and they respond to the major labels' demand for a marketable product. In turn, the major labels respond to a young white audience that purchases 66% of rap music, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), as reported by the Daily News. But the music industry's dependence on alternative music has led to flat sales and the only growth has been, once again, black music in the cultural form of rap. Rap is still on the move. For example, Lil' Kim, a protege of the late Christopher Wallace, has sold 500,000 units of her raunchy Hardcore. While Scarface has sold over 160,000 of his The Untouchable - without radio airplay.

The relationship between black music and the "Big Six" is a post-modern form of colonialism. In classic colonialism (or neo-colonialism) products were produced in a "raw periphery" and sent back to the imperial "motherland" to be finished into commodities, sold in the metropolitan centers or back to the colonies, with the result being that the colony's economic growth was stunted because it was denied its ability to engage in manufacturing products for it own needs and for export. Blacks in the inner cities, if not as an aggregate, share some of the classic characteristics of a colony: lower per capita income; high birth rate; high infant mortality rate; a small or weak middle class; low rate of capital formation and domestic savings; economic dependence on external markets; labor as a major export; a tremendous demand for commodities produced by the colony but consumed by wealthier nations; most of the land and business are owned by foreigners. With rap, the inner cities have become the raw sites of "cultural production" and the music then sold to the suburbs, to white youths who claim they can "relate" to those of the urban bantustans. If there is indeed a struggle for the control of rap, it is merely a battle between black gnats, for the war for the control of black music had been won many years ago by corporate America, aided and abetted by black leadership that has never understood the cultural and economic significance of its own culture.

Kevin K. Gaines, the author of Uplifting the Race, argues that most black leaders (spokesmen and women and intellectuals) have had a condescending attitude toward the black lower classes, urban and rural; the black elite's world view has been built on a white, bourgeois Victorian model of comportment that internalized white beliefs about blacks and race. Gaines noted that although the black elite was outraged at whites' lucrative expropriations of black culture...," they "extolled Victorian and European cultural ideals and looked with disapproval, if not covert and guilty pleasure, upon such emergent black cultural forms as ragtime, blues [and] jazz..." Black leaders' ideas about "racial uplift," notwithstanding, were based on differentiating themselves from the black lower classes who were seen as "bringing down the race." Even today's so-called black public intellectuals use various codes to dissociate the "good black middle class" - themselves - from the "bad black under-class," which can be translated to hip hop. (Randall Kennedy's featured article in the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly is a spin on racial uplift; now it's about racial extrication based upon class positioning.) Such elitist attitudes have prevented middle-class blacks and black leadership from seeing the worth of their "own" folk culture that spawned the blues and other music forms from the lower classes, and it, black music, forms the base, the very foundation of the $12 billion music industry in the United States.

But there is a problem with black music: it is created by black people, particularly the rural and urban lower classes, and the black middle has always disdained those of their own race who are considered too Negroid, too black and too ignorant. Black musical forms have been "the juice" that has driven American musical expressions and whites have grown rich off of it. The problem has been that the black middle class has been too incompetent to champion and exploit (in the best sense of the word) its own folk culture and develop the geniuses that has produced black music. Instead, black music has never had an enlightened middle class leadership to give it a proper business footing. There has been no A. Philip Randolph or Thurgood Marshall in black music. The contempt for black artists is so palpable that even blacks have resorted to the same kind of rank exploitation that whites engage in.

Unfortunately, the history of black music has been a continuous one of whites' lucrative expropriation of black cultural forms. Black music has become a part of a structure of stealing that ranges from the minstrels shows of pre- Civil War America to white composers copying black jazz styles to white rockers covering original black R&B performer songs to segregating music by black performers as "race music" thus limiting their audience appeal to publishers stealing publishing credits to the nonpayment of royalties by record companies, etc. To be clear, black music forms are perhaps the single most critical foundation of American music which is a Creole hybrid of African and European influences, but the producers of such forms, blacks them- selves, brought over to the New World as black bodies to work for whites, have been viewed as either having no culture worthy of respect or having one that's worthy of rank exploitation and domination. This is the basis of the structure of stealing that other national groups - principally Anglo Saxons (slavery), Irish (minstrelsy), Jews (Hollywood, record industry) Italians (mob influence) - have participated in regard to black music forms. American individualism not withstanding, American society is made up of economic classes and ethnic blocs, of which a black individual can only achieve so much because he or she is a member of a weak group. "Hence, the individual Negro has," argued Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, "proportionately, very few rights indeed because his ethnic group (whether or not he actually identifies with it) has very little political, economic or social power (beyond moral grounds) to wield."

The theft of black music has been so blatant and pervasive that a Rhythm and Blues Foundation was set up in 1994, with $1 million contributed by the Atlantic Foundation of Atlantic Records, Time-Warner and other music industry organizations. The foundation was set up to assist R&B artists of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, who have been "victims of poor business practices, bad management and unscrupulous record companies," wrote The New York Times. The money contributed by those record firms (which have been gobbled up by larger concerns) is a fraction of the amount of money that white-controlled record firms have made off of black artists, directly or indirectly by holding on to some of these artists' back catalogues.

Because black leaders have ignored the early years of black music development, others have come into the black community and have established a foothold before them. Even during slavery whites were dissing black folks by the back-handed compliment of minstrelsy, they just couldn't ignore the creativeness of blacks but knew "how to grow rich off of black fun," as one minstrel poseur put it. Motown was that rare exception of black control but didn't come into existence until the late fifties (and even today it is basically a shell; a mere label of Polygram, a foreign company; an expensive footnote in music history when it recently sold a 50% interests in its catalogue to EMI for $132 million). The sniping about Jews "controlling" the music business clouds over the fact that blacks have often ignored the "cultural capital" potential of blues, jazz, and R&B until it was too late. The same can be said about hip hop; it was the independents labels not Motown that produced the initial acts and the major labels rushed in when they saw the staying power of the music and that young whites were buying it. During the twenties, according to Amiri Baraka in Blues People, when Harry Pace, the owner of Black Swan Records, began selling blues, he was castigated by the black middle class for not selling music that was more racially uplifting. When jazz began circulating through the speakeasies of America during the 20s and via the new communication technology of the day, the radio, "the big brain" denizens of the Harlem Renaissance couldn't figure it out. As cited by Nathan Huggins in his Harlem Renaissance:

"Harlem intellectuals promoted Negro art, but one thing is very curious, except for Langston Hughes, none of them took jazz - the new music - seriously. Of course, they all mentioned it as background, as descriptive of Harlem life. All said it was important in the definition of the New Negro. But none thought enough about it to try and figure out what was happening. They tend to view it as a folk art - like the spirituals and the dance - the unrefined source for the new art. Men like James Weldon Johnson and Alain Locke expected some race genius to appear who would transform that source into high culture...[T]he promoters of the Harlem Renaissance were so fixed on a vision of high culture that they did not look very hard or well at jazz."

The black intelligentsia of that era could no more accept the folk reality of its own folk culture than the white intelligentsia could accept the black basis of American culture, that American society is a creolized one, pre- dating multiculturalism. Jazz and blues were urban and rural expressions of working class blacks, but the black intelli- gentsia, trained in the aesthetics of the dominant society and unable to produce a cultural philosophy its own, neglected a very vital music in hopes of it becoming something else. There was a market there, for blacks were buying five to six million discs yearly in 1925 and in 1926 the record business reached $128 million dollars in sales, and did not reach that high point again until after the Second World War.