The Misrepresentation and Underrepresentation of Black Artists

Today, Tuesday 2nd June is supposed to be music industry ‘Blackout Tuesday’ for ‘#theshowmustbepaused’, a day of media silence in recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, I’m not sure how helpful that silence is when we could all be using our voices to instead give exposure to underrepresented and misrepresented black voices in the music industry.

Ever since the 90s, there has been an outright stereotype of black artists only making music that is violent or misogynistic. Gang violence, murder, and ‘East Coast vs. West Coast’ rivalries were a major part of the rap scene fronted by artists like Notorious BIG and Tupac at the time, and the negative attention often overshadowed the important messages in the music.

Messages of a need for equality, black pride, and black empowerment were largely overlooked because media knew that shootings and rivalries sold more newspapers, and record labels knew that it sold more records. The focus was on the bravado and perceived excitement of gang life, rather than the important messages that needed to be heard to help make real, positive change.

In the 2000s, the charts were flooded with misogyny from artists like 50 Cent and Kanye West, while we had pure, child-friendly pop coming from Disney acts like Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus. But where were the black kids in Disney? Where was the all-black boyband singing innocent love songs? Black kids weren’t being chosen for these platforms.

The only representation we were seeing of black artists was the music parents didn’t want their children listening to. The stuff with the ‘parental guidance’ logo on it that was censored for the radio. This wasn’t the only music being made by black artists, but it was the only music being given any attention or promotion.

There was seemingly no place for a black artist who didn’t sing or rap about women being objects, or drugs, money, and guns. Because that was the stereotype that labels were so comfortable with going along with in order to sell records to suburban teens and people who wanted an insight into a lifestyle that they perceived as exciting. It kept black people as ‘black people: the stereotypes. The drug dealers, the gang members, the degenerates’, and not ‘black people: your friends and equals. The doctors, the lawyers, the teachers’.

Even Eminem was being branded as somehow more ‘wholesome’ than his genre peers. A funny man with political lyrics that everyone should listen to and take note of. But back in the 90s, Tupac’s political lyrics were either ignored or seen as something negative. This double standard is another injustice that many black artists face.

For example, when my own black father released a song in 1992 that included references to cannabis, despite it becoming a chart success, many radio stations refused to play it, even though its drug references were pretty tame in comparison to The Beatles who managed to get several songs about harder drugs than cannabis onto the radio in the 60s.

Even more recently, Madonna managed to release an album called MDNA – an obvious reference to the drug, and also managed to get away with asking how many people in the crowd at Ulta Music Festival were on drugs, in an attempt to somehow attach herself to dance music culture, while actually reinforcing the negative stereotypes of hard drug-taking in dance music culture.

The same stereotypes of dance music culture that existed back in the 90s rave scene. My dad, as a black man, would have been in trouble for inciting drug use at a major mainstream festival back then.

It does feel like progress is starting to be made, and labels are finally starting to present a different view of black men, away from the negative stereotypes, and finally, after decades, allowing the unheard voices that actively seek to change stereotypes through music, to do so.

We had a monumental breakthrough with the rise of emo rap and artists like Lil Tracey and Juice Wrld who offered something different. Something that hadn’t been explored in the mainstream: that fact that yes, black people can suffer from depression too, and write songs about it. Black men can be sensitive, and show emotion.

But that whole scene was soon flooded and watered down by Idiocracy-style dumbed down lyrical offerings like ‘Gucci Gang’ by Lil Pump, which served absolutely no cultural importance or depth, and served no other purpose than being fun songs to put on a Vine or Tik Tok video for young girls to shake their asses to. The narrative was back on track.

Stormzy advocates for mental health – which is especially important seeing as black men are far more likely to be diagnosed with severe mental health issues – and is unafraid to admit his own struggles. He isn’t afraid to appear vulnerable and challenges the idea that, as a black man, if you have mental health struggles, you should hide it in fear of appearing weak.

He actively discourages gang culture, and actively encourages black youth to focus on education and attend university – a world away from the glamorisation of gang culture and drugs that were commonplace in rap 10 years ago.

But, there is still a long way to go in changing perceptions of black people and black culture through music, and a lot of damage has already been done. The music that painted a picture of violence, gang culture, and drugs helped to perpetuate the long-standing negative ideas of black people and black culture, and in turn, helped to keep racism alive.

In the early 2000s, Sony was releasing 50 Cent’s music – with songs about ‘Thug Life’ and making money through illegal means, while releasing NSYNC’s ‘innocent angelic boyband’ music. They were not releasing music by ‘innocent angelic’ black youth, and they were not presenting white artists as ‘thugs’. This set a very harmful narrative.

Not only are black artists being misrepresented and stereotyped through music, but they’re also being underrepresented in certain genres, too. While the rock and metal community has largely done quite well in celebrating black artists (which we sadly don’t have very many of) and making gigs and festivals a safe and inclusive space for everybody (of course, sadly with some exceptions), country is a genre that has struggled.

Many people aren’t even aware that there are black country artists out there. Lil Nas X wasn’t anything new, but he was the first to be recognised on a large scale. For decades, black country artists have tried to break through, to no avail.

In 2018, mixed-race country artist Kane Brown was nominated for 13 awards by multiple organisations, and won an impressive seven of them. However, the Country Music Awards didn’t nominate him for a single thing.

He has stated, “People assume I’m a rapper,” because of the stereotype that black people only make and only listen to rap, and because of the underrepresentation of  black people in country music. We don’t often see black or mixed-race country artists on TV, or in the charts. But why, when for many black and mixed-race people growing up in the southern states of the US, country music is just as much a part of their culture as it is for a white person?

The fact that he and black country singer Jimmie Allen both reached the no. 1 spot in charts in the same week back in 2018 goes to show that things definitely are changing, but there is for sure a long way to go.

When I was growing up, amongst my peers at school, music was split into ‘black music’ and ‘white music’. As a mixed-race person, I was seen as ‘uncool’ for listening to ‘white music’ – rock and alternative. I always found it so wrong that the black girls saw rock and alternative as ‘white music’ when some of the greatest rock musicians of all time have been black. Rock n roll was created by black people but brought to the mainstream by labels making Elvis the poster-boy of it.

Looking back, it’s sad that black girls possibly felt they didn’t have a place in the world of rock. Or that they’d be ostracised by their black peers, and ostracised by white people, too, for listening to it.

There is absolutely no space for race boundaries in music, and I’m happy to be seeing progress with more and more black fans and black artists in rock and country, even if that progress is still small, for now.

So here are just some black and mixed-race artists from the world of rock, alternative, metal, and country: