Words by Susanna Eastburn MBE
It’s now the fourth year that Sound and Music has marked Black History Month as a springboard for a raft of activity, this year including paid opportunities, a new research residency, the spotlighting of Black composers and music creators and discussion events. We want to foreground and celebrate the achievements and contributions of Black artists and composers in the UK as part of the positive theme of this year’s Black History Month, “Proud To Be”, which aims to encourage Black and Brown people to share what they are proud to be, and honours the incredible richness and diversity of Black and Brown heritage in the UK.
To accompany all of this, we have (for the fourth time) released data relating to artists and composers from Black (and Asian and ethnically diverse) backgrounds applying to our programmes and opportunities. This year we have enriched this data still further by including data relating to gender, geography, age, educational background and whether this was their first approach to Sound and Music. And we have looked at the data of those we select to work with us, to see what is happening there.
To start with the good news. We have made progress. In 2021, 5% of all applicants to our programmes and opportunities were Black (compared to 1.2% in 2015, and against a national population average of 3%). In terms of those we selected for our programmes, this rises to 12% Black artists. This has happened entirely on merit. Quite simply, we are seeing more exceptionally strong Black artists and applications come through.
What is behind this progress? We believe that it is a mix of factors. Role models and increased visibility appear to be hugely important. Aspiring applicants see the diversity of artists and composers we have supported. We invite artists back to support us on selection panels and advisory groups. All our online platforms foreground an incredibly wide range of artists and music.
Publishing our data annually has been a huge help in focussing our attention (and we are still one of the very few organisations that do this). It means we can be held to account — that prospective applicants can see that we really mean what we say — and it roots our work in transparency.
However. This is also a time for continued action to tackle the individual and systemic racism that so many still face in our industry. As a highly privileged middle-aged white woman myself, I cannot pat myself on the back at our progress as a national organisation when there is still so much change that is desperately needed. And so much listening (and conscious letting go of power and control) that needs to be done by my peers and me.
Last week saw the publication of Black Lives in Music’s report on the findings of a survey undertaken earlier this year into the experiences of Black artists and professionals in the music industry. Please go and read this important report. It shares some stark findings:
- 86% of all Black music creators agree that there are barriers to progression. This number rises to 89% for Black Women and 90% for Black creators who are disabled
- More than 3 in 5 Black music creators have experienced racism and more (71%) have experienced racial microaggressions
- There is a significant pay gap between Black and White artists
- 35% of Black artists (rising to 43% of Black Women who are artists) have felt pressure to change their appearance because of their race/ethnicity
- 31% of all Black music creators believe their mental wellbeing has worsened since starting their music career, rising to 42% of Black Women
So what are we going to do?
With our Fair Access Principles (which methodically dismantle many of the main barriers to opportunity) we have influenced change across the funded and charitable sector. Now that needs to go much further and deeper. Transparency of data is part of what needs to happen (and we’ll support the Fair Access Principles partners network with this) but it is culture change across the board that is needed.
We want to engage partners in the commercial sector with the Fair Access Principles and also use the Principles as a catalyst for examining and addressing some of the toxic attitudes and beliefs that still underpin so much of our industry. The BLiM report highlights the appalling impact these can have on the mental health and wellbeing of Black artists, particularly if they are Women.
I don’t know why we have been so reluctant to become a fairer, kinder industry that respects and takes care of its talented artists, but we can make things better — together. We owe huge thanks to Charisse, Roger and the Black Lives in Music team for their incredible work and support but we need to own the responsibility to change.