“When you control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in It.”
—Carter G. Woodson
Simply put, black music is black people’s heirloom; birthed through an amalgam of African musical retentions and the synthesis of what it meant and means to be Africans in America. Whether it’s been used to foretell of opportunities to escape bondage or for the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers to travel the world in order to raise the funds used to construct Fisk University’s first permanent building, the marriage of melodies creates compositions that reveal what is most coveted by our community.
I’ve lived long enough to take as many Saturday afternoon trips to the local mom & pop record shop as I have clicked on my laptop or iPhone to purchase vinyl and CDs and to download or stream new music. My purchases and previews have ranged from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s socio-political masterpiece “The Message” to Future’s instruction to “F@#k Up Some Commas” in pursuit of heavy paper. During this time, the text of songs by men to women have devolved from The Whispers’ “Chocolate Girl” into LoveRance’s “I Beat the P#%%y Up.” As the company slogan coined by Philadelphia International Records’ co-founder Kenneth Gamble proclaims, “There’s a Message in the Music.”
Like most entertainment executives, I’m often asked why the messages in the words and images of black music, as well as the sales, have so drastically changed. The answer is simple: From creativity to commerce, the way our community thinks of itself and what it values are the raw materials from which the music and its possibilities are built. Whoever and whatever controls a man’s thinking has the ability to shape his identity and control his actions.
Take a few minutes to play back in your mind various songs from the canon of black music and you will find yourself immersed in recordings that reflect the sentiments of thought leaders whose vision impacted the community and inspired those songs. When James Brown and his bandleader Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis created the anthem, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” they were drawing upon the raw materials of self-determination espoused by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., as well as the ideologies advanced in Elijah Muhammad’s book, Message to the Blackman in America. Likewise, Marvin Gaye’s always-relevant refrain of “Only love can conquer hate” (from What’s Going On”) mirrored parts of a Sunday sermon delivered by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who exclaimed, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The list goes on.
I recall an executive once speaking about young black talent managers and stating, “These guys aren’t real managers. One day they’re hanging out drinking beer with the artist and the next day they’re the manager.”
The potential we see and possibilities we create for one another are the raw materials from which opportunities to build our collective success are made. The combination of our music and the rise of telecommunication systems brought black voices and faces to an even broader audience. In the decades that followed, the spirit of self-determination, our belief in and proximity to one another helped produced entrepreneurs ranging from Berry Gordy to Dick Griffey, whose fearlessness and vision gave rise to talent ranging from Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder to Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis; Queen Latifah and Shakim Compere, the latter of which provided opportunity and occupational experience to a host of young black creative and executive talent, including Michael “Blue” Williams, Lynn Scott and me.
The music industry wasn’t the only industry to realize the market possibilities of our community’s raw materials and talent. Some of our community’s members found opportunities that allowed them to make money and never look back. Those left behind felt and feel the sting of abuse and abandonment of failing schools, lead-infested homes and an array of failing infrastructure. Cities like Baltimore, Ferguson and Flint provide pointed examples of what this looks like. In traditional American fashion, many see money and fame—often without power and usually gained at the expense of their peers and their identity—as an escape from poverty. Money matters. But real power is the ability to dictate when, where, how and by whom it will be made. Pursuits of instant financial and sexual gratification saturate many of our songs. As a result, tales of escape through consumption, hallucinogens and “all types of drugs,” along with the pursuit of instant financial and sexual gratification, now oversaturate the text of many of our songs.
Technology has exploded during the past 15 years, quickly replacing if not altering many of the institutions of industrialization. It took 38 years before 50 million people gained access to radios on which to possibly hear black music Instagram reached the same number of users in its first 18 months and currently boasts of 500 million monthly active users. Industries that once provided employment and growth opportunity for all communities have dwindled. The impact has been profound for black folks; changing everything from educational to recreational and professional opportunities. Black music as a business has experienced something strikingly similar. Despite the promise of making America great again, the reopening of Bethlehem Steel in a place like Baltimore, for example, is as unrealistic as the rebirth of street teams, Tower Records and black music divisions in their most memorable forms.
Because my love of black people and black music rests within my personal and professional core, I find the state of both to be intolerable—but not inescapable. Our collective success and the condition of both starts and ends with the way we value and think of ourselves. Valuing both means that in addition to making money, we are all tasked to have a thorough understanding of our present affairs and history, in addition to mastering technology in ways that will allow us to create platforms that project our culture in empowering ways. I’m talking ways that are not limited to leveraging gossip and ratchet videos for the exclusive purpose of selling banner ads and mentions that reinforce the idea that black lives and preparedness don’t really matter on black-owned websites.
The next generation of thought leaders is in our neighborhoods, the next leaders of the black music and entertainment industries are emerging online. Realizing continued success means maintaining a tactile relationship with the people and places that need our money, time, talent and testimonies. They are the road map for success. Our music not only entertains, it reflects who we are and, in many ways, where we are going. It has the potential to provide us with purpose and the plans required to achieve multi-generational prosperity. Because if we don’t act upon the way we see the social, economic and political possibilities created through the coupling of black music and black people, someone else will.