As a young Black male in the USA, the Record Industry has a pretty limited preconceived notion of "who I am" as a potential artist or consumer. As an artist, there frankly isn't a whole lot of room for a bruh in the biz to be anything other than: a) A Hip Hop Thug, or b) An R&B Crooner. Mind you I'm not talking about behind-the-scenes positions, producers, agents, label execs etc. I'm saying that if you are a young Afro-Descendente looking to get signed to a major label, without fitting into one of those two categories the pickings get real slim, real quick. Take a minute and think about contemporary Black artists you see in the mainstream and perhaps you'll see the trend I'm talking about.
What's more interesting even than the place of artists, though is that of Black consumers. I hear people talk all the time about how Hip Hop is the "voice of the youth" and reflects what young Black kids care about. Whenever I hear someone make a statement along these lines I can't help but ponder the most effective way to persuade a person to voluntary chew on an old sock.
Hip Hop IS a powerful force no doubt, and many of us who came of "artistic age" in the Hip Hop community will probably go to our graves with a rhyme on our lips. But Hip Hop as represented in mainstream American culture is NOT necessarily the voice of Black youth. To understand why, it's worth taking a quick trip back in time. In 1971 the Columbia Records Group commissioned a report from Harvard Business School titled "A Study of the Soul Music Environment," affectionately known in the Industry as the Harvard Report. Released in 1972, it made a number of recommendations on how CRG could move into the Black music business. If you want to get deep into the implications of it, check out the four parts of this article.
For our purposes today, the main thing to note is that the Harvard Report identified a trend in music that charted on the "race" music charts, crossing over to the Top 40 charts. It noted the cost efficiencies of marketing music to a smaller demographic (ie. the Black community), and in effect recommended that these communities be used as a kind of "farm league" for identifying & validating artists, which could then be marketed to a mainstream audience. The basic recommendations from the Harvard Report became the blueprint for the eventual creation of Black music divisions by all the major labels.
While Hip Hop is a global cultural phenomenon, rooted in voices from Black communities, the marketing of Hip Hop is designed to reach far beyond those communities. And if you want to sell a lot of rap music to suburban White teens, you're going to have an easier time selling sex & violence, than Five Percenter philosophy. In other words, the Industry built around Hip Hop has a distorting effect on what "Hip Hop" is, at least in the mainstream. If you want to to rap about guns, girls & drugs there's an infrastructure there to promote what you do. If you want to rap about just about anything else...not so much. And don't mess around and think you're gonna' rock an electric guitar & step outside the boundaries of what "Black" kids are supposed to play.
Ultimately, I don't know how much you can blame the Record Industry for selling something people want to buy, or artists for creating it, whether you or I think it's "authentic" or not. But what do you do when people stop buying the stereotypical BS the business has been selling them for decades? You could always sue your customers, and create oppressive legislation to choke off the advance of technology. Or you could build a better business model.
In the end what we are doing is not only about challenging the Industry, it's also about challenging the limited vision the Industry has of who "we" are.
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