If you follow bands and musical artists or record companies or musical management agencies you probably saw a lot of black screens on your feed this week. If you follow my radio show Music Sin Fronteras on Blogtalkradio you saw a black screen on our Instagram feed. Of course this was Blackout Tuesday, a national – and to some degree international – spontaneous collective action to protest the long running problems of racism and police brutality in America. It was the music industry’s way of saying, forcefully, “we stand with George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and all of the people risking their lives and limbs to use their Constitutional right to redress grievances with their government.”
Blackout Tuesday was organized by Atlantic Records music executives Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas , building on their original online initiative #The ShowMustBePaused in response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. The idea went beyond the black square – or some cases a short video about #TheShowMustBePaused – to pledging not release music, promote music, produce livestreams or other music business activities for the day. Instead of their usual social media promotion, some producers and artists ran black screens or symbolic video programming for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time Derek Chauvin took to kill George Floyd’s by crushing his neck with his knee.
Some people have asked what did Blackout Tuesday accomplish, noting that it had no impact on police actions or the White House. I think it accomplished a lot. First of all, it said loud and clear “you will not dominate us” to the White House and the Secretary of Defense and the police chiefs who think they can solve 400 years of racism by using the riot cops and the army to attack and arrest protestors in the streets. There are a lot of places besides the street to protest now, and music, as always, is one of them.
The recorded music industry was worth $19.1 billion in 2018 and when the numbers are all in for last year it will likely have hit $21 billion, an almost 10% growth rate when global business only rose by 7.4%. A lot of that growth was propelled by Black artists and Black music. And it is powerful, making campaign contributions and fielding squads of lobbyists. But more important, it affects how people see the world and how they interact with it. “We Shall Overcome” is an anthem at almost every rally and march in America, along with many other anthems. Music can power revolution – just ask members of the former East German Communist government who watched the Berlin wall fall when rock and roll invaded their county.
Atlantic executives Aygyemang and Thomas said that Blackout Tuesday, “… is not just a 24-hour initiative. We are and will be in this fight for the long haul. A plan of action will be announced.” I don’t know what the plan of action is or what future stages will be, but when an industry as large and powerful and influential as the music industry decides to engage in social change, something will happen.
Historically, social change has only happened when the oppressed convince their oppressors that they have the willingness and the capability to do them serious harm, and violence is usually necessary to make that point. The Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, the Mexican Revolution (both of them) our own Revolutionary War are examples of what happens when an oppressed people have finally had enough and will not be intimidated. What is happening on the streets of Washington, Los Angeles, New York and across the country is not violence – except for the police response. Wall Street is not aflame, corporate executives are not hanging from lamp posts, the White House has not been invaded and people dragged out and beaten. What is happening in the US bears little resemblance to the revolutions that have changed societies and systems of oppression.
Part of that is because our founding fathers and mothers were smart enough to create a Constitution that made free speech, assembly and petitioning the government basic, inviolable rights. We have avenues to protest – not always effective and not always honored, but we are not at the whim of an authoritarian behemoth like the protestors in Hong Kong face every day.
And we have music. We can sing, boost each other with songs, inspire millions, sing while we march, spray paint lyrics on buildings, post black squares on Instagram and marshal a $20 billion industry to help defend our freedom and protect our lives. Blackout Tuesday did not stop the police teargas (which is highly injurious no matter what the police say) so the President could get a phony photo op for his evangelical base (not all of whom were happy about it), nor did it stop the NYPD from attacking journalists or the LAPD Police Chief from blaming protestors for police murders of black people. But it did show the authoritarians that Americans will not be intimidated. We will sing.
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