Black Lives in Music: Working towards a truly representative music industry

Black Lives In Music launched in March 2021 with the mission to amplify and empower black musicians and professionals. BLIM’s key goals are to act as a catalyst for meaningful change, provide opportunities for musicians at grassroots level, support and empower black artists and advocate for equality in the music industry.

Today, we talk to co-founder, musician and teacher Roger Wilson. We explore the challenges faced by musicians of colour, what real change actually looks like, what practical steps smaller companies can take to embed Diversity and Inclusion values in their businesses, and how the MI industry can get involved and support some of BLiM’s current projects and activities.

Roger will also be joining us this week at the ‘Bringing the Industry Together‘ event taking place this week, where you can hear more from him about the work of BLiM, its impact, and why it matters.

Q: Black Lives in Music aims to address the systemic barriers that prevent many people from, for example, being given the opportunity to learn to play an instrument or build a career in music because of their ethnicity. Can you share some insights into some of the challenges faced by musicians of colour? What is BLiM’s strategy to confront these issues?  

There are real barriers to progress for people of colour in the industry. The recent Music Mark report suggests that 98.8% of composers contributing to the ABRSM music exam syllabus are white. There are very few musical instrument teachers from the wider ethnically diverse community and just as scant are the numbers of people of colour working in administrative roles for national music hubs. With under 3% of conservatoire professors from Black, Asian or ethnically diverse backgrounds, there is, more generally, a real paucity of colour in the industry – it’s difficult to aspire without role models to look up to.

It’s particularly noticeable in the classical music sector and more noticeable at higher levels in the commercial sector. These sectors are essentially white spaces. The musicians of colour making their way into the profession are subject to a challenging experience. It’s difficult to be the only one or one of only a few who look like you in any space.

For people of colour and those from marginalised communities that experience can include micro-aggression, implicit bias and structural prejudice. Black Lives in Music are working at all levels of the music food chain to bring about understanding, stimulate thought, help revise systems and help our partners embrace change. We use data gathering as well as provide a critical friend to work with our partners.

Q: Black Lives in Music wants to support the music community to act on and achieve diversity and inclusion objectives for a truly representative music industry. What does real change actually look like?

Unfortunately, I don’t think real change is anything we will see soon. Grassroot opportunities need to improve to a level that everyone can have a chance to learn to play an instrument. Presently, the systems within organisations still stack the odds against the underdog. I’m talking about orchestra auditions, administrative roles and just as importantly, culture change. Some people think it’s good enough to just think they are not racist, but everyone needs to be a part of the change that needs to take place – everyone needs to play their part, we all need to invest in a better future.

I do believe most organisations are somewhere on the pathway to making change – just not very far down that pathway. Unfortunately, some are yet to take the first step and think that prejudice doesn’t exist and rather believe that being successful is more about being a good fit – these individuals have a blind spot to their own privilege and don’t understand the very real barriers to progress for people of colour. Real change means representation in all areas and at all levels of organisations in our sector. It means diverse audiences attending performances in all genres and with a sense of real belonging. It means a culture change that recognises the rich contribution made to all forms of music made by music creators from all cultures. It means the scenario where all children and young people can aspire to achieve and have a realistic chance of doing so on the basis of their talent and not being precluded from progress on the basis of their skin colour. We must all aspire to do better to achieve all of the above.

Q: ​Many instrument retailers, manufacturers and suppliers across the UK will want to be supportive of BLiM; however, many MIA members are small enterprises trading in very challenging times. What practical steps can smaller companies take to embed Diversity and Inclusion values in their businesses?   

A: Think about their staff. Where opportunities arise, please make sure you recruit a diverse team. Think hard about the wider community and try to be representative in your company and its work.  Any images in your shop should reflect and acknowledge the cultural mix of the national demographic, even if you are in an area where the cultural mix is not as rich!

Please make sure the stock you sell reflects the interests of the wider community; everyone’s money has the same value! Be mindful of cultural practises, of how your responses and approach can welcome or alienate aspects of community. We all have bias, (all of us!) we need to acknowledge that and understand how that might affect us in the best interests of diversity and inclusion with regards to the community we serve. Self-educate – there are a lot of resources out there that can help to keep you and your company aware and understanding of diversity and how to be a part of the wider effort to build an inclusive community. Lastly, ask yourself how you can support the musicians and music lovers of tomorrow.  What can you do to support even one person to love music or play an instrument? Your support counts!

Q: Roger, how did you become involved with Black Lives in Music and what are the key plans for fulfilling the organisation’s mission over the coming months?

BLiM was precipitated by a lifetime of experience for me as a Black person. It’s about my experience as a young person, a young musician and a professional in the business. It’s about understanding the shared experiences of fellow Black individuals and Black professionals. I had a challenging upbringing, but music really was my salvation and can be for so many more people if we work together. Music can do so much for a young person.  Even if you don’t grow up to become a professional musician, it can help you in areas such as developing interpersonal skills, self-confidence, self-esteem and generally helping you to develop the skills you will need to join society as a responsible adult – there’s nothing there not to like!

Support for better opportunities for people of colour in the music sector from grassroots onwards is important for so many obvious reasons. This has been a sentiment in my mind for a long time, but I wasn’t sure that I would ever be able to get my voice heard in the spaces where people might listen and be able to help.  It was really meeting co-founder Charisse Beaumont that enabled me to believe this was all possible.  We worked together to design a model of working to effect change. It involves all aspects of the industry working together in a multi-agency approach.  We are working with a host of partners to make change and very proud of this too.  We’re presently working on a national mentoring scheme.  We hope to have more details of that very soon.

Q: Tell us how people can get involved or support some of BLiM’s current projects and activities?  

I’ve already suggested how retailers might get involved, but we can all do something as individuals too. Are we ok being in spaces void of colour?  Live events, concerts, musical activities of any description, let’s please open our eyes and speak up when the playing field fails to look level and inclusive – call prejudice out!

Core to the major problem is the lack of opportunities for young people of colour to get involved in music making, they are some of tomorrow’s musicians, they are also some of tomorrow’s audiences. Music hubs are supporting music making for the haves, the have nots continue to go without. We know how much learning to play a musical instrument can do for young people.  Not just musically but also, in terms of enabling them with the building blocks that prepare them for adult life.

I’d love to see MIA suppliers get more involved in supporting with donations of instruments, sheet music and accessories where they can.  Equally, just please be advocates of our work and the change that’s now long overdue.  If you have the capacity, reach out and let’s get our heads together – working in collaboration is always better.

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