On June 6, as massive Black Lives Matter protests were sweeping the world, Westword published a piece titled "Are Mass Protests Happening Because Live Entertainment Is Not?” In it, Kyle Harris cynically argued: "We are witnessing what happens when a population can’t go out, when consumerism and entertainment don’t dominate our lives, when we aren’t wildly distracted from the brutal social and political conditions in which we live, when we can't cheer because an artist finds a new way to say fuck the police."
This article ignores generations of Black activists and artists who have worked to stop police abuse and violence against Black people in the United States. Missing that context, it undermines the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s true, many people who have not been privy to police violence and racism and are content with the status quo might be in the streets today because they have been stuck at home bored. But these protests aren't happening simply because the entertainment industry is on pause.
Black people have been speaking out, fighting against police violence and racism, and working toward equity in this unequal society for generations. We've been protesting in the streets. We've been organizing petitions. We've been advocating for legislative reform.
From the Thirteenth Amendment to Colorado’s Law Enforcement Integrity Act, which Governor Jared Polis plans to sign into law, changes are happening because people have been showing up for the struggle — before and after COVID-19 shut down the entertainment industry.
The numbers we’re seeing in the streets now are born from an economic system — which was designed to oppress Black lives — that lost its footing under COVID-19. In normal times, this is a system that forces us to work nonstop so that we don’t have time and resources to rise up or participate in social change. Now, we have time, and the multiracial 99 percent is taking on the longstanding injustice of a white-supremacist class system
It’s urgent, because the rights and powers that Black and Brown people have already gained through legislation haven’t erased the white-supremacist ideologies and racist beliefs that are woven into the fabric of the American psyche. These ideas are subtly reinforced by practices, policies, stereotypes and storylines in the entertainment industry. As a culture, we are often fed imagery and narratives that reinforce white-supremacist ideology by an industry rife with racial disparities on the business end.
Westword would do better to report about the injustices and progress in the entertainment industry than offering half-baked speculations about why people are protesting now. After all, we are also challenging the racial inequalities in those industries, which have failed to address race and class and offer people without firsthand experience with injustice the full social, cultural and political context that has led to these mass protests.
In recent weeks, media companies in Colorado and beyond have pledged to address and stamp out systemic racist practices within their companies. The Universal Music Group label Republic Records recently announced that the organization will discontinue its use of the term “urban” to define Black music. This change was specifically encouraged by Tyler, the Creator’s very public Grammy speech at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards ceremony about the use of the word and how it marginalizes Black artists.
Despite those gains, there is still much work to be done.
Sony Music, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records have all been some of the world’s worst propagators of racist policy and practice. These industry giants have never had significant numbers of minority representation in their executive boardrooms, despite their own admissions that each company’s success was built on the backs of Black musicians.
Excessively wealthy white executives famously lure Black artists into signing deals and contracts that are unfair, at best. The industry makes billions in profits as a whole, while the Black creators who drive music culture are too often robbed of their fair share of the wealth.
This manifestation of white supremacy in the industry trickles down to every local music venue that refuses to book Black talent or institutes policies that discourage Black patrons from coming. These white-owned establishments employ, wield and manipulate both Black and white “gatekeepers” (booking agents, promoters, talent buyers, security agents, etc.). They intentionally market to white people and drum up racist dress codes and policies in the name of “safety.”
Black-owned venues and clubs are regularly closed over “public-safety concerns” regarding any and all crime happening in their vicinity, while white-owned establishments routinely deal with unabashed violence and menacing within and outside their walls with no consequence.
Local Black artists are routinely corralled into the same handful of establishments, which are often still white-owned. Gatekeepers of each establishment routinely undercut these artists out of profit while relying on these culture drivers to maximize personal gains. Black artists are too often preyed on in pay-to-play schemes, while critiques of racist booking policies are written off as “how the business works.”
In the face of this white-supremacist industry, Black and Brown creators and workers in Denver’s live entertainment industry have a long tradition of speaking out against racial inequities. With Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood at the epicenter of the intersection between Black activism and the arts in Denver, contemporary leaders in the community carry a torch with a hundred-year-old flame. That is in the face of historic redlining and, more recently, predatory gentrification that has treated our community as pawns for profit.
There was Leroy Smith, who fought for social equity in Denver’s entertainment culture. He was a jazz promoter and record store owner who obtained the first gun-retail license for a Black-owned business, turning Rhythm Records into Rhythm Records & Sporting Goods in 1939.
Otha Patrick and Irene Rice, owners of the jazz center Rice Tap Room & Oven, were well known for their activism, co-producing the city’s first Juneteenth celebration in Denver. Clarence Holmes and Fairfax Holmes hosted spirited discussions about racism, the poetry of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance at the anti-segregationist Cosmopolitan Club, the only Black mountain resort west of the Mississippi in the 1920s. The resort is home to historic landmark Winks Lodge. Charles Burrell, celebrated as the first-ever Black member of a major American symphony (then called the Denver Symphony Orchestra, now known as the Colorado Symphony), also played in Colorado’s first integrated jazz trio, the Al Rose Trio.
More recently, hundreds of creatives are still on the front lines of the fight for justice. There’s Bianca Mikahn, a poet and musician who serves as the program manager of Creative Strategies for Change, a Denver arts and culture organization devoted to social justice; DJ Cavem Moetivation, the rapper/DJ/educator, who leads the EcoHipHop movement that encourages the creation of community gardens as sustainable, vegan food sources in the Black community; poet and healer LadySpeech; spoken-word artist Suzi Q. Smith; MC, playwright and actor Jeff Campbell; and trumpeter Wesley Watkins. These artists, and so many more, are leading the Denver movement for racial equity with creations steeped in nuanced, raw and cutting truth.
To ignore decades of creatives who have struggled for social justice and all the work of these current creative leaders, to waive off the political urgency of this moment and write off the global uprising that is asserting that Black Lives Matter as a product of boredom — is to fail to appreciate context, history and the very real racist economic circumstances fueling this moment.
Privilege is accompanied by a lack of context, and this line of questioning — ”Are Mass Protests Happening Because Live Entertainment Is Not?” — oozes with white privilege.
Racism operates in every aspect of our society, from law enforcement to the music industry to journalism. We demand better. That’s why mass protests are happening. Period.
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