Racism is baked into the foundation of the modern music industry. The business took the first steps to grapple with its role in perpetuating and profiting from racism last year, when Jamila Thomas (now at Motown Records) and Brianna Agyemang (Platoon) launched a movement called #TheShowMustBePaused shortly after the murder of George Floyd.
“Our mission is to hold the industry at large, including major corporations + their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of black people accountable,” they wrote on their website last year. “It is the obligation of these entities to protect and empower the black communities that have made them disproportionately wealthy in ways that are measurable and transparent.”
The music industry responded by pausing work on June 2nd, 2020; and in the months since, labels and other major music companies scrambled to change course, hiring diversity and inclusion officers, forming task forces to examine racial injustice in the workplace, and pledging hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to social justice organizations. (Though a recent piece by Vice suggested that only a small amount of that money has actually trickled out.)
Last August, The Show Must Be Paused issued a pointed list of demands; a road map for the music industry to follow if it was actually committed to substantive change. Thomas and Agyemang asked music companies to “provide a third-party public-facing audit and analysis of diversity statistics,” to “annually evaluate and report pay disparities that exist as it relates to race and gender,” and to “provide a system enabling any employee to report and track accountability for executives, assistants, artists or otherwise who are racist or perform unjust acts without retaliation,” among other things.
Agyemang and Thomas spoke with Rolling Stone about their efforts over the past year and the importance of continuing to hold multibillion-dollar music companies accountable for their actions on racial justice.
What do you view as the biggest accomplishments for The Show Must Be Paused over the last year?
Agyemang: I would say that just getting so many people to stop and pay attention has been such a big accomplishment. It’s something that the community has always been thinking about. Everyone has known things weren’t fair, but it’s one of those things where you’re born into it. So you don’t know if there’ll be much change. Or you don’t think there will be change until one day people are forced to pay attention. And I think that’s one of the most amazing things, to look back and be like, “This is a conversation that’s at the forefront of all companies and all businesses and even social circles.”
Thomas: Yes, I would definitely agree that the biggest accomplishment would definitely be getting the entire industry just to stop for a day, because that’s not the nature of the business. It’s always 365 and just 24/7. And for everyone to agree like that without hesitation to just stop, it had never happened before.
Another accomplishment is just a year later, being able to actually really work with partners directly, and them being able to stand in solidarity with us and be transparent about the work they’ve done. Because there are a lot of behind-the-scenes meetings and planning and things that go on as these [diversity and inclusion] officers and employees at these companies are working really hard to create new policies and introduce new hiring practices. And companies are donating money and they’re pushing, but I don’t think people really know what’s going on day to day.
Did you see good participation in the self-accountability report this week?
Thomas: The big three — Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and Sony — participated and posted on their socials their self-accountability report that we requested. Apple participated as well with a statement. 300 Entertainment participated as well; they also posted on their website a response. The Recording Academy, who participated also, were one of the first people to respond to the list of demands. So those are genuine partnerships and collaborations and conversations, and it’s important that we just keep going. We were very appreciative of them being willing to show the public just what their company has done internally, since we paused the show last year.
“This is not a political issue. This is a human rights issue. This is a people issue.”
One of the most important demands from The Show Must Be Paused was that you wanted someone to provide a third-party public-facing audit of diversity statistics. Have you seen progress in that area?
Thomas: The Recording Academy was very transparent about their numbers and they put them out last year. 300 put their information out last year. I think that some companies needed time, and that’s a big study and you can’t just put it out right away. But we do hope that as they gathered information and put together their long-term plans, that that information is included. I do think it’s important. So I look forward to seeing what they come up with.
You mentioned transparency before, and that does seem so important to making progress and gauging what progress is being made. But these major companies are often really averse to transparency — they do not want to share diversity statistics or reveal pay disparities. How do you navigate that tension?
Thomas: I think everybody needs to be transparent, and be honest about where they are as a company. I do understand that these major corporations just have different policies and procedures. But just because we haven’t seen it yet doesn’t mean that the information isn’t being gathered, and they’re not working to make progress.
It is difficult though. I understand what you mean: How do we know what’s being fixed? But I will say that when a major partner is a corporation, it is a lot to gather this worldwide information. I think Brianna and I just had to focus on who was open to conversations with us [and] who was willing to meet. And I will say that so far, the major corporations have been very open and willing to meet on a consistent basis. So I wouldn’t say we’re having difficulties as of yet. I think that it’s actually been well-received, to our surprise.
When trying to report on the music industry, a lot of times problems arise because there’s so much fear of retaliation. Is it difficult to push for change in an environment like that?
Agyemang: What also is beautiful that came out of last year was, the frustration and the sheer fatigue that everyone felt, so many other people felt the same way. Not everyone, but for the most part, there was this general sense of, “This isn’t okay.” And I think everyone realized that at that point. I think that that also helped with some of the conversations and made possible some of those hard conversations that had been under, “Oh we don’t discuss politics.” When it came to racial things, that type of layer of racial issues on politics, it got separated. Because this is not a political issue. This is a human rights issue. This is a people issue. And now we’re able to talk about it more and in everyday conversations. I think that has helped in regards to, “Everyone knows that this isn’t right, so let’s just figure out how to fix it.”
“We immediately just rose to the occasion because it wasn’t a time to be scared.”
Thomas: I will say that before we paused the show on the 2nd, there was probably some fear. But it’s clear that people felt the exact same way we did, because the minute someone just finally said something we got massive amounts of support. More than we would even imagine. So I will say that it just took someone to say something. And I think people saw that it was okay to be honest about how you feel and that you’re tired. And that the senseless murders that were happening was becoming too much and mental health was becoming something that needed to be addressed immediately. It was just all so much, that I think the fear went out the window.
Once Bri and I saw what was happening, we immediately just rose to the occasion because it wasn’t a time to be scared. And I would hope that people see that we’re still thriving professionally and honesty doesn’t mean that you have to lose it all. When you do what’s right, you just want to make sure you’re on the right side of history. The cards have worked out in your favor, but silence is never an option.
Agyemang: And it can’t be an option. I think we’re in this place right now where things just had to change, so we can’t just sit back anymore and watch. People are starting to realize that. We just can’t be quiet anymore.
I spoke to a black executive recently who had been very outspoken last summer but he felt that he had been ostracized at his company because of that. Have you heard of stories like that?
Thomas: I think that everyone’s experience is unique. But I will say that for our community, a lot of our members are getting promoted because of their hard work. Not because their job knows they’re in The Show Must Be Paused; it’s literally because of hard work, performance recognition, and because they deserve these positions. It may have just taken some pressure for companies to stop and restructure and just reevaluate how they’re doing things. But this is why we should all work together because that’s the stuff that Bri and I want to help with. We’re really big on community because no one’s alone in this fight. So it’s unfortunate that a year later someone still feels alone.
“We are a community and definitely don’t want anyone going through something and feeling alone.”
Agyemang: This isn’t to diminish his experience, because everyone lives in their truth. So if that’s his experience, then we of course want to be there to support and try to help provide any types of resources that we can, or outlets that we can for people who do experience things like that. Because we’re sure that he is not the only one, whether past or present. Part of our main thing is community. So we want to be there for people like that however we can help. We [held] our career fair earlier this year to help provide a pipeline to possible roles. We’ll continue to come up with different initiatives that help people get in, develop, and sustain. And that’s where we’re really just trying to be a resource to everyone here.
Thomas: We just have to be able to do it together. So if someone is experiencing that, that is the opposite of what we would hope someone’s going through and whoever it is, we hope they reach out. Because like Brianna said, we are a community and definitely don’t want anyone going through something and feeling alone. That is the opposite of what we stand for.
Another one of the key proposals that you guys laid out last year had to do with pay equality. Have you seen any movement from the partners in that area?
Thomas: I would say it’s a work in progress. They haven’t specifically shared what they’re paying people and how much they’re giving people raises. Like I said, we’ve gotten positive feedback just from colleagues and members in the community who are thriving in the workspace since the initial pause. And that positions are being created, because I think that companies are seeing where they have a void. So I would say we’re shattering the glass ceiling and more opportunities are becoming available. And I would hope that pay reflects that.
“We both say, ‘We’re not trying to boil the ocean, but we are it for the long haul.’”
I don’t know if you saw a recent article that found that music companies have only donated a tiny fraction of the money that they promised to spend on racial justice and equality. Does that concern you?
Agyemang: I think it happens with time. I think about the amount of money that was committed by all of the organizations and just the amount of organizations there are that actually cater to some of these causes. And I think that it does take time to really reach all of those people. I think some companies are moving faster than others, of course. But to me I’m not as alarmed yet, one year in. But it does seem like it probably needs to continue to grow, and we can’t slow down. That’s when I would be like, “Okay, I’m alone,” when it’s slowing down. But to me, I think one year in, it’s just getting started.
In terms of moving forward, do you have specific next steps in mind for year two?
Agyemang: Getting to June has been a long road. Our lives completely changed, as it did for so many other people. So we are a newly established organization. It started as just a conversation between two friends that immediately changed everything in the face of the music business. And it was a moment in a year of a lot of historical happenings, in an election, in a pandemic. It was a lot.
Making a long-lasting change is long-term work, and it’s about being consistent and committed and dedicated. And we’re finally in a place where people understand what it’s going to really take, and now we’re locked in. We both say, “We’re not trying to boil the ocean, but we are it for the long haul.” We just want to make sure that people know that we’re here to continue to help push for change, holding people accountable, holding ourselves accountable, providing community and providing resources. And also sometimes, just be someone to talk to.
Thomas: We’re excited just to see how far we can really take this.