Do Black Lives Matter to the Music Biz in 2020?- Part 3

The National Urban League and Community Justice Network interviews

BLM Protest 3 (Art: Ron Hart)

After mulling over the major labels’ recent reckoning with the George Floyd murder, the Black Lives Matter movement and how indie labels and artists are doing their part to support related charities, why not hear from two of the most laudable racial justice and equal justice charities themselves? 

We recently spoke to leaders from the National Urban League and Community Justice Network to hear their own views on how the music industry has supported them and what the industry can and what they should be doing to support their fine causes. What’s interesting to hear from both of them is that there has been some engagement from the music biz, but there needs to be more. Just in case you didn’t know, NUL is a renowned organization whose history stretches back to 1910 and seeks to “elevate standards of living for African Americans and other historically underserved groups” and CJN is national network which strives to “end all forms of criminalization, incarceration, surveillance, supervision, and detention.”



Marc Morial with President Obama

I wanted to start out by talking about the entertainment industry’s support of your organization.

One thing that’s extremely positive is that many musical artists and celebrities want their voice to be heard on social justice and civil rights issues.

With the BET Awards, the entire focus was on social justice and civil rights issues.  So I think there’s a very strong and positive awakening by many artists and celebrities who are aligning themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for social and economic justice.  We’ve had some outreach from a label to offer support and see what kind of level of engagement there might be for artists around the issues of social and economic justice. I note that a group of artists penned a letter in support of the Justice and Policing Act, which we strongly support.  And we’re working on another group of celebrities who want us to do the same thing.  So there’s a tremendous interest here.  One thing I do know from my own work and my own research is that the voices of these artists and celebrities is extremely powerful today.

What I also think is that there is going to be a movement towards message-orientated music, which I think we’re going to see more of, that also speaks to the moment. The same thing happened after the Civil Rights movement into the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when anti-war messages, civil rights messages and equality messages became part of R&B and pop and soul music. I think artists have always been poets, historians and interpreters of our time. And I welcome it.


Did you find there were fundraising efforts directed to NUL from artists, labels or any group in the music industry recently?

Nothing that really stands out, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a contribution here and a contribution there. What we more had was individual artists and actors from time to time support our fundraising as a part of being honored and recognized at one of our events. But not much engagement with the labels.  That’s something new.


So, you DID see a substantial increase in donations from music industry sources in the past month?

I wouldn’t say ‘substantial’- there was maybe one or two. But we’re still early in this sort of transformative time.  And there are multiple discussions ongoing.


What kind of fundraising initiatives do have with music organizations that you’re planning now? 

We’re working on some stuff with some artists, but nothing I can report on.  We’ve always had artists and celebrities support us in the past, None of this has come from a label or CAA (Creative Artists Agency) or any agent.  It’s basically been us going out to these folks on our own.


What kind of engagement would you like to see from the music industry in terms of working with your organization?

I think they should be working to create more opportunities in the behind-the-scenes jobs for young African-Americans- writers, promoters, marketing. A lot of these labels are still not diverse enough behind the scenes. The big agents are still not diverse. I think they should be committed to understanding this moment- it’s not just about the artists, it’s also about those that support the arts.  I think they should be doing that.

I think they should be facilitating the ability of the artists to elevate their voice around civil and social justice issues. And sometimes artists and agents have discouraged some of that.


What do you mean specifically when you say that?

You have artists and entertainers and sports figures who are just like the rest of us- they live in society, they see the challenges and the problems.  They understand the hope and the opportunity. And they want to be engaged. And I think that the idea that they should muzzle themselves, which I think was a mindset of some ‘handlers’ should change and it is changing. And some artists, the larger, bigger people, they’re not controlled by agents.


What do think makes this time different with more people speaking out and protesting over racial and justice issues as opposed to when these same incidents have happened before?

Number one, when the George Floyd tragic murder took place, there had already been two prior high profile murders- Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.  I think that was one factor.

I think another factor was that people got a chance to SEE live and in living color, the death of a man on the streets of a city, at the hands of police officers while eight minutes go by and citizens on the sidewalk are saying “He’s dying, get off of him. What are you doing? He can’t breathe. Blood’s coming from him nose. Can I take his pulse?” They saw this absolute insensitivity with an officer with his knee on the man’s neck.  Two officers holding him down while he’s handcuffed. Another officer saying ‘get in the car, bro,’ taunting him.  And then a fourth officer standing watch. It was almost like a gang killing.

And people reacted. They didn’t need any leaders to call for a march.  They didn’t need any television commercials. They reacted as human beings all across the world. And people said “Oh, this is the kind of police brutality you’re talking about?’ And I think “yeah, this is what we’re talking about.” And that’s awful, that’s horrible! We can’t let that happen- not on our watch, not in this country, not in this time.  


For the future, how do we keep these important issues in the spotlight and not get overwhelmed by the ongoing news cycles?

People have to continue to protest. And people have to carry that protest into the ballot box. People have to remain civically engaged and protesting is a way for people to be do that and become engaged in issues in their community and in their nation.  We have to do it, as people.  We can’t roll back and become spectators again. We have to do it. And organizations like ours, we have to keep pushing.   



Pilar Maria Weiss

Before the past month did you have any fundraising efforts directed to your organization from any record labels, artists or music organizations?

We have but they’ve been very few and far between.  We’ve had a couple of individual artists.  There were a few people during (the) COVID (pandemic) and over the years who have recorded songs and donated the proceeds to the Bail Bond Network or individual bail funds.  But it’s never been like the last couple of weeks where it’s been a very concerted, large volume effort.


How so?

One of the things that has happened in the last couple of weeks since the murder of George Floyd has been that there’s a lot of really intentional and also creative fund raising for Community Bail Funds and for other organizations fighting for racial justice. We’ve seen people doing all kinds of creative fundraisers, whether it’s music, theater, baked goods, kombucha, videos.  Every different kind of creative outlet, and artists on Bandcamp donating their proceeds.  Folks doing their live stream concerts and donating their proceeds or encouraging people to make donations.  It’s this whole different, focused project by music artists and labels. 


Do you find that the artists/labels contact you beforehand to coordinate fundraising or do they contact you afterwards to donate?

It’s a little bit of everything.  Sometimes we’ve had musicians and bands and labels contact us ahead of time and want to make sure they have our logo. Other times, we find out about this on Twitter or Facebook. (laughs) And then sometimes after the fact, we’re told “we did this fundraiser and we’d like to send you a check and we have to figure out how to get you the proceeds.” So it’s really the entire spectrum. And some of that is based on people feeling inspired by the moment. Sometimes these things happen spontaneously.  Other times, we’ve had a couple of bands and labels who have planned their very specific event.  Maybe it was last week or the week before, multiple people were doing events where they were streaming their music and making it into an interactive event and lot of those were set it up ahead of time. They wanted to make sure they were encouraging folks to donations, which I think is a little bit better and it involves a little bit more coordination and when folks have said ‘I’m going to donate the proceeds of an album or a steam or all sales.’


Why should artists coordinate with you beforehand for these kind of donations as opposed to telling your group after the fact?

It’s great ahead of time if they want to make it a moment for some political education and we’re able to provide them with a little bit more information about what Bail Funds do and how can people get involved in working to end mass incarceration and surveillance and abolish ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement).  That’s always great. But we also recognize that everyone is doing a lot right now and if it’s a spontaneous action and people are going donate, that’s also great. It’s not like there’s a perfect way to do this.  Whenever there’s the ability to involve some additional information about what next steps that people can take and people educating themselves, we’re with them. That’s a great best practice.

BLM Sign (Art: Ron Hart)

One that stands out is a metal band named Smolder, who coordinated ahead of time with us. They had 15 bands who all did an event together and donated the proceeds to the National Bail Fund Network. They were very intentional about adding links to their concerts.


Do you have any plans for fundraising or outreach or other engagements with labels/musicians?

I don’t right now.  Again, a lot of this has been very spontaneous.  We represent a network of 70-plus local organizations and I know a number of them have been reached out to by labels and by specific artists but often times, artists want to make a contribution to the Community Bail Fund in their home town so I think there’s some conversations locally too. I’ve seen some of the artists from Memphis and Nashville and Florida have been reaching out to make specific donations and do specific fundraisers, and that’s great.


Ideally, what sort of involvement or engagement would you like to see from labels, musicians, music organizations?  You were discussing this before but are there any other specific details and ideas you’d want to share about that otherwise?

I think that taking the time to connect with groups that are doing the work locally is important.  We’re a national network but we’re a network of locally-based community groups that are doing the work in their local communities so we’re able to connect that for folks.  I think that taking the time to find the groups that are doing the work locally, to direct the contributions locally and include action items that are follow ups so that the donation is the first step, but there are ways for people who are listening or seeing the label or artist making that contribution to connect to that local action again later. I think sometimes a lot of big national non-profits that are very well known and who end up being kind of always included on the list of stuff… They’re often wonderful organizations that do important work but they’re the KNOWN entities always. (laughs) And it’s often great to actually see when artists and labels use their position and their standing and connections to really elevate local work.  I think that’s really impactful.

This movement, this uprising that’s happening right now is happening in every local community, every city, every state across the country. So I think helping to connect people who look to a musician or to a band that they follow for inspiration, to then connect that with what’s happening in their community is really important.  So I think as artists and labels are thinking about that, to connect to the local work, whether it’s the local chapter of Black Lives Matter or to us or a local community bail fund- there’s all these organizations doing amazing work locally that can be connected to people’s activism.

There was also an event with Phoebe Bridgers. There was a virtual concert where there was a mix of really famous people and less well known bands who did a whole line up that engaged a lot of different people and they were very clear about the proceeds- people were being directed to donate. I thought that was interesting because it was a line up of a lot of different kinds of music, all under the banner of helping to raise money for the movement and for protesters.  


Are there other similar equal justice and racial justice organizations that you work with outside of your network?

We’re sort of an umbrella organization for a lot of different projects. One of them is the National Bail Fund Network, which is this coalition of local community bail funds that pay for protesters’ bail as well as getting people out of mass incarceration, so we work with this big array of local organizations there. And then we work with a lot of different other groups- we work with Black Lives Matter, immigration justice groups. The ecosystem of organizations working in this moment is a diverse set of groups.  There’s lots of interesting coalitions, which I think is a great way for organizations and musicians and bands to think about the work that they support. People can support just one organization and then these other groups are finding out a way to connect to them, which is one way that they’re supporting the movement for Black Lives Matter, which has chapters in many places. Or there are also groups like Mijente, which is a Latinx organizing house and has chapters all over the country and there’s ways to connect to people who are their fans there.


AUDIO: Space Afrika “oh baby” 



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Jason Gross

Jason Gross is the editor/founder of Perfect Sound Forever, one of the first and longest-running online music magazines. He has written for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Time Out, AP, New York, MTV, Oxford American, Billboard, MOJO, The Wire, and Blurt. Reissues and collections that he's produced included Delta 5, Essential Logic, Kleenex/Liliput, DNA, Oh OK and OHM –The Early Gurus of Electronic Music. He lives in New York with his girlfriend and 30 plush cats.

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