On the day after the pumpkin declared war and threatened martial law on Black American protesters, music executives from the industry’s most influential companies ordered all operations interrupted. The initiative and hashtag, #TheShowMustPause, created by Atlantic Records’ senior director of marketing, Jamila Thomas, and Platoon’s senior artist campaign manager, Brianna Agyemang, to “disrupt the work week” and, more importantly, “take a beat for an honest, reflective and productive conversation about what actions we need to collectively take to support the Black community,” scans strangely at a time when getting loud about frustrations in the face of fascism seems to be the current flavor. In a public statement, the two women cited the industry’s centuries-long exploitation of Black art and dared their fellow suits to hold “partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people accountable.”
The intent here is admirable, but the way it hit social media — mysteriously transmogrifying into the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag and convincing users that solidarity is as easy as switching out a selfie — is at best a little off-putting and at worst harmful in the ways it lumped in with #BlackLivesMatter and potentially overshadowed critical conversations and other media on the site. In the post’s pop-radical presentation, lapping platitudes, and low-risk directives, its overt performativity reduces the power of its motivations.
When the CEO of Instagram has to clarify the point of your campaign, you’ve probably already lost.
Don’t get it twisted: Performance is a crucial part of the game. There’s always been a place for drama and theatrics in the movement for Black liberation. Most of it — like the gumboot dance of South Africa’s anti-Apartheid movements, or the ways Black voices deemed Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” the protest song of the Black Lives Matter Movement by chanting it on the streets — is a mix of strategy and interpretation. But the effectiveness of performance is based on its ability to incite more radical ways of being. It is to invite actual dialogue between folks who are frustrated with the way things are.
And in this case, when cities across the nation are legitimately on fire, a day that’s meant to hold corporations accountable by keeping them quiet reads counterproductive to the aims of the demonstrators. While there was no clear plan as to how that challenge would be upheld, some labels like Warner Music, Interscope, and Geffen and A&M have responded by canceling events and pledging to contribute to Black Lives Matter and other organizations. These are all good and fine actions in a moment where heightened racial animus is publicized within the backdrop of a pandemic where the Black poor are most deeply impacted. The companies decided to shut down operations on a Tuesday, when everyone with a working music app knows most releases go live on Fridays, when a real sacrifice of funds could’ve put those execs on notice. But they could’ve so easily done more.
Performance is needed but it can’t be executed for its own sake successfully.
There is no call for long-term sustainability here, no mention of the screwy ways Spotify fails to pay artists and songwriters adequately; no demand to dismantle the industry’s pernicious financial structure that has exploited Black artists since their “race music” beginnings. That’s not to say there isn’t a plan, just not one that’s been cleared for activation. Who knows if it ever will be. Thomas and Agyemang’s post does mention that this will not just be a “24-hour” initiative and that a long-term mission will be announced. But the timing here is really inappropriate for the present fervor in Black collective conscious. Why go dark when the cities are burning so brightly?
There is a fundamental, and unfortunately not uncommon, disconnect between what Thomas and Abyemang say they are hoping to achieve here and what is actually happening. When the CEO of Instagram has to clarify the point of your campaign, you’ve probably already lost. If what the industry wants is a multilateral shift in the ways that business is conducted, this letter of intent could’ve easily been a private email. A private, incisive letter with a thoughtful plan that’s been constructed with Black folks who are already pushing against injustices in the music industry and developed over the course of the numerous public deaths we experienced last week could’ve been immensely powerful. Instead, we saw a mass flood of dollars from the music industry into bail funds, antiracism, and brutality organizations in a way that seemed inorganic, turn into a celebration of quietude. The moment it became A Moment, the message got lost in the sauce.
Performance is needed but it can’t be executed for its own sake successfully. The darkened backgrounds on Instagram today showcased how #TheShowMustPause and #BlackoutTuesday hashtags take advantage of the need for moral high ground through low-risk virtue signaling. As the twitterati and cable news punditry berate the uprisings across the nation for their spontaneity and lack of strategy (which, in itself, is an ahistorical, racist critique, as riots are very much in the guts of this nation), one could question how the strategy for this silent internet party is much better.