Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang made no mention of silence, let alone a black box, when they called on their peers in the music industry to devote Tuesday, June 2nd, to a new initiative, #TheShowMustBePaused. The idea was to force the industry – which is built on black talent, but still largely run by white people – to take a long look at itself and consider, perhaps, where the same white supremacy and privilege that led to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, may be lurking in its own structures and practices.
By Tuesday, the idea behind #TheShowMustBePaused had spread beyond the music industry and was being widely referred to as Blackout Tuesday. Thomas and Agyemang’s call to pause business as usual for a day of reflection had morphed into a vague notion of a social media blackout – an expression of silence in solidarity with protesters and people of color that took the form of a black square. As it turned out, many of the black squares posted by artists, labels, brands, celebrities, and individuals were also tagged #BlackLivesMatter, and the inundation ended up burying crucial information and resources for protesters and organizers.
The mistake capped off a confusing four days for the music industry as it tried to find a proper response to the latest spate of police killings of unarmed black people and nationwide protests. When Thomas and Agyemang, two black women and music industry vets, shared their idea for #TheShowMustBePaused late last week, they wrote in an opening barrage that their mission was to “hold the industry at large, including major corporations and their partners who benefit from efforts, struggles and successes of Black people accountable. To that end, 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.”
As protests and police violence intensified over the weekend, the major labels – Warner Music, Sony Music, and Universal Music – and their imprints signed on to the initiative. In social media posts and internal memos to staff, the decried racism and injustice, and said that they would spend Tuesday forgoing work to come up with plans of action, causes to support, and/or tasks forces to form.
What exactly that meant, however, was up for debate, and the more momentum Blackout Tuesday gained, the further it seemed to grow from Thomas and Agyemang’s original intentions.
— theshowmustbepaused (@pausetheshow) June 1, 2020
At Universal Music Group, CEO Lucian Grainge appointed the label’s top counsel Jeff Harleston as the leader of a new company task force meant to address issues of inclusion and social justice. “Everything will be on the table,” Grainge said. The systemic nature of the problems are just too critical to leave anything off. Sony kicked off a full day of programming for it’s employees with a town hall hosted by its diversity initiative HUE, during which employees were encouraged to “express their feelings about the recent state of affairs, raise points of concern, and suggest ways for Sony to implement change.”
Many in the industry utilized platitudes in their show of solidarity, and few specified how their day of “action and reflection” would translate to monetary support and beyond. The Recording Academy – which has faced a steady stream of criticism over its own issues with diversity and inclusion for several years and only just welcomed its first diversity officer last month – stated that it would use Blackout Tuesday to “reflect, as we know we can all be better … do better” and “join our colleagues in the music industry to make our voices heard as we commit to the long-term work required to drive positive changes.”
To translate the visual meme of the black square to the airwaves of radio, the satellite giant SiriusXM cut the music on its channels for three minutes at 3 p.m. ET on Tuesday: “One minute to reflect on the terrible history of racism, one minute in observance of this tragic moment in time and one minute to hope for and demand a better future,” the company said in a statement. In an internal memo, SiriusXM and Pandora CEO Jim Meyer said the company will “continue to use our platform to encourage dialogue, debate, tolerance and understanding.” There was no mention of a charitable donation.
Among the barrage of black boxes in the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag were a collection of A-list artists, including the Rihanna, Babyface, Gwen Stefani, and Drake. However, many others begged for more transparency, action, and information. Kehlani – who has used her platform to provide resources for protesters – pointed out the mixed messaging and the lack of credit given to Thomas and Agyemang. Bon Iver called the exercise “tone deaf” in a since deleted tweet, while St. Vincent and Noname alerted people to how the boxes were drowning out information for organizers.
niggas care to much about the aesthetics of they ig page to post productive information needed during this time. shit wild
— Noname (@noname) June 2, 2020
Even before organizers shared the Blackout Tuesday call to action, though many young artists stepped up to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the protesters fighting against systemic racism and police brutality. Arianna Grande, Keke Palmer, Tory Lanez, and YG have marched alongside the movement. Halsey brought medical supplies and helped nurse wounds from rubber bullets and batons police wielded against protesters. SZA has used her social media platforms to share pertinent information with protesters to help them stay safe as curfews loom over many major cities. John Legend, Common, the Weeknd, Lizzo, and Talib Kweli were among the entertainers who signed an open letter urging local governments to defund the police in favor of increasing spending on healthcare, education, and other community programs.
That letter was released by activist Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a founding member of the Movement 4 Black Lives, and it pulls into sharp focus the most glaring omission from most corporate statements released in support of Blackout Tuesday: the police killing innocent black people and brutalizing protesters with military grade equipment. Interscope, RCA, and A&M gets a participation trophy for name-checking the organization JusticeForBigFloyd.com and borrowing some of its language, “Police violence must not go unchecked”.
Amid all the confusion of Blackout Tuesday, Thomas and Agyemang did not give any interviews and were publicly silent – save for a clarification of what Tuesday was actually about that they were forced to post: “Please note: the purpose was never to mute ourselves. The purpose is to disrupt. The purpose is to pause from business as usual.” On Wednesday, Thomas and Agyemang released a statement on Phase 2 of the movement. “Next steps are about clarifying needs and mobilizing the people to be the change we wish to see,” Agyemang said. “The goal is to tap into the community at large to create change that is impactful and long lasting.”
For the original organizers, their corner of #TheShowMustBePaused unfolded as they wanted: A dialogue was opened and a safe haven for the industry’s black employees, executives, and artists was established. With the far reach of Blackout Tuesday, one question came to light: What does an industry built upon black music need to do to support and uplift the black people in it? The vague responses from labels and corporations stirred up anger from already skeptical onlookers, but that anger may be exactly what is needed to push further.