Never thought I would be invited by the Royal Society for Music History of The Netherlands to discuss whiteness and institutional racism in the music industry, but on December 12th, 2020 this was the case! Check out my contribution to their Musicological Expo 2020 on Music and Whiteness in The Netherlands.
Music and Whiteness in The Netherlands
Thank you to KVNM for inviting me to share my perspective on Music and Whiteness in The Netherlands. A perspective I would like to illustrate based on an experience that has shaped my thinking and doing as an artist of color in a predominantly white society.
It is an experience I went through a few years ago, when I participated in a Musical Entrepreneurship Masterclass. Even though I had been active in the music industry for quite some time as an independent artist, I felt like I was lacking the networks and insights necessary to break through in the Dutch music industry. This masterclass offered lectures and small group sessions with gatekeepers of the Dutch music industry, allowing participants to get feedback on their work. A great way I thought to take my music to the next level.
In one of those sessions I showed my music to a well established A&R manager, a white man. It was music that had already been released and became a top 3 hit song in Suriname. This music I was so proud of, as it reflected my authentic identity as an Indo-Caribbean woman born and raised in The Netherlands. Elements of western pop, rock and hiphop combined with reggae rhythms of the Caribbean and bhangra beats from South Asia. It was a sound that came natural to me, as it was the sound I grew up with.
Yet the first thing this A&R manager said was: “I feel your identity is missing.” I was confused, thinking I didn’t understand him right. “What do you mean,” I asked. “Why don’t you do something with Bollywood?” he responded. I now understood his question was based on a stereotype idea of Indian artists and decided to challenge that. “I didn’t grow up with Bollywood music. I grew up with Indo-Caribbean music like you hear reflected in these songs. This is my identity.” He did not seem to grasp what I was saying and continued: “I still think you should stick with Bollywood.” He proceeded to mention a well known Moroccan-Dutch artist and said: “I also told her to stick with her Moroccan culture in her music.” The rest of the all white group agreed with his perspective.
To me, this interaction is the perfect example of the many ways in which whiteness impacts artists of color in The Netherlands. Allow me to highlight a few.
- Let’s take the limited framework of reference that is often linked to whiteness. To this white man my authentic identity as an artist, didn’t make any sense because he was not exposed nor educated on the diversity within my community. His only reference point was “Bollywood” and anything deviating from that was illogical to him.
- Let’s take the arrogance to maintain that limited perspective. Even when I challenged him on his perspective of my identity, he decided his perception of me was superior to the way I identified myself. Rather than asking: “help me understand”, he simply decided his perspective was a better fit for my artistic identity than my authentic experience.
- Let’s take the stay in your lane approach he imposed, when he decided that artists of color, whether you are Indo-Caribbean or Moroccan, should only make music linked to their specific cultural background. Apparently we are only eligible for success if we stay inside the box this white man wants us in. To what extent does he expect the same from white artists? Or are they allowed to practice any genre they please?
- Let’s take the group dynamic in this interaction. As I have often experienced, I was the only person of color in this group. Perhaps if I was in a one-on-one conversation I could have mustered the strength to keep challenging the stereotype ideas I was confronted with. But when the entire group supports the stereotype ideas, based on the same limited framework the A&R manager expressed, and therefore validates his perspective, you experience battle fatigue. You no longer want to engage in either this specific conversation or the group all together.
- Let’s take the position of power that he occupies. As an A&R Manager he was a gatekeeper to success for many artists. When he decides you’re not good enough, you don’t get access to spaces and platforms you need as an artist. And his definition of not good enough was based on stereotype images rather than innovative and refreshing expressions of identity.
What struck me the most however, was the realization that this wasn’t just the perspective of this individual white man. He was actually a reflection of the structural challenge I was facing regarding assessment of qualities, access and opportunity.
I can now look back on it and critically reflect on this interaction and how it’s related to institutional racism. But at that time I felt discouraged and insecure. I knew I was a good artist, great in fact, because I felt the love people showed me when I performed and released music. I had achieved a lot as an independent artist, but in this interaction with someone the industry regarded as an authority I started to doubt myself.
I have often asked myself what I could have done differently in that interaction to really challenge him. How I could have countered his colonial ideas with a decolonial perspective. At that specific moment however I didn’t have the language to address this.
Now I realize I asked the wrong question. It wasn’t about what I could have done differently. It was about what he could have done differently, being in a position of power that he was in. In challenging racism and colonial legacy we often focus on the victims of it and how it impacts their lives. But if we truly want to challenge racism and colonial legacy, we need to focus on what white people, and more importantly white institutions and power structures, can do differently.
- If a limited framework of reference is identified, find ways to broaden your horizon.
- If your perspective is being challenged as limited, rather than defending it, find ways to learn and understand your own world view isn’t universal but shaped by your specific upbringing and cultural framework.
- If you’re part of the majority in a group dynamic, allow room for the perspectives and experiences that are marginalized.
- If you’re in a position of power, be willing to share power or even give up power to truly level the playing field.
Either way, this specific experience turned out to be crucial in my evolution as an artist. It was through this interaction that I realized my chances of success in the Dutch music industry were limited, at least if I wanted to be my authentic artistic self. It would never be considered “good enough” according to the white criteria of quality.
It was that specific experience that encouraged me to be my unapologetic self. Up until that point I always tried to navigate white spaces in a way that would keep the door to success open for me. It meant keeping the white audience and gatekeepers comfortable enough by keeping my political views to myself and showing parts of my identity they could relate to.
This interaction made me realize I no longer wanted to play this game. I was politically active, this influenced my art and I wanted to be able to express that without limitations. I decided to let go of aspirations of commercial success and dedicate my art in service of social change. My art was no longer about me, but about uplifting and empowering my community. It was a liberating process, to no longer have to relate to white perceptions of my art.
In doing so, indeed the door to commercial success closed. After having released The Uprising, a decolonial art project based on music and film, mainstream white platforms that had previously always invited me to promote my music no longer extended invitations. But when one door closes, another door opens. While a lot of art venues no longer engaged, community driven organizations and platforms reached out to me. A new audience connected with me, based on a collective struggle. This audience didn’t require me to make them feel comfortable, but appreciated my critical thinking. This audience understood my identity and embraced my artistic expression of that. This audience was diverse itself and therefore inspired me to learn from them. And this audience was building their own venues and stages as part of a bigger movement aimed at social justice.
Even though whiteness is still part of the music industry it no longer holds power over me. But more importantly, I suspect that in the future, whether it’s distant or near, it will lose it’s power over institutions as well. So the question for white institutions becomes how to move forward in this changing society and power dynamics. I don’t have the answers, but look forward to your thoughts and reflections on this. Thank you.