• Charlie Sandles

Addressing Racism and Inequality in the Music Industry


© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri


An insight into music awarding bodies and their discriminative actions against POC artists and the wider challenges in need of being addressed.


Racism, discrimination and inequality, it’s inescapable. It plagues all aspects of life. Albeit a brash statement, we can’t afford to ignore it anymore, for people of colour’s sake. Tone-deaf individuals will continue to believe that - (who knows what era they are comparing the 21st century to when claiming this) - racism really isn’t an issue anymore, but news flash, Trump, it is. There are several discussions that still need to be instigated, but most important to this conversation is the prevalence of racism and inequality in the music industry with regards to music awards.


Put bluntly, the music industry is far from idyllic; the murky layer of daylight robbery and manipulation from record labels towards artists conceals much deeper, institutionalised issues. Take for example the MTV Video Music Awards; conceptualised in 1984, the awards were, and still are, criticised for promoting the success of Caucasian artists, and the marginalisation of people of colour (POC), as discussed by the likes of Vice and Fader. Although the results of the 2020 VMA’s showcase a higher proportion of POC receiving nominations and awards, it is still vital to recognise that it has taken too long to reach this point, and we still have a long way to go. It is interesting to approach the eligibility criteria for nominees when regarding the VMA’s, as it highlights - or rather lacks - the official reasoning behind nominations for each category. One can speculate that inequality lies within; there is no official documentation available to the public regarding the selection process and eligibility for MTV’s VMAs, furthering the questionable nature of who really is responsible for deciding the lucky few nominees in each category. It is open for debate, but it is plausible to suggest that music awarding bodies have the ability to, and exercise, the selection and awarding processes of the ceremony to achieve an attention-worthy result. BLM was a household phrase in 2020, with artists such as The Weeknd and Keke Palmer confronting the issue at the VMA award ceremony, so could it be suggested that more recognition for artists who are POC was promoted? Regardless, themes of manipulation and exploitation are more than likely to be at play here… sounds familiar, right?

Not all the anger should be directed at the VMA’s, however, after all, they are merely a drop in the ocean comparatively. Hyundai’s Mercury Award deserves to share the limelight here; as stated by the awarding board, ‘the main objectives of the Prize are to recognise and celebrate artistic achievement, provide a snapshot of the year in music and to help introduce new albums from a range of music genres to a wider audience’. Surely then the main aim is to celebrate ALL British and Irish artists that have contributed to the music scene over the past year and give them an equal opportunity at winning the prize. Apparently not, as witnessed by Rina Sawayama - her eponymous album did not get shortlisted for the prize in 2020 on account of her citizenship not including Britain (despite her ILR status from living in the UK for 25+ years). This ultimately highlights the hypocritical nature of the award, as it isn’t truly representative of the talent they are claiming to showcase. Rina’s home country of Japan does not offer dual citizenship, therefore resulting in Sawayama and other artists alike to surrender their nationality in order to stand in the running to win an award for their craft. It begs the question; how do Hyundai intend to provide a snapshot of the year in music if they are singling out a large proportion who have contributed to it? Or further, is this a bid to prevent culture from imposing on the sacred British heritage? The values of the award clearly are not up-to-date and resultingly act as a catalyst for criticism regarding their attitude towards race, equality and discrimination.

In light of these examples, albeit microcosms of the wider issue, we should be asking why there continues to be boundaries and limitations throughout the creative industry for people of colour. What happened to celebrating people’s achievements? Or did that never exist? Can artists actually share what is important to them through their music without fear of being marginalised and not accepted? These questions do not stem from sensationalists, but rather those who are tired of being confronted with poor justifications for inherently racist and discriminatory decisions.


Nina Simone’s plea ‘all I want is equality, for my sister, my brother, my people and me’ shines a light on the reality of the inequality prevalent in all corners of society. Outlandish as it may seem to some, others will agree that not much has changed since the advent of this statement in 1964 - equality for people of colour has not been achieved, not just in the music industry, but in general. It’s time we start rewarding people for their talents, and not reducing it down to a debate of nationality or skin-colour.


© Illustration by INJECTION - Charlie Sandles