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NEAR TRUTHS: REELING

REELING: At this very moment, as we celebrate the mind-boggling achievements of black creators, we are in anguish. Still reeling from the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, we awaken to more killings. In Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old who fell asleep at a Wendy’s drive-through, was shot by cops as they tried to arrest him (one ex-officer involved in the shooting has been charged with murder as of this writing). Meanwhile, in the high-desert town of Palmdale, California—just 56 miles from Hollywood—24-year-old Robert Fuller was found hanging from a tree across from City Hall; a hasty suicide verdict reeks of a cover-up. In Victorville (91 miles from Hollywood), 38-year-old Malcolm Harsch suffered a similar fate. It’s not safe to be black anywhere in America, but in many pockets of the country it’s as though the last 60 years never even happened. With all this horror raging, a single Republican Senator, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, holds up an anti-lynching law for its alleged “overreach.”

Lynchings have always been a signature of the KKK, that dreaded paramilitary arm of white power, and as acts of violence they are strongly symbolic. Though the Klan originated in the post-Civil War South (and was downright exalted in cultural touchstones like Birth of a Nation), that murderous organization and its many offshoots can be found nationwide. The racist terror fomented by this loose network has become shockingly ubiquitous in the age of Trump.

Today’s Boogaloo Boys and trigger-happy militia types are the Klan for the social-media era, spreading conspiracy and planning mayhem in chat groups. In New Mexico, shortly before presstime, one such broken soul fired his weapon into a crowd of protesters, causing grievous injury. The police were able to arrest him peacefully, of course. It’s not like he was buying Skittles. Or sleeping in his car.

We also note the killing of two black trans women, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells (in Philly) and Riah Milton (in Liberty Township, Ohio), recently—violence against trans people of color has received even less coverage than the underreported rampages of police.

American history is in large part one long bloodbath, and these latest casualties are part of the staggering body count attributable to racial injustice, systemic inequality and our seeming inability to confront the violence and suffering that are its nightmarish harvest. Even as we recognize this, those of us who want to be allies need to consider the shock and devastation of our colleagues at this moment. Support and compassion are in short supply in the world, so please give generously.

That said, lending a sympathetic ear is far from enough. A lot of white folks—seeing their privilege in sharper relief than ever, woefully underinformed about the black experience, wanting to help but not knowing how—are holding back in this moment. But now is not the time for anyone who believes in justice to be silent.

So let us stand up where we can for real change. The kids who have flooded the streets of our cities—most recently in a massive intersection of LGBTQ+ Pride and Black Lives Matter that feels historic in its own right—are, without money and without weapons, bringing governments to account. It’s clear that these protests are moving the needle; Trump’s executive order on policing, however watered-down and grudgingly signed, is a reminder that even the most reactionary forces are no match for a determined populace.

Let us also remember that what our industry brings into being shapes experience and forges courage in this brutal, bewildering world. Where is the next song to frame the moment, to turn our anger and despair into mobilization, to build more of those bridges, to bring poetry to the streets?

SHOCK THE VOTE: Though a majority of their participants are significantly to the left of the institutional Democratic party, the protests have helped tank Trump’s poll numbers, give Joe Biden an increasing edge in battleground states and up the odds that Dems will flip the Senate (Trump’s brutal, erratic comportment is proving an albatross around the necks of several GOP incumbents). Now it’s about getting out the vote and ensuring that those highly energized marchers are invested in the electoral process—which is not a given, even at this dire moment.

There are signs that the ground is shifting, aided immeasurably by the protests. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has handed the administration two big defeats by upholding the rights of LGBTQ+ workers and DACA recipients. John Bolton’s book (with Mary Trump’s book on deck) is causing Bunker Boy more grief, and the top military brass has made it clear they’re not behind his authoritarian master plan. Trump is digging in with his base, defending Confederate names on army bases ahead of a Tulsa MAGA rally (near the site of a racist massacre, just after Juneteenth) that will be a COVID-19 petri dish. Cases of the virus are spiking throughout states that have pushed for reopening and disdained masks and social distancing—pushed in that direction, it should be noted, by roving bands of well-armed militia dudes. The pandemic, however, has no regard for party lines. The toll will be gigantic.

Our intractable partisan divide, starkly represented in Congress, is illustrated by the warring slogans of “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” The latter phrase reflects not so much a concern for all as an attempt to shut down the argument. If black lives mattered to the power structure, we would not be where we are. Still, the GOP is determined to use even this issue as a political football—keep your eye on the legislative gaming led by Senators McConnell and Graham.

We all must do what we can to mobilize the vote, and carefully consider what we can do locally to address the policing issue. Jon Stewart’s remarks in a recent New York Times interview—that police act as “a border patrol … between the two Americas” and that we have been addressing the “how” of policing but not the “why”—are a provocative counterpoint to the accustomed slogans and platitudes.

THE ROAD TO RAP: Black music has led popular culture in the U.S. for at least a century—and typically, upon reaching a critical threshold of popularity, has been appropriated by whites. Jazz rose out of black enclaves in American cities, a magnificent flowering of home-grown genius that burst through the concrete of discrimination. The blues emerged from rural communities where grinding poverty and the brutality of segregation found mesmerizing expression—and transcendence. Jazz and blues captured the popular imagination, as the crucible of black creativity converted pain into joy and suffering into celebration. Predictably, jazz was domesticated for white audiences in the swing era and black creators were marginalized (and, of course, segregated), though several more eras of black-led innovation would follow. Blues and the emerging form of R&B (combining blues bends, jazz rhythms and church melodies) were ghettoized as “race music,” though they too attracted a diverse audience.

All these forms came together at the top of the ’50s in a new black form called rock ‘n’ roll, which would be indelibly refined by the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ike Turner and others before Elvis Presley and his acolytes seized the spotlight. Then a cavalcade of shaggy-haired Brits, all of them mad for blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll, conquered America and made a mint. Rock was for the most part claimed by whites ever after, even as black visionaries (such as Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee, Prince and Vernon Reid, among others) continued to take it in daring new directions. The blues, despite continuously blazing contributions by black artists, at some point became a scene dominated by white dudes in Hawaiian shirts.

Hip-hop is different. While a handful of white artists have achieved big rap success, from the sublime (Eminem, The Beastie Boys) to the ridiculous (Vanilla Ice), it has remained an overwhelmingly black form, defined indisputably—over more than four decades—by black voices. While it has been subject to commercial appropriation and dilution, hip-hop is still, as Chuck D once deemed it, “the black CNN.” And from “The Message” to Public Enemy and KRS-One and N.W.A to Nas and Tupac and Jay-Z to Kendrick, it has consistently been a magnifier of political reality.

Now hip-hop is the #1 driver of commercial prosperity in the streaming era. It came to preeminence along with streaming; its discursive variety and virtuosity was the perfect programming for a 24/7 CNN-like subscription platform. The volume of revenue thrown off by streaming has turned around an industry that spent the first 20 or so years of the digital era wandering in the wilderness, and the lion’s share of that streaming money has come from hip-hop. Let’s not mince words: This music has saved the business.

THE VIEW FROM THE OFFICE: After countless strategy meetings and task forces, the biz must confront the fact that its upper tier remains overwhelmingly white and male—indeed, as one critic has pointed out, executive diversity in the biz roughly parallels that of most police departments. Will the long-absent opportunities for many more talented black professionals at the top of the food chain finally materialize in the wake of the present tumult?

To put the matter less elegantly: When will we fix what’s fucked up about our business? When will we understand that having much, much more diversity on every single tier will not just be a matter of improved optics but an opportunity to be better, smarter, more attuned and more just? We need to be ready to change everything. For now, more mentoring by and for black executives and recruiting at historically black colleges and universities are two agenda items gaining traction in the biz.

Let us not look at the wave upon wave of committed kids in the streets and imagine that their message is only for someone else. It is for all of us, and it tells us not to fear change, not to shy from a difficult new path when we know it to be completely right.

HITS LIST IS HAVING
A HEAT WAVE
Pass the BBQ sauce. (7/2a)
TOP 20: A LIL MORE OF THE SAME
Like a broken record... (7/2a)
WATCH THIS
We aim to please. (7/2a)
BLACK MUSIC MONTH:
6 IN THE MORNIN'
Origin story of the real OGs (7/2a)
PRE-HOLIDAY PONDERING:
POP TOP EDITION
Have another Beer, we insist. (7/2a)
WHAT NEXT?
The biz ponders action after some reflection.
GRAMMY SPECULATION
100% guaranteed to be somewhat accurate, probably.
BLACK MUSIC MONTH
...continues.
TRUMP'S IN THE BUNKER
Just to inspect it, though.
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