Fri | Aug 17, 2018

Economic exploitation of black music

Published:Wednesday | January 6, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Lisa Tomlinson
Joss Stone, Billboard Reggae Artiste of the Year.

More than a week ago, Joss Stone was awarded the Reggae Billboard Artiste of the Year. Certainly, eyebrows were raised about the legitimacy of Stone's status as a reggae artiste. Dancehall DJ Bounty Killer took to social media to critique this development, and he directed most of his frustration at the Jamaican Government for its failure to promote and develop reggae.

It would be great to see the Jamaican Government capitalise on the island's music as a profitable resource in a similar manner as it has done with tourism. The thing that is missing from this discourse is the Jamaican Government's total lack of power to transform how the music industry has for centuries used white faces to economically exploit and rebrand black culture.

Within the Jamaican context, the economic exploitation of reggae started with white and Asian ownership of the infrastructure while working-class black Jamaicans served as the raw talent. The popular Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, best exemplifies this power relation and the exploitation of black Jamaicans in the early inception of the Jamaican music industry.

This rebranding of black musical forms is also evident in other genres. For instance, when jazz gained mainstream popularity in 1917, the faces of its creators were totally absent. In fact, Perry Hall, in his chapter titled African-American Music: Dynamics of Appropriation and Innovation, reminds us that the first jazz record to be released to the mainstream populace was that of the self-proclaimed 'Original Dixieland Jazz Band', which consisted of five white musicians.

Some years later, a white musician by the name of Paul Whiteman also enjoyed success performing what Hall calls 'symphonic jazz', a style that he notes tamed the "primitive rhythms" of original jazz and became 'more acceptable to white audiences'. As jazz moved from underground African-American social spaces, Whiteman earned $1 million in a single year in the 1920s and was dubbed the 'King of Jazz'.

Since Whiteman's mainstream success, whites have continually reigned supreme over black musical forms. For instance, Benny Goodman, a white man, became the 'King of Swing' in the 1930s. Years later, Elvis Presley was crowned the 'King of Rock 'n' Roll'. Rolling Stone, in 2003, named Justin Timberlake (whose musical styles are sampled from R&B music) the 'King of Pop'. And let us not forget Eminem, who continues to be celebrated as 'the Elvis of hip hop'.

The trend of mainstream absorption of black musical genres has also reared its capitalist head in countries such as Canada. With the migration of Jamaicans to Canada came the importation of reggae music. Many already-famous Jamaican acts such as Leroy Sibbles and Jackie Mittoo were part of this migration flow, and they contributed greatly to the success of the growth of reggae outside its birthplace, Jamaica.

Yet, reggae artiste Snow, a white Canadian, held the top spot on the US Billboard Singles Chart for seven weeks in 1993 with his single 'Informer'. Snow went on to earn a Guinness Book of World Records spot for having earned both the biggest-selling and highest-charting reggae single in history. No Jamaican Canadian reggae artiste has ever enjoyed this type of success inside or outside Canada.

Are we supposed to believe that the crowning and success of whites performing black musical genres is because of black people's inability to organise or to maintain better infrastructure to produce quality music? If we continue to buy into these misconceptions we will forever overlook the power structures that foster the economic exploitation and cultural appropriation of black cultural art forms.

The repackaging of black music continues to support white supremacy by granting the financial success to the controllers of the music industry who, in many cases, are whites. Black musical products are bought and sold in the marketplace, and most of the economic returns or profits go to white entrepreneurs, other music-industry players and artistes.

Clearly, there remains a power disparity between white music-industry owners and black artistes. It is a known fact that the music industry has chosen to use white recording artists to reproduce the sounds of black musicians in order to make it more appealing to a white mainstream audience, so as to gain more capital and acceptance of the music. As a result of the preceding state of affairs, musical forms such as rock 'n' roll has been largely associated with whites despite the fact that black musicians were creators.

This is not to say that black musical forms cannot be experimented with by non-black people. However, history has shown while black musical genres were initially seen as culturally inferior and marginalised in mainstream popular culture, they later emerged as staples of a capitalist-driven market that works hand-in-hand with white supremacy.

If musical genres have no colour boundaries, as is often the convenient rhetoric, why aren't we seeing the mainstream music industry and Billboard charts supporting jazz, hip hop and or reggae artiste emerging from Africa or South America where these genres are equally popular?

- Dr Lisa Tomlinson is a lecturer in literatures in English and Caribbean studies in Kingston. Email feedback to and