Black creative expression has shaped American culture in immeasurable ways, but the artists responsible have often gone unheard.
On KERA’s Think, host Krys Boyd spoke about gatekeepers and their role in Black art with an academic studying publishing in the Harlem Renaissance, an entertainment lawyer who works to get Black artists fair contracts, and a writer who draws from her own experience in the music industry for her latest YA novel.
Here are some highlights. Listen to the full episode here.
Lawrence Hogue is a John and Rebecca Moores Distinguished Professor at University of Houston. He’s researched gatekeeping during the Harlem Renaissance and the ways Black artists navigated it.
He told Krys Boyd that Black authors were given opportunities to publish, but only if they produced work that white audiences could interpret under the lens of primitivism. Primitivism was this idea that categorized non-white people as more primal and therefore more pure and unfettered with the vices of modern society. Black authors were expected to produce work that reflected and reinforced this narrative, or they wouldn’t be published.
“One of the things that these writers did was that they found ways to violate or undermine and use the primitive image for whatever they wanted to do,” Hogue said. But he noted that authors who didn’t incorporate this narrative at all in their work it would be “aborted at the publishers desk.”
Uwonda Carter celebrates the ways Black expression is no longer as pigeonholed as it was in the 1950s and ’60s. As a well-known attorney representing large musical names like Lil Uzi and Lil Yachty, she is cognizant of how young Black talent can be – and has been – taken advantage of by the music industry.
She says it is rare for Black artists to be offered a different contract than white artists, but that as a Black female attorney, at the beginning of her career she had to work harder to get the deals that white male attorneys received through connections. However now that she is established in the industry, she has built connections and feels pride in her part in supporting Black artists.
“I see Black creatives finally get paid for what they have done and, to your earlier point, in the past they were not. They were taken advantage of, and they would lose all of their rights,” Carter said. “Now to represent these Black creatives, who are not only able to take advantage of being paid what they are due, but now are able to do more in different genres of music. I love it.”
Tami Charles explored the ways in which the music industry can harm young black women in her young adult novel “Muted.” She discussed the book and how she drew from her own experience trying to make it as a R&B singer in her conversation with Krys.
Charles and her main character share a love for R&B – and a desire to be heard within difficult industries. Charles said that she faced a lot of rejection when she was trying to publish.
“It has been very hard for people of color to break into publishing especially when our numbers are so astonishingly low, “ Charles said. “But I am just going to keep fighting the good fight and keep writing these stories and hopefully it will touch the people who matter most.”
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