Music industry needs discussions on race

The Brother Moves On at OppiKoppi 2012. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

The Brother Moves On at OppiKoppi 2012. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Given our racially divided history, you would have thought that a discussion of race in any industry was a necessary and important endeavour.

However South Africa's Moshito Music Conference & Exhibition has ignored this elephant in the room for far too long.

As the music industry's annual get together, it should have seen the need to address racial divisions, but until 2012 it had not, leaving it to a young, up and coming musician to spark the debate this week.

Siyabonga Mthembu, of Johannesburg based band The Brother Moves On, was the voice for many young black bands this week, arguing that racist decisions were taken on a daily basis in South Africa's music industry.

He was a guest speaker at a Moshito panel discussion titled The Status of the Artist in the 21st Century.

Mthembu spoke out against South Africa's music festivals, promoters, record labels and music media who make "racist assumptions" all the time.

"I've seen it," said Mthembu. "There is a racist problem in our industry. "

Mthembu took pot shots at DSTV music channel MK for only playing music videos of white artists.

"No one will acknowledge that audiences are already mixed racially, said Mthembu. "Our audience is filled with people of all colours."

"But the industry doesn't know this because there are no A&R [artists and repertoire guys] on the ground," said Mthembu.

Sitting in the audience, it was clear to the Mail & Guardian that the way Mthembu's presentation was interpreted depended on skin colour, which further highlighted the problems he was talking about.

Established white music industry types grumbled under their breath about this trouble maker who was talking uncomfortable truths, while black music industry types sympathised with Mthembu's argument.

When it came time for questions, musician and producer Sisa Sopazi made a statement about there being two music industries in South Africa, one white and one black.

Mthembu agreed although hip-hop artist Zubz did not.

"It's not about colour," said Zubz. "If you see colour in this, you will lose the plot."

Zubz argued that it was all about professionalism, genre and access that the industry was divided in two.

Mthembu disagreed with Zubz, arguing that black artists didn't speak out about this as it would make their career difficult.

However he also argued that for his band they were caught in the middle; too black to get booked by white promoters and too alternative to get booked for black government gigs.

"We can't get booked for the government gigs as we are seen as those freaks in tights," said Mthembu.

What has become clear is that this is a necessary and honest discussion and Moshito should take note and stop ignoring these fundamental problems in South Africa's music industry.

Lloyd Gedye

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