‘We Gotta Start Makin’ Changes’: The Live Industry, Nation Grapple With Racism

Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images
– Hands Up
A man protesting police brutality and systemic racism holds up his hands kept as demonstrators are kept in place on the Manhattan Bridge by police for hours during a citywide curfew in New York City. Days of protest, sometimes violent, have followed in many cities across the country in response to the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25th.

In the past week the United States has seen a wave of protests and social unrest following the death of George Floyd on May 25 at the hands of Minneapolis Police, which has led to a renewed discourse on racism and social justice. In this industry and beyond there has been a chorus of voices calling for action to rectify the virus that is racism, the latest gross display of which eclipsed in many ways even the global COVID-19 pandemic. 
Black and white race relations in the U.S. have historically been fraught with tension, violence, anger and despair and against this backdrop, the death of Floyd – along with recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor –  has proven to be a last straw for many.  The Hennepin County Medical Examiner and an independent autopsy reportedly both concluded George Floyd’s death was a homicide. The police officers involved in the incident have been fired and arrested. The officer who held his knee against Floyd’s neck has been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, and the other officers present were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. But many in the streets don’t feel these isolated actions are enough. 
Racism is a complex and systemic issue that impacts every strata of our society, including the live industry, in myriad ways, but it is the specific issue of police brutality against African-Americans that brings massive protests and prompts calls for justice. It is worth noting that as videos of black men’s fatal encounters with law enforcement have gone viral, there were no criminal convictions in the cases of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, or Eric Garner, though each resulted in civil settlements.
Apollo Theater

There are many ideas about how to address the issue of police brutality. Chika, Pollstar’s cover artist two weeks ago, was recently detained by police for her participation in a protest and discussed her experience in a half-hour Instagram Live post, saying among other things, that her trust in police has been completely broken and she believes the police should be de-funded, an increasingly prevalent demand among protestors. 

Pollstar’s special Resource Guide (page 4) for this issue lists many organizations dedicated to combating racism, including Campaign Zero, which is a comprehensive platform for research-based policy solutions to end police brutality in the U.S. While the materials available on that organization’s website are voluminous, they speak to the  many ways in which relations between police and minority communities can be improved at all levels. 
Beyond the specific issue of police brutality, the death of George Floyd also has prompted conversation about the much broader issue of racism in the U.S. The music industry’s #TheShowMustBePaused blackout on June 2 (see page 9) was one initiative to express solidarity with the African American community during this period. Blacking out media outlets and ceasing regular operations is not the same thing as physically protesting or advocating for police reform, but it was one of many efforts to show support for those hurting and to demonstrate a commitment to combating racism in all of its forms. While venues, promoters and many others in the live industry expressed their solidarity, some were critical of the gesture claiming it doesn’t rise to the level of sustained, concrete action, and represents the same words and platitudes that have been offered for years. In a guest post (see page 14) Michael Dorf explains why his City Winery venues participated in the initiative and how his commitment goes far deeper than just symbolic action.
Pollstar and its sister publication VenuesNow participated in the #TheShowMustBePaused initiative and are also committed to creating and encouraging positive changes in diversity and inclusivity in the live industry, which still has a long way to go. In recent years The Pollstar Live! conference has featured panels discussing this industry’s failings in diversity and inclusivity and at that conference and throughout our day-to-day work at all levels of this industry there are frequent reminders that we have a long way to go. Toward that goal, this issue features diverse voices from across our business and which we will continue to feature in these pages going forward.
This issue of Pollstar marks the beginning of a new franchise, Voices Of Live, which will share perspectives from individuals of diverse backgrounds not heard enough in our industry. The first installment of this franchise features African American executives at ICM Partners: Board member Lorrie Bartlett, partner and music agent Robert Gibbs and music agent Yves C. Pierre (see page 20). The other Voice Of Live in this issue is Kamilah Forbes, executive producer of the world famous Apollo Theater in Harlem (featured on the cover of this issue), who spoke with Pollstar (page 17) about working for the most diverse, black led theater in the world, her path to success while building community and collaboration and paying it forward with educational programs and internships and more.
This issue also features an interview with Fantastic Negrito (see page 22) whose new song “How Long?” confronts the issue of racism in this country and society’s inability to solve this problem, as well as the poignant speech Killer Mike of Run The Jewels (see page 15) gave May 29 in the heat of the Atlanta Riots when the Mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, called on him to help quell the chaos. 
Companies in our industry are already taking concrete steps towards promoting diversity in light of current events. CAA announced on June 1 the elevation of top sports agent Lisa Joseph Metelus, an African American, to the CAA Board, the new management structure which has overseen the company’s day-to-day affairs since January. Live Nation also issued a statement reading “We need to stop the racists that are literally killing culture,” and announced it is donating to the Equal Justice Initiative. 
While there are many institutional steps we can take to combat racism in this business, one thing we can all do is have honest conversations with ourselves and those close to us about the issue of race, as it can be through those conversations that hearts and perspectives shift. 
Conversations with a single person might seem like small potatoes next to platforms like Twitter that promise the ability to reach millions with the click of one button, but research from UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian found the vast majority of communication comes from voice inflection and facial expression or body language, not word selection. Psychology Today reported in 2014 that neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti found humans’ capacity for sharing experiences and feeling compassion was best tapped into through in-person communication. 
No stranger to controversy himself, those of us who remember 2Pac can recall some of his words from more than 20 years ago: “I got love for my brother / But we can never go nowhere unless we share with each other / We gotta start makin’ changes / Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers.”