by Kim Regala, Peak Associate
I recently came across a Tweet from singer-songwriter Shamir that read: “A white boy from Utah who calls himself Ritt Momney getting successful off a cover of a Black woman’s song sounds like violence to ME.” It was a direct attack at up-and-coming indie artist Jack Rutter, who goes by the stage name Ritt Momney. In late April of this year, he released a cover of Corinne Bailey Rae’s 2006 hit single “Put Your Records On.” Since then, the track has risen in popularity and has not only gained him more fans, but also a record deal.
It seems that Shamir’s Tweet is pointing at how white people have continuously profited from the works of Black people. Whether it’s appropriating Black culture through fashion trends, or claiming particular music genres as inherently white, the profitization and exploitation of Black culture is widely apparent. While Shamir’s words are based in truth, his efforts shouldn’t be directed at singling out an artist. By doing this, it takes away from efforts that could instead be placed on more productive conversations surrounding these issues.
I should emphasize that Shamir’s pursuit to open up this topic is not only important, but necessary. History is rife with the whitewashing of Black music in the music industry. One prime example is Elvis Presley’s tune “Hound Dog.” Most people who recognize this song will credit it to the “King of Rock and Roll” himself, without realizing that it belongs to Black female blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. “Hound Dog” was a deliberate attempt from the music industry to strip away the success of Black musicians. While talented Black artists were writing record-breaking hits in the background, white musicians were given all the fame and credit for being in the spotlight. Not to mention the fact that the “King of Rock and Roll” is a title credited to a white artist, despite the rock genre being rooted in Black culture.
Today, the music industry is just as silencing to Black musicians. Although music written and produced by Black artists is heard more often, white people are still largely in control behind the scenes through management of artists and ownership of record labels. We need to be having larger conversations about these structures of power that inhibit true representations of Black music and artists in the industry.
We have seen through the expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement how impactful online spaces can be in bringing people together, educating one another, and holding others accountable. However, while accountability is one crucial step, social media users can often project hostility in the wrong direction. This tends to lead to meaningless and joke-filled social media chatter rather than productive conversation.
I recognise Shamir’s concerns around the idea that the success of a white male artist appears to be coming from the original work of a Black female artist. However, this is not the conversation that has come out of his comments. There is more attention being placed on criticizing an artist, as opposed to conversing in productive dialogues on what this is revealing about the music industry. Many of the Tweet’s replies are aimed at critiquing the cover itself, with little having to do with why placing a white artist’s cover of a Black artist’s song in the spotlight may be problematic.
Focusing on the wrong people can only overshadow and detract from these conversations. Instead of using our platforms to simply criticize artists, we should instead be amplifying the real and ongoing issues for Black musicians. Let’s dive into the role of white supremacy within the music industry that has, for example, removed genres such as jazz and rock from their inherently Black roots. And let’s make sure to have a conversation about how to support Black artists so that they aren’t at the whim of a whitewashed industry.