Nothing is created without what came before.
Artists and musicians are quite familiar with that fundamental truth — it’s the very foundation of our daily work. We learn and grow by studying past creations and philosophies.
Once we learn about what came before us, we develop our own voice. It’s still based upon the voices of the past, just updated and adjusted to match our own experiences and world view. After all, art reflects society in its time. This is how we move the timeline forward.
Still, artists can only achieve nuance and association in their music by making references to the past. Hinting at that chronology is what gives listeners something to latch on to.
So, whose role is it to understand these references in a piece of music? Composers, performers, and listeners may or may not grasp the depth of what they’re hearing. This brings us to age-old questions:
Should audiences be explicitly told how to listen to music?
Should musicians always create with informed intention, or is it OK to write and play just because it feels right?
Commitment to the chronology
For some time now, we’ve lived in a world that demands immediacy and convenience at the expense of quality and respect. The methods for sharing information, creations and ideas are not built for sourcing and referencing. This leads society to increasingly devaluing originality, responsibility and accountability.
In terms of music, that means we’re losing accountability to our foundations — the chronology of artistic development. But knowing our history can pave the way to equity if we would only honor it and put it on full display.
Black Lives Matter is changing everything
Consider the current civil rights movement. Black Lives Matter has motivated people across a broad spectrum of industries and backgrounds to combat structural white supremacy. Local governments are funding new social programs. Organizations are pushing for equity programs and training. Companies are examining hiring practices and demanding accountability.
Most importantly, it’s becoming increasingly outdated to say “It’s not my fault the world is like this.” People are self-educating and self-evaluating by participating in the movement, expanding their horizons, reflecting on past actions and grappling with some tough questions.
The music industry must be no different. And that means each one of us needs to act.
Artists have always been activists
Musicians can take simple — maybe, to some, obvious — actions in our own professional field that will reach beyond us.
Throughout history, the arts have paved the way for huge systemic reforms. From operas demanding respect for the average countryman, to jazzers and rockers performing on integrated stages, to punk bands deflating a fascist uprising during an election year, we have a successful history of leading by example.
Our conduct can create a ripple effect that leads to changes in the very makeup of society.
The most effective artists are drawn to self-reflection and openness; they don’t shy away from looking within. Artists have a duty and a responsibility to analyze ourselves and one another, explore how we function within our world and communicate that to our audience. That is literally our job description.
Growing your musicianship and career
Crediting other artists is synonymous with the profession (or hobby) that you’ve chosen to pursue. As a musician, you should know who your influences are.
Understanding who and what moves you will direct your work, giving it clarity and consonance. It will lead you to further exploration and self-discovery. It allows you to eloquently and meaningfully discuss your music with interviewers and with your fans. It binds you to the community and places your work “on the timeline.” It helps you gain recognition from your fellow songwriters, composers, and performers.
These are achievements we all want as artists, and they’re necessary in order to be successful and respected for what we do.
Taking the path to equity
Performing artists (especially white musicians) must not skirt accountability and responsible art-making under the guise of “I play it because it feels right to me.”
Your job isn’t done when you finish recording an album or post a video of your live show online.
Take the time to put your performance into context and tell your audience about your music. This is the path to equity.
When you perform someone else’s song, do some research, then credit the person who wrote it and who originally performed it.
You may think the correct information is common knowledge to everyone, but it’s not. There is always someone out there who thinks “Hound Dog” was originally by Elvis (it was Big Mama Thornton), or “Surfin’ USA” was a fun Beach Boys tune (Chuck Berry was seriously ripped off). This is the path to equity.
Concretely discuss BIPOC artists of the past and present.
It’s an opportunity to gush about your influences and educate your audience about your passion. Your fans will then explore and discover new BIPOC music. This is the path to equity.
Why you should credit BIPOC artists
The more that artists — particularly white artists — use their privileges and positions of power to explicitly credit and honor their BIPOC influences, the more BIPOC art will be hailed and respected. People will more deeply and meaningfully recognize the enormous influence that Black and Indigenous art forms have had on American culture and society.
This will pave the way for updated and inclusive norms where BIPOC contributors to society are considered just as valid as their white colleagues. That validity will be displayed through markers like compensation and representation across all aspects of all industries. And that, my friends, is equity.
We must lead by example
Achieving equity is not simple, and it will take time. We must be unrelenting and overt in how we communicate to our listeners. We must lead by example, as those before us have.
We must get more people on board with the idea that BIPOC art is not only important, but it is the very bedrock of all of the music and art currently bringing incredible meaning to our lives. That’s an extra leap that most (white) people haven’t quite taken yet.
We need to scream their names high from a mountain top: Chuck Berry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimi Hendrix, Erykah Badu, J Dilla, John Coltrane, Bernard Purdie, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Lou Williams, Poly Styrene, Betty Davis, Jim Pepper, Muddy Waters, Scott Joplin, Florence Price and so many underrepresented others — you name them.
No seriously. You. Name them.
Liz Chibucos is a performer, composer, writer and educator residing in Portland, OR. She currently serves as Secretary of the Board of Directors for Musicians in Solidarity.