Beyond Radar: How Radio Has And Continues To Exploit Black Culture
London-based internet radio station Radar Radio is the latest in the year of #MeToo. Following the ongoing reports of sexual harassment, assault, and exploitative and abusive practices in the film industry, the music industry was tipped to be the next to receive its moment of reckoning. It is well-known in the music business that mistreatment is ‘part and parcel’ of the process, with accounts of producers, DJs and music execs taking advantage of young artists wanting to succeed and progress within the industry.
From Ke$ha to Amy Winehouse to NWA, artists have been exploited sexually, financially and emotionally for years. Rappers such as Cardi B and Mariah Lynn have talked openly about producers taking advantage of young women and exploiting ‘video vixens’ (women who dance in hip-hop music videos). Now, it’s radio’s turn. Major stations are being forced to answer as to why these practices are failing to be tackled in broadcasting. When Radar Radio was outed as one of the stations where unsavoury behaviour was going on under-wraps, people were up in arms. Surely London’s “cool and edgy youth-led” radio station couldn’t be at the centre of such allegations? Unfortunately, despite giving some young broadcasters a voice, others were having theirs taken away thanks to an unhealthy culture of sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia.
Whilst most were quick to criticise and stand up to support the allegations sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour, outed by former producer Ashtart Al-Hurra, others were less shocked by the revelations of organisation racism, theft of intellectual ideas and appropriation of culture of specific cultural groups, and other toxic practices, brought to light by queer WOC feminist DJ collective, Pxssy Palace.
Whilst we are moving forward as a society when coming to terms with sexist behaviour, it appears that some are still slow to recognise racist and discriminatory behaviour based on racial grounds in broadcasting. Readers were shocked to hear that Radar Radio, the station all about urban culture, was owned by none other than Ollie Ashley, son of Sports Direct shareholder and Newcastle United owner, Mike Ashley, who was heavily criticised after reports of bad conditions of his employees hit the press. When allegations were first made, Ashley responded,
“We were very concerned and disappointed to see the statement from Pxssy Palace suggesting that we are getting some important aspects wrong. We don’t agree with all the opinions in that statement but like most organisations we know we are capable of making mistakes and have to be vigilant to maintain standards.”
When Al-Hurra made her allegations and the backlash worsened, however, Radar immediately put out a message notifying all that the station would be suspending all broadcasting until in a position to address the recent commentary around aspects of the station. This was subsequently followed with a mass exodus of DJs and show hosts such as Snoochie Shy and The Slumflower, both condemning the station for failing to recognise the mistreatment of POC.
Radar Radio isn’t the first to exploit black culture for capital gains. It only takes a simple Google search to uncover the countless rants by musicians of colour who have been ostracised and ignored, whilst their white counterparts do the same and are lauded. In 2016, Joss Stone was awarded the Reggae Billboard Artist of the Year. Long-time veteran reggae DJ, David Rodigan was made headliner for Eastern Electric’s bass, DnB, reggae and garage day, and sold out the Southbank Centre with The Outlook Orchestra, whilst reggae stars from Jamaica such as Richie Spice are relegated to venues like The Clapham Grand. There’s no disputing these musicians have worked incredibly hard to reach the positions they hold within the industry, but it is important to note that there are similar artists of colour who don’t receive the same promotion, support and critical acclaim, purely because they are not seen as “mainstream”. Many people forget that some of the “greats” were inspired by music rooted in the black community. The Beatles gave credit to the blues, Elvis took inspiration from Sister Rosetta Sharpe, Hall & Oates were inspired by Smokey Robinson, the list goes on.
Of course, music is meant to be shared. Music genres do not belong to a certain group of people, and the focal point of broadcasting is, more than anything, to spread music to the masses. Both reggae artists in their own right, Sting and Shaggy, who recently partnered up for a collaboration, talked of their hatred of the debate over cultural appropriation in music. However, Sting noted that the reggae genre was something he respected and valued and learnt from. By collaborating with Shaggy, who he regards as an ‘authentic reggae dancehall superstar’, he is paying homage and sharing the economic value of the music genre he adapted and made his own.
When it comes to the appropriation of culture at Radar Radio, there was little respect or value paid to the people whose people Radar was capitalising from, whether those were DJs, hosts, or the musicians they played. Despite the constant reports of Radar staff saying misogynistic, homophobic and racist comments, there were no internal investigations or policies set in place to make Radar an inclusive work environment. In a similar manner to his father, Ollie Ashley failed to pay artists, DJs and hosts a fair amount, with many working for free. The share of economic gains was not the same. When journalist Josh Hall investigated Radar’s cash flow, he received threats from Radar’s lawyers threatening legal action in the event of defamatory material being published.
As Afua Hirsch so rightly states, when it comes to cultural appropriation, it is not “a kind of illiberal possessiveness drawing red lines at the supposed hard and fast boundaries of cultures. It’s an eruption of frustration towards the media, advertising and fashion industries that has been building for decades” and the lack of “interest in the context that bore the culture, or the ongoing struggles that regularly besiege it.”
In the early 2000s, I remember listening to Capital FM and Kiss FM, and being infuriated at rap verses being cut out of popular music. Whether it was Katy Perry’s “California Girls” that Snoop Dogg was snubbed out of, or Flo Rida and Drake being cut from their collaborations with their pop counterparts. On these same stations, Eminem, Mac Miller and Macklemore’s rap verses would be played in full. Now, Capital has its own ‘hip-hop’ station, Capital Xtra (formerly the independent Brixton-based station, Choice FM). In the same way, many magazines and online platforms which previously demonised certain music genres, now celebrate soul, hip-hop, RnB, reggae and other music genres by people of colour, yet have not one person of colour amongst their collaborators, from editorial and production, to design and photography.
Whether it’s being victims of “cultural smudging” (appropriating culture without involvement of specific cultural groups or thieving intellectual ideas from people of colour with little transparency or attempt to share credit), or sheer exploitation, such as demanding staff to work for free in an uncomfortable and toxic environment. By having the resources, money, influence and power, Radar were able to manipulate their work environment, capitalising off black culture and in the same breath, exploiting these same people through systematic manipulation, abuse and appropriation. It’s high time that arts funding was offered to young people of colour who want to create a broadcasting platform where both they, and their culture are celebrated and supported.
Written by Mireille Harper
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