The black boxes stacked up by the minute. Your favorite bands, brands and distant relatives flooded social media timelines with blank black squares on Tuesday, using the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday.
What began as a music industry initiative to spur support for the Black community morphed into a full-blown social media phenomenon, with users posting the black squares in solidarity with protesters across the country demanding justice for George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of the Minneapolis police. As celebrities and corporations across industries ran with the trending topic, the original message became increasingly obfuscated for many. Was it a day of social media silence? Some sort of call for action? Or just another back-patting hashtag for well-meaning white folks?
“It sounds like it’s definitely something that’s organized by white people,” Seattle rapper Campana said Monday. “It doesn’t make clear what it’s doing. You guys are doing what in solidarity of Black people?
“I don’t want to hear the music industry being in solidarity with Black people at this time when they benefit off their own forms of modern slavery when it comes to owning their Black artists’ masters,” he continued, referring to master recordings which grant labels control over how artists’ music is used.
Though the disconnect widened as #BlackoutTuesday exploded Tuesday morning, the campaign was launched by two Black women under the banner #TheShowMustBePaused. The music biz insiders sought to halt “business as usual” for a day “in observance of the long-standing racism and inequality that exists from the boardroom to the boulevard.”
“Tuesday, June 2nd is meant to intentionally disrupt the work week,” organizers Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang wrote in their mission statement, calling for more accountability in an industry that profits off Black art. “Monday suggests a long weekend, and we can’t wait until Friday for change. It is a day to take a beat for an honest, reflective and productive conversation about what actions we need to collectively take to support the Black community.”
The day of disruption was intended as a first step, with a future action plan forthcoming, they wrote. On Tuesday morning, Thomas and Agyemang posted a statement clarifying their goals, but #BlackoutTuesday — a hashtag they weren’t using — had already taken on a life of its own. By the end of the day, the hashtag had appeared in more than 28 million Instagram posts. Many users also added the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, inadvertently drowning other posts relevant to the movement in a sea of black boxes.
Timing was tricky for rapper and painter Perry Porter, who had planned to release a collaborative new album with producer Old Milk on Tuesday. The local hip-hop luminary was leery of the campaign’s substance and the industry’s motivations for getting on board. Nonetheless, after conversations with his manager and Old Milk, they sought (unsuccessfully) to push the release date in solidarity. But as the hashtag took off, it felt increasingly disingenuous to him.
“Posting a picture and just taking the day off was like the easiest cop out to show that you are a part of a situation or problem going on in the world,” Porter said.
It also felt like convenient timing since the COVID-19 pandemic has already disrupted the music industry. Besides touring being on hold, streaming numbers have been down and Porter questions whether fans really want to hear party music from major-label pop stars and mainstream rappers during a period of intense civil unrest on top of a global pandemic.
“If it’s going to be a blackout Tuesday, why not have it be a day where you guys push more prolific or radical black artists?” Porter said, pointing to artists like critically acclaimed rapper/poet Noname. “Why doesn’t Spotify for that day make a playlist of black artists present right now who are trying to make a change? I feel like that could’ve gone so much further than just the blackout.”
In an Instagram post, New York-via-Seattle jazz progressive Kassa Overall noted how, as a jazz musician, his “life’s work is sold beneath the mantle of white ownership on almost every organizational level.” He questioned how substantive the Tuesday blackout really was.
“It is a nice gesture for music industry partners and well-off white musicians to say that they stand with the black community, but what does that mean?” he wrote. “Are black faces there to add color, used for the optics, for balance and symmetry? Are they only there for the song and dance? Will the people who make the most money off black music correct the artistic and intellectual colonialism that they thrive on? Will they help black people become stakeholders? And why do these issues only seem to matter when white America shows its ass?”
After doing a little research on #BlackoutTuesday’s origins, the statement from #TheShowMustBePaused’s organizers resonated with local Americana artist Paula Boggs. The former Starbucks executive and leader of her namesake Paula Boggs Band says she isn’t so Pollyannish as to believe all of the black-box posters are sincere. But overall, it felt like a positive step.
“We are living in one of the most divisive periods in our country’s history,” Boggs said. “So a movement that unifies us — even if it’s in some ways superficial — is better than not doing it, it seems to me.”
For Porter, the bigger question is what comes next.
“The protest and everything’s cool right now, but as a Black man, when the dust settles I’m still going to be Black and the issue’s still there,” he said. “So what are you going to do after all of this?