A round table of musical artists, producers, an A&R exec and magazine editor-in-chief discussed the current state of music and social justice during the Blackout Music & Film Festival Saturday at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles.
Moderated by ASCAP’s Mir Harris, the panel discussed the history of music and its connection to human rights, especially within the African-American community. The panel begun with the quote: “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” Referring back to the civil-rights era, the panel agreed that music was a catalyst to the movement.
“In the past, artists could use it as their creative merit,” said Vibe editor-in-chief Datwon Thomas. “They weaved civil rights and what they were going through into their songs that were hits. I think now, artists are trying to find that lane since that’s not what’s going on in music right now … But it’s very important because music is the soundtrack to these movements.”
One soundtrack of the year that was noted in bringing deep-rooted community issues into its recording was the “Compton” album, arranged by Dr. Dre. Album producer Focus helped create Dre’s sound on the project.
“We had one orchestrator, and it was Dr. Dre,” Focus said. “Whatever story he wanted to tell he told us so that we could produce it.”
Harris then asked if the message of the film was lost within pop culture, more specifically with the viral meme generator.
“I think that there is music, there is art and then there is industry,” he responded. “They understand how to hybrid them to have one catapult the other. You have to turn it around and sell this into a nice, neat package so that everyone accepts this and they did.”
Focus said the only way to make the film’s story viable was to have it perceived as a universal concept. Singer Lalah Hathaway said she would not want social justice to be used as a marketing tool.
“I don’t want it to be a hashtag,” she said. “It’s not just another way to sell a product.”
Digital Underground producer “Chopmaster J” Jimi Dright countered the singer by questioning whether marketing would be the only way to keep the conversation going.
“We can market positivity … as opposed to the opposite because that is what the trends are,” he said. “R&B used to have a social and political agenda, but now it doesn’t … maybe it is time for us to make one of those records again … because it’s so stylized. Maybe we can make people think f—k the style, and love the content.”
The panel concluded with a consensus that social justice cannot become a subject within today’s mainstream music industry unless it happens organically. Political and social consciousness within a musical context simply cannot be manufactured.
(Pictured: V. Bozeman, PJ, Lalah Hathaway performers from the #SayHerName Voices for the Cause” Music Showcase.”)