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How a Digital Rapper’s Flubbed Roll-Out Is Everything That’s Wrong With the Music Business (Guest Column)

LOS ANGELES - MAY 19:  The Capitol Records building where musician Brian Wilson formerly of the Beach Boys spoke to the media at a press conference May 19, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. He announced his return to the Capitol Records label for the release of his next albulm "That Lucky Old Sun".  (Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images)
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At some point, every person who works in the music industry has to grapple with the fact that its not-all-that-distant past is rooted in racism and financial exploitation. Capitol Records is no exception. The 80 year-old label’s legacy of Black artists includes Nat King Cole, Tina Turner and George Clinton, but its roster has featured few others throughout its history, right up to the present. 

In 2022, the label rolled out FN Meka, a digital rapper so offensive in pulling from the worst stereotypes of how appropriators view our culture, that it single-handedly set back the clock on equality. 

The controversy was initially called out by Black music executives and notable figures in the hip-hop community and led our advocacy group, Industry Blackout, to issue a statement addressing the matter directly to Capitol Records. Variety itself reported that sources said the company was already in the process of terminating the deal — however, we take issue with that, as we believe it was our supporters and affiliates that sparked the conversation to begin with.

Additionally, our sources inside Capitol have signaled the opposite. Which takes us back to the root and stem of the issue: that Capitol Records’ insincere platitudes are only focused toward avoiding public scrutiny, and not to make necessary changes for the betterment of diversity and an inclusive ecosystem.

It was less than two years ago that Capitol — which was acquired by Universal Music Group in 2011 along with parent company EMI’s recorded-music division for nearly $2 billion — joined much of the music business in virtue-signaling its support of Black communities due to the public outcry for social justice in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s tragic murders. For its part, Capitol hoisted a Black Lives Matter flag atop its 150-foot building in a show of solidarity, joined the “Blackout Tuesday” chorus and declared its support for the Black community via social media, writing in May 2020, “We see you.”  

So how did we get from there to here? Well, it’s simple. We were never “there” to begin with.

Although strides have been made in various parts of the industry, unfortunately, the more things change, the more they stay the same and the lack of Black executives remains a blind spot in all corners of the music business. 

While there’s seemingly hope for diversity in the appointments of Tunji Balogun as CEO of Def Jam, Harvey Mason jr. transitioning from interim to full-time CEO at the Recording Academy and Jon Platt leading Sony Music Publishing as chairman/CEO, the wheels at Capitol seem to be turning more slowly. Indeed, it didn’t go unnoticed when Motown, the label founded more than six decades ago by Berry Gordy — who stipulated in its sale to Universal that the label’s future chief executives must be Black — traded parent companies from Capitol Music Group to UMG.

Cue: the FN Meka flub. Visibly missing from the hyped press release was any involvement from Black executives at Capitol, which do exist though they are indeed sparse and the pond is continuing to shrink. Our advocacy group has personally spoken to several staffers of color at the company who cited similar issues which boil down to these assertions: “Capitol Records is not a nurturing environment for Black employees”; “where there is diversity in personnel, there’s no diversity in thought”; “a lack of cultural awareness is the culture there.”

In the days leading up to the fallout over FN Meka, we reached out directly to several individuals who are on UMG’s Task Force for Meaningful Change, as well as others affiliated with organizations founded on similar initiatives, and found our attempts brushed off or, in some instances, simply unanswered. Capitol itself issued a statement to the media, but did not address this egregiously offensive misstep on the company’s social media channels. Nor did they pledge any additional funds be allocated to the promotion of their current roster of Black artists. (Also squandered: a major opportunity for the label to break ground in the fast-growing Web3 community.)

To bring things up to date, Industry Blackout has learned, and Variety confirmed, that Capitol has parted ways with Ryan Ruden, who served as EVP of experiential marketing and business development, and is believed to have spearheaded the FN Meka dealings. It’s a start.

What’s the point of this op-ed? Does another call for more Black employees sound like a broken record in 2022? For a building designed around the concept of a stack of LPs, and currently empty due to retrofitting meant to withstand an earthquake, such unstable ground leads to cracks in the foundation for the company it houses. Capitol, are you listening?