What the Jann Wenner controversy says about white gatekeeping in music

When Jann Wenner, the co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, recently said that Black and women musicians didn’t “articulate” rock music philosophy well enough to be included in his new book, his words weren’t just a passing comment. 

To music critics and experts, Wenner’s statements to The New York Times magazine while promoting his book “The Masters” highlight long-standing racial inequities in the music business. Black musicians have long received the short end of the stick in the industry, in everything from receiving lackluster contracts and struggling for radio play to being shut out of prestigious accolades. 

“He’s shown what many industry leaders still think about Black and female musicians, and his choice of words are an affront to the creativity and genius exhibited by so many artists,” Willie “Prophet” Stiggers and Caron Veazey, co-founders of the Black Music Action Coalition, said of Wenner in a statement to NBC News.

“The Masters” is a collection of Wenner’s interviews with Bono, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Jerry Garcia and Pete Townshend over the course of his lengthy career at the magazine. A new interview with Bruce Springsteen was also included. 

“Black musicians are routinely the subject of racism and prejudice that undermines their value,” Stiggers and Veazey continued in their statement. “The TRUE masters are the Black creators of the rock and roll genre; those by which each interviewee in the book has been touched and influenced.”

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation quickly removed Wenner, its co-founder, from its board of directors after Times magazine interview was released. Rolling Stone, which he co-founded in 1967, issued a statement denouncing Wenner’s remarks. Wenner left Rolling Stone in 2019. 

In the Times magazine interview, David Marchese asks Wenner why non-white artists or women were missing from his book. When Wenner asserted that he did not interview women who were “articulate enough on this intellectual level” to speak deeply about music, Marchese pushed back, citing women artists like Madonna and Joni Mitchell.

Wenner pivoted to talking about to Black artists and concedes that Steve Wonder is a genius, and late musicians Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield could also be deemed “masters” of music, but in the end, he said that Black artists “just didn’t articulate at that level.”

Wenner has since apologized, admitting that his comments “diminished the contributions, genius, and impact of Black and women artists” and added that he has an admiration for the “world-changing artists” not featured in his book.  

But the damage was done. His words, experts argue, reinforced negative stereotypes about Black artists, especially because of Wenner’s influence. He remained at Rolling Stone’s helm for more than 50 years, shaping music journalism and befriending major musicians and label execs.

Daphne Brooks, a professor of African American Studies at Yale and author of “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound,” said Wenner’s racially coded language undermined the brilliance of Black musicians, especially Black women — whom, she argued, Wenner struggled to name in his Times interview.

“The music has always been steeped in intellectualism, if we think of it as a form of historical, political and social expression,” Brooks said. “This has been the case since the enslaved were scoring their own music as coded language in order to survive. That’s carried forward to the blues and jazz and to rock ‘n’ roll. For him to not know that and not be able to recognize the complexities of Black intellectualism built into music is a problem,” she added.

The hardships Black musicians face are well documented. Artists usually end up in deals in which they receive an advance and, in return, give up their music rights and agree to receive cents on the dollar from their music. Musicians like Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Wayne, Prince and several others have warred with labels over record deals that they’ve said are unfair, and in some instances taking companies to court. For instance, international music publisher BMG said in 2020 that royalties for Black musicians it manages were up to 3.4% lower than non-Black musicians after a monthslong internal audit. Such contracts for Black artists go back a long time in the music industry. 

Little Richard spent decades talking about the exploitation he endured after signing with Specialty Records in the 1950s. His contract gave him half a penny for each record sold. He signed the deal, without any guidance, when he was desperate to care for his low-income family. Such low royalty rates were common for Black artists at the time, compared with white musicians who typically saw five-cent cuts of their sales. And white performers would re-record popular tracks from Black artists, reaping the reward from royalties. As for Little Richard, his biggest hit “Tutti Frutti” only earned him $25,000 after selling half a million copies, according to The New York Times.

In 1987, the NAACP released a report on the industry called “The Discordant Sound of Music.” The report found that although Black artists generated 25% to 30% of the recording industry’s revenue at the time, “they receive only a miniscule proportion of its financial benefits.” 

Researchers determined that the industry was “overwhelmingly segregated and discrimination is rampant.” While the report came before hip-hop had reached more mainstream success, it held that Black artists were confined to undervalued music categories with limited opportunities for growth, financial freedom and creativity. Discriminatory barriers meant that white artists benefited from the talent of Black artists, especially since there were so few Black people in leadership positions at major labels. 

Not much has changed. Beyond predatory contracts, Black musicians are often pigeonholed into racially defined — “urban” — genres, with barriers to creating other types of music. For example, Billboard removed Lil Nas X’s 2018 hit “Old Town Toad” from its Hot Country Songs chart and told his label that the song’s inclusion was a mistake, Rolling Stone reported. Meanwhile, white rappers like G-Eazy and Post Malone have found a consistent place for themselves on Billboard’s hip-hop charts. 

When it comes to gatekeeping, and who makes the decisions about who is valued as a star and whose music stays underground, Black people make up just 7.5% of the 4,060 executives at the vice president level and above at 119 music companies, according to a 2021 report by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative

The music industry’s racial disparities came under fire in 2020 amid police violence protests after George Floyd’s killing. Two Black women, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang launched #TheShowMustBePaused, an effort to stop business for a day and encourage reflection about the ways the music industry exploits and profits from Black talent. It snowballed into #BlackoutTuesday, with everyone from Rihanna to Drake posting black squares on their social media in support of the effort. It grew into a massive phenomenon that sparked conversations about discrimination and racism in the music industry.

As a result, major music companies like Warner Bros., Apple, Universal Music (which is owned by the same parent company as NBC News), Sirius XM and others promised monetary and other unspecified contributions to create a more equitable industry. In 2022, the Black Music Action Coalition released a report detailing how music labels, record companies, streaming services and more had held to their commitment to change. The group said there was an  improvement in representation and charitable giving, but called for an “industry-wide review of contracts” and urged the live music sector to “be more attentive to Black professionals.” 

This, experts say, is the paradox of hip-hop music. The same culture and lyrics that rake in millions for the music industry are simultaneously disparaged and undervalued. Fifty years after the start of the genre and after more than 20 years of inducting artists, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame didn’t see its first rapper until 2007 with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5. There has been only a sprinkling of Black hip-hop artists inducted since. The sometimes subtle racism of the music industry is often most prevalent when it comes to the genre, said A.D. Carson, an assistant professor of hip-hop and the global south at the University of Virginia. 

“With hip-hop, folks have these expectations about what hip-hop or what rap is, and those expectations have been largely curated by people who hate Black people,” Carson said. “People talk about rap like it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort, it doesn’t take a whole lot of energy, it doesn’t take a whole lot of thought.”

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Wenner’s words reflect the institutional hold entities like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and even Rolling Stone magazine have on the music industry. But experts like Carson and Brooks say perhaps this controversy will lead to meaningful conversations about the industry. 

“These remarks should be an opening for a greater reckoning,” Carson said.

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