By Dalton Higgins
During these last number of months, it has not been just another day at the office for me. As an African-Canadian owner of one of Canada’s leading boutique PR companies, that just happens to specialize in Black music (i.e., rap, R&B, electronic), long before the social protests, posting of Black squares, and sharing of hashtags, I have pretty much seen, heard, and witnessed all kinds of repulsive anti-Black racist acts that would make your head spin like a helicopter. Right here. In Canada. While being based in “multicultural” Toronto.
When we talk about structural and systemic racism in Canada, it means looking at what’s around you, looking at facts (and not feelings), and looking at real measures of equality, like representation. There’s no hard data that’s been collected or compiled in Canada (yet) to spell out how companies are faring as far as hiring and retaining Black staffers in the music and entertainment PR field. (The U.S. has always been 20 steps ahead of us when it comes to compiling race-based data.) According to Data USA, only 7.15 percent of publicists are Black (non-Hispanic).
But you don’t need to rely on statistics at this juncture. Our industry is small. Just go to all of the major awards shows, industry confabs, music festivals, and conferences, like I do, and you’ll see that our presence is scant to non-existent. JUNO Award winner Jessie Reyez, who isn’t Black, was so offended by the lack of Black representation at Canada’s major labels, that she listed out all of the woefully low percentages of Black staffers who were gainfully employed, on a recent CTV special, Change and Action: Racism in Canada, and said, “That’s not acceptable.”
Given that the numbers of Black management companies, booking agents, entertainment lawyers, commercial radio Program Directors and Music Directors, music presenters, venue owners, etc., in the entertainment industry in Canada are minuscule, and because all of these jobs have a naturally symbiotic relationship (i.e., “65 percent of my clientele comes from referrals”), you can see that the playing field could never be even here.
I’ve also always been a strong proponent of the idea of “building your own table,” and business ownership – serial entrepreneurs move a certain way – but that has more to do with the fact that I grew up reading about the exploits of the late Afrocentric business titan Marcus Garvey, who insisted that Black people need to own businesses, properties, the means of production and distribution, to have a more self-fulfilling existence.
Also, the facts are that if I hadn’t been a long-time media practitioner in both Canada and the U.S., my company would be dead in the water. I won’t lie. We’ve been in demand, and busier than ever over the last five years, but that might be more because we deliver results, and oftentimes have to work five times as hard as the perceived competition. (Many Black kids are told by their parents that due to anti-Black racism they have to be 10 times better than whites, and may still only get one-half the results.) And I ain’t talking about competing PR companies either.
The journey of the Black publicist in Canada means sitting idly by, as all kinds of mediocre rock, indie rock, country, and folk acts generate more local media attention at home than some of our world-class rap, R&B, and electronic music clients. Ironically, they’re able to generate significant media attention in far larger media outlets in the U.S., including Billboard, SPIN, or Hypebeast, and who are streaming more, have larger socials, and who have a lot cooler cachet.
The sheer dominance of contemporary Black music (e.g., rap, R&B), from a streaming and sales standpoint, stands in stark opposition to what gets covered in Canadian media. It’s the pink elephant in the room. If we were to treat the music media world like a genuine meritocracy, and base it on sales, youth culture, market penetration, growth potential, the cool factor, and whatever other metrics you want to use for what’s relevant in music or the zeitgeist, you would be seeing and hearing a lot more Black music on TV, radio, in newspapers, magazines, and blogs. But the facts are, you just aren’t in Canada.
I don’t even want to get into the normalized micro-aggressions I have to endure while running my company and doing my job. Is there a reason administrative staff (or security guards) in mainstream media houses and corporations who hire us always ask me in this distrusting way, “Can I help you with something?” when I land in their lobbies, intimating I don’t belong there, when it’s clear I’m there for a meeting, or to assist my client? If I were a white guy, there’s no way they would be walking over to me, and asking me these asinine questions. Maybe the next time I get that “Can I help you?” routine, and I will respond “Uhhh, yes you can help me, by moving out of my damn way, as I’m here to tend to the needs of my Grammy-nominated/JUNO-winning/best selling client, please and thank you.”
As a Black publicist, I also sadly have to spend an inordinate amount of time educating people in general about race, ethnicity, and music history. Because I’m Black, it doesn’t mean that I only represent Black artists. I represent the interests of all kinds of white, Asian, Indigenous, South Asian, and Latin American artists, largely because there’s a genre hybridity that has been happening over the last 20 years. Many good contemporary musicians, across cultures and racial designations, don’t really believe in being stuck in genre silos.
Also, Black music and culture influences the music creations of everybody. Always has. Where do you think the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” got his direct musical inspiration, guitar-playing style, and dance moves from? C’mon now, are you telling me that you don’t know (Bo) Diddley? Don’t ever judge a book by its cover, as I quickly learned while working for a few years with the so-called “world” music scene in Canada. It’s a scene that might arguably be the most problematic, when it comes to dealing with issues around race, representation, colonization, and other questionable employment practices, but I’ll save that for another column.
What does the future hold for PR professionals of my ilk? We essentially want nothing to do with the old boys’ network. Why? Because homogeneity bores us. And my time is, quite frankly, better spent building a New Boys (& Girls!) network that’s a lot more interesting, and that will represent contemporary demographic and music realities. Despite what some of the few remaining gatekeepers are doing (we see you), the music forms you’re supporting are dying a slow death. Not because of anything I’m writing here. It’s because of the people. Music consumers. They want more hip-hop, R&B, Afro beats, electronic music. Or maybe it’s a hip-hop world, and you’re just living in it?
Despite all of these daily anti-Black industry annoyances, I’ll always be working with my talented clients to get their stories out. I still get a great high landing a major media hit for my clients, both big and small. And it’s true that you’ll likely always catch me hanging out and partying with both my emerging and celebrity clients. Even while Paris is burning.