Music's Racial Divide: An Industry Built on Black Talent Still Lacks Black Executives

The expected naming of two black execs to run big labels only serves to illuminate just how few top African-American decision-makers there are

In a music industry long dependent on black performers, the expected appointment of two African-Americans to top executive roles at the major labels is unlikely to be viewed as much progress.

The appointments will follow back-to-back exits by the industry's most visible black executives. They're also occurring in tandem with a decline in black music itself. Most likely, they will only spotlight the continuing disconnect between African Americans’ meager power in the industry’s management hierarchy and their sweeping artistic influence.

By month’s end, “Gee” Roberson (left) will be announced as chairman of Geffen Records, according to two persons close to the matter.

Having co-managed hip-hop newcomers Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake to pop stardom, Roberson now will turn to rebuilding a stagnant brand that once reigned in rock.

Roberson, who co-founded management firm Hip Hop in 1978, will succeed veteran executive Ron Fair (Christina Aguilera, U2 and Ashlee Simpson), who resigned in May.

Meanwhile, on or around July 1, Antonio “L.A.” Reid will resurface atop Sony Music Entertainment’s Epic Records, a person with direct knowledge confirmed to TheWrap.

The move has been widely speculated since March, when Reid – a judge this fall on the music competition TV show “X Factor” – vacated the chairmanship of Island Def Jam. 

Also read: L.A. Reid Officially Signs on as Judge in Simon Cowell's 'X Factor'

Reid was followed out the door by pioneering black executive Sylvia Rhone, who exited as CEO of Motown Republic. Their departures were part of an ongoing management shakeup under Lucian Grainge, new corporate boss at Universal Music Group, which owns both labels. (The company has declined comment to TheWrap, beyond noting that it is slashing costs through a variety of means.) 

At Epic, Reid (right) will report to incoming chairman Doug Morris, who in a similar position at Universal Music, had hired and championed Reid at Island Def Jam.

Reid's mandate: revive the moribound label.

After leaving Island Def Jam, Reid — who broke performers including Usher, Tony Braxton and Pink in the 1990s — was followed by rumors that he spent too much to break big acts.

While valid, the "overspending" rap seems to only dog the black executives — including Rhone – says a former strategically positioned African-American at Universal Music.

For example, Reid’s one-time mentor, the legendary Clive Davis, has a notorious reputation for outsized expenditures to break artists, yet his career over half a century has hardly suffered. The major labels “want us for our ‘flavor’ and ties to the street,” says a black music marketer who left the business in recent years. “But they don’t credit our business acumen.”  

To be sure, an inexorably shrinking industry — from $37 billion in music sales in 2000 to $16.7 last year — is sparing no creed or color in job loss and disrupted careers. And, of course, a sprinkling of African-Americans does occupy senior levels.

Among them: “Big” Jon Platt, EMI Music Publishing’s president of North American creative; Darcus Beese, co-president of Island Records’ UK arm; and Jeff Harleston, Universal Music Group’s general counsel.

Still, even though music is deeply rooted in the black experience, African-Americans have had a tough time historically infiltrating the higher echelons of the music business. Even when what was once dismissed as "race" music finally hit the mainstream in the '60s and '70s, it quickly came under the control of the white-led majors.

Blacks were relegated to in-house black music departments for scouting and signing, while the marketing and promotion of big crossover artists like Michael Jackson drifted to the purview of white pop executives.

That lasted until the '90s, when a new generation of powerful black music impressarios like Jay Z and Sean Combs, came on the scene with a thirst for a real piece of the action.

But despite the success of the black performers and industry efforts at recruitment, internships, internal promotions and external hiring, a senior white executive with one of the Big Four music companies acknowledges that diversity is still lacking in music’s executive ranks. 

This executive dismisses any suggestions of willful discrimination, noting the generally shallow pool of people with the rare talent for spotting, signing and nurturing stars and picking hits.

What’s more, the hip-hop generation prefers to remain outside the majors to build and retain control of their empires. “There are no easy answers,” the executive laments.

Russell Simmons, the pioneering impressario who helped propel hip-hop into the mainstream after co-founding Def Jam, expresses music’s African-American dilemma.

He said the mainstream majors never saw the usefulness of African-Americans “to make a rock video. And now that Rihanna and Katy Perry are so similar, why do you need a black executive?”

He traces the fundamental problem, though, to “a lack of real integration” in the business. “No effort was made by the ‘old boys club’ or by African-Americans to truly integrate,” Simmons told TheWrap.

Meanwhile, the upheaval caused by the digital transformation is just one of several recent blows to career equality and opportunity in music.

Pop, once again, is the big musical trend, while hip-hop and rap have cooled. The majors have begun dismantling or downscaling their black music departments. And there are troubling signs of an erosion in the quality of black music aimed at the black audience, which some say is a result of the dearth of black executives.

Despite Reid and Roberson’s pending advances, this means something is coming up missing from music.

“You still need soul,” says one of the rare black women in mid-management.

Adds a black lawyer: “As creative people, African-Americans have led the charge in determining what is hot in pop culture. Let’s not forget the big picture. We’ve been the tastemakers on the cutting edge and telling the world what’s hot.”