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In an effort to combat and discuss the issues regarding the unequal representation and treatment of different genres in the Boston music scene, musicians, artists, promoters, media members, educators, and others came together as Xperience Creative hosted a community discussion at iZotope. Titled “Boston Music State of the Union: Genre Equality”, the open discussion drew roughly 50 people to the Cambridge tech spot, with many venting frustration but also proposing solutions to what people feel is a lack of valuing hip-hop and other artistic expressions by people of color in the Boston community.
The conversation exploded in late April when STL GLD rapper Moe Pope questioned why the New England Music Awards removed their award for best rap/hip-hop group. When NEMA organizer Joe Graham declined to respond to Pope’s inquiry, Pope wrote an open letter explaining his frustration with the elimination of the category, and why the decision was problematic. While hip-hop was a major point of discussion last night, the evening also honed in on how other genres are not given equal treatment by venues and the city.
“There are orchestras and dancers and EDM folks that are dealing with the same things that we [hip-hop] are,” said Xperience Creative founder Lisa Finelli. “This isn’t a hip-hop problem. This is an everything problem.”
Pope added: “When talking about New England music, it is a wide landscape of beautiful things. You cannot have that wide landscape of beautiful things without hip-hop or any genre of music.”
Last night’s panel included Pope, Jesse Vengrove of The Record Co., Anngelle Wood of Boston Emissions, Tree frontman and music scene veteran Dave Tree, producer and marketing manager Nick Hailer, Andréa Hudson of Booger Money Worldwide, Brandon Matthews of KillerBoomBox.com, and Chanel Thompson of PerformanceBuild and DanceDreams. While there were no sure-fire answers on how to balance the inequality problem in the scene, the panel brainstormed some potential solutions and discussed at length why there are issues within the community to begin with.
Pope noted the way in which local venues rarely feature local talent, and bring in acts from outside the area to make a profit instead. Most recently, it was reported that Boston’s Converse Rubber Tracks Studio would no longer be open for local artists to use for recording, a service that the studio had provided to many local artists for free. “They’re shutting down these venues for us, but bringing in other people,” Pope said. “How does that makes sense? Converse just closed its doors to us recording in their studio. How does that make sense?”
Thompson, a choreographer, reflected a similar sentiment in the way that dancers and dance spaces are treated in the area, saying that dancers often have to go to Lowell to rehearse because space in Greater Boston is so limited. “Space is not available,” she said. “We’re overcrowded at the dance complex. We’re appreciative, but we’re overcrowded. It’s ridiculous and it’s embarrassing.”
From the audience, Matt McArthur of The Record Co. added some of his own research to the conversation, saying that people need to get more involved with Boston’s land development in order to create more spaces that are designated for the arts. “There is city-owned land, but that land is difficult and complicated to develop,” he said. “The real place that we can insert ourselves in is the real estate development process. We have to push the city to be more stringent about real estate development and how they allow it.” McArthur added that the community can push for more arts spaces and fewer outside for-profit businesses.
Vengrove added that in an effort to create more space for the arts, The Record Co. is in the process of creating their own all-ages small capacity venue. “Our next big initiative is moving into the all-ages music scene,” Vengrove said. “All-ages venues don’t exist in Boston. There is currently no outlet for young people to be able to experience music in general.”
The issue is not solely connected to lack of spaces, however; the spaces that do exist for artists to use can be inherently problematic in the way that they treat musicians. Pope referenced the ways that he has to work extra hard to get gigs in the area, and even when he does get a show, pat-downs and dress codes are often required. These stipulations are much harsher than those — if any — at concerts where other genres of music are featured.
“They want us to act as if we should be happy to be here,” Pope said. “I am an artist, I am a musician, and I want people to know my art, so I have to jump through hoops and act like someone I am not to gets those opportunities. I have to open for bands that I shouldn’t be opening for to get those opportunities. I have to act differently from what I normally act like to get those opportunities. And it’s not fair. Why should I stand on the side when other bands are getting opportunities and recognition?”
Jessica Richards, the manager of Boston artist Latrell James, commented on the problem of intensive pat-downs at the Middle East in particular. While she said she was okay with pat-downs in general, she felt that the extent of the body searches at the venue is unacceptable. “I don’t want my breasts touched because you feel unsafe,” Richards said. “That’s not my fault.”
Heather McCormack, a youth worker and hip-hop artist, spoke out about her own experiences in the music scene as a white woman and how it highlights racial bias in the community: “Let’s all be very frank: Race is the reason why we are so scared of hip-hop. Speaking to my own experience, I have been given so many more opportunity and so much more leeway from being a white woman. What they are saying when they say ‘we don’t do hip-hop’ they are saying ‘we don’t do folks of color.’”
McCormack’s comments drew applause from the crowd and props from the panel members. She went to explain that her peers of color are offered fewer gigs, of which many are pay-to-play — and noted that as a white woman, she’s almost never put in the same position. “I don’t get that shit existing as a white person, so why do my students of color? Boston needs to fucking realize that it’s racist as hell.”
Matthews repeated the sentiment: “Hip-hop is isn’t hated in Boston, it’s just when it has a black face.”
The consensus of the evening was that this conversation needs to continue beyond the meeting and that all groups of the music scene need to band together in order to have any sort of impact on the inequality that exists within the scene. “We need to agree today that we’re going to do things like this all the time, said Wood. “We met two days ago with the city of Boston — the arts and culture department. It took one year [to book the meeting]. It’s a slow process, but they’re listening. I’ll meet with any city around here that will have us but we need you guys to come too.”
In closing Finelli said the work has just begun. “This isn’t a one-and done conversation,” she said, “hopefully this is one of many conversations.”