AISHA NANOR MARTIN SPEAKS ON THE TWO-SIDED NATURE OF WORKING IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
Words by Aisha Nanor Martin | Edited by Shiba Melissa Mazaza
This past year, which I have come to call “the year of performative allyship,” music businesses posted black squares and condemned racism. They shared anti-racist educational resources and shouted about Black History Month. They pledged in solidarity to eradicate racial injustices… But the question remains: are they doing any meaningful work internally? From my experience, the short answer is no.
I am Aisha Nanor Martin. I was born in East London, and spent a large portion of my childhood in Hertfordshire where my parents moved when my brother and I were very young. My father is West African and my mother is Malaysian, and I enjoyed life in St Albans which carried a strong West Indian and Asian community; from an early age I hung out with a broad mix of friends with a rich combination of cultures. My childhood was vibrant, noisy and full of expression.
I grew up in an environment in which music, dancing, family and food were important, and I loved every moment of it. When I was young, I spent a lot of time with my family in Ghana — especially with my Grandma, and we formed a strong bond. I have vivid memories of our yard where she would tell me stories interspersed with songs, a tradition that stretches back for generations. This is also how we learnt about our ancestry.
Aisha’s father, Paul Tetteh Nanor
Back at home in the U.K., my father would always play funk, highlife, soul and jazz at home, which naturally progressed to a deep love of Black music and culture. He especially loved Jimi Hendrix and his rebellious nature, occasionally dragging the electric guitar out into the garden for an impromptu jam session. I now have my father’s turntable and vinyl collection, something I still treasure today. Self-expression through music has always been important to us as Black people, as well as being a means of communication, escapism and creating joyful moments. Black music has had a profound influence on me and has shaped who I am, and of course provides everlasting inspiration to global culture. It’s only right that I would go on to carry this love into my career.
I’ve worked on the agency side in the industry, across music consultancy, strategy and business development for playlisting and curation agencies for over 15 years. I’ve studied business and found myself drawn to music when an opportunity to assist a music manager arose at a multi-disciplinary company. Combining my passion for music, the business therein and my enthusiasm to develop and uplift those around me, I threw myself into the work. Bringing people together is where I thrive, while supporting young creatives in developing their confidence when working in high pressure, client-driven environments. I learn so much from this generation; their commitment towards social consciousness is immense. They never flinch, ever ready to face hard conversations while challenging toxicity, and I couldn’t feel more proud of a generation of empathic doers. I suppose this is why I feel moved to share my own story.
Based on my own experience growing up as a Black child, and throughout my experience as a Black adult working in music, I know that my industry comfortably prides itself on its expertise of carefully curated music libraries, while designed playlists form a core part of many offerings. That said, it is impossible to name a creative and commercially viable playlist that isn’t heavily influenced by Black music. I invite you to try! However, the stark reality is that Black employees are underrepresented in these businesses. Fundamentally, decision makers who preside over the fate of Black creatives — and thus the evolution of Black cultures — are privileged men who lean on proximity to whiteness.
This practice permeates across the music industry along with its interconnected industries such as labels, advertising, events and media outlets. Black music and culture has inspired, shaped and upheld the music industry, yet the way Black people are treated within these systems betrays our contribution to its vibrancy and gainfulness, and the two-faced nature of working in music fuels the structurally racist underbelly. The industry continues to trade off Black music, and in more and more cases, Black art is turned into commodifiable content. But what are companies doing behind the scenes to meaningfully support Black employees? What about the staff that are invested in ensuring Black culture plays a key role in business and marketing objectives? What about the people that live and breathe the Black experience, who suffer neglect to the point of numbness and are silenced when faced with problematic situations in their places of work?
Racism manifests in many ways in the workplace; from covert or insidious racism through to oppressive greed and power-hungry exploitation of Black culture. The lack of support and wellbeing for Black employees shows that hypocrisy is real and widely accepted. All the while, lip service continues to flourish.
After spending 15 years working full time, I felt a strong desire to switch from in-house employment and set up my own gig. I co-founded a small music agency (TAON) alongside working as a freelance consultant, which led me to working with another playlisting business, Open Ear Music in early 2019. By late Autumn 2020, I’d resigned. It was the year Open Ear Music tweeted how to help ‘educate’ and ‘donate.’ The year Open Ear Music tweeted how people should ‘speak up’. The same year, I spoke up, and was gaslit.
One day, on a public company-wide forum, jokes about “the ghetto” i.e. Hackney, referencing skin-whitening creams and other equally problematic language was bandied about. When I tried to address their inappropriateness, my concern was met with a lack of understanding and self awareness, not for the first time as was evidenced by another employee’s expression of frustration. I had a feeling that holding the leadership and persons accountable would be challenging. Despite this feeling, I attempted to initiate a company-wide conversation with an email:
The response I received was steeped in systemic problems. The private apology followed by “everyone-can-be-racist” deflection from the leadership should’ve been a company-wide acknowledgement that would enforce their cultivation of a healthier work environment. The gaslighting from the top and employees in question centering themselves, along with their denial and defensiveness, left me further discredited and diminished.
Open Ear showed no real interest to embrace, accept and engage in honest and reflective conversation about racism. I had asked the team – “Has the eruption of protests and the BLM movement registered at all as relevant to your own personal and professional lives?”
This was met with silence, from everyone.
The very few employees that did speak up and challenge alongside me were shut down, causing a ripple effect — two other employees proceeded to send in their resignations in the following months. It became evermore clear that avoiding accountability, weaponsing emotion and protection of individuals along with the company’s reputation were the only priority for Open Ear.
Trying to navigate and process everything while in the midst of it all was exhausting, especially being the only Black person in the team. But once I found a moment to clear my mind, listen to my gut, and quite frankly have a word with myself, that’s when I knew it was time to remove myself from a situation that would only cause further harm to my wellbeing.
Eventually, I was able to resign once I had realised that I was working in a hostile uneven playing-field. Removing myself enabled me to clearly reflect and mobilise. Not everyone is able to resign; there are Black women in music, many of whom are young and still having to work in mentally unsafe, unethical and exploitative environments while their employers talk about ‘diversity’ as though it’s a new radical policy. Employers are responsible for the wellbeing of their entire team, and it’s also our collective responsibility to foster a culture of listening, accountability and bold steps toward action.
The truth is that Black people continue to experience the industry’s constant self-replication of problematic practises: Performative allyship is rife — presenting and claiming support and solidarity, but refusing to acknowledge any individual or company responsibility to systemic issues. Exploitation of Black music and the control of Black narratives through a white lens is heavily leveraged to profit. Tokenistic representation of ‘diversity’ in the workplace to satisfy stats along with thoughtless marketing campaigns — especially during Black History Month– is not good enough.
Challenging unethical work practises is important, if you have the capacity. Grassroots movements are important. Stories are essential and experiences are valid. There might be people reading this today who are as triggered and tired as I have been. You are not alone. There is a collective tiredness within the Black community, yet I’m still inspired by the sheer resilience from Black women who continue to thrive despite their trauma. It’s essential that we arm ourselves with knowledge and keep advocating for healthy workplaces.
To make the transition from conversation to change, we all need to take part. We need to work towards a new system, and if that means completely dismantling and rebuilding parts of the old one where we see that it is rotten, so be it. Do speak up, but make sure you’re prepared by working out your strategy and reaching out to allies. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are in your company, we can all be leaders.
We can talk about the problem, or we can change it. For those who wish to move with purpose, reach out.
If you would like to reach out to Aisha to share your experience of racism in the workplace, and if any business would like to be part of the conversation about change, please contact:
The views and opinions expressed by Aisha in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Black Artist Database.
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