Update: This blog entry has been updated with a response from Clear Channel's Tommy BoDean.
[Before you read this blog entry, I'd suggest you go to Styles P's website and listen to the his new single, "I'm Black". It'll help you bett]
I normally discuss politics, government, public policy, and local issues on this blog, I don't talk about music. But this being Black History Month, I want to discuss the new single "I'm Black" by Styles P (whose real name is David Styles) and why you can't hear it on hip-hop/Black radio stations, including Radio One's WIZF ("The Wiz") and Clear Channel's WKFS ("Kiss FM"). (To be fair, Kiss FM isn't really a hip-hop station, it is a CHR/Pop station. That said, the distinction is almost meaningless as they have a ton of Black listeners and during some spans play just as much hip-hop music as The Wiz. Also, those stations across the country that are playing this single certainly aren't playing it in heavy rotation.)
I first heard "I'm Black" about two weeks ago while sitting in Phil Irby's Barbershop waiting to get my hair cut. On the song, Marsha from Floetry indeed flows:
So proud to be just who I am, so proud to say that I'm me.
So proud to be just who I am, so proud to be something...
So proud to say that I made it,
through all the struggle and the hatred,
and I'm not afraid to say it,
And throughout the song, Styles P is saying something that African Americans seem almost afraid to admit these day: I'M BLACK! The song is powerful without being preachy, and could be this generation's eqivalent to James Brown's "Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud." Sitting there in the barbership listening to the lyrics got me wondering who I was listening to? Without missing a beat the guy sitting next to me said, "come on Brother Nate, you know that's Styles P!" Well, I really didn't know, but I do now. Those of you who know of my fondness for talk radio might not believe this, but I listen to music radio a lot. Why haven't I heard "I'm Black" on the radio?
I've got a theory about why you can't hear this song on hip-hop radio stations. Because of media consolidation, there are very few independently owned and operated Black radio stations or stations playing hip-hop music. So, the music pumped into the Black community comes through a radio station programmed by a corporate radio station. The parent companies of corporate radio stations like The Wiz and Kiss have been accused of (1) having a paternal and racist mindset that they should determine which messages the hip-hop community hears, and (2) instituting a system where artists have to pay for their songs to be played.
Nearly everyone making decisions about what songs get played on hip-hop radio stations -- program directors or music directors -- are white. Locally, The Wiz's Program Director is Terri Thomas, KissFM's Program Director is Tommy BoDean. Additionally, KissFM has a Music Director named Jordan. Terri, Tommy, and Jordan are all white, yet they decide what music gets played on their radio stations and listened to by the Black community. The mere fact that they are white doesn't mean they are racists, (I happen to know Terri -- I worked with her a few years ago -- and I don't think she is a racist) but it could help explain why at a time when hip-hop is under assault and accused of degrading women, glorifying violence, and promoting drug abuse, white PDs and MDs don't see the need to counterbalance those messages with positive and inspiring ones as found in "I'm Black". (Davey D shares his views on this same subject.)
But what about Kanye West and "Jesus Walks"? Hip-hop stations play that and he just won a Grammy Award? That's nice. And they should play it. But a hip-hop artist shouldn't have to have a full gospel choir singing as background and a video taped in a church pulpit to get the attention of radio stations and be considered positive. (Apparently MTV and certain radio stations wouldn't let you hear Kanye West say "white man" last year.) In addressing the this subject, Davey D says that, according to a friend, Hot 97 played "I'm Black" once on Superbowl Sunday and haven't played it again.) I'm not going as far as the folks at Soul Patrol did in this open letter to Cathy Hughes, but if white PDs and MDs are filtering hip-hop music and limiting "positive" hip-hop songs to those that have their approval, there is a big problem.
I'm not accusing Terri, Tommy, or Jordan of taking payola, but Radio One and Clear Channel both have been criticized for their use of third-party independent record promoters or "indies" (also sometimes known as independent radio promoters) and accused of participating in payola schemes. [See, Payola is dead! Now what will we listen to? The bizarre, sleazy system of independent radio promotion may have finally bitten the dust. But believe it or not, pop radio may get even worse; Payola City; and Radio's titan hits the skids.] One of the best articles written on this subject in the last 5 years was "Payola is Not a Thing of the Past". In it, John Gorman writes:
Want to get your music in regular rotation on the radio? How much you got? It costs record labels between $150 million and $300 million annually to expose new music on U.S. radio stations. It works like this. To circumvent allegations of collusion, labels employ these somewhat shady third-party independent record promoters to influence and control radio playlists. The labels deduct this cost of doing business from artist royalties. An artist's management has the right to veto what is now known as legal payola, which is why only a select few releases are worked at radio.
A convenient loophole in the 1996 Telecommunications Bill made payola payments to radio stations legal. To avoid accusations of collusion, labels have to stay clean from direct pay-for-play negotiations with radio. By employing independently contracted music promoters to influence radio station playlists, the labels are off the hook but firmly in control.
Maybe Styles P didn't pay enough to get his song placed in heavy rotation.