Black People Have Kept The World Entertained During Lockdown—But At What Cost?

Words: Jesse Bernard

It’s still very uncertain how the music industry will recover from COVID-19 and the global pandemic. There will be a new norm across the board which many have already begun to experience, especially those who rely on IRL interaction. A lot of artists will find themselves having to make hard decisions, and those bearing the brunt of this will be those in the margins. While many brands and platforms have scaled back production and content creation, independent black creators and artists have found themselves working double-time in the current environment. Not by coincidence either, but many of the more popular platforms that have arisen during lockdown—such as Verzus, No Signal, Continental GT and more—have set themselves up for longevity long after lockdown, mainly because they’ve understood the needs of the audience.

Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s Verzuz has stood out for its star-studded battles, which have so far included Babyface vs Teddy Riley, Erykah Badu vs Jill Scott and just last weekend, Beenie Man vs Bounty Killa. Then there’s been Tory Lanez with Quarantine Radio and emcee-led clashes such as Skepta vs Jammer, and while it’s clear artists are also staving off boredom and idleness, these moments only serve to strengthen ties with audiences. There’s only so much capacity for ‘what’s new’ when, for many, life feels like it’s come to a standstill.

Our futures are precarious at present and the prospect of creating something new and original doesn’t quite have the same draw when none of us have very little idea as to how we’ll come out of this. In turn, this has made nostalgia a commodity during lockdown and while brands have been selling it for years, people are slowing down and reckoning with themselves, which is also making room for what we’re already familiar with. There have been reports indicating that streaming of new music has decreased since the beginning of lockdown, which isn’t a complete surprise as what often strengthens those ties are the memories created.

No Signal, a black-run, internet-based radio platform, has proven itself to be nimble and agile at a time where more established brands are likely scrambling to figure out how to re-emerge unscathed by the economic and cultural wounds left by the pandemic. The concept isn’t complex, but the strength of No Signal lies in the foundations built offline through Re:cess, which has steadily become one of the premier club nights for young black Londoners. The team behind Re:cess had spent the past couple of years building credibility among its audience, and had hosted online radio shows prior to lockdown every so often but an opportunity arose.

The glaring issue with much of the content available has been that black creators are unlikely being compensated fairly—if at all—for their work. It’s not so straightforward in that many of these ventures are DIY and self-started, but it does raise the question as to how much black labour is worth during times like these? With audiences themselves uncertain about their own futures, especially with a recession looming, the issue of charging people to PPV has been a contentious one.

Those creating should also be compensated for their labour like Continental GT, who has been hosting raves on IG Live to thousands of people for weeks now, becoming the highlight of the week for many. Platforms such as Patreon, where you essentially pay to consume a person’s content, seems like the most likely approach for creators, but they will find themselves caught between wanting to charge small fees and providing respite at a time where personal finances are crippled. However, with black creators keeping the world entertained, there is a danger that without appropriate compensation, some of these ventures descend into virtual minstrel shows—this has become the case especially on TikTok, and was one of the major criticisms of Vine during the height of its popularity.

It’s somewhat difficult and perhaps self-centred to imagine a summer where we’ll be frolicking through our local parks with a portable speaker in one hand with our friends (we can only dream), but for a lot of people, their livelihood is dependent on bringing people together. Platforms like No Signal have shown more established brands and platforms that are keen to go back to normal despite risks of a second outbreak, that innovative thinking with young people leading on those can thrive. The No Signal 10v10 between Vybz Kartel and Wizkid garnered an audience of over half a million across 99 countries, and it was built off the back of a sustained effort to build a relationship with its audience.

The real kicker about all the euphoria surrounding the content being given to us is that when lockdown is over, many of these ventures will need to reassess how to engage with an audience with far less time on their hands and increasing entertainment options. We won’t be rolling around in the mud in all the various parks this summer as festival season is ultimately cancelled, but those new upstart brands are agile enough to find ways of ensuring summer isn’t completely over.

Posted on May 29, 2020