British East Asian Artists and Diaspora music take the diversity debate into Parliament

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) artists demand representation that reflects British Society 

Last February, the British East Asian Artists wrote an open letter to broadcasters and culture minister Ed Vaizey about the pitiful almost non-existent representation of east Asians in the media despite being the third largest minority in Britain. Vaizey, who had been holding round-table discussions with black actors, including Lenny Henry about continued exclusion, immediately wrote back inviting us to participate in future round-table discussions.

British East Asian actor Daniel York followed up with a powerful piece on the racial pecking order and structural inequality in British theatre and television in which he quotes American sociologist David T Wellman numbering the “culturally sanctioned strategies for defending social advantage based on race”.

In every political and cultural sphere in Britain, Black, Asian and Mixed Ethnic (BAME) people are excluded (see my last post with an illustration of this dynamic in action).

Yesterday, I went to the well-attended Diaspora Equality in Music round-table discussion chaired by Rt Honourable David Lammy MP for Tottenham at the House of Commons.

Sixty or so people (mostly from the Black community) listened to Diaspora founder, Rose Nunu, lay out her objective of trying to ensure that BAME is at the heart of the music industry. “The Diversity landscape is not diverse,” she said, requesting recommendations to change the landscape.

One startling figure she gave was that, while the UK music industry employs more than 100,000 people and generates £3.8 billion a year, 95.7 per cent of its workforce is white. At the current rate of loss, its questionable whether there will be any BAME representation in the music industry by 2020. The music industry is more fragmented now than at any time in the past 10 years.

Various lines of action were explored with a strong vocal presence from the business end aiming at increasing the workforce.

Beverley Mason FRSA said there had been a decrease in BAME representation since 2011. (This reminded me of Caitlin Moran telling an audience that the majority of pop artists are now privately educated, nudging out the working classes from one of their few conduits of social mobility.)

However, Mason reeled off a list of figures showing how diversity was a reality factor in the cold light of economics: as the market place becomes more global and competitive, companies actually benefit from being inclusive, She said, “Diversity has to be embedded in the culture. It is a mindset, not an add-on to the budget like tea and biscuits.”

The advantages include fresh sources of creativity and problem solving from new perspectives. Varied cultural background and life experience reward companies and organisations that embrace change. It takes good leadership to implement diversity and inclusivity but, as I’ve witnessed on the political left and in the arts, the white privately educated establishment have a vested interest in keeping out those BAME sources.

David Lammy said, “We get fantastic music because different music from across continents come together.” Hybrids are always healthier than a mono-culture for all concerned. Despite Lammy having previously been Minister for Culture, “No-one from the BBC’s phoned me up asking me to be on the board. I’m available.”

When one speaker told of her tribulations getting one night of the Proms devoted to gospel for the first time but which was then dropped as a regular event, Lammy expressed the room’s disappointment. “One night in a whole Prom season? This is unlike the US experience where the 40 per cent BAME presence is a permanent fixture. What would it be like if there was 10 years of that inclusion, and not just one?”

BAME makes up 40 per cent of London’s population. Politics, the music industry and the arts trail behind even the Metropolitan Police in terms of numbers. In the legal profession, BAME representation stands at over 10 per cent. It is an alarming set of figures that needs to be addressed.

It was pointed out to cheers, that the music is diverse but the money and power behind it isn’t. A speaker from the floor said, “The music industry is in the toilet,” and urged musicians, “Don’t work for a record company. Get seed-funding, set up your own companies, start an industry.”

This was a fine as far as it went but I was soon getting the impression of small outfits scrambling around and manoeuvering on the Titanic while the ship goes down.

So it was interesting to hear another perspective from a speaker arguing that they needed support for those who already exist.

“We have a culture of diversity. We are scrapping for different corners while young people are dying. It’s a culture and community that won’t support itself. There hasn’t been action at a movement level since Soul to Soul. We need to bridge the gap between commerce and community. There are larger and deeper issues, and those with power should be held to account until we see tangible results.”

It remains to be seen whether music can be transformed into a channel of social change for the good. Will the corner of the industry as discussed here be challenging the power that relegates BAME to a resented add-on, or joining it in an unholy scrum for the advantage of individuals? Are we, as has happened in left politics, building a new establishment within the establishment? The debate is well under way.

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0 thoughts on “British East Asian Artists and Diaspora music take the diversity debate into Parliament”

  1. hello Anna
    Hope things are well in the UK, I have just read your article? I am a UK born Chinese who actually studied media studies but not working in the media. As for the lack of East Asians working in the media, the reason could be internal to the East Asian community, in that we do not see the media as a career choice by many of us. You could say likewise about under representation in sport, politics and many things. The Asian community don't view these are natural career choices. A white person could argue that East Asians are over represented in business, accounting, engineering and IT. At the end of the day it is down to individual choices.

  2. Dear George, thanks for your comment. There are growing numbers of Chinese and east Asian people wishing to work in the arts and media, being trained for it, and being good at it. What we're looking at is where the walls and ceilings are and how exclusion works.

  3. No I don't believe any superiority. I believe too few E Asians are looking to work in the media to start with so the talent pool is very small to start with. Also media is very hard to get in whatever your race. As someone who works in IT I think a much bigger problem is lack of black people in IT and engineering. Now thats racism.

  4. Hello Anna, hope you are enjoying the Easter weekend. It is not based on prejudice it is based on experience. I am against any form of quotas or diversity for the sake of diversity. It can work both ways, whites are under represented in medicine should asian doctors make way for the whites? It should be based on suitability only.

  5. This is a debate about the arts. And who mentioned quotas? "… against … diversity for the sake of diversity" … ??? Would you include "equality for the sake of equality"?

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