Art Music Society

Should white people review black art?

Over the past week or so I have had quite a few interactions on social media about whether or not white people should review black art. It originated from an interaction I had on Twitter with supposedly “The Internet’s busiest music nerd,” aka Anthony Fantano, a YouTube music journalist who runs channel The Needledrop, now with over 2 million subscribers. I have been a fan of his in the past, but due to frankly growing up and changing my relationship with music and how I listen to it, I haven’t kept up with his channel for the past few years. Nevertheless I do watch the occasional review, simply because I do actually enjoy the way he articulates his thoughts. But that’s where my appreciation for him stops. The interaction I had with Anthony Fantano started with him replying to a Jay Versace tweet, critiquing his take on the latest Solange album. Thread below:

First thing to note from this response alone is that his immediate reply is to fire back, other than being open to a discussion on what Jay was saying. Jay was alluding to the fact that a pro-black album such as Solange’s excellent When I Get Home, which is deeply rooted in personal experiences of being black and a woman in America, shouldn’t be critiqued by a white dude who clearly cannot relate to or fully understand these experiences. I have started to see this as a major problem within music journalism. White media companies, publications and paid music critics have been dominating this space for the longest time. A Complex article by the great Joseph JP Patterson highlighted his issues with white music reviewers and the misinterpretation of black art and the black experience here. He takes an NME review for the Giggs album Landlord, in which it initially gave a rape insinuation, something that has been proven as false, completely altering the message and context of Giggs’ art. The writer was of course, white. A 2015 study by Reuters showed that only 0.2 percent of journalists in the UK are black. 0.2! This is simply unacceptable and there NEEDS to be more representation in the media. Journalism of any kind is an essential field. Representation is incredibly important to not only give a diverse point of view, but in many instances provide an accurate representation of someone’s/a group’s experiences. The black experience in the UK, in the US and in Europe is vastly different than the experience of white people, this has been proven and quick research on this topic will allow you to see how. And a lot of black art is rooted in struggle, pain, racism and discrimination of all kinds. This is something everyone needs to acknowledge, without fail.

Anyways, back to Fantano. I responded to his reductive tweet with something slightly provocative, but I made my point clear:

This was in reference to a recent review he did of the new MIKE project, Weight Of The World (you can watch it here). It wasn’t simply the 4 out of 10 that was controversial in his review, it was the plain inaccuracies in his statements and his misinterpretation of his art that made it such a painfully embarrassing review. He states “MIKE has been painted as a protégé of [Earl Sweatshirt] more or less for the past few years. Which for sure is true, but the influence seems to go both ways now that the two are actually friends.” Firstly, MIKE hasn’t generally been considered an Earl ‘protégé’ – sure he has been influenced by Earl in the past, but sonically what he was doing with the release of his great 2016 project longest day, shortest night and his 2017 classic May God Bless Your Hustle, doesn’t sound like anything Earl had done until then. [sLUms] as a collective have collectively influenced a plethora of experimental, independent musicians. Earl wasn’t necessarily a part of that then despite having a keen interest on the sounds coming from its members. Then Fantano had the audacity to say that “Rainforest”, a track of May God Bless Your Hustle, again released in 2017 sounded like something from Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs, which came out the year after. How? And then he goes on to basically say that he can’t get into the sound because it reminds him too much of Earl etc etc. I won’t dwell too much on this, but it was just an example to show how misrepresentation and a lack of research on black art, in this case, resulted in Fantano slating MIKE’s album off completely false and factually incorrect assumptions.

Back to the tweets:

I think that in retrospect I shouldn’t have given him a particular album name, rather explained my issue specifically with his lack of research and him specifically spreading misinformation. Issues like this have persisted in his reviews for a while, but it’s also his harsh critique on black music as someone who doesn’t really live similar experiences to those making that art, especially Black artists. In his Solange review of When I Get Home, he states “Not only are Solange’s volume and range on this album pretty lackluster, but she’s not exactly the most expressive singer either.” And I get that it’s his ‘opinion’ and he’s allowed to have it, but as someone who makes a living out of reviewing, let’s face it, predominantly black music, who is he to critique a wonderful creative like Solange like that. It is detrimental to reduce someone’s art to a closed-minded opinion that serves no purpose other than to generate revenue for your own personal-self gain. White people cannot relate fully to experiences of black people, and it should be the job of the critic to provide accurate information and representation of a particular work of art.

I got into another discussion on Twitter with a friend of mine who has his own music platform. He stated that it’ll be counter-productive to just not allow white people to review music, and I completely understand that point of view. This was my take:

Those best fit and qualified to describe a certain piece of art and experience should be the person to review a certain piece of music, especially when they get paid for it. The commodification of black music has allowed white people to misuse and even manipulate black art for their own gain, to sell it as a commodity, as a diluted product, and not necessarily to ‘push the culture forward’. And really we need to look at intent. Going back to Fantano, I’ll never know for sure what his intention is, but I know for a fact that music reviewing is his full-time job, so with each and every review, he profits off of it. So it’s problematic to keep using that platform to spread misinformation, especially as a white person reviewing predominantly black music.

Lastly, I wanted to touch on the importance of taking responsibility and accountability over your own work. For those asking about me: Yes I am a privileged white guy covering black art. Financially, I earn nothing running this website. In terms of content, I share the music I love and always uplift people’s work when I can. I try not to diminish people’s experiences, and always looks to spread the most accurate information possible, and if not, I take responsibility and edit my writing so it’s reflective of a particular artist’s experience. I’ve had these conversations with artists in private. Fantano, on the other hand, doesn’t. The proof is in this deleted tweet.

Instead of thinking critically and acknowledging the lack of rigorous research, he states “Sorry you’re mad at that review” and thinks it’s a good enough excuse to that that’s it’s just a difference in opinion. First of all, his “Y’all know this is just my opinion, right?” mantra is a cop-out to avoid any responsibility when people strongly disagree with something, and he uses it time and time again exactly for that reason. Which is funny considering his name at the time was “debatethony metano”. Good job for debating your points well, mate. And to tell someone “but I guarantee you I put more work into what I do than you ever will into anything” is hilarious. It’s not only condescending, but it shows what kind of a toxic, big-ego’d attitude he has towards criticism, and it also reveals a large level of insecurity. But this issue is bigger than both of us, so I’ll leave it there.

So, should white people review black art? Probably not. As I mentioned before, a lot of black art is rooted in the struggles and pains of being black in the West. A lot of art comes from black trans and non-binary people who deserve the same level of love, respect and accurate representation as everyone else. People who do not relate to these experiences will be much more likely to misinterpret or gloss over these struggles than someone who lives them every day. So it’s our responsibility to firstly, ask ourselves whether we are most knowledgeable and best suited to review a particular work of art and secondly, take full responsibility and accountability to report facts and experiences accurately and not diminish people’s art because of incorrect and ignorant assumptions, especially if you’re benefiting from it financially. And whether Anthony Fantano likes it or not, with a platform of over 2 million fans and sheep who worship him on a daily basis, he too has a responsibility to at least get the information right. One step at a time will do, for now.

Hey everyone, thanks for stopping by. I run In Search Of Media with the aim of giving a platform to independent beatmakers, rappers and talented musicians. I also hope to make this a home for music discovery, interesting film analysis, exhibition reviews and other interesting content for all of you guys to dive in to. I hope to start a podcast and documentary-style project soon. If you're looking to be a part of this creative project, please go to the contact page and drop me an email, or connect via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I also write for 'Music Is My Sanctuary.' Thanks 🙏

12 comments on “Should white people review black art?

  1. isicortesm

    Incredibly well argued Martin! Love the way you lay out the intricate power dynamics between artist and listener, and how these reflect larger issues in society, especially when knitted into structural racism. Absolutely amazing piece!!

    • Thanks a lot Isi! There’s a lot of themes and questions I still haven’t touched on, and I know for sure it’s a controversial topic, but the responses so far have been respectful and there’s still a lot to learn!

      Thanks,
      Martin

  2. Respect your delving into this topic, Martin. Admiration.
    I used to watch alot of Needledrop, not to much now & re-watched his topical Solange interview

    Sharing my thought / feelings, honestly, as you have. Typed alot because I care about this.
    Disclaimer(because of internet distortion and lack of body-language & tone): All of this is typed in love and respect!
    I used quotations for colours in this, because of the fact that these words are signifying something other than a colour of skin. [I almost don’t believe in colours… but I digress] (always love saying that)

    Thoughts:
    + It’s his (self-appointed) job to review what is deemed as ‘popular’ music
    + Jay’s reductional tweet was fair imo , ND reply shows he didn’t fully resonate with the sentiment enough to self-reflect on the point
    + Feel as though, he could have felt attacked with your reply and conversations wouldn’t be as conducive
    + also that his reply to you doesn’t seem too bad (from my angle) [leaving space for interpretation as “I guarantee that I put more work….” is the only part I can sway a little with – again … internet text based talk leaves room for distortion [have not heard the MIKE interview or know enough about him to comment on the quality of the interview]
    + He may put in a lot of ‘work, but just as there’s the ‘axiom’, “work smart, not hard”, he probably worked alot in the ‘wrong’ direction
    + The points of review / authority he has on certain angles I think is in question
    + A reviewer, by default, usually can only give their limited opinion / angle / resonance
    + A top-tier reviewer, I believe, should be able to express an understanding that they have their semi-‘blind-spots’ (not having enough emotional attachment, or understanding of a topic, or entry point) and therefore can’t score points in that area for the piece of art
    eg. ” I don’t know enough about this / I don’t resonate with topic because of my standpoint, therefore I can’t mark up or down in this area ”
    + I think at his ‘level’, he should review the way he reviews and take-on feedback

    + Feel as though – those knowledgeable can have accuracy with certain types of review, && I feel with free speech, anyone can say anything – they just have to pay the price of the feedback (which he is)

    + Whatever level of ‘research’ done, it can only go so far – based on your entry or (cultural) point to the music one may only have a 2d perspective of a 3d image, but think they see the whole thing because they have a 4K image of a 2d representation and have 2-million followers
    — I can review Japanese ambient based on feelings – historical context I can only go so deep in a limited amount of time

    ‘white people’ not being able to review ‘black’ music, not in agreeance with – as typed above though – I do think one should have an adequate entry-point (self-gauging that is interesting lol) He may even have people he reflects with?

    Though – I feel as though a portion of your standpoint comes from a number of reviews / reviewers that I have no clue about [so I leave space for that]. In general having more awareness, especially now – can do nothing but serve. Not watched his recent ones, hope he’s grown as a music journalist

    Summary: personally think he needs to get to know his blind-spots !

    Big up for this, keep being authentic and caring
    Would love to hear your thoughts about any of what I’ve typed

    +

    • Thanks for this extensive response, man. I agree with most of what you said. Interpretation of art is subjective, and even though the artist might intend to create his own meaning through music, that is again, open to interpretation.

      About reviewers and professional critics, it is essential to have the correct, factual and contextual information about a particular body of work. And taking responsibility and accountability over what you publish.

      About white people critiquing black art – obviously I’m not saying white people should be banned from doing it, everyone has a right to an opinion after all, and everyone can have their own platform, but I feel it can be harmful for white people who don’t experience the same struggles to comment or criticize an experience they simply cannot relate with. Admitting they don’t know and being honest and saying “I personally don’t like it, but I fully understand it’s value” is incredibly important and should be encouraged. I still think certain people are more equipped and qualified to speak on and critique art. People who don’t understand the trans experience should not be given a *paid* opportunity to critique it because it’s counter-productive and does nothing other than diminish their experience. And this logic can be applied to any minority group releasing a body of work.

      Socio-political and racial history/context is essential to understand the depth of these experiences, and considering the long, devastating history of black people in the West through colonization and slavery, their art often carries enormous amounts of weight that simply cannot be ignored,misrepresented or even manipulated.

      Art is meant to empower, criticism to an extent is meant to diminish, or question. Art is always open to interpretation and while a lot of people say that art cannot exist without criticism, which I agree with tbh, I see privileged people critiquing minority groups’ art as a form of silencing their voices.

      Ultimately I’m just asking the questions and giving a perspective from a white person who engages within the culture.

      Hope this answers some of your questions and thoughts, and truly appreciate your feedback and thoughts!

      Bless,

      Martin

  3. Whew he was rude, glad you came for him! I think it’s okay for people of all races to review all types of art, I’m an art lover who gives commentary on art by white and other ethnicities artists all the time. BUT as you mention, especially when you are paid, or have an audience – YOU HVE TO DO RESEARCH. it’s your job to FIND OUT WHERE THE ARTIST IS COMING FROM before sounding off. Anything else is ignorant at best

    • Thanks! I’m not necessarily saying white people shouldn’t review black art. But when the purpose is to criticise without understanding the context and experiences of an artist, especially if they are a minority group seems a bit problematic for me, especially if your earning money from being a part of the culture. And to reiterate, as I’ve said to other people, In Search Of Media is a publication to uplift artists. I avoid writing about things I don’t like or understand because it’s counter-productive and I don’t want that energy. So I will continue writing about all art, as long as I put a good word in, because I don’t think it’s ok for me to critique things and experiences I don’t personally understand or can relate to. That’s where I stand at least.

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  5. Seems a little essentialist to me. I’d say that in some ways, this article is just as “racist” as Fantano’s reviews. While he treats all artists as just that—artists that create music for the sake of creating music; this article seems to pin black artists into a hole. When you argue that black art “probably” shouldn’t be reviewed by white people, what comes across is the idea that the black experience is so essential to black art that the two cannot be separated. By arguing this you seem to disenfranchise black voices, since in a world where white people can’t critique black art, black art must comment on the black experience. Unlike a white artist, a black artist in this hypothetical world could not make an album about the corrupting influence of money or the importance of mothers without it being tied to the black experience. Let me know what you think.

    • You’re by all means free to have that opinion, but I completely reject the sentiment that this is in any way as “racist” as Fantano reviews when I 1) do not and have not criticized/brought down/made fun of music I don’t like or don’t understand and 2) value and uplift art from ethnic minorities all the time. And what do you mean when you say disenfranchising black voices? If white people just stopped reviewing black music do they suddenly become disenfranchised? That point makes no sense to me. And yes, being black or any other minority carries weight and an experience that white people can’t relate with, so if an album focuses specifically on the black experience, it doesn’t make sense for a white person who simply can’t relate to that to criticise the music or the themes of the particular album. I’m just asking the questions and getting people to think as well as trying to empower black voices by providing a positive platform with supportive reviews.

  6. Maybe “disenfranchise” is a bad word. What I mean is that if you set up a framework where white people have to stay away from black art because it is so closely tied to the black experience, it becomes hard for black artists to make art that comments on anything else, which limits their creativity. Take Yothu Yindi, an Australian Aboriginal band that was criticized for “selling out” when they let a white artist make a dance remix of their song “Treaty,” which was about oppression of Aboriginals. The remix was not nearly as political as the original, and instead only exoticized them and commodified their culture because it charted so much higher than any other Aboriginal song to date. However, the frontman Mandawuy Yunupingu said he was happy with the remix and with the fact that it was made by a white musician. It’s the mindset that ethnic minorities need to somehow represent their people that I think is problematic. A white Australian musician can make music about whatever they please. An Australian Aboriginal faces social pressure to make music exclusively about the Aboriginal experience, racial oppression, etc., and does not enjoy full creative freedom because of this. This is called essentialism, and telling a white journalist he cannot criticize black music only deepens the racial divide in that this assertion assumes that black music is and always ought to represent black people, be political, and always deal with the black experience. I’d argue that this mindset is oppressive, since artists like Mandawuy Yunupingu (RIP) can’t make music that is not political or directly tied to their minority’s way of life. Of course we’d optimally have more people of color in the media, since only then could we have a racially just and fair society where black artists can make whatever kind of music they want and criticize/receive criticism from whoever they want. And to be clear I’m not against what you do, “uplifting” non-white artists and giving them praise. I don’t need you to agree with me, I just hope you understand my argument and that there are risks associated with exoticizing minority-made art since it forces the artists to shape their image after a mold (usually made by a white majority), which is something that a white artist doesn’t need to do. A journalist like Fantano might not bring a solution to the table, but treating all artists as equal and not fencing off any creative ground effectively removes the divide between white and non-white artists. At this point I can’t really make myself anymore clear. Cheers

    • Thank you for the example, I’ll look into it but I still don’t agree with what you’re saying. Black people have the freedom to create whatever music they want to, with whatever message attached to whatever experience. Not all black music is about black struggle, and if that’s the case it would be understandable for white people to also review those projects. I’m talking specifically about work that delves deep into their experiences of oppression, marginalisation etc and that’s their choice – nobody is forcing anyone to speak on black issues. At the end of the day I’m just asking questions to make people think more about how they approach music criticism. And my thing is, if you don’t relate to or understand a certain experience, who are you to criticise an artist over it? And this logic applies to all discussions and arguments. You’d turn to political experts on political analysis, doctors on medical information etc. So if someone speaks on black issues, which is a universal struggle, it doesn’t make sense to have someone who hasn’t experienced that struggle, review it, especially if they’re being paid by a publication run by white editors and executives. We need to address the inequalities, lack of black representation in the arts and other barriers minorities face. Challenging white reviewers critiquing black art isn’t the issue here and certainly doesn’t deepen racial divide. What deepens racial divide is the plethora of institutional and structurally racist frameworks that exist in the US and throughout Europe, not white people critiquing black art.

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