The Black Square: #BlackOutTuesday and Performative Allyship in the Music Community
What constitutes as true accomplice work versus feckless, performative allyship in an online-only setting?
On June 2nd, 2020, in response to those protesting the murder of #GeorgeFloyd and police brutality against the Black community at large, a campaign of black square images flooded Instagram to show solidarity from music artists: #theshowmustbepaused. Initiated by Black music executives Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas as a way for the music industry to address the current moment, the call to action went viral and subsequently received a great deal of backlash. As a result of poor hashtag optimization, anyone looking to assert a position of solidarity on Instagram co-opted it, failing to amplify Black voices and subsequently giving off the “performatively woke” vibe. Like many early perpetrators of this social media trend, I failed to learn the origin of the initiative, and contributed to its clumsy execution.
Well-intentioned usage of the #blacklivesmatter hashtag in conjunction with #blackouttuesday or #theshowmustbepaused in image captions resulted in a nightmare scenario for organizers using Instagram to disseminate safety information. Searching through the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, users were confronted with an infinite scroll of black squares—an utterly useless feed for those using the hashtag to search for vital information such as donations tags, medical best practices for injured protesters, and video news updates. To make matters worse, Instagram’s algorithm retained posts with #blacklivesmatter in the hashtag search results even after they were edited out. At best, we can view the complexities of this situation as illuminative of something we call performative allyship. And there are ways we can fix it.
My initial interaction with #blackouttuesday did not include #theshowmustbepaused. Personally, it felt similar in action to the pink #DJsForPalestine square that was made popular in 2018 by artists like Ben UFO, Four Tet and others. When the call to action began negatively impacted activist work online, conversation on Twitter began to suggest a misinformation campaign. There is little substantial evidence however to corroborate that this was a true psyops attempt. What this does demonstrate though is a major disconnect from what constitutes actual grassroots actions online and what is just empty, corporate gesturing (Apple, Spotify, and others all got behind it). We need to be smarter about that distinction for the sake of Black lives.
As non-black people in the electronic music scene, we all have an obligation to heed to the demands of the culture from which we all reappropriate. The culture is demanding that those non-black individuals pay it forward now. Simply put, if you have sold records, sold tickets, or made a living as a DJ, producer, club owner, or party promoter at any point pre-COVID, you need to donate to a Black-led cause immediately. Predominately white artists from privileged backgrounds have risen to great heights in the industry off of sounds created by Black, queer, and working class artists. Their inaction is an affront to us all and a sign of their complicitness with global racism and white supremacy. In this scenario, a visible announcement of their commitment to the cause is necessary.
Not everyone has the means to give large amounts of money without negatively impacting their quality of life, especially in this time of mass unemployment due to COVID-19. Nobody is asking for that. There are industry professionals, however, who have benefited significantly from the pre-COVID-19 music business that have said nothing, done nothing, or have actively ignored any kind of call to action with tone deaf self promotion or party nostalgia posts. This is what #theshowmustbepaused and #blackouttuesday was initially trying to address.
The point of donating to Black-led causes now is to reach real people on the ground immediately, not political causes or candidates in the long term. Bail funds for protest arrests are reaching their capacity for donations, so the next place to give is mutual aid funds. These funds go to contingent causes such as outreach training, housing, healthcare, childcare, food supplies, and pandemic relief. Artists like Mykki Blanco have donated to causes like the Homeless Black Trans Women Fund based in Atlanta. The families of victims like #GeorgeFloyd and #BreonnaTaylor are still taking donations, as are mutual aid funds in their hometowns like Minneapolis and Louisville, respectively. Comprehensive mutual aid funding threads and master documents can be found from Black activists on Twitter. You can also directly donate to your Black friends and loved ones as well. Every donation matters.
It is of paramount importance to learn about Black Struggle immediately. The importance of self education and reading about Black oppression, anti-blackness, and how this relates to the Black historical roots of popular music is as critically needed as donations and protesting. We cannot move forward as a community, much less a society, until everyone is up to speed about their own racism, prejudices, colonization, and social programming. This begins with reading the history from all angles.
Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be Antiracist” has been a popular choice on social media recently, but there are so many seminal works including personal accounts like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Assata Shakur, historical accounts like Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, radical essays by Audre Lorde in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House, or my personal favorite, the Haitian Revolution retold in dynamic detail in CLR James’ The Black Jacobins. These accounts and varied histories all connect when applied to music and the performing arts, as told in Dan Sicko’s Techno Rebels or Malik Gaines’ Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left.
For those of us who are very much a part of a music community built upon Black artistry, the #blackouttuesday incident brings into question what tangible actions are available to support protesters, particularly for those still in quarantine or unable to show up IRL. What constitutes true accomplice work versus feckless, performative allyship in an online-only setting is as dependent on race and class as everything else in the fight against white supremacy. Learning to make that distinction requires an internalized education, followed by action.
Part of the confusion behind the social media black out stemmed from the fact that it was intended for non-black individuals to 1) signal support for the movement and 2) abstain from self promoting personal projects. This, however, was NOT a call for absolute silence about the movement itself. Instead of promoting yourself, ask your fans to donate to the same causes. Use your platform to amplify individuals who are doing organizing and antiracist work on social media. Ask your contemporaries to match donations. And stop publishing Black trauma or Black death on your feeds. Unless you are a verified news source, this is extremely triggering and unnecessarily. As Aja Barber describes on the Nuzi Collective Instagram, recycling horrific video has damaging ramifications.
To make the black out effort even more effective than simple posturing, users have been swift to add white supremacist hashtags like #trump2020 #womenfortrump #bluelivesmatter #kag2020 & #keepamericagreat with the black square post in order to have a disruptive effect within white supremacist online spaces. DO NOT use hashtags related to bail relief funds or other important information regarding BLM. Those hashtags must be reserved for vital organizing efforts.
Ignorance gets in the way of antiracist work. My initial #blackouttuesday post is a prime example of an unthinking act encouraged from an uncertain place of origin, culminating in either a pointless or harmful act of performative allyship. This results in erasing the narrative of the original authors’ call to action. Performative allyship however is a behavior pattern we must learn to recognize in ourselves and others as part of our ongoing antiracist work. This work is often uncomfortable because of the looming dread of “not doing enough,” coupled with the potential shame of doing the wrong thing in public and receiving criticism. We are collectively past that point. Your personal insecurity should not override human suffering.
No act will ever be enough. One act of kindness will not undo five centuries of wrongdoing. Nor should any criticism of your social faux pas or misguided post on social media discourage you from your commitment to antiracist work either. We need to not make this about ourselves.
As musicians, artists, fans, promoters and other members of the music industry lean into this paradigm shift, we must recognize that “normalcy” is not coming back and our patterns of behavior and thinking must make some severely past due transformations. The work of the non-black accomplice and the white abolitionist in the fight against antiblack racism and systemic violence was never just a heartfelt Instagram post or a singular act of giving: it is a demand on ourselves and others to do better now, tomorrow and onwards.
MUTUAL AID FUNDS
Los Angeles, California
Newark, NJ: Cashapp $BrickCityMutualAid or Venmo @BrickCityMutualAid
New York City, New York
Saint Louis, Missouri
Salt Lake City, Utah
Published June 05, 2020. Words by Marco Gomez.