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The weight of oppression: Artists share their stories about racism and mental health

The past few years have seen mental health pushed to the forefront of conversation in electronic music; however, the effects of racism are still not widely discussed within this context. Racism — whether structural, institutional, interpersonal or internalised — can take its toll on mental health in untold ways, and the nature of systemic prejudice means that tackling the problem requires change on a societal level rather than on a personal one. To examine the issue, three DJs — Jana Rush, Seani B, and Jaymie Silk — share their experiences and the different ways in which they have been affected. But first, we hand over to Black and non- Black POC mental health charity Nilaari, to explain more about the issue, in particular relation to current global events, and the vital work they do.

Nilaari

Nilaari (meaning self-worth or value) is a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community-based charity, delivering culturally appropriate counselling, social care support, advice and advocacy in Bristol. Throughout lockdown, we have remained open for existing and new clients struggling to cope. As of this month, Nilaari is in its 21st year of meeting the needs of BAME and some of the city’s most socially excluded communities.

Over the last few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused increased levels of anxiety across all communities, but has specifically caused fear and confusion among the BAME population. The terrible events in the USA, and the unrest caused by the responses to these crimes, have united some communities but sadly divided others. Nilaari understands the feelings that can result from these terrible events. We believe that feeling heard and understood can help build resilience, and allow people to deal with new and different situations that arise. Nilaari works to gain the trust of a diverse range of clients, and redress the acknowledged under-representation of these groups in services.

Statistics show that a proportion of BAME communities may be more reluctant to seek support from services: because of a lack of awareness of what is available, or feeling that they will not be fully understood. Currently, fears are being heightened by media reports of the impact on some communities of the virus, and sometimes confusing messages about how to stay safe. It can take courage to reach for the phone and ask for support.

Everyone has their own story about the impact of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter action. Nilaari offers a listening ear, an opportunity to be supported through your own difficulties before things get worse. We are located in one of the most diverse wards in Bristol, offering a city-wide service, and are known for our ability to listen, and respond with respect, sensitivity, competence and cultural understanding. If anyone is feeling anxious and stressed, or that the pandemic is impacting their mood — making them overwhelmed, fearful, or angry — then Nilaari has a team of experienced therapists from diverse communities who are able to offer emotional therapeutic support by telephone. All our services are designed to be welcoming, empowering and empathic, and to afford dignity and respect to all sections of the population regardless of ethnicity, gender, orientation, faith, age or ability. We are finding new ways of reaching out to those who may benefit from starting the process to recovery.

Anyone looking for help, can call Nilaari on 0776 300 8311 (during office hours) or email nilaari@nilaari. co.uk, leaving your name and contact details. For more information visit ww.nilaari.co.uk

Jana Rush

Having recently featured on Objects Limited’s ‘Music In Support Of Black Mental Health’ compilation, the Chicago footwork DJ and producer shares how living in a racist society affects her.

My track on the compilation ‘Music In Support Of Black Mental Health’ is called ‘Divine’. It has a peaceful tone. You can breathe to it. I made it for my late uncle, and it makes me think about how, when I leave this world, I want to leave in a peaceful manner. But at this point, I’m not sure that’s realistic. 

Why did it take George Floyd’s murder to impose the outpouring of “empathy”? The biggest race issue of my lifetime is not people burning crosses, it’s covert racism; the most destructive form of racism and oppression. It’s kept quiet, people don’t tell their kids how to confront it and it can be difficult to prove sometimes. Some of the “reasons” I’ve been hearing — “Oh, I grew up in a small town, I was sheltered, I don’t see colour,” — are just excuses. “Oh, how do you know that’s what they meant? If she didn’t call you a slur then how do you know?” It’s been gotten away with for so long and the “reasons” why are just the excuses of spoiled, entitled people. 

I’m pretty introverted. I spend my days at work, or doing music and getting more greens into my diet. I live a simple life. On that front, I’m good. But I don’t like what I’m seeing. I don’t like waking up to news stories of Black people being lynched and having the police call it suicide. I don’t like videos of white people pointing guns at Black people peacefully protesting. 

Honestly? I think that racists have been waiting a long time for this. They have been patiently waiting for an uprising to invoke an excuse to massively murder blacks without consequence.The people have been waiting for the right time to shoot a Black person and say “Oh, I was scared” afterwards; that’s what bothers me. Inwardly, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to live, as a Black person in America. But outwardly, am I scared? No, I’m a fighter. 

It’s hard to tell if white people really have empathy about what’s going on. It’s uncomfortable for white people to sit in their shit and get clowned for it; I feel the empathy is more like them trying to “purchase” our sympathy and conscience so that life can get back to “normal”. It’s hard for Black men and women to get anywhere and it’s hard not to be cynical. You have white friends that say, “Damn, I said I was sorry,” “We’re not racist, you misunderstood me”. People get frustrated and impatient, but - that’s what oppression is. 

If you’ve never been in a situation where you don’t have power or have never dealt with the consequences of not having power, it’s hard to convince you to be patient when your patience, historically, has always paid off. If you’re Black, your patience has almost never paid off, and when you get impatient, people go, “Well, what do you want from us now?” — and it usually comes with consequences down the line. 

White people get opportunities based on their potential. When Black people want opportunities, they’re asked, “Well, what have you done up until now to deserve this opportunity?” People say that if you work hard, you’ll earn things. Black people work hard as hell and they don’t earn shit. It’s time for white people to stop being fragile. It’s time for them to sit in their own truth and say, “We fucked up.” Black people have taken racism for hundreds of years, and white people can’t take two months of the truth. Things are going to get scary and ugly — but they have to for the world to change. 

Seani B

The award-winning dancehall artist and BBC radio host discusses the internal effects of having to suppress himself to fit white expectations

Mama! I made it! (Finally!) 

After 30 years of active DJing in the clubs across the UK, and nearly two decades on BBC national radio, not to mention winning a Grammy as a producer and being a flag-waver for dancehall music and culture, DJ Mag have actually asked me to contribute to the publication! Even though this is a tongue-in-cheek comment, there is an element of a sideways glance at this particular situation. Dancehall and reggae are definitely a part of the wider dance music family, and if you look at the origins of MCs from drum & bass and hip-hop, you will find their roots firmly entrenched in downtown dances of Kingston and beyond. However it’s representation in magazines that celebrate the culture of the DJ is virtually non-existent. Frustrating? Yes. Limiting? Undoubtedly. Surprising? Not in the slightest.

For those of you that don’t know, I host a weekly show on BBC Radio 1Xtra on Thursdays at 9pm, where I showcase the biggest and bashiest tracks from the dancehall and reggae spectrum. We love to shine a light on the big stars and the hottest new talents, and my online videos have amassed nearly 70 million views for that scene. Having worked at the Beeb for 18 years, you would be within your rights to think that I should feel completely comfortable in the surroundings, and I am — to a degree. More of that to come…

In June, as the Black Lives Matter protests across the world started to fuel anger and frustration, my radio station decided to produce a two-hour special which focused on the Black experience from a no- holds-barred, first-hand experience. I was asked to present it alongside my colleague DJ Ace, who hosts a daily weekday show on 1Xtra. As two Black men it is something that is obviously close to our hearts, and we wanted to take the opportunity of having a “free swing” at voicing our thoughts and feelings without recriminations or explanation. We decided to present the programme under our given names — Maurice and Ashley — rather than our DJ titles. This was important because we wanted to convey the journey we are having as everyday Black members of society, rather than two people in the music industry who have large platforms and stages that they can show off their talents and ability. 

During the show I shared something that I had felt for many, many years, but had held inside for that period. I discussed the feeling that I felt every time I walked into the production offices or studio — the mental suppression I put myself under and inert apprehension of being “Seani B”, and how that is received by those around me. Is it an ongoing case of the system wanting our rhythm but not accepting our blues?

"It’s a tough challenge to be yourself and not dilute who or what you are to appease others, particularly on a racial basis. I have come to learn that other people’s level of discomfort is not about me, or what I say or do, but more about their own insecurities"

The chasm between who I really am, and the way that I have to tone this down to be “accepted” has seemingly got wider and wider. The frustration I have felt definitely increased over time, and has led to some very frank and honest conversations with my wider management team. The perceived desire for “diversity” (I hate that word!) seems to come across from organisations as, ‘Be yourself, so long as it is how we want you to be.’ That can play havoc with your mental health, and the opportunities of overthinking, adjusting and compliance. I have given this a lot of thought and this “dual persona” is a big burden to carry.

It has been a tough internal battle for me, having to balance being true to myself over my big public persona, but it came to a point where I made a conscious decision to just be myself, and not to change who or what I am for acceptance. I’m hugely proud of who I am, what I am and where I have come from. I’m a kid from an estate in west London who hasn’t done too badly for himself, and my Caribbean heritage and culture means so much to me. I love sharing it with people and that is one of the reasons I feel privileged to do the job that I do and definitely see myself as an ambassador of the music and the Caribbean culture that so many people enjoy.

Recently I took part in an online debate about the treatment and perception of Black people in the music business. During the conversation, an event I had played at was brought up. It was the Brit Awards After- Party, which celebrated Black excellence, and had been arranged by some of the most prominent Black exec’s in the business. It transpires that the club owners had spoken to the organisers post event to complain about some of the comments I had made during my DJ set, which bigged up seeing and being in the company of such Black excellence. Apparently they were none too happy about me being so “pro Black” on the mic.

It’s sad, but unfortunately not rare. Take the money for the event, but don’t celebrate your “Blackness”. I can guarantee you that I won’t be reappearing in that club ever again. It’s a tough challenge to be yourself and not dilute who or what you are to appease others, particularly on a racial basis. I have come to learn that other people’s level of discomfort is not about me, or what I say or do, but more about their own insecurities. As a father of a teenage black son, it is important that he can see through my actions that he can be whatever he wants, but it is more important that he is himself first and foremost and he should never feel the need to compromise his background or culture to fit in.

That’s one of the most important lessons I have learnt from this whole recent episode. The sooner people see, celebrate, and learn about the culture that accompanies the music, the easier this business will be at accepting it and moving on. And who knows, DJ Mag might even get me back to talk about what I do best: music!

Jaymie Silk

The French DJ/producer describes the feelings of distrust and rejection that come from working in a hypocritical industry that preaches unity while marginalising Black artists

“Wait, I’m legit actually?” That’s what I said to myself when I discovered at 25 that electronic music was created by Black and POC from the LGBT community. I always had a hard time getting into clubs when I was younger, so I didn’t go. There weren’t a lot of references in France, not at all in electronic music in terms of Black people. A bouncer even wanted to ban me from the club where I was mixing last year during one of my gigs in Paris. In France, when you’re a Black man (let’s say non-white), there is this idea that you ain’t got no money, you’re here to make trouble.

For those that don’t know me, I’m Jaymie Silk. I am 32 years old, my father is from Benin, West Africa, my mother is Italian, and I grew up in France. I was eight years old when my father sat me down with my five-year-old sister to say, “You are negroes, you must be proud of that. That’s how people will see you, you don’t have to be ashamed.” A radar is one of the first things you develop. You know you’re not seen as the norm. Look at the Black electronic artists that we put forward: are we focusing on their musical identity, or their identity as a Black person?

I’m a heterosexual man, I don’t have the same obstacles as a Black woman, LGBTQ+ person, or a disabled one. But one thing that we share in common is to internalise all the wounds due to racism.

It starts with the radar that you develop at a very young age, learning to distrust. This state of alertness is part of my daily life, and that’s the same in the music world. It is a double punishment. We are sold this lie that electronic music is a lovely family. You start your life evaluating people, which implies a withdrawal, possibly a lack of confidence. And the most important thing in any business is networking. You have to network when society makes you understand that you are tolerated and not respected. You internalise anger, frustration and have to deal with contempt.

It leads to perverse behaviors. I’ve seen Black DJs accepting gigs that I refused because they were ethically amoral (for example, I was offered a gig to play in a museum in honour of a slave driver), or playing on all the clichés of the Black iconography to please an industry where the decision makers are white. Industry picks its winners. Black people were sold by boats. Now they are sold on magazine covers, still the chosen ones. It leads to hypocrisy, by those who pretend not to be racist while they apply the same mechanisms put in place by the system, and by Black people who accept to put aside their principles to be tokenised. Filled with this feeling of self betrayal, considering the perpetual lack of opportunities, it may be the only chance they will have. The segregation in the music scene is real.

"If you’ve never asked yourself when you rent an Airbnb apartment, if you need to remove your photo to make sure that the guest accepts the reservation, then for you racism is a fever blister that appears when you are confronted with it, and disappears after 30 minutes"

People often say, “I don’t see colours.” By doing so, you’re denying the condition of being a person of colour. Most (if not all) the big names of electronic music during the ‘90s in France had the same background: white, from a wealthy family. I remember when I was about 20 years old, I met an electronic music DJ from Maghreb in Paris, he told me he wouldn’t make a career in France because he wasn’t white. There are definitely colours.

It’s so pretentious to say, “I am empathetic, so I understand racism.” If you’ve never asked yourself when you rent an Airbnb apartment, if you need to remove your photo to make sure that the guest accepts the reservation, then for you racism is a fever blister that appears when you are confronted with it, and disappears after 30 minutes.

People say they “don’t want to be involved”, that they are “apolitical” when you address the issue about cultural appropriation. And they are the ones who decide who’ll be on their radio, who’ll be reviewed in their magazine, who’ll be booked. There’s a law of silence. The feeling of rejection exists. How can you be vocal when nobody cares? 

In order to make their voices heard, marginalised groups generally have to organize themselves as a collective, like Discwoman, which, through its actions, has helped to accelerate discussions concerning the marginalisation of women in the electronic scene. 

By ostracising people, the industry has bitten its tail. By giving in to conformism, it has put aside its innovators. The people who push creativity. Being an artist is being confronted with very precarious conditions at times. Creating takes time. You have to be able to endure it psychologically, not being able to live like everyone else. You need this capacity of resilience, and even more so when you are part of a marginalised community, and subjected to daily microaggressions.

The space of electronic music is not spared: it is not a safe space. The feeling of defeat, the duality between going on or stopping. You can be Black, but not too much. It’s all about perception. In the West, you have to assimilate as a non-white person. In electronic music too. That’s unacceptable. Doing that, you show people you treat them as exceptions, not as equal. Self confidence is diminishing, you question yourself, you turn inward, you burn out. It impacts mental health, our loving relationships, our journey as an artist, wondering every time why we do that when we know we’ll not be accepted. Any Black person who tries to persevere will be confronted with this. You feel not welcome.

A French electronic music magazine recently wrote an article about the death of George Floyd, without even mentioning the problem of representation within the scene. The people representing the audience commented (mostly white people), clearly said that they didn’t care, that it had nothing to do with electronic music. And of course, the magazine leaves comments, it creates engagement, it makes the algorithm work.

Everyone has to take responsibility and stop this hypocrisy. We must challenge everyone. Not taking a stand is no longer an option. If we want the electronic music scene to become a safe space, we have to be able to address issues, whether it is about sexual assault, racism or any other discrimination. Everybody should be able to have a discussion. In his next interview, a white DJ, who is booked in every festival, should be confronted with questions to know his position. And it might be disturbing for those who won’t say anything by fear of losing their place, those who just take selfies, and those with privileges of not exposing the issue. Many people are unknowingly racist in the sense that they continue to perpetuate a system of discrimination and exclusion.

Every media should have a service where artists can contact them, to tell them about a situation they have experienced with another person in the industry, so that there is no longer a law of silence. Just being listened to, and externalising this violence, would confront the people who perpetuate it. It is not about cancelling them, but about confronting them and opening up discussions.

After reflecting on how we can tackle the issues  around racism and racial injustice within the electronic music industry as a publication, we delivered our pledge to you last week (Monday 20th July), presenting significant changes within the company in order to better represent the scene — from the way we do business, to who we work with, and give coverage to. Read it here.

You can also find a directory of collectives, organisations, charities, and initiatives working with the Black community in a number of different ways, as well as resources that you can use to educate yourself, get involved, and donate if you can here.