Keith Harris Pens Powerful Open Letter on Equality and Racism In the Music Industry

Keith Harris

Dr. Keith Harris receives an OBE for services to the Music Industry on Sept. 15, 2017 at Windsor Castle in Berkshire, Britain.

Veteran British artist manager and label executive Keith Harris has posted a striking open letter to the music industry’s hierarchy, calling for enduring change.

Harris, who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic, entered the industry in 1974, first with Transatlantic Records and later with EMI and Motown, among other labels.

Through his career, he worked with the likes of Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and many more, and to this day continues to represent Stevie Wonder.

A tireless advocate for artists and campaigner for equal opportunity, Harris received an honorary doctorate by the University of Westminster in 2007, and in 2015 was awarded an OBE 2015 for services to the music industry.

Harris has also faced barriers due to prejudice and racism, which he discusses candidly in his letter.

The time has come to permanently remove those barriers.

As the music industry entered "Black Out Tuesday," the former chair of UK Music’s Diversity And Equality Taskforce points out that it'll take a considerable effort to stamp out racial injustice.

“I would like to remind you all that this awareness of racism in the industry should not last for one day, or one week, or one year," he writes. "This should last forever."

Read the letter in full below.

To the Captains of the Music Industry:

I am gratified to see the industry embrace “Black Out” day in honour of George Floyd, it is a timely and appropriate reminder that we cannot tolerate racism.

I have been in the music industry for over 45 years and in that time I have experienced both direct and indirect racism. In 1978 I was installed as General manager at Motown when it was a licensed label of EMI, and then told, although I had been successful in that role, that I was going to be replaced with a white person, and would I mind “looking over his shoulder to help him out”, because they were not as capable as me in some areas.

I was told when I was Head of Promotions for Motown, that Radio 1 was already playing Earth Wind and Fire, so they could not play The Commodores, because that was enough of that kind of music.

It was reported to me that a producer at Capital FM once said ‘now that we’ve got Craig David, we don’t need to play Omar’, and then people in the record company were shocked by my outrage.

I was very fortunate to be offered a job by Stevie Wonder, which allowed me to bypass the major roadblock which was being put up in my career.

When I returned back to the UK from LA having worked in Stevie Wonder’s management, apart from the concert promoter Barrie Marshall who offered me work on my return, I was not offered another job in the industry until Fran Nevrkla in 2006 invited me to be Director of Performer Affairs at PPL, that is a 25 year period. I watched white counterparts and contemporaries being invited to head up labels, publishers and other ventures.

I am writing this letter, not to invoke sympathy, or to look to advance myself at this stage. I am now 68 years old, I have an OBE, from the Queen, an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Westminster, I have been inducted into the MMF Roll of Honour, and awarded the Music Industry Champion honour. I am not dissatisfied with how things have gone for me, but I am a middle class black man, with the benefit of a British public school education, and a well embedded knowledge of how to navigate white society.

I would like to remind you all that this awareness of racism in the industry should not last for one day, or one week, or one year. This should last forever. I would like to see other young black people in the industry rise to the positions of authority and seniority that their talent merits.

We have had many false dawns in terms of equality in the industry, let’s make sure that this is not another one.

Keith Harris. OBE.


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