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On Being Black: ‘Dear White Music Executives’ Author Ray Daniels

Eight months after penning the anonymous letter "Dear White Music Executives," Warner Records senior vp A&R Ray Daniels is pushing for quicker, more actionable change.

A well-known quote from poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou continues to bear repeating. “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” It is through Angelou’s clarifying lens that Billboard launches “On Being Black.”

Running weekly during Black History Month and recurring throughout the year, “On Being Black” examines the challenges of working while Black in the music industry. Here, current and former executives reflect on their personal experiences, perseverance and determination, underscoring a sad legacy: The more some things have changed in the music business, the more things have actually stayed the same.

Kicking off the series is Ray Daniels, senior vp A&R at Warner Records. Using an anonymous byline (and later revealing his identity), Daniels penned the op-ed “Dear White Music Executives” that Billboard published after the #TheShowMustBePaused sounded the call for an industrywide day of racial reckoning on June 2. In his own call to action, Daniels wrote, “We’ve seen all the texts and posts asking, “Dear Black friends, what can we do?” Well, this would be a start.”

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As the letter went viral and his identity was unveiled, Daniels notes that some Black and white colleagues questioned his motives. But many more Black peers “started hitting me up, saying this is how we all feel” while white colleagues previously on the defensive have acknowledged that it “really made me look at how I should maneuver differently.”

Now eight months after his first letter, Daniels is pushing for quicker, more actionable change because “it feels like the moment is gone and it’s back to business as usual.”

Ray Daniels: When I originally wrote “Dear White Music Executives” last June, I didn’t expect change right away. That’s because I’m a realist in that change can’t happen when we haven’t been given any choice. What does that mean? Here’s an example. Kids can’t come to their parents and say we want to change around your house. It’s the parents’ house. The only way change happens is if the parents say, “OK, it’s your house too and you can make changes.”

But the reality is that the music industry — and this country — is still someone else’s house. And we’re reminded of that every day. The insurrection on Jan. 6 was a good measuring stick. People saw the difference between how white people were treated during a revolt versus how Blacks were treated during their peaceful protests on behalf of social justice reform and Black Lives Matter.

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So how can we pressure someone to give us something that’s really not ours? My letter was meant to give white executives an understanding of what we’re always dealing with in our everyday lives. The only way things can change is if somebody says, “I’m going to give you what you’re asking for then I’m going to leave you alone and let you handle it.” Truly give us the power to run our culture.

I am the ultimate optimist by the way. But I also understand the world that I live in and what I can — and can’t — control. It’s amazing that after 402 years Black people really aren’t afforded the power to make their own decisions. That’s why it seems like change is never going to happen because it’s never been able to happen.

Since Blackout Tuesday in June, I’ve seen a few Black executives get promoted [Mark Pitts and Dallas Martin, newly named presidents of RCA, Asylum Records, respectively; LaTrice Burnette now president of Island Records’ 4th & Broadway label]. But we still need more Black CEOs, presidents, exec vps and heads of Black music and other divisions — who are also given true power. That’s the conversation constantly taking place now in the Black music community. Why can’t we get the titles and empowerment we deserve?

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Because eight months after #TheShowMustBePaused, it feels like the moment is gone and it’s back to business as usual. That’s what I’m hearing from my peers at the other label groups. Yes, the major labels have hired chief diversity and inclusion officers, and they’ve asked us what we want. The label groups have also donated money to social justice and other causes. But everybody’s still waiting for what else is truly going to happen.

One reason my peers and I wonder why white executives won’t give us our due is because we’ll see the bottom line and wonder why they’re getting paid double than us. We’re being governed by another culture; that’s the way the business is set up. Black men and women executives and staffers should be paid on the same scale as their pop counterparts. If you want us to feel like we’re being treated fair, then let us know what fair means. Does fair mean being treated like a white person or does fair mean being treated different but good because we’re lucky to be in the room?

I’m not the angry Black man. But I am, like my fellow peers, tired of being treated like we’re not smart enough to sit at the head of a table. And why is a chief diversity officer needed to explain what’s wrong? We’re very capable of communicating what’s wrong directly to those in power. And those in power should be capable of listening unless you just really don’t want to hear or change it. It just feels like we’re being patronized; being told what we want to hear but then something else is decided or done when we’re not in the room. Change can be so easy. To those who already possess decision-making power: just make a change. That’s how change starts.

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I don’t want to paint everybody one way. Aaron Bay-Schuck [Warner Records co-chairman/CEO] has been an ally and friend since I started in the business. That’s why I have been with him at Interscope and now Warner. He’s always had my back and listens when I need to speak my mind. However, I feel there’s still an old way of thinking that has kept certain-looking people in power. The music business needs to embrace a new way of thinking, a changing of the guard. More younger minds and outside-the-box thinkers who care about people first. Artists sign to the majors not just because of the check. They sign because of the people sitting at the table that are making them feel comfortable and safe enough to entrust them with their dreams.

My agenda is simple: empowering the Black music community. I didn’t write that letter for me. I wrote that letter for all of us. What we need more than anything is people who don’t care about advancing themselves, but more about advancing people of color. And I think those decisions need to be made by people that look like us. That’s super important. When African Americans are trying to figure out what we need, it should be African Americans from that struggle making those decisions and not an outsider.

It needs to be about building and promoting a multicultural industry force that attracts artists’ and employees’ trust. Stop only hiring who make you feel comfortable. We need to sit at the table together to foster sustainable change so we can also tell our stories our way and make our own superstar artists and executives.

We’re not here to make you uncomfortable. But we’re going to tell you some things you might not like. Sometimes the truth hurts. That’s the purpose behind #TheShowMustBePaused. It was also the purpose behind my first letter. So once more, dear white music executives: please see us, know that we are here and that we want to be acknowledged as equals. Then we can do better business together and leave a better industry for the next generation. Change … it’s that simple.