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How Long Can Music Journalism Stay Segregated? 

As the music journalism industry itself shrinks with the media industry at large, gestures at post-racial universality have in many ways entrenched white power in the music press.

by | February 11, 2022

Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” a recurring feature first published in 2003, is perhaps the most widely-read piece of music criticism of all time. The magazine’s 2020 re-issue of the feature touted input from artists like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Questlove in its preamble, leaving unsaid that this latest version was a sort of capstone to issues agonized over by music journalists in the last few decades: the triumph of “poptimism” over “rockism,” the restoration of women’s contributions to popular music, the increasing recognition of the centrality of Blackness to American music, and the ponderous reconfiguration of the “canon.” 

The list boasted an album by Alanis Morissette and two from Aretha Franklin, bumped D’Angelo’s Voodoo up 453 spots to number 28, and the top spot — previously reserved for Pet Sounds or Abbey Road or something like that — went to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Of the 47 authors listed in the piece’s bylines, three were not white, including two Black writers. 

An iconic magazine trying sweatily to make their coverage appear more inclusive while lacking diversity among its own staff might seem odd, especially one like Rolling Stone, which touts its own countercultural history. But American music journalism, like the popular music it covers, has always reflected racial categories. As many pop enthusiasts already know, the defining narrative of popular music’s history is its development in the clusterfuck of the American racial state. Though all forms of popular music remain gesturally and historically Black, at every turn, that Blackness is reduced, plundered, burlesqued and disenfranchised, leaving us with the structural divides between “Black music” and “white music” you intuitively navigate when choosing a radio station or Spotify playlist. 

Likewise, until very recently, music publications, be they magazines or zines, websites or blogs, with predominantly white staff mostly covered genres and movements whose participants were predominantly white, and Black publications — culturally distinct, and with an industry and readership all their own — covered Black music. When publications with national syndications like the New York Times or Los Angeles Times went looking for authoritative voices for their pages and newsrooms, they mostly hired from the former.

That racial schism has existed since the music press came into existence in the 1960s and 1970s with the advent of rock and pop criticism in magazines like Esquire and the Village Voice, and the 1967 launch of Rolling Stone magazine. That, however, is a short, white history. By then, Black writers were already engaging critically with popular forms of music like jazz, blues, and rock. But even as poet and writer Amiri Baraka was, in his books Blues People and Black Music, refining analyses that still shape the way we understand the racial contours of musical expression, and even as journalist Margo Jefferson presaged in 1973 that Black rock musicians would “be studied as remarkable primitives who unconsciously foreshadowed“ rock music’s “true flowering among whites,” these Black writers were paid little mind by the magazines that would come to be seen as the birthplace of popular music writing.

In those decades, a Black literati that included writers like Baraka and Jefferson, would at times write about Black music, as part of larger analyses of American raciality in books, or as a dalliance in the pages of literary magazines like Harper’s. In the 1970s, journalists would cover Black musicians in teen magazines like Right On! and Black Beat (precursors to today’s Black-run celebrity-focused blogs and websites), and occasionally in feature magazines that covered Black life widely like Ebony and other Johnson publications. 

For the developing workaday Black music journalists stuck between the literary and the teen and celebrity-focused press, the field remained white. In phone conversations with Black music journalists, I learned why Black music journalism as it exists now mirrors those beginnings so closely, and how that schism has been maintained over the intervening decades. and the music press has, for most of its history, continued to prove especially hostile to Black music journalists hoping to make a living.


For Craig Seymour, a music critic from Washington D.C. who has written for the Washington Post, SPIN, and VIBE magazine, the teen magazines were the first music coverage that he would read. Greg Tate, another music writer who grew up in D.C, said his first exposure to the idea of music writing came from reading Baraka. But both remember reading Rolling Stone

“9 times out of 10,” said Seymour, who subscribed to Rolling Stone in the 80s, “I could flip through the whole damn Rolling Stone and maybe just see a little-ass column on a Black act, but profile after profile of rock acts, unless it was some big crossover star like Michael Jackson or Prince.” 

Rolling Stone, which I read religiously, had only maybe one Black writer, who was not on staff, Bernie Gibbs,” Tate said. Back then, even an enthusiastic Black reader like Seymour saw Rolling Stone’s world as closed off. “I didn’t really see myself as being able to have a career as a music critic, because… Rolling Stone was it. I didn’t see a place for Black acts in the magazine, so therefore I didn’t see a place for me to write about anything,” said Seymour.

Then, hip hop happened. In addition to hip hop’s explosive growth in the 1980s, Tate said Black pop cultural figures like Michael Jackson, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey were newly ascendant across American culture. “It was a serious moment when Black broke into American mass culture in a major way… Even the white publications were like, ‘Oh crap, we really need some Black people to write about this kind of stuff,’” Seymour told me. “Partly because they didn’t even really want to write about it.”  

By the late ‘80s, therefore, the Village Voice began publishing bold writerly coverage of RUN D.M.C, Bad Brains and Public Enemy by Tate, newly in New York, along with other Black American culture writers like Nelson George and Joan Morgan. 

“That’s when I started discovering some of the great Black writers on hip hop,” Seymour recalled. “Like Greg Tate. Because they were doing this deep analysis, that’s really what set the spark off and inspired me.” As Danyel Smith recalled it, “once Michael Jackson changed the pop game, and hip hop after that, there was a rise of Black critics, but that didn’t necessarily mean that there was integration with regards to where they were appearing.”

This era of the Village Voice began a brief but monumental reversal of music journalism’s entire racial polarity. Along with the creation of hip hop magazine The Source in 1988, which though founded at Harvard by two white hip hop fans, is remembered as a bible of hip hop coverage. 

And in 1993, superproducer Quincy Jones on a quest to create a “Black Rolling Stone” founded Vibe with Time Warner, which “changed the entire game for Black music criticism,” as Seymour noted, “because finally you could write about Black artists in the way that [white artists] were written about in Rolling Stone.” 

The writers I spoke to talk about the ‘90s as a heyday of cultural independence for the Black music press. Not only did booming record label budgets mean more cash all around, but the writing talent at these smaller, newer publications was flourishing. 

SPIN and NME’s exclusive focus on alternative rock and singer-songwriter pop was mimicked by mainstream outfits like Rolling Stone and the New York Times, which were still “prom,” as Tate put it —“You didn’t come to them, they came to you,” and they were going to the rock mags instead. But Black music journalists didn’t need their acceptance to establish themselves, or even to make a living out of music journalism. “We never felt like outsiders,” said Tate.  “Nobody was coming to them because we were writing for the Voice, we were writing for Vibe, we were writing for The Source. We knew we had the ears of the audience we wanted to reach.”

“We did amazing stuff,” Smith said of her tenure leading Vibe as its editor-in-chief. “Black photographers got real budgets, Black creative directors got paid real money. “We had the money to pay real photographers, we had the money to pay people a dollar a word when nobody in the business was paying Black people a dollar a word. So everybody wanted to write for Vibe, because we paid a living wage.”

“My way in would always be a 300-word record review for $150. And people would be like “a hundred and fifty dollars?!”

But that Black cultural independence was undercut by systemic disinvestment. Even when Vibe and The Source would match mainstream magazines in sales, a former editor told me that advertisers would request rates at a steep discount of what they would offer their white counterparts. 

Hip hop’s slow roll into the mainstream continued into the digital age, and the high-profile music writers of the ‘90s grew tired of spending every night in beer-soaked concert halls; they sought book deals, screenwriting gigs and other lucrative runways out of the industry.  

But Seymour remembered that when the Black writers of the magazine era started taking meetings with publishing houses, the reception was less rosy than it was for white writers pitching biographies of rock stars. “Our take on what we’re talking about [was] not instantly taken as true and authoritative,” he said. Seymour recalled pitching Luther, his biography of Luther Vandross, to publishers. “There were really a whole lot of [editors] who were like, “Who the fuck is Luther Vandross?”


Now, those who have retained their power in the music industry are staring down the internet age’s new anxieties. As Rolling Stone themselves have commented, pop music is finally being allowed to become Blacker, a complicated evolution for a segregated music press to cover. Pop is absorbing hip hop: songs by Lil Nas X and The Kid LAROI that top pop charts may be sung, but fill their lines with hip hop’s language and attitude. Ed Sheeran duets with Travis Scott, Justin Bieber campaigns for an R&B Grammy (this year he was humored with a nomination for “Best R&B Performance” for his song “Peaches,” but all of his seven other nominations are under pop categories), and the Recording Academy — not after Tyler, The Creator shamed them on their own stage, but after the killing of George Floyd — are, after decades, removing the word “Urban” from their Grammy award categories. These moves are echoed in the music press, too: a dwindling number of Black publications still mostly cover Black music, but now outlets that once primarily covered white music must reconsider Marvin Gaye, Sade and Alicia Keys to retain relevance. 

This shift, however, didn’t result in greater prominence or job security for Black music critics, and the proliferation of Black cultural authority in the ‘90s did not translate to the present. As the music journalism industry itself shrinks with the media industry at large, gestures at post-racial universality have in many ways entrenched white power in the music press. Though publications like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone are now distancing themselves from the bad old days of rockist chauvinism, their industry power and historical prestige enables their longevity.

Pitchfork’s end-of-the-2010s package devoted much of its coverage to the ways “indie,” the genre that the website historically covered and played a role in defining, had broadened, but largely avoided discussing their own role in enforcing its old boundaries, namely that, in the 00s and early 10s, mainly white musicians made music that was of creative merit and that, indeed, was “independent,” of the comparatively shallow machinations through which other music was produced. “Pitchfork established itself with alternative music, and then they sort of discovered Black music,” Seymour said. 

Seymour points to Pitchfork’s Sunday Review series, which retroactively reviews albums Pitchfork neglected to cover in the past. “9 times out of 10 it’s a Black album. The reason you didn’t [review those albums] was because you weren’t interested in Black music before, and you didn’t have Black writers. I want that said somewhere. I want somebody to say, “we are righting this wrong.’”

So, when Pitchfork published “What it’s like to be Black in Indie” by writer and FORGE editor Matthew James Wilson, social media broke out the Spiderman-pointing-at-Spiderman memes, balking at the irony that Pitchfork would post an article decrying exclusion for which they are widely seen as being responsible. When I asked Wilson about the social media response, he said with a laugh, ”I’m really glad that people are able to say that and that I didn’t have to say it in the article.” 

“Once I knew Pitchfork was publishing it,” Wilson said, “a lot of how I wrote it was hoping that the people at Pitchfork would read the article.” Seymour notes that, while largely white music publications have been hurriedly constructing new and more inclusive branding, they seldom acknowledge their own pasts. “If you don’t acknowledge that something is a problem, first of all you’re gaslighting everybody that’s been dealing with you in the past… and you’re [also] not really putting in systems so that it won’t happen again.” Wilson was excited to note that in Pitchfork’s staff’s ongoing attempts to unionize, the bargaining committee had included points brought up in his article to enshrine inclusion in the site’s mandate.

But, as Greg Tate said, “the dominant organs of music criticism have always remained primarily white.”

The New York Times’ music section, for example, employs editors, critics and reporters to cover jazz, classical and popular music. All are white. A former New York Times staffer familiar with the music desk’s personnel between the 90s and the present could only recall two non-white staffers: the writer Sheila Rule, who wrote the Pop Life column through the early 90s; Danyel Smith, who briefly but regularly wrote music reviews as a stringer for the NYT in 1993-1994; and the critic Kelefa Sanneh whose eight-year tenure at the Times included penning a defining essay on rockism. 

That’s it. For at least the last three decades of the New York-based coverage of jazz, classical and popular music in the New York Times, those are the only non-white people to ever be hired as a staff reporter, critic or editor.

As hip hop has moved from adjacency to pop music to its center, rather than moving Black writers to the center, the music press has instead seen white writers (at the center by default), operating with increasing familiarity and authority when covering Black music. As a result, the Black music critic, their existence contingent on translating Black culture for white audiences, has become, to the white music press, obsolete.

“Black people have to go through all sorts of hoops to claim that there’s a readership for [their idea],” Seymour said, “That’s the real frustrating thing, is the shorthand that a white person can use to get an assignment on Black music, whereas a Black person has to put on a whole Broadway production. It’s assumed authority, assumed audience interest.


White Men Writing About Hip Hop has become a genre on its own. And the The Black writers I spoke to who don’t write about hip hop say that has also engendered an assumption that coverage of other Black genres, like R&B and soul, is unnecessary or superfluous. “White straight men like hip hop, and they take it seriously,” Seymour said, “So, whether you’re pitching Pitchfork or a book project, and you’re talking about a Kendrick or a Nipsey, they immediately think it’s serious. But you go in talking about wanting to write something about Mary J. Blige or TLC, they’re like “what?!”

While white writers’ cultural remit expands, some Black critics I spoke to feel that they’re experiencing the inverse, that they’re being siloed into writing about Black music exclusively. “Don’t just reach out to Black writers when it’s something about race or you think, ‘It’s a sensitive topic, let me get a Black person to write it,’” said Atlanta-based music journalist Jewel Wicker. “No! You can reach out to us to write about the Carly Rae Jepsen album. That’s all my little heart wants! But nobody’s asking me to write about pop.” 

Some of the journalists I spoke to noticed that their editors became less enthusiastic when they spoke to them about non-Black music, and wondered if they were being siloed into music journalism’s version of  “the racism beat.” Greg Tate remembered being asked to write about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly for the 2020 version of Rolling Stone’s 500 albums list. He was told by the Rolling Stone editor that they didn’t think a white contributor could write about the record. 

“That was the first time [Rolling Stone] had gotten in touch with me in like twenty years,” Tate said. “They haven’t called me since then.”

As the influence of Black music expands, opportunities for Black music journalists shrink. As Seymour puts it, “[If] the only thing you’re ever going to let us do is write about Black things, but then you have white people covering the Black things, when are we ever gonna get a chance to write? White people are assumed to be able to write about anything with authority. So it then does become important for us to be vocal about having our little piece of the pie because that’s all we got!” 

The white, coastal hip hop fan’s hegemony also colors those publications’ approach to the music Wicker covers, she said, “It’s like the south is this backwoods place that just happens to have good music. There’s no real understanding.” Wicker notes that even when Black writers are in the room, they’re mostly from a small group of coastal cultural centers, occluding the diversity of Black music: “I mean race, class, sexual orientation. If we don’t have people that are thinking about things in different ways, then what makes this different than the past?” 

As music journalism itself shrinks, these questions become even more pressing. Many Black-run publications, like Vibe and The Source, have shuttered their print publications, and their web imprints focus more on celebrity coverage than the experimental journalism that made them famous; I spoke to a former editor of The Source who called them “[shells] of their former selves.” One need only look at the mastheads of publications that cover Black music and artists – XXL and Complex come to mind – to see editorial teams staffed by white journalists.


In the ‘90s, there was a belief, briefly, that there was some value derived by having Black writers historicize and critique popular music, and to participate in the curation of its canon. Today, the music press has largely moved past that. As the industry itself contracts, its segregationist foundation is hard to ignore. No longer at the peripheral vision of the white cultural institutions, Black music and Black musical artists are still largely being written about by white writers while Black music journalists continue to be crowded out. Gone are the days of VIBE magazine paying Black writers $150 for a 300-word review; today, among music journalists, those who can make a living are mostly white. That’s changing slowly, but the people who decide who gets to make a living writing about music — top-ranking editors, publishers, media executives — are almost exclusively white, and that’s not changing at all. 

I started reporting for and writing this article in late 2020. In December 2021, Greg Tate passed away, and the loss of his voice has made the community of cultural and arts criticism palpably more desolate. To be a new, Black music journalist in 2022 does not feel hopeful. To what do I aspire? A “safe job” at an old-money publication? To procure some venture capitalist dollars and start a new, starry-eyed publication tied to some oligarch’s return on investment? To start posting album reviews on TikTok?

I am confident that there will be people–Black people, even–who continue to seek out rigorous, emotive engagement with music, now and forever. And there’s surely a revolutionary out there, armed with once-in-a-millennium savvy, ready to seize that demand and transfigure it into some mind-bendingly novel delivery platform for music journalism. I’m not him. I’m just a negro who’s better at writing about music than just about anything else, and who would like to be paid a living wage for it, please.

But it’s clear that it’s incumbent on new music journalists like myself to build new things rather than study the old. We’re clearly at the part of the cycle where we sweep away the debris and get to work on creation. Editors and writers at The Source emphasized to me repeatedly that they considered themselves artists creating alongside the musicians they covered. Well, one thing I deeply admire about artists of my generation (and younger) is their willingness to — in some cases vocally — reject influence, and let their influences be subtextual rather than feeling the need to continuously bow and scrape in tedious exercises of citation.

But this entire essay is evidence of my tendency to be a teacher’s pet, and draw security from the feeling that I did the homework. And yet all I really reaped from plunging into the archive is a greater sense of loss, a more high-definition understanding of the desiccation of the industry we’ve inherited, and a need to ask the white men who got so rich at the expense of their peers, and who left so little for those who came after, how could you guys have fucked it up this bad?

In 2020, the undeniable spectacle of Black death (and the spectre of Black protest) forced the Recording Academy to scrub explicit racism from its prizes: There will no longer be an “urban” category at this year’s Grammy awards. There should be no minimizing of the collective effort it took from Black artists, fans and music journalists to arrive there. Still, there was a certain absurdity to seeing how simple it was for the Academy to make changes advocated for for decades. 

There’s a similar humiliation to watching, at the sidelines, as white music journalists slowly allow the canon to be diversified, all while slowly pushing their Black peers into obscurity. We’re seeing a lot of “save-your-ass-self-examination among white cultural institutions across the board,” Greg Tate said. “In terms of American culture, Black writers tend to break through after there are riots in the streets.” 

It’s an exquisite kind of humiliation to realize that what you thought was a historic struggle for representation was all along a process of convincing a few white people to change their minds.

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