I had a conversation on the difference between tokenism and inclusion in the music industry with fellow Americana artist Lizzie No, which was published on Talkhouse.com. We chatted about how festivals, conferences, concerts, and events often believe they are practicing inclusion when really they are exhibiting harmful tokenism.
“We have to talk about the differences between actually including people and bringing them to a seat at the table, versus using them to promote what’s already there.” – Lizzie No.
Tokenism: the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.
Inclusion: the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.
• Support BIPOC-led diversity initiatives such as The Black Independent Music Accelerator and Color of Music Collective.
• Diversify your music & lift up BIPOC artists. Here are Spotify playlists of queer country artists, women of country, and Black country artists.
As a New York City-born, Folk/Americana music artist and Brown woman of Mexican, Native American, Japanese, and Taiwanese ancestry, I have experienced firsthand the line between inclusion and tokenism. I have realized that this line is oftentimes one that I can see but one that the white folks in power can not see. To me, inclusion is when you’re being invited to speak for yourself, as your whole self, and have an equal share of the mic to your white counterparts. Tokenism is when you’re being propped up by the pieces of you they want to exploit, a cosmetic cover-up for previous years of failing to bring in diversity, and one’s racial identity being centered and advertised more than the work itself.
According to data collected by the Census Bureau in 2017, 73.6% of singers, musicians, and related workers are white, only 13% are Black, and less than 1% are Indigenous. It is easy to see how this lack of representation has led to a hunger for diversity in the music industry. It’s time that we insist on effective inclusion rather than harmful tokenism within the music industry and beyond.
While folk music is predominantly populated by white artists, it is heavily influenced by the work of Black artists. “In fact, without the spirituals sung by enslaved people, the railroad songs of the Reconstruction era, and the ragtime hits of the early twentieth century, modern folk music would not exist” (library.org). It is important to acknowledge that inclusion in the music industry and, specifically, within folk music, is not about bringing underrepresented groups to the table but about acknowledging that the table itself was inspired by the music of the underrepresented groups themselves—a credit that is long forgotten.
In our conversation on Talkhouse.com, Lizzie elaborates on her experience of feeling tokenized throughout her music career: “When I’m on a bill, sometimes bookers will be fast and loose about labeling my music—like ‘African-American folk,’ or like ‘Black folk.’ And, sure, I’m a Black artist as a person, but I wouldn’t describe my music as Black music any more than any other Black artist’s music is Black music. So, yes, I find that to be a really good way for people to pat themselves on the back for booking me, and to let me know that they’re not as familiar with my music.”
Like Lizzie, I have experienced times when the line between inclusion and tokenism felt like it lit up like a Christmas tree in my mind. For example, there was the time I was on a panel that was questioned about whether the project encompassed indigenous issues and they pointed to me as their coverage of the “indigenous issue.” And the time I was on a call with folks who wanted to use my music for a promotional video, and they had never actually listened to my songs but were interested in my mixed racial identity. And the countless times concert promoters told me that they booked me cause they really needed a “diversity factor.” Tokenism is incredibly harmful because it leaves the artist questioning whether anyone is even listening to the work itself.
Inclusion, when done right, can be incredibly productive and can open doors for diverse folks. Folk Alliance International brought in the Indigenous Music Summit, a satellite conference led by and for Indigenous people in the folk music community. Jonathan Azu started the Diversity in Music Employment database, a talent database of BIPOC and female music professionals looking for jobs in the industry. The American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) created The Black Independent Music Accelerator (BIMA) to amplify independent, Black-owned music businesses. With inclusion, it is important that the mic is being passed not only to speak but also to lead. I applaud these organizations and conferences for doing just that, and I hope we will continue to see more.
It is time to reevaluate our inclusion practices in the music industry and take action by empowering those fighting for their voices and music to be heard. I am incredibly grateful for organizations and artists that fight for empowering and effective inclusion practices and bring more BIPOC folks into positions of power in the music industry. I hope you will consider lifting these voices and acknowledge the change that is needed.
Raye Zaragoza (she/her) is an award-winning singer-songwriter whom NPR Music called “one of the most fresh and compelling voices in folk music today.” Her third album, Hold That Spirit, is a stunning collection of political folk music that is informed by her identity as a woman of mixed Indigenous, Asian and Latina heritage.
Lizzie No (she/her) is a New York-based singer-songwriter, harpist, and guitarist who released her second full-length album, “Vanity,” on August 2, 2019. Rolling Stone Magazine called the first single, Narcissus,” a “crisp alt-rock gem” and a “Song You Need To Know.” The album was a “Now Hear This” pick in No Depression Magazine.