There’s never been a moment in my life where I’ve ever truly regretted becoming a professional artist.
A maker of imaginary worlds.
An imitator of real life.
It’s my escape. My coping mechanism. My muse.
But art and performance has also been a very cruel mistress to me. It has been unfaithful, unloving and unkind.
It’s stole from me. It’s left me financially ruined, frustrated. It’s caused me to literally break my back and fracture my neck.
But I love it unconditionally, and so I suppose I should say that “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
But I would.
I’d change a lot.
I’d change the prevalent prejudice and privilege. I’d change the complete dominance of white middle class voices and exposure. I’d change the systemic racism and bullying, that has plagued this industry for centuries. I’d change the power imbalances between the artists and the venues.
Myself and many many others have been trying for decades to create a paradigm shift in the system. Tirelessly attending numerous symposiums, discussions and meetings across the globe, which have all resulted in the same outcomes. Many positive things said but very little actual noticeable change being made. Small positive changes made yes, but always with the same caveat being brought forth… The caveat that ‘these things all take time and that the industry won’t change overnight.’
But here’s the kicker. The industry literally has just had to change overnight due to COVID-19, and we all sat back and witnessed brand new rules, legislations, funding and support systems be created and established in a matter of weeks.
We all sat back and witnessed mass change in this industry that was made, guess what – overnight.
So I ask this.
Why hasn’t this been the case for the obvious disparity and neglect of true diversity within the arts industry?
Is the answer as simple as; because the people at the top didn’t fucking want it to change?
I don’t know for certain. I mean I definitely have my own theories, but I couldn’t possibly say.
Yes world. I know throughout the years there has been great support offered and there have been many token gestures made, to the more diverse artists and communities out there but fundamentally the vast majority of the wealth and exposure is still predominantly held by the middle classes and furthermore the white middle classes at that.
This blog isn’t for me to educate you about the disparity and blatant privilege within the arts industry because a: if you work in the industry you already know and b: if you’re interested in finding out you’ll have a little click around and do some research on the ‘matter’.
And that word (matter) brings me to Black Lives Matter, and the positive movement that has sparked a ferocious fire under the feet of many. Exposing the multiple cracks under the scorched weeds and unearthing many questions, frustrations and grievances along its blaze. But I want to concentrate solely on the questions raised within the arts industries in particular.
Why do I support BlackLivesMatter so strongly? Why did I jump on my social media and rant post after post? Why did I get messages saying people had never seen that side of me before? Why did I exhaust myself crying in my apartment doing a photoshoot? Why did I stay up until two o’clock in the morning to write a performance for a Black Live Matter Protest?
The short answer is; This whole thing invoked a complete guttural reaction in me, a pure instinctive impulse to react and the best way I know how to react is… Art.
That’s why I am an artist. I’m not an artist because it’s something to do. I’m not an artist because it’s something I’m just interested in, or a side hobby or even a job. I’m an artist because I can’t bring myself to do anything else. I’ve tried, trust me. But I’ve never quite been allowed to just be an ‘artist’ within this is industry. No to this industry I must be identified as a ‘Black Artist’ or a ‘BAME’ artist or an ‘Artist Of Colour’.
But I think that living as a Black working-class artist in the U.K. highlights some extra challenges that others don’t face. I personally find daily that I am constantly censoring myself to some degree to simply navigate conversation and negotiate this ‘arts world’ and although the arts have brought me some of my most amazing and iconic experiences in life, they have also brought me countless moments of blatant racism, prejudice, bullying and abuse. Some incidents that I’ve instantly held a light to and confronted but also many more moments that I have consciously chose to suppress. Moments where I’ve silenced my gut instincts and knee jerk reactions. I’ve literally gritted my teeth in order to simply… I guess… Progress.
But it’s taken this whole current Black Lives Matter movement for me to actually realise that, that way of my navigation and thinking hasn’t been progression at all. Not one bit and I’m honestly sorry to myself and others that it’s taken me this long to realise it.
In all honesty it was never the death of George Floyd in particular that impacted me the most as I’ve very sadly seen this type of racially fuelled brutality my entire life. To be honest it was the reaction that the arts industries, production companies, theatres and casting agents have had, that really infuriated me. Because they were all now posting #BlackLivesMatter posts far and wide across their social media platforms, specifically reaching out to Black artists and people of colour confessing how much they wanted to show their support.
I initially thought “Do you fuck, not really. You only care just enough to tick your little diversity and equality boxes more like” Something inside me caught fire. Something that I’ve been suppressing for far too long flared up and I just had to right there and then get it out. This didn’t manifest in my normal nicely package and presented kind of way but in a get it out into the universe right this second kind of way. So, I set up my phone camera and spoke into it freely, unfiltered and uncensored.
I spoke about some of the racist bullshit that I’ve experienced as a artist in this industry, and some ironically enough from these very same individuals, companies and organisations that I was now witnessing posting Black Lives Matter content all over their Twitter and Instagram feeds.
I spoke about how for nearly 18 years I’ve felt overlooked in this industry, how all I’ve ever wanted to do is be treated truly equally, based solely on the quality of my work. I spoke about how I’ve walked away from countless jobs and opportunities whenever I’ve seen or felt injustices, and how I wished others would do the same. I spoke about how I’ve always wanted to feel truly valued as an artist first and foremost regardless of the colour of my skin, and how I didn’t want to just be approached because I fit a certain hidden agenda or criteria.
That video alone sparked a tirade of conversations, some guilt fuelled direct messages and more positively a whole heap of people wanting to spark up a connection about instigating ‘change’… And there’s that word again. ‘Change’.
A part of me thought, ‘’Ahh nice, this is sweet’’ and then a bigger part of me thought ‘’Fuck. No. This bullshit, they’re only saying this because it’s currently trending and it’s at the forefront of their minds’’. So, I made another video, directly saying that this cannot be a trend, that this cannot fade away and that this sudden momentum cannot phase out once this BlackLivesMatter movement is over taken by something else.
So, I call out as a ‘black’ artist. To every artist, arts venue, director, production company, casting agency and entertainment company out there. I call out to all of you who are now saying you want to see change for Black artists within this industry, (and I’ve ‘screen shotted’ you all so don’t think I won’t repost that shit if I need to). I call out expressing that the time is now to make that change. The time is now to show the world that Black Lives really do Matter.
What would that change look like exactly, I hear you ask? Well, this is just my opinion and I can’t speak for the entire industry but I think it should start to look a little something like this:
Changes to the structures of your predominately white middle class councils. Changes to your Governing Boards. Changes to your Patrons and associates. Changes to your Staffing Teams and building Directors. Changes to your writers, your casting agents, your marketing teams and core staff.
Oh, and another thing to note for many establishments out there is that having one Black artist, or a handful of Black artists that you channel everything through is NOT the answer. The answer has to change from the top of the pyramid. The change has to come from putting qualified and professional black artists within those higher and more influential roles and positions. The change has to come from truly evening out the entire level of diversity within your workforce from the very top to very bottom. Finding balance and finding equality.
So, the reason I spoke out so much about the latest Black Lives Matter movement is because I’ve been utterly exhausted with seeing very little change happen within this industry for so many years.
I’m completely burnt out from years upon years of experiencing both subtle and blatant prejudice and racism within the arts.
So I say, if the time really is now, like all of those post on your social media suggests. Then please let’s now all stop talking about the ‘change’ because frankly it’s fucking boring and frustrating as fuck and let’s come together and put our creatively brilliant minds in action and let’s work together to make things happen.
Let’s make them happen for change.
Let’s make them happen for love.
Let’s make them happen for equality.
Let’s make them happen to show the world that Black Lives Truly Matter.
Words by Ryan Harston
Images by Ryan Harston, taken at Black Lives Matter demonstration in Doncaster on 07/06/2020.