We often see Baltimore as a pin in a musician’s timeline—they were born here, performed here, lived and died here, or at least lived here for a time before moving up elsewhere. The list of artists with those connections to this city is impressive and bears repeating as often as we do: Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, Eubie Blake, Philip Glass, Tupac, Miss Tony, David Byrne. There’s also the future legends, the contemporary, younger artists like Abdu Ali and :3lon, and transplants like Dan Deacon, TT The Artist, Future Islands, and others. Of those contemporary artists and bands, many formed or grew as artists here, but few were actually born and raised here.
Likewise, few who are born and raised in Baltimore seem to find the same measure of commercial success as those who move here. The affordability of the city and its long-held reputation as an incubator for artists has attracted hundreds of us (including myself)—yet that accessibility is inextricable from the slow devastation of parts of this town, from racist housing policy and segregation, divestment from Black neighborhoods and businesses, a corrupt and unaccountable government, and so on. As J. Hunter of the band Lower Dens wrote for Pitchfork in 2015, it is far easier for white artists to make it in the music business than it is for Black artists: “Whatever benefits there are for non-black artists and musicians to live in and move to Baltimore are directly indebted to the majority black population of Baltimore. Our liberties come at the cost of theirs… I find the rent to be cheap here because I am white in an oppressed black city. The feelings of lawlessness and freedom exist for me because I am white in an oppressed black city.”
Along with these equity gaps, the local music scene also contends with racism, tokenism, and misogyny in overwhelming variety, like every arts scene everywhere. In his intro to City Paper’s 2015 cover story “Race and Music in Baltimore,” writer Lawrence Burney discussed how some people in this city’s music scene talked about that Pitchfork op-ed: “Hunter’s piece and [Abdu] Ali’s quotes were dismissed as ‘complaining’ or worse, which had the effect of proving Hunter’s point: Too often, white Baltimore is blissfully unaware of how it benefits from white supremacy and won’t accept it no matter how cogently and sensitively the information is presented.”
Though the pieces of writing I mention are both from five years ago, these conversations about privilege and access in the local art scene still ring true and still continue—we have not done enough to correct it. The pandemic shutdown has only made such equity gaps more glaringly obvious across every city and industry. The ongoing national uprisings against the virulent, antiblack violence by police and other racist institutions has pushed it all to a head, prompting us to ask, among other things, What do we do right now, to support Black artists especially right now?
Musicians who already survive precariously have lost gigs due to Covid-19 cancellations and have had to figure out how to hustle through a pandemic. Some have gotten into online performances, others dug into their art at home or used their music to fundraise for important causes, and a few have resisted the push for productivity entirely during this period of isolation. Streaming platforms like Spotify pay artists fractions of a penny per play, but Bandcamp has recently started waiving its revenue share for a whole day about once a month so that 100 percent of every sale goes right back to the artists. So how can we support musicians right now? The next Bandcamp Friday is June 19. Read on for more ideas.
This edition of Quarantine Diaries focuses on musicians—many of whom have recently put out new music and projects—and their ways of coping, protesting, and creating right now. (RK)