Respect for the performer, regardless of race

January 4, 2017

The world and human consciousness have come a long way. While researching the social context behind the rise of Motown in the 1960s, I have learnt a great deal about the many artists, athletes and performers of minority ethnic backgrounds who were applauded on stage or in the field yet suffered from snobbery or prejudice in other contexts.

The Enforced Segregation Act was abolished in the US in the 1960s, but prejudices have remained stubborn worldwide. Remember the West Indian cricketers who had to be made “honorary whites” by the government of South Africa in the 1980s so they could play against the national side.

A 1990s clip shows a teenaged Tiger Woods openly discussed the discrimination he faced in golf. As recently as 2008, he had to endure a joke from an anchorman about lynching.

However, I believe it is fair to say that a respect for talent regardless of race, gender or class is finally taking hold. R&B, jazz and soul were long considered music to be enjoyed only by the black community. But this changed, in part due to the extraordinary music of Motown, which came to dominate the charts around the world from the 1960s onwards.

What the musicians of the 1950s and 1960s did have – compared with the singers and jazz artists of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s – was the support of the growing civil rights movement. They knew times were changing. They were also very much part of the movement.

“We represented a social environment that was changing,” Mary Wilson of The Supremes said in 2009. “The experience we had known being black was not being bona fide citizens, not being able to drink out of the same water fountains, playing to segregated audiences. When that started to fall away, and you saw that music was one of the components that was helping it fall away, that’s when it really felt like we were doing something significant.”

Berry Gordy’s visionary Motown really was one of the first that attacked the segregation of the music industry when its records began to sell in quantity outside the traditional black markets. The songs and dancing were simply too much fun for young white audiences, already beginning to look for ways to rebel against their parents, to resist.

So now, when we applaud young black men and women on stage we do so with an authentic pleasure engendered by a proper respect for talent where race is irrelevant.

There is no doubt in my mind that this makes the performance more honest for both singer and audience. When we recognise and praise all humanity, we are moving towards a future of greater peace and harmony.

Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions