Finally Black women are finding their voice against abuse in the music industry | Michelle Kambasha

Some in the music industry were unsurprised when the allegations about the DJ Tim Westwood came to light last week. There had long been stories recounted by Black women of his alleged abuse of power – rumours that circulated among friends in Black nightlife and the music industry. An investigation by the BBC and the Guardian details the accounts of multiple Black women, some teenagers at the time – of alleged predatory behaviour and groping on the part of the veteran DJ. Some claim to have been groped at his shows, while others maintain that they were enticed to a flat on the promise of professional guidance, only to be abused.

In 2020, a Twitter account was created, named Surviving Tim Westwood and a hashtag of the same name started to trend. Then the account disappeared, perhaps due to Westwood’s legal team, as he has denied all the allegations. However it was also possibly indicative of a deep-seated truth: that Black women’s voices are often silenced. This is just one example of how misogynoir, the term used to describe misogyny specifically directed at Black women, may have aided and abetted Westwood in avoiding accountability until now.

Westwood was a deified figure within Black music – beloved by party-goers as well as industry gatekeepers. Many people, especially Black men, credit him with giving hip-hop and rap music that would otherwise have been relegated to the underground a mainstream platform. What is telling about that argument is how Westwood’s negligible influence in a culture that is far bigger than him is treated as more important than the allegations made by Black women. So, while the powerful, predominantly white, industry executives who continued to employ him as those allegations swirled should be held accountable, there is clearly an intraracial gender issue here, too – namely that Black women’s stories were diminished in order to justify Westwood’s standing in Black culture overall.

Colourism plays a part too. Beauty standards exalt lily-white or racially ambiguous women – so it may well have seemed impossible to many that a powerful man such as Westwood could desire these dark-skinned women. Perhaps it was the presumed undesirability of dark-skinned women that allowed him to allegedly pursue them in a covert manner, without alarm bells ringing. Meanwhile, the fetishisation and hypersexualisation of Black women flourished on his shows – as it does elsewhere in a culture in which the mere expression of our sexuality is seen as an invitation. In 2016, Cardi B was a guest on his YouTube channel, TimWestoodTV. When she asked “do you have sex with a lot of Black women?” he responded “not as much as I’d like to … but we could rectify that”.

While #MeToo and #Time’sUp felt like moments of real accountability for lecherous men, the movements felt whitewashed. Meanwhile Tarana Burke’s decades-long work with survivors of sexual abuse, during which she originated the phrase Me Too, went uncredited.

It’s difficult to tell whether there has been substantial change within the music industry. Despite confidential conversations among ourselves, women are still reluctant to speak out about the sexual inappropriateness they’ve faced, not only for fear of not being believed, but for their jobs. On the rare occasions that they do report their accounts, non-disclosure agreements can further silence them. This is what makes the recorded testimonies of these Black women so profound; the hope is that they will break through the wall of silence that protects alleged abusers within the music industry.

The limitations that #MeToo exposed potentially led to a better understanding of the complexity of issues that affect Black women – and it certainly feels as if there are more light-skinned and white people who want to be better allies. But it is imperative that women of all races and shades band together because the hypervisibility of dark-skinned Black women, of whom there are so few in public life, leaves them particularly exposed to racism and misogyny.

Black musicians are beginning to find their voice in tackling this. Recently the singer Ari Lennox was asked “is someone fucking you good right now?” by a South African radio broadcaster. She visibly recoiled and asked: “Why ask it in that way?” In the past, a Black woman might have felt the need to parry this kind of question the way Cardi B did with Westwood, but, by reacting in the way that she did, Lennox was able to set an example that our boundaries are to be respected.

Malcolm X once said: “The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman.” This is still applicable now, and beyond America. It’s promising that Westwood has stepped down from his slot at Capital Xtra until further notice, but there is still a long way to go. By “protect Black women”, we mean protect us all – not just the ones we’re taught to believe are deserving.

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