Three-D Issue 17: Report on first Race Network conference

Sarita Malik
Brunel University

September saw the first event co-organised by the MeCCSA Race Network. In a conscious effort to bring together academics, researchers and practitioners, this event was focused on questions of race and the cultural industries. The debates drew from cultural studies, anthropology, media studies and sociology.

Held at the Institute of Communications at the University of Leeds the conference attracted a healthy range of delegates. The aim, as Anamik Saha from the Media Industries Research Centre (University of Leeds) stated, was “to go beyond policy debates and think more critically about the cultural industries, and the post-colonial formations and cultural politics of ‘race’ in the West”.

The sessions were structured as panels with an opening keynote by playwright Tanika Gupta MBE. In her professional career, Gupta has interfaced with a broad range of cultural and arts organizations and knows better than most how cultural politics and expectations can both limit and open up opportunities for minority artists. Whilst Gupta has avoided becoming an advocate for cultural diversity initiatives, she also acknowledges that culturally specific avenues such as the BBC’s Black Screen in the 1990s (with which she was involved) can help those otherwise denied access to mainstream spaces. Her paper touched on a range of issues and problems, from funding to journalistic reviews to cultural policy. Gupta spoke of persistent “blocking” by the media for those artists that seek to do something different to mainstream expectations. At the same time, she suggested that, “the establishment knows it is failing” with regards to diversity.

The first panel was themed around race and creative work and included research papers on post civil-rights Hollywood (Eithne Quinn), ethnic minority entrepreneurs (Annelies Thoelen & Patrizia Zanoni (Hasselt University) and British jazz (Mark Banks and Jason Toynbee (Open University)). Marks and Toynbee position British jazz within the context of the history of urban creativity and its interface with policy frameworks and developments in popular culture; for example, the “irresistible rise of black popular music” in the 1980s and how this particular discourse of black Britishness was taken up by the Cultural Industries. They argue that their current research project suggests a need to historicise and racialise our understandings of urban creativity.

The subsequent panel focused on race and cultural production with each paper, in its own way, addressing the connections between the sociology of race and cultural production. Topics were as diverse as the relationship between public service broadcasting and cultural diversity policy (Sarita Malik, Brunel University), race and the global audio spectator (Keir Keightley, University of Western Ontario) and the intersections of privilege and disadvantage in public relations (Lee Edwards, University of Leeds). Ash Sharma (University of East London) and Sanjay Sharma (Brunel University) proposed that debates around race and the media need to address the new conditions of cultural production. Their open-access online journal, darkmatter, highlights how new forms of postcolonial critique are possible in a knowledge economy. They charted some of the tensions in producing value in a moment where we are seeing what they term, the “crisis of the overproduction of academic knowledge”.

Many of the papers up to this point had been more concerned with extra-textual concerns, so the final panel was directly focussed on questions of representation. Rinella Cere (Sheffield Hallam University) presented on the context of the ‘war on terror’ decade and the national media’s simplification of ‘radicalisation’. Julie Firmstone presented her research findings on the relationship on representations of Muslims in the press.

One of the recurring themes during the conference was around the complexities of real lived experiences for ethnic minority cultural practitioners or employees in cultural organisations, be it in theatre, public relations, radio or music. The experience is often marked by a duality of opportunities and limitations, frequently hinged around the various cultural endeavours and commercial imperatives (or indeed cultural imperatives and commercial endeavours) framing the Cultural Industries.

The closing keynote from Mykaell Riley (University of Westminster) spoke of what he termed, “the invisible system”; the unseen rule of where you do and do not get access. Riley should know; his long career has spanned the music, television, film and theatre industries. Riley charted his experience from being a vocalist in the roots reggae band, Steel Pulse, in the 1970s when “by default, you were politicised” to his recent work seeking to record and document the significant role that black British music has played in British popular music.

Although various papers through the course of the day acknowledged the contemporary cultural-political structures affecting how ‘race’, ethnicity and cultural identity are managed and represented by the cultural industries, future interventions could further critically interrogate some of the political implications and wider cultural politics involved here.

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