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ARIA Awards 2020: Sampa The Great Snub Reinforced Aussie Music's Diversity Issue. What Happens Now?

ARIA's CEO has said "we need to do better this year" after artists called out systemic racism.

For years local artists have called out systemic racism in Australia, including in the music industry.

Come Wednesday, the industry will unite (virtually) for the ARIA Awards, and in a year when racism and diversity have been at the forefront, the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) has promised it will “get better” and “improve”.

Last year rapper Sampa the Great (real name Sampa Tembo) became the first woman of colour to win the Best Hip Hop Release category for ‘Final Form’. However, her powerful acceptance speech about diversity and inclusivity was cut from the live television broadcast.

Sampa the Great
Supplied/Abdul Yusuf
Sampa the Great

The Melbourne-based artist, who was born in Zambia and raised in Botswana, said in her speech that “it’s really bittersweet that in 2019, I’m the first woman of colour to win in the hip hop category”.

“I really hope I’m not the last. I hope the change in this category pushes us to talk about how diverse Black music can be. I hope the Australian music industry starts to reflect how our community looks like.”

Sampa’s win came in the same year ARIA renamed the category from Best Urban Release to Best Hip Hop Release. Meanwhile Kaiit, a Gunditjmara and Torres Strait Islander woman, won the award for Best Soul/R&B Release.

The term “urban” has, in recent years, been criticised as an outdated and overgeneralised way to categorise music produced by Black artists. In a 2018 essay for The Guardian, British academic and author Kehinde Andrews wrote that the word “stands in for Black and comes with all the same stereotypes.”

While the ARIAs ditched the ‘urban’ category name, ARIA CEO Dan Rosen admitted the organisation could’ve highlighted this more, and shouldn’t have snubbed these diverse artists from the TV broadcast.

“We should have handled it better last year in acknowledging the important reforms we made to change that award and, in particular, acknowledge the historic wins by Sampa and Kaiit,” Rosen told The Music Network last month.

“I regret we didn’t take the opportunity to provide the national platform that those wins warranted and I apologise for that. We need to do better this year and will continue to improve as an organisation and how we best represent the diversity of our artists and our industry.”

ARIA CEO Dan Rosen speaks during a press conference in June 2020.
Matt Blyth via Getty Images
ARIA CEO Dan Rosen speaks during a press conference in June 2020.

After last year’s incident, Sampa called out music industry executives in her song, ‘Time’s Up’, featuring South Sudanese-born artist Krown.

“Blackface industry/Lying don’t invest in me/Only want the money off our backs/Like history,” she rapped.

She also shared a bold, unapologetic message about the ARIA Awards: “Fuck the dance/Fuck the list/Fuck the ARIAs”.

″‘Time’s Up’ is a track that was made to reflect a conversation between 2 young Black artists about the Australian music industry,” Sampa said in a statement shared with HuffPost Australia in July.

She referenced the ‘Blackout Tuesday’ dialogue that started following anti-racism protests triggered by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year.

“With the current atmosphere it’s an important time to address systemic racism within the music industry, especially as it slowly rebuilds,” she said. “Allyship should never be performative and as we continue past blackout day, all music orgs/labels should be put to task in bringing forward their initiatives for real change within their industry.”

Sampa is nominated for six ARIA awards in 2020 and will be performing on Wednesday from Botswana. It’s to be seen whether she’ll deliver a rendition of this track or make another statement addressing inclusivity.

Similarly A.B. Original, used their ARIA acceptance speeches in 2017 to address racism and diversity in the industry.

A.B. Original accept the ARIA for Best Urban during the 31st Annual ARIA Awards 2017 at The Star on November 28, 2017 in Sydney, Australia.
Scott Barbour via Getty Images
A.B. Original accept the ARIA for Best Urban during the 31st Annual ARIA Awards 2017 at The Star on November 28, 2017 in Sydney, Australia.

The Indigenous hip hop duo of rappers, Briggs and Trials won Best Independent Release and Best Urban Release for their album ‘Reclaim Australia’.

“Change doesn’t come from being comfortable, it comes from being extremely uncomfortable,” Briggs said on stage while accepting the Best Urban Release award.

“We made ourselves extremely uncomfortable trying to make this record…trying to upset those rednecks. They were vocal, but we just had the better album.”

When he made another appearance on stage later in the evening, he said, “The main point of this whole record was to spark an idea and change the expectation of what an Indigenous artist could be”.

“Because we weren’t saying we’ve gotta make it through the struggle; we said, we’ve made it, we’ve persisted, we’ve been here for 80,000 years.”

This year Sampa the Great and Briggs are nominated for Best Hip Hop Release, along with Baker Boy, The Kid Laroi and Illy.

Indigenous artist Archie Roach will be inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, while Jessica Mauboy, Christine Anu, Marcia Hines, Kate Ceberano and Dami Im are culturally diverse artists joining a string of other female musicians for a special Helen Reddy tribute performance.

“We know we need to continue to get better and to improve, and we’ll do that this year,” ARIA’s CEO said in his earlier interview.

On Wednesday, Australia will be watching.

The 2020 ARIA Awards will air on Wednesday November 25 at 7:30pm on Channel 9 and 9Now.

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