The music industry and vaccine apartheid

Music’s ingratiating moral mask has withered, revealing a disfigured face whose true ethical philosophy is, as Lauryn Hill once noted, “paper thin.”

Photo by Sam Moqadam on Unsplash

Cabo Verde has one of the highest per capita coronavirus infection rates in Africa. A combination of vaccines from Covax, China, and Hungary— “to avoid new waves of migration”—has supplied roughly 250,000 doses, enough to immunize about one-fifth of the total population. A better situation than many African countries, but still nowhere near enough for an economy reliant on the outside world.

Two artists from the islands, both acts at our record label, have revealed their frustration at the vaccine divide. One is a member of the diaspora, a European citizen, and has access to a vaccine shortly. The other, a former soldier with FARP, the armed wing of Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau’s independence movement, turned Coladeira guitarist, will have to wait before vaccines reach his small town of São Domingos.

While both lament the lack of action by African governments and the inequality of vaccine provision within Cabo Verde itself, Pascoal, the ex-soldier, vents that “developed countries can acquire the quantities of vaccines they want, wherever they need, and as for poor countries, they can only have the quantities offered to them.” Tony, of the diaspora, mourns that “Africa will only be vaccinated when the West is finished” and believes the music business has a “moral duty” to protect all those it employs. Global vaccine equity should be considered as important as the notes on their guitars. But that isn’t the case.

It should strike anyone as curious and shameful that the music industry, especially the so-called “world music” industry—now rebranded by the Grammys as “global music”—has not uttered a collective word of protest to the immense vaccine apartheid facing the planet. A tiny minority of rich, primarily Western countries, have hoarded doses exceeding their populations, blocked the ability of the global South, lush with vaccine facilities and brilliant scientific minds, to produce generics via temporary patent waivers at the World Trade Organization, and even disallowed African countries from innovating new vaccines.

A Western-dominated “world music” business is often governed, via unresolved historical guilt, by ethical rules written in the metropoles of the global North. Yet these ethics, like the Western liberal ideology that underwrites them, have proven to be what Conor Cruise O’Brien concluded was “an ingratiating moral mask that a toughly acquisitive society wears” because we hear of 50-50 profit splits between labels and artists, yet we hear nothing of the 87% to -0.2% split of vaccine coverage between the global North and South.

Vaccine apartheid is at worst a crime against humanity and, at best, monumentally idiotic. Even Western vaccines with their meticulous public relations will be rendered useless by “mutant variants”, set to emerge relentlessly unless vaccines are widely available. For the music industry, it is also self-defeating. How are your favorite African, Latin American, and Asian acts going to tour European and North American shores, especially with vaccine passports becoming a reality? With pitiful returns from digital streams, tours are paramount for survival and they require vaccine equity. Yet there is no outcry.

The music industry has even been a diligent participant in concealing vaccine apartheid. VaxLive, a fundraising concert by Global Citizen, a corporate public relations group, lavished a stage with international pop’s stars channeling messages of equitable vaccine distribution. Not once did the initiative, its sponsors, or its artists mention the true reason for vaccine apartheid: the imperial monopoly of intellectual property governing life saving pharmaceuticals. All funds raised will go to Covax, a classic conscious-clearing Western charity initiative meant to give crumbs with one hand to hide the greater theft taking place with the other.

Aid concerts for famine-ridden Ethiopia in the 1980s played the same role—a nauseating soundtrack of ethical goodwill that obscured deliberate Western trade and austerity policies that vanquished food sovereignty in large parts of the South. Many surely have strong feelings about vaccine apartheid and abhor its reality, yet the inability to articulate this, the lack of fervor or anger that would inspire action, is the result of three realities that plague the “world music” business.

The first is, as mentioned, a faux ethical discourse which serves as a competitive tool to morally outdo competitors, especially those from the South who operate on an entirely different set of ethics not dictated by morality makers in Toronto, London, or Berlin. Consider the African response to the patronizing Band Aid 30 concert by Bob Geldof meant to combat the Ebola crisis.

The second emerges from a systematic erasure of the history and political thought that gave rise to the most powerful music from the global South, now a staple of dance floors worldwide. Never before has so much music, both contemporary and historic, from the South been available to a global audience.

For such a glut of music from former colonies to enter the global imagination but not radically transform the politics of its producers or listeners should be inconceivable. Independence era movements, their worldview, their economics, the role of Western financial power, of debt, of structural adjustment programs, and WTO rulings have vacated the context. All we’re left with are cheap tourist thrills; Black and Brown faces serving warm sounds to frozen climates.

You cannot separate the historic music of, say, the Caribbean from the politics of Aimé Césaire and Marcus Garvey; of West Africa from the philosophies of Thomas Sankara and Cheikh Anta Diop; of Indonesia from the vision of the Bandung Conference. How could anybody absorb these sounds, revere these artists, even yearn to visit the countries that produced such sophistication without developing a deep empathy for the frustrations, visions, and hopes of these societies? These independence-era politics, and the thinkers behind them, would have preached the crucial necessity of medical sovereignty above all.

This erasure unknowingly follows the apartheid South African game plan. The book Guerilla Radios in Southern Africa reveals that the apartheid regime depoliticized, or sanitized, South African music to “placate the African” and dampen the resistance—a curious precursor to the depoliticization of music, particularly hip-hop, by corporate labels, a trend that has disappointingly trickled down to independent outfits.

Some decision makers in music don’t want to “get political” because they fear it may alienate their centrist Western market who, they argue, would prefer to have their music served without the murmurs or cries of the colonized. More groovy basslines, less critical canon.

Vaccine apartheid is not a political issue. It is not up for debate. It is not a for or against vote. This is a matter of human decency. There is no apartheid where there are valid arguments on both sides. Believing so is the hallmark of supremacist thinking. A fear to alienate fans and customers at the expense of the lives of the artists and their families could be mistaken for pragmatic neutrality. Neutrality in such instances is rank colonial cowardice.

The third glaring issue is a lack of diversity at the very top of the music business; an enduring whiteness that struggles to find any real attachment to peoples of the South. Few from the gated North can hope to generate a modicum of empathy towards one million dead in India or the fragile health system of Africa’s fourth most populous country, a music powerhouse, stretched to the brink. The same thinking lies behind the shifting news coverage of the pandemic from one of dignified decency when hospitals overflowed in Italy to depraved pandemic porn when tragedy struck India.

It is easy to ignore when you cannot understand, at the very core of your soul, that vaccine apartheid during the worst crisis of our lifetimes, is not only history repeating itself, but also generous rubbing of salt and lime in the festering wounds of a world so thoroughly stereotyped, marginalized, and exoticized that its peoples’ lives do not command enough value to fuel necessary rage.

Music companies, big and small, have giant social media followings that could stir real, vital, tangible public action by inspiring a movement to end the heartlessness of Western rejections of patent waivers for vaccines, therapeutics, and medical technology. Industry leaders in the UK said it themselves when it came to climate change. “The music industry has the opportunity to lead here,” said a spokesman for the green movement, completely oblivious to the power the industry would have to challenge vaccine apartheid.

Rallying for climate change is commendable, if the playbook was not obvious to us in the South. It’s no coincidence that environmental and vegan movements in the West arose alongside the growth of African and Asian middle classes. As former colonies began driving more cars, eating more meat, and generally consuming more, still nowhere near Western levels, an entire ethical discourse was devised as yet another ingratiating mask that acted as a competitive marketing tool. As the Western music industry sets environmental standards, how are its counterparts in the South, at a different stage of economic development because of Western rapacity, meant to compete? Making noise about the environment when the most immediate pressing challenge is vaccine apartheid is simply posturing.

Indeed to recognize and speak out against vaccine apartheid would confer equality on the peoples of a global South, overturning a relationship which elevates the producer from the global North to a position of authority and relevance. It would confer a value on Black and  Brown life, blurring any distinctions that equally elevate and infantilize. A lack of vaccine access only further empowers everyone from the global North. The settler and the native; the journalist and the fixer; the inoculated and the diseased.

A silence is perhaps in the industry’s best long-term interest. Nevermind that many paraded #BlackLivesMatter only for indifference to set in when nearly one billion Black African lives are at stake.

Perhaps vaccine apartheid, like passport apartheid, will only be recognized when Westerners realize that their summer concerts and autumn festivals will not feature so many of the Black and Brown artists they love. Record labels wrote their representatives only when tours and concerts were threatened, coming to the laughably belated realization of the inequity of citizenship. A similar approach might arise when the entitlement of Western leisure is once again under threat.

Elements of the same intellectual property regime that govern the monopoly rights to life- saving pharmaceuticals also govern contracts in the music industry. They also govern the rights of film, which is why Hollywood rallied behind the pharmaceutical industry. A temporary patent waiver would not threaten lucrative deals in any entertainment business. We’re told that the altar of intellectual property, codified at the WTO to impose on the world the dominant IP regimes of the US and Europe, is at stake for many of the world’s most powerful industries. The fear is absurd and irrelevant. Intellectual property in music does not determine the life and death of hundreds of millions and the future of normalcy.

Music is not the only global business that relies on Southern talent shamefully silent about vaccine apartheid. Football underwent a convulsion during a proposal that would have permanently deformed the world’s most beloved sport. Fans marched in the streets and some of the most powerful institutions, like J.P. Morgan, not only buckled, but apologized. If such energy attacked vaccine apartheid, patents would be waived tomorrow and Pfizer’s CEO would be forced to make a statement. The music industry can make this happen.

There has never been a time in history when the music business has worked so closely with artists in Africa and Asia. African music in particular has a larger global audience than ever before. More artists are drawing from Africa, more labels are signing African artists, and more music interest is focused on the global South, whose sounds are finally challenging the humdrum of mainstream Western pop in the global imagination.

For the music business to remain obtuse, willfully silent, or even unwilling to participate, one can only recall the memorable frustration of iconic Ivorian footballer Didier Drogba (whose country via Covax received only 500,000 vaccines, enough for two percent of its people): “It’s a fucking disgrace!”

Nobody gets to profess any sort of love for Black and Brown music or project any ethical narrative without having the common decency to fight for Black and Brown life. Perhaps future albums should come with a new warning sign: “Remained silent about vaccine apartheid during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Music’s ingratiating moral mask has withered, revealing a disfigured face whose true ethical philosophy is, as Lauryn Hill once noted, “paper thin.”

Further Reading