How your favorite Berlin creative studio is sabotaging the progress towards a healthy, equal, and sustainable industry. (Photo: Tianna Strickland)

You are reading Thought Cue – a periodically published repository of thoughts on the young music bubble, made for those who consider themselves a part of it.
In this episode, Overthinker Mob creator Hubert Spangler follows up on our most recent story “Better Be Racist Than Neutral“.

My plan to get the story out there and rest my mind didn’t work out. The situation turned into a whole mess after that. In the past issue, I mention two figures from my past and present – both of whom are oppressive in their own impactful ways. I hide their identities because the piece isn’t intended to call them out, rather, I use them as examples of a reality which, as it seems from the overwhelming feedback, the majority are blind to. Both of these characters fear for their reputations and have subsequently taken action to defend them.

I won’t talk further about the last main character, the hard time he gave me during my upbringing still has an effect on me, but I’ll leave that one in the past. This story is about the other figure, who is a very representative case for what’s going wrong in the cultural industries. And that’s what I, and sadly all my peers of oppressed minorities will continue to deal with in the future.

This figure is the Boss of one of the currently most relevant and respected Berlin creative studios, I’ll call them “X Studio” from now on. They pop up everywhere in the hip Berlin-centered creative scene. Their client base includes big sportswear names such as Nike, Adidas and Puma, as well as high fashion giants like Vetements. Their portfolio spans auto industry campaigns for Porsche and Audi to work for the electronic music scene and mainstream artists. We regard them for their image as modern forward thinkers in culture and technology. Within the industry, they act as a link between the underground and the corporate world.

The last issue touches on an incident that happened mid-February, at the community radio station I co-run in Berlin. We had a special day of broadcasting, a collaboration where we hosted X Studio in our facilities to let them showcase the musical alter egos of some of their team. It was set to be a promising day. Spoiler: It wasn’t fun.

Their whole posse rocks up to our studio, it’s packed front to back. They get super drunk and drugged and TRASH the space. From early afternoon to midnight I try to keep things manageable without causing beef.

If I were a smoker I assume I’d ask before I smoke inside someone’s four walls – there is no way to overlook our numerous “no smoking” signs, yet people didn’t feel addressed by them. At one point I look up from my computer where I’m trying to maintain the broadcast, to see the boss handing out candles to everyone and lighting them – people look at me annoyed when I tell everyone “no candles” and that I’d be responsible if the complex burns down. Of course, it later turns out someone spilled candle-wax INTO the cue button of our 2000+ Euro CDJ (An essential button on the device the DJ uses to playback what’s on their USB). Someone later messages me to ask if they gotta clean the device or if they can offer me a guest list spot for their next party as compensation instead. For real?

Their boss constantly steps to the decks to disregard the volume limits that I set because of trouble with our neighbors.

I again bury my head into the computer to fix some technicals when I hear the boss, a white german guy yell “Turn that shit up, nigger!” through the room. Ouff.

None of these cool kids were gonna say anything. Still, some of them secretly look at me to see my reaction, but it was a bit too much to react at all. This situation is too complex to come up with what the hell to do on the spot. I’m trapped in a space between my dependence on these people and their utter disrespect.
For hours on end that Saturday, as part of this “collaboration” I pretty much worked my ass off for the good time that they had, yet they refused to regard me as a collaborator or even their host. After I unplugged the equipment and switched the lights on, they passive-aggressively left – without helping to clean up the mess they made, without saying thanks or even goodbye.

I again want to emphasise how speaking up is an immense risk for my career, that’s why I usually swallow the frustration. 
In the current cultural industry hierarchy, X Studio is part of the narrow tier that forms the link between what’s happening in the underground, and the higher establishment of Brands. Please read this incident as only an indicator of what black creatives will need to deal with when navigating their way through to where the money is.

“But I don’t consider myself racist” – I think you are problematic as hell, if you think you can use the n-word for fun without it reflecting any real inner beliefs – still, let’s work with your stance for the sake of the argument so you don’t close the tab and instead hear me out on the real problems. Compared to the real batch of problems, white people using the n-word is peanuts anyways.

Skipping forward: Right after publishing the last issue my phone rings with the boss’s name flashing up on my screen. I had to get myself into a headspace where I don’t let my career ambitions obscure the problem any longer, so I only picked up at his third attempt to reach out that day.

With the mindset I was in I didn’t make a particular effort to speak at all – he had to do the convincing. But any time I got a chance to interrupt his 30-minute monologue for a comment, he would interrupt me. Not convincing. There is a global discourse going on at the minute, which is about giving the oppressed a voice – so when you’re calling someone for your alibi-apology, consider listening to them? Try to learn from the other perspective – You can still disagree afterwards…

He trainwrecked his way through the call, deliberately trying to disorient me, trying to make me think I’m overreacting and trying to gaslight me into thinking I am misunderstanding the whole thing.

I’m trying to make this as easy to understand as possible, that’s why I’m formatting his sequence of fuck ups in bullet points (If I knew or could be asked to find out how to embed an excel spreadsheet I probably would, hehh). This is chronological with some exceptions for better clarity:

  • He opens the conversation saying he can’t remember anything, but has a feeling I might be talking about the night they were guests at the radio → apparently he can remember, yet why else would he feel addressed? Does it invalidate my experience if he says he can’t remember?
     
  • He emphasises he can’t remember yelling the word “nigger”, because he was drunk → yo, I don’t wanna imagine how it would be if every drunk person behaved this way… Only minutes later he explains he likes to casually “quote” the words “nigger” and “Kanake” (a german slur mostly used for Arab and Turkish people) because he grew up with Hip-Hop. Still, after insisting on not remembering using it in my presence.
     
  • Homie, we all grew up on Hip-Hop. And thankfully, by far not all of us behave that way. That’s a nope. Next thing you know white and established cats tell black people how to interpret Hip-Hop.

Now prepare for maximum trainwreck, the driver locked themselves out of the cockpit:

  • This guy honestly asks why I didn’t say anything when the incident occurred. It seems he didn’t even fully read the story that this whole conversation is about, but just wants to get this out of the way. There’s a whole paragraph talking about why speaking about a racist encounter and not being understood is often more traumatising than the encounter itself. Now, what would have come back if I spoke up against a drunken mob? There’s another paragraph elaborating on minorities having to keep their mouth shut to not risk their position on the market.
  • Two years ago, back when I was young and naive and was slowly feeling my way into this sphere, I find myself blown away in X Studio sitting at the boss’s desk, right next to him, discussing a project. He is trying to describe a vibe he’s opting for but is lacking the words. So he makes a “Hip-Hop gesture” with his hands and says “I want it to be like – Yo nigger” instead. He can’t say he was drunk this time. I remember speaking up the way he retrospectively hopes I would have in the last incident. I interrupt him and say “woouuuuh” and look at him with raised eyebrows. He says he didn’t mean it “that” way and continues speaking about the project. → he didn’t mean it “that” way? His response implies that he is well aware of the hurtful and disrespectful meaning of this word, but chooses to ignore it. 10 Seconds after saying it he probably forgot he used it. I didn’t – I had to work my way through to accepting that this is how ignorantly I’m gonna be treated in this industry.

If even the *cool avant-guardians* frictionlessly conduct themselves in that way, then it’s definitely gonna be the same with the companies that don’t make such an effort to profile themselves as progressive.

While I might handle this realisation well – for sad reasons like being numb after the small town Germany treatment, or positive reasons like my hunger to still push through to achieve my goals – other black homies might not. In fact, X Studio has been hired to give classes at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK). Imagine what impression a black Student would get about their future.

And that’s the first major problem here. The people “guarded off” from this sphere of cultural production, the sphere where the money and a chance at livelihood is at, will retract themselves back to the underground and do cultural production that’s actually truer to themselves than if they had a big client in their back. They will innovate. The underground is where innovation happens. Now people like X Studio, who get their inspiration off the streets will make significant money off these underdogs, since the position they’re in, or the tier, as I called it earlier, is the position that sells what’s cool on the streets to their clients. If we keep being as stubborn as X Studio proved to be when it comes to allowing change or education, we will never break the cycle and forever exploit the innovators we don’t allow in.

If you’re white and using the word “nigger” you’re likely too stubborn to allow people censoring your vocabulary so you prioritise your right to use the word over knowingly insulting and hurting people. You obviously will never fully understand the pain if you haven’t grown up black, but is the pleasure you take from that word really worth provoking that? And if you don’t know that it offends people, double ouff, is that not horrifically worse?

Should this easy conclusion not be an absolute basic when calling yourself progressive? How do we tackle bigger and deeper issues if we horrifically fail at these primitive basics?

X Studio’s boss says he won’t use that term anymore – but is it because he has really realised the issue or because he is fearing the consequences?

When during the phone call he notices that I don’t eat his shallow non-excuses he tries to end the conversation as quickly as possible to not talk himself into further trouble. He offers me to come to their Studio to talk things through, but how can he seriously expect me to rock up in this charged space with all his people there, to pick up my apology? He says we should do it via video chat on the day after tomorrow instead. More than a week passes without me hearing from him – that’s how serious the issue is after all. At this point I wanna mention that right after publishing the first story, several friends advised me to call his company out publicly and to e-mail their clients to make them aware of who they work with. But I keep retrapping, giving people more chances than they should get to prove they are good people. I take my time to try and educate them on eye level, but now I’m starting to wonder what for: I message him and try to make it as easy as I possibly can for him to understand the issue. I mention all the points above. He doesn’t understand. He asks me for my address because he wants to send me a letter. Damn. I don’t want to accept your apology just because you inflated its symbolic value. I don’t wanna feel guilty because you went through the lengths of writing a letter and accept your apology. Say what you gotta say, it’s about the words, not the medium. A day later he types out his message, prints it out, and sends me a photo of it. You couldn’t make that one up. I printed the photo of his letter out to have a physical copy of the letter and took a photo of it to have a photo of the letter I printed, look:

In the letter, he ignores my points and brings up the Hip-Hop argument again. He didn’t think it could hurt me, that’s why he said it. He understands why it “must have” felt offending but that’s not how he meant it. We are back at gaslighting: He apologizes for how it made me react. But this isn’t about me, nor my reaction, nor about oversensitivity on my end. It’s about the fuck up itself.
We are talking about a company that fails at the very basics of inclusivity and willingness to allow real change. In the last story, I clarify how I empathise with people that take a step in the right direction, whether it is a small or big step, tangible action, or superficial looking to outsiders. In the wake of the recent viral solidarity hype, X Studio quickly got their duty out the way and posted three black squares on their Instagram, saying “We stand for black lives and it breaks our hearts to see what has happened[…]” and “We also should all educate ourselves and become more and understand how deep structural racism has to be fought […][sic] ” One: Then Please don’t refuse to be educated, two: you’re not even ready to invest the time to proofread your inspiring words as a collective?

(I altered Niccole Thurman’s original tweet)

Let me start concluding this piece by putting this behavior in relation to the creative industry:
I repeat: This behavior facilitates inequality and profits from the people that it systemically keeps the money from. There are enough cooler and more progressive collectives and studios out there that deserve X Studio’s position, money, and attention.

What I find most alarming: It is dangerous to have the underground misrepresented the way they are doing it. While still not perfect – the underground is way advanced in terms of inclusivity and diversity. A bold example: If the Nike or Porsche executives get signaled that the streets are still cool with the word nigger being used, they will get a wrong impression of how developed things really are. Sadly equality isn’t lucrative yet, so if they don’t sense a pressure for change from below, they won’t leverage their power to make a real change. Subsequently, the tier of companies like X Studio is bottlenecking the development towards a healthy and sustainable scene.

The money is in the wrong hands with a company that lacks awareness of, and even disrespects the culture that it monetises.
Club culture is rooted in black suffering and escapism from white oppression. Now we have a company like X Studio getting hired to redesign the Berlin Club Comission’ visual identity. Now we have them getting hired for Resident Advisor’s and Telekom Electronic Beats’s club streaming projects or for ARTE’s United We Stream broadcasts.

I don’t claim to have the solution – but we’ll have to start fixing the industry one step at a time. 1) It only takes a quick swipe through a company’s Instagram to get a vague idea of how cool and balanced they are in the backend. 2) You other agencies now have the chance to prove you know better – or hopefully show your real face as well. 3) Nike & co could stop relying on the same old broken tier of mediators.
We should all go the extra mile to understand who we are giving our money to, our judgment will fail us more often in the future, but it’s time for the next layer of depth, the next level of woke, and we’re all gonna do great one day.

A note to X Studio: I still have hope it’s all gonna be cool and we’re gonna be vibing one day. I gave you many more chances than needed and am still more protective of your identity than I’m being suggested. If you still chose to take legal action against me, you’re gonna cancel yourself by proving you prioritise money over the sustainability and morality of your practice. Now that this issue is public, I’m giving you the opportunity and prompting you to take a public stance yourself.

Once again in these charged times I somehow managed to navigate through a big mess of thoughts and unsettled opinions. I’m blessed with the powerhouse of friends behind me. A special shout out to Erbz, Jazza, Maya, Nazza, Nizzo, and Rach for this one – ultimately, I’m really just aggregating your input and energy.

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