Black roadies are still being kept from music’s biggest stages

Racism in the music industry goes beyond award shows and the C-suite.

Musician Jon Batiste stands near roadie Chris Patterson.
Jenn Rothenstein
Originally Published: 

“Once a tour hits a certain point in popularity, the tendency is to have all-white crews — even to the point there are some acts who started with a Black crew, but as they got bigger, their crews became white crews.”- Bill Reeves, co-founder of Roadies of Color United

A solution can sometimes reveal a problem. In October 2020, Live Nation Urban launched the Black Tour Directory, an online industry database of Black touring professionals and Black-owned live event companies. It was part of an effort to rectify one of the music industry’s longest-running dirty secrets: racial inequality in the touring circuit. For decades, the systemic racism of the music industry — the same industry which didn’t have a single Black woman head a major record label until 1994, and has only awarded two Black artists with the Grammys’ Album of the Year award in the last 25 years — has created a culture where white touring professionals are disproportionately given more opportunities on the biggest tours than Black people who are equally qualified. The excuse from white employers revolved around not knowing any Black people who could assume the roles they needed — asinine reasoning that the Black Tour Directory aims to abolish.

At any live show, the average fan will probably notice nothing more than the artist performing, but dozens of roles need to be filled for any tour to be successful. A tour needs a tour manager to oversee every aspect of the tour, front of house engineers to balance the sound levels, a production manager to get the right people to handle everything from lighting to transporting any gear, and that’s just a small fraction of the average tour. A touring operation is so varied that any inability to fill at least a few of those roles with qualified Black touring professionals is inexplicable to the point of inexcusable.

This backward mentality has led to Black people being largely left out of some of the biggest shows of all time. “On Prince’s Purple Rain tour, I believe I was the only Black guy on the crew, and it was a huge crew. There may have been one other person,” Bill Reeves tells Mic. “The crews going out with primarily pop acts at the time were primarily white guys.”

Bill Reeves, co-founder of Roadies of Color United

Kevin Dietsch

Reeves is a walking testament to the greatness Black touring professionals have brought to the music industry. His career spans five decades and includes coordinating the production of a Purple Rain tour that filled arenas in the 1980s, being tour and production manager on Puff Daddy & The Family’s No Way Out tour in 1997, designing the set for D’Angelo’s Voodoo World Tour in 2000, and sidestepping Lauryn Hill’s reputed lateness into memorable shows in 2012.

Yet, he admits most of his work has been for Black artists. He has rarely been brought on pop tours, which are reliably the highest-grossing tours each year — and he’s not alone. Ron Byrd has helped create illusions on stage for New Edition’s Fantasy Tour in the 1980s, ensured the success of Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life tour by hiring security and Fruit of Islam members to ensure no violent incidents occurred on the entire tour, and helped establish Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment’s touring culture when Lamar opened for Kanye West on the Yeezus tour in 2013. He knows nearly every Black touring professional there is to know, and has seen firsthand​​ how skilled Black people can be rendered invisible to even Black artists.

“I’ve been on Black tours where there have been all white people on the tour. I’d be like, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’” Byrd says. “It’s not about prejudice — it’s pure economics. I know for every person from the sound man to the light man to the monitor engineer to the stage manager, there are Black guys who do that exact same thing that are sitting at home and not getting a check.”

Touring professional Ron Byrd, on set before a show.

Kwame Decuir

Byrd remembers the 1980s when rock artists were almost weekly fixtures at the biggest arenas, with bands like KISS and Motley Crew dominating the road. He also remembers the tour managers and companies behind those rock tours not working with hip-hop acts. “I can name companies right now I don’t fuck with,” he says, “because back in the day they don’t want to do rap.” At the time, rock and pop acts had been touring stadiums for decades and their crews had all the relationships with the biggest venues; hip-hop didn’t have that rapport until later, as it was still a burgeoning music genre in the early 1980s. That lack of support made it difficult for hip-hop acts to tour arenas and stadiums, an obstacle that became insurmountable in the 1990s when Byrd says that hip-hop acts were effectively banned from arenas because building owners and promoters weren’t used to the raucous energy of the shows. Rap legend Too $hort had a similar recollection of the time, telling REVOLT how a number of violent outbursts at rap shows unjustly “prompted the arenas, and the insurance companies to make it almost impossible for a promoter to bring a big rap show to a stadium.”

Outside of robbing rap fans and artists of the grandeur of stadium performances, the lack of support also prevented an untold number of Black touring professionals on those shows from gaining the experience of running stadium and arena tours. As a result, white workers monopolized the major tour experience that garners trust from A-list artists. This led to decades of white managers of artists and white promoters hiring white workers while Black touring professionals were kept from those positions — a vicious cycle that created an industry-wide perception of white people as synonymous with high-level touring, and Black people relegated to smaller tours with Black artists.

Sadly, some Black artists adhered to these racist norms as well. “There are Black artists who still believe white is right. They may not have the mentality to understand the industry, but the person who signed them is probably white. They probably think logistics and things like touring are best-taken care of by white people, and because of that, Black artists have white teams on the road,” Christopher Patterson tells Mic.

Touring professional Christopher Patterson.

Ariel Nava Photography

Patterson is the founder of the touring management company The Big Fantastic and a leader in the new generation of Black touring professionals. He’s worked on live tours for Jidenna, Anderson Paak, Ari Lennox, DeAnte Hitchcock, and Janelle Monae over the last five years, while also successfully pivoting to producing virtual concerts during the pandemic for artists like 6lack. He’s coordinated a 20-piece band for a live taping of a Jon Batiste performance at Austin City Limits, and helped an eight-piece band prepare for a Rapsody set quicker than it’d take you to finish an episode of Squid Game. Even with that resume, some white people have only seen the Black man in front of them.

“I’ll be on email with the venue staff but when I walk into the venue, they don’t expect to see me. They see the big Black guy and think, ‘Oh, he must be security. Who are you with? Are you with one of the openers? Are you security?’ No, nigga, I’m the guy you’ve been emailing for the past six weeks,’” Patterson explains.

Touring while Black often means touring with your Blackness instead of touring as a Black person — meaning that instead of simply worrying about putting on a good show, you also have to constantly reaffirm to white crew members that your Blackness doesn’t dictate your role on tour. Tina Farris has more than 20 years of touring experience under her belt, doing everything from setting up Questlove’s drum kit while touring with The Roots in 1999, to fixing a scheduling mixup with the Black Eyed Peas’ pilot at the last minute to get the band out of Mexico City in time as their tour manager in 2010, to assisting Solange in crafting a performance at the Venice Biennale in 2019. Touring while Black is challenging, but touring as a Black woman adds an extra layer of stereotypes.

Touring professional Tina Farris walks with comedian Chris Rock at a concert venue.

“The issues that will be thrown at me are: ‘Oh yeah, you’re a woman. They’re going to question you before you go backstage because they won’t believe you’re the tour manager,” Farris tells Mic. “‘Oh yeah, you’re a Black woman, so you should show up to the security meetings so everybody knows who the boss is.’ There are things I put into place so it makes my job easier.”

As with the chitlin circuit, a network of venues that allowed Black people to perform during the segregation era of the 1960s, Black touring professionals have had to look out for one another . Patterson was able to be the tour manager of Anderson .Paak’s Andy’s Beach Club tour because Farris called him personally to offer the role. The first time Farris learned the technical ins and outs of a major tour was after Reeves brought her along on D’Angelo’s Voodoo World Tour in 2000. If Parliament and Funkadelic were going on tour and needed a backline tech, Byrd remembers stage manager Greg Black making sure he tapped into the plethora of Black touring professionals in his network. Survival in touring has always been predicated on community, an immutable fact that has permeated every facet of the African American experience since slavery.

“We only had a small circle of jobs because we didn’t have the rock world available to us. But we held onto the R&B world and what became the hip-hop world,” Byrd says.

Years before Live Nation Urban created the Black Tour Directory, these personal networks turned into organizations. Reeves co-founded Roadies of Color United (ROCU) with touring maverick K.C. Jackson in 2009 after the pair, as Reeves explained, “noticed there was a lack of diversity and inclusion” in the touring business. ROCU is a social network for touring professionals of color to connect with one another. Fitz and the Tantrums’ singer Noelle Scaggs launched her Diversify The Stage initiative in 2020 to inspire more inclusion for BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled persons in the multi-billion dollar touring industry. Black Promoters Collective, a coalition of six of the nation’s top independent concert promotion and event production companies, aims to do much of the same.

Touring professional Tina Farris stands near musician Robert Glasper.

Sean Hopkins

In an industry where the two largest concert promoters — Live Nation and AEG — have no Black executives on their senior management teams, according to The University of Southern California (USC)’s Annenberg Institute, these efforts and Live Nation Urban’s Black Tour Directory are essential in shattering decades-old barriers. But, the really impactful work will always be on the interpersonal level with Black touring professionals seeking out others to offer opportunities. When Farris sees a Black person running around a tour, she instinctively goes over to find out what their role is and offers to take them out to dinner to build a professional bond. This is how Ravi Shelton was able to learn under Farris, and later become Drake and Cardi B’s tour manager. Touring while Black doesn’t have to mean touring while overlooked. It can mean touring while empowered, as long as Black artists and touring professionals alike stay united, whether the white-washed music industry wakes up or not.

“I like fucking with us. I know we want to get all of these awards and go to all these Billboard things and, little do we know, we’re helping white people think they are inclusive. I’m over that,” Farris says. “Ava Duvernay said, ‘I’m not going to continue knocking on that old door that doesn't open for me. I'm going to create my own door and walk through that.’”