Mary Lucia: talking with Derrick Stevens about race and music

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Derrick Stevens, The Current's Production Manager, joins Mary Lucia for this week's video chat. (Luke Taylor | MPR)

Derrick Stevens, The Current's Production Manager, joins Mary Lucia to talk about a recent event he participated in entitled, "A Candid Conversation on Race and Music." The event focused on music and race in Minnesota and in the wider music and entertainment industries.

Here is Mary and Derrick's conversation:

MARY LUCIA: Hey guys, it's Looch. I want to talk to my friend, Derrick Stevens, who's the production manager here at The Current. D! You were involved in an event that happened last week that I wish so much that I could have been to, but it was A Candid Conversation on Race and Music. Now, I'm sure you had ideas before you went into this as to what you hoped to get out of it. Just give me a little background about what your intentions were putting together an event like that.

DERRICK STEVENS: Well, what we wanted to do was, basically, as it states, we wanted to have an open conversation about race and music in this city in particular, and we wanted to talk about how black people, how communities of color, can have more access to spaces, to venues. So we had promoters on the panel, we had singers on the panel, we had a professor on the panel, so everyone had something that they could bring to the conversation. So we just wanted to basically have a conversation where people felt the space was comforting enough where they could be honest with what we have to go through as black artists in this town.

MARY: And even that's a big enough of a topic — artists and music and race — but at this time in this place in this world, people are hurt. People are feeling useless in some ways, and helpless. Was there a sense of that along with that dialogue?

DERRICK: I think there was a sense of that, but we were trying to figure out what we could do to make this situation better, and not just harp on what the issues are, but how we can come together collectively to take care of these issues, and to move these issues forward. So yeah, we did have somewhat of that conversation where it's like, "Look, you know, we're looking at the injustices in the criminal justice system; we're looking at black me being shot and killed by police officers and no one being held accountable," so we could have taken the conversation here and there. Luckily, we had a great moderator in Pete Rhodes to kind of keep things focused, so we mainly talked about the music business, the promotional side of equity in town and things like that, so we kind of kept it more focused in on the music and the entertainment culture in the city.

MARY: Was there any one brainstorm or really good idea that came out of this that you thought, "Wow! That I'd not thought of."

DERRICK: Nothing in particular that comes to mind. There were a lot of conversations about how can artists of color get more exposure on the air, how can they get more exposure in the club scene. One thing that did come out of that was maybe having a showcase where artists of color can be showcased. Because right now, they feel like there's a competition between artists of color in this town, where if you're a black artist female, then you kind of get put into a category, and it doesn't matter what genre of music that you're performing, "You're a black female, so we can utilize you for this, or we can utilize you for this." And I think it's where they want to be not just utilized when the time calls for it because you need a black artist, but they want to be able to have their music and their art out there on a regular basis, you know?

MARY: Well, in the history of music, there's always the organic phenomenon of crossover, and it happens — I don't know sometimes how consciously it happens, whether it be the clubs or radio airplay or a combination of those things — but it does happen. And how do you explain it?

DERRICK: When you think of crossover music, I think about maybe 15 years ago, when all of the crossover-slash-pop-music was hip hop. That was the music that was crossing over. Now, we're in a different place within the market.

MARY: Have we gone backward?

DERRICK: I think we have, unfortunately. I really think we have. And that's really sad, because you look at what hip hop was doing in the mid- to late-90s, and it was exposing hip hop to a mainstream culture and people were gravitating more toward R&B music. I think R&B is still a very popular form of music, it's just the artists — it's one thing to say, "I like this artist"; it's another thing to actually go out there and support the artists when they come to town, or to be in a setting where you feel like you can put a rock crowd with a hip hop crowd and it'll still be able to work.

MARY: With technology being what it is, something like this probably can never happen again, but back in the late '50s, Buddy Holly started sending his tape and his demos to all different clubs and radio stations. He got tons of radio airplay and got booked at the Apollo Theatre; they showed up, and the owner was like, "You're white???" And was horrified, was like, "Wha-?" And they played. And they were the first white band to play the Apollo, but it was one of those things where again, there was something of a colorblindness at that time, certainly; it was, "I just like your sound," and it wasn't really an issue: "Are you white? Are you black? What are you?" But now, it's interesting because we both work in radio, and I know people ask very pointed questions to you directly, like, "Derrick, what's going on at The Current?" or "Why aren't you playing more of this?" What do you answer?

DERRICK: You know, I try to explain to people that we are a Triple-A station [an industry term denoting "Adult Album Alternative"], so that means that there's a core type of music that we are going to play, because it's our identity, it's our DNA. However, we do dabble in this and dabble in that, and there's a lot of stations if you're Triple-A, you're not going to hear any hip hop on that station. You're not going to hear Atmosphere or the Roots or … you know what I'm saying? So I think we have opened it up a little bit, which is good, but unfortunately I think there's still so much music that just doesn't get heard. You can't blame it on one particular station or one genre of music that's taken over another genre. I think it's just people's tastes, but I think when people come to The Current, they know that we're a Triple-A station, so that's what they're looking to hear, and then anything else that we can introduce our audience to, I think that's a plus on our side.

MARY: So after the event ended, did you guys all have the thought in mind, "So where do we take this dialogue further?"

DERRICK: Yeah! I mean, it was great to have the one conversation, but at the end of it, we felt like, "This is just the beginning; this is just one conversation, and we have to have many of these conversations in order to take this platform further than where it is now." So I think in the future, if MPR — which they, thank God, decided they were going to get behind this particular conversation — I'm hoping that they're willing to take steps like this in the future so that we can continue this dialogue because it's definitely something that we need to continue to talk about.

MARY: I hear you. All right — that's Derrick Stevens, he's my friend.

DERRICK: She's my friend, too.

MARY: Stay hungry.

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