The Other Columbus: Booking Black History Month talent the right way

Ten tips to creating a smooth experience for everyone involved in the process

Scott Woods
Jerry McPherson, director of economic empowerment for the Phoenix Urban League, stands with others in front of the new Black History mural located on the west side of the Footprint Center in Phoenix on Feb. 1, 2022.

’Tis the season for Black History Month gigs!

It’s that time of year when Black performers, writers and artists get more emails than any other time of year combined. We work on our craft and hone our talents all year waiting for those February-only offers to come pouring in, so here are 10 easy things you can do to make the experience smooth for all parties concerned.

1. Tell us upfront if the gig pays

Don’t make things awkward out the gate. Many of us are used to working for free — we’ve been doing it for 400 years — but if you’re putting on a Black-centered event with a budget, and we’re not a part of it, we’d like to know that going in. Don’t make us the bad guy for asking for our value.

2. Pay us

If you have a Black History Month event and you’re not paying the actual Black people working the event, you’re… well, we used to have a word for that that we can’t teach in schools anymore. Rhymes with “knavery.”

3. Stop white supremacy

You can save a ton of money by defeating racism and making Black History Month moot. I can’t think of a Black person who wouldn’t prefer actual liberty over being asked to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for the 1,000th time.

4. Treat us like we know Barack Obama personally

Barry is unemployed now. He might make the trip if we call and tell him you’re over here at some gig acting up.

5. Ask a Black friend about the theme before you offer

Don’t mess around and make the news because somebody on the planning committee thought that having a slavery-era menu for the company’s Black History Month celebration was a good idea. Just because it’s February doesn’t mean we won’t be out in these winter streets protesting at your front door.

6. Try booking it in the evening

Black artists are largely forced to work day jobs because we only get these gigs one month out of the year. It’s harder for us to do it if we have to use time off from our regular, not-February-caring jobs to come perform.

7. Be open to changing the event if we think there’s a problem

We’ll probably take the gig, but if you don’t want us to advertise it or not talk bad about it and you afterwards, take our word on the problematic sing-along or Rosa Parks look-a-like contest.

8. Let us sell merchandise

This should be a gimme on any gig, but I’m going to say it louder for the organizers in the back who also don’t pay.

9. Tell us if a luminary will be present

If the mayor we’ve been railing about on social media for the past year is going to be there, let us know so we can opt out and not look like sellouts, or at least get “Who Voted For this Guy?!” out of the band’s setlist.

10. Do your homework about me

I have social media, YouTube videos, books and an actual website. Even a cursory glance should let you know that you probably shouldn’t ask me to come speak to your middle school class, even for Black History Month. Don’t ask us to come do something that we don’t do. We prefer to play to our strengths, even if the money is nice. We want you to succeed. Help us help you.