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February 15, 2024

Tech diversity: another path, through the arts

The arts—particularly visual arts and music—can widen the path to a technology career for Black students, bringing needed diversity to the technology world.

The theme for Black History Month this year is African Americans and the arts. At first glance, the focus on Black artists’ contributions to the visual and performing arts, literature, fashion, folklore, language, music and film could seem far afield from the concerns of the technology industry—and from anyone striving for a more diverse technology talent pool.

But in actuality, the two areas of human endeavor are not as unrelated as they might seem. In fact, even with the relatively low representation of Black professionals in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, examples abound of individuals of color who have delivered technological innovations that have influenced the performing arts, especially music, film and the visual arts. 

It's vital for people in underrepresented groups to also make this connection. If they understood a career in the arts does not close out pathways to a career in technology—or vice-versa—they could realize entirely new opportunities and bring a rich diversity of new ideas and accomplishments to the increasingly tech-driven world.

Intersection of arts and technology

From the performing arts, to fashion, music and culinary worlds, African American artists have set the standard for popular trends around the world. In fact, in a Pew Research survey, professional sports and music were far and away the top industries named when Black adults in the US were asked which sectors saw the highest levels of success for Black professionals.

The survey saw a steep drop-off, however, when it came to other professions. While over 80% named professional sports and music, just half that number named STEM occupations like engineering (43%) and science (36%).

When Pew asked what would attract young Black people to pursue STEM degrees, a majority of Black Americans said it would help a lot if people saw more examples of high achievers in these STEM areas who were Black.

What if young Black people could see both: Highly successful African Americans in the arts and music world who are also high achievers in technology? Amid the huge amount of technology that flows around music and the visual arts, you wouldn’t have to look far.

For instance, Marc Hannah is one of the founders of software firm Silicon Graphics (now SGI), where his technology was used in movies like Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, The Abyss and Field of Dreams. And just last month, Lenny Smoot became the second person from Disney (the last being Walt Disney himself) to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work in creating special effects at Disney theme parks.

Several prominent African American artists, including Tupac Shakur, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Nat “King” Cole have been depicted on stage and on screen through the use of “holographic” technologies. In the future, generative artificial intelligence will make such simulated performances by artists, both living and dead, more common. 

There are plenty of indirect ways to use tech in the arts industry. Jarrett Hines, founder of Music Tech Works and formerly a talent manager for a singer/songwriter signed to Epic Records, created an algorithm-based music rights and archiving platform to make it easier to quickly find who owned the rights to songs being used and licensed for films, TV and other productions. And after working at YouTube and Google, Uzo Ometu launched the BlackOakTV subscription video-on-demand service that exclusively produces, curates and distributes content featuring Black people and their stories.

A new path to STEM diversity

The arts (and sports) can certainly produce fame and fortune. But technology is also famously known for providing a higher than average income, as well. Which is why more initiatives are aimed at reaching out to disadvantaged and less served minority communities and trying to get them more exposure to technology and tech careers.

But another compelling approach would focus on letting young Black people know that playing a sport or making music is not the only pathway to these professions. Technology may not be as glamorous, but it’s not a matter of choosing either STEM or the arts. They can have an impact on both.

A growing number of initiatives are showing the way forward:

  • Music legend Ted Lucas went from creating millionaires in the music business to creating the TechNolij Innovation Center in Florida, a non-profit organization focused on closing the racial wealth gap through technology education. In collaboration with academic, industry, philanthropic and governmental partners, the organization provides access to capital for tech businesses and equips students with the chance to re-skill and upskill, preparing them for transformative employment opportunities in the tech space.

    Lucas is founder and CEO of Slip-and-Slide Records, a prominent record label that has discovered and produced Platinum-selling artists. As Lucas says, “I said, If I don’t get out in front of this, people that look like me are not going to be educated. They’re not going to know what’s going on in the tech space, and they’re not going to be able to get jobs.”

  • A Georgia Tech program called EarSketch teaches students to use computer science to create music. The collections, which cover a wide range of popular genres (i.e., hip hop, dubstep, EDM and pop), were created by sound designer and electronic musician Richard Devine and Young Guru, Jay-Z's Grammy-nominated audio engineer and DJ.

  • of the Black Eyed Peas has partnered with multiple companies, including IBM, Apple, Salesforce and JPMorganChase, and has launched tech companies. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Fourth Industrial Revolution Advisory Committee and its Global AI Action Alliance. He also co-chairs the WEF’s Generation AI working group that examines the interaction of AI and youth across education, play, data rights and privacy. His Angel Foundation delivers STEM education for at-risk youth.

  • Hip hop icon MC Lyte has partnered with Black Girls Code as a celebrity judge in a nationwide initiative Build a Beat Challenge with Ciara. Contestants between 13 to 18 will be challenged to code their own songs, and if they are deemed a winner, they will be able to video call Grammy Award-artist Ciara Princess Harris.

  • Making the sports and tech connection, the Harlem Globetrotters has joined Microsoft on the Harlem CODEtrotters, a coding curriculum that caters to underserved elementary and middle schoolers by weaving in basketball.

  • And Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU, students use sports analytics to examine the performance of the school’s basketball team to help improve team performance. As Dr. Felesia Stukes, the professor who created the program, says, “Because we have such a high demand in computing, but low participation, one of the ways to address that is these creative pathways. I look at the next generation, which is really personal to me.”

Bringing diversity to tech

When it comes to creative aspirations, it’s important to dream—but it’s also important to build. The arts—particularly visual arts and music—can widen the path to a technology career for Black students, bringing needed diversity to the technology world.

Charles Babers

Business Analyst, Consulting

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Charles Babers has 30+ years’ experience developing, managing and using enterprise architectures and requirements to facilitate business transformation, process reengineering, functional area integration, system and capability acquisition and capability portfolio management.

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