REVOLT.TV is home to exclusive interviews from rising stars to the biggest entertainers and public figures of today. Here is where you get the never-before-heard stories about what’s really happening in the culture from the people who are pushing it forward.
Though commercially established in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the cultural movement known as hip hop and its archetypal elements were birthed in the Bronx, New York ahead of the mainstream reverencing the Black and Brown pioneers of its traditions. Commonly deemed synonymous with rap music, hip hop’s four pillars: B-boying, graffiti, deejaying, and MCing transformed the music industry and the world eternally. And while hip hop is globally widespread for all to enjoy, enthusiasts and gatekeepers mustn’t forget that its origins were created by and rooted in the artistic liberation of Black people.
Clive “DJ Kool Herc” Campbell, a Kingston, Jamaica-born; Bronx, New York-based turntablist, founded the hip hop movement as we know it on August 11, 1973. Through word-of-mouth and a batch of handmade flyers, the 18-year-old DJ promoted his “Back To School Jam,” at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the recreation room of his family’s apartment building. Herc advertised an admission fee of 25 cents for ladies and 50 cents for fellas. Subsequently, a mass of nearly 300 party-goers contributed to the DJ’s younger sister’s back-to-school clothing budget and fashioned the establishment of the culture itself.
The event and its predominantly Caribbean-descendant attendees melded customs from classic dancehalls with those of New York City jams. Presently, the United States Census Bureau cites the birthplace of hip hop as 43.6% Black and 56.4% Latinx, making the borough one of the most diverse areas in the nation with the lowest number of white residents in New York City. At the top of the decade, The Bronx Daily noted: “There is an 89.7% chance that any two residents, chosen at random, would be of different race or ethnicity.” With Black and Brown architects statistically and visibly upholding the pillars that influenced the global phenomenon, enthusiasts must reflect on hip hop’s representation and hold a mirror up to the powers that be.
Question: If Black people created the sound you love and profit from, why do men with privilege occupy a majority of the executive chairs throughout the music industry? Someone willing to step into the mic and provide REVOLT insight is Bronx-born Afro-Boricua executive and Senior Vice President at Roc Nation Lenny Santiago. “Okay, we all need to collectively work on making this better, right? Still, it goes beyond the executive chairs. Yes, inclusion needs to be present from the label higher-ups to upper management, and throughout the divisions of the people who run these corporations or independent music companies. I agree. But, this sentiment continues from the executive boardroom to the people in the mailroom. Do you know what I mean? Like, it does not matter — Black and Brown people need to be present in proximity to the record label offices,” he told us.
Points were made. While Santiago’s successful tenure spanning two decades under rap music’s first-ever billionaire, JAY-Z, is to be respected, the voices of Black women advocating on behalf of hip hop’s next set of legends ought to be amplified, too. Enter Rayna Bass, Senior Vice President of Marketing, 300 Entertainment, “My general thought is that we have to continue to advocate for each other, demand change, and equality within the industry. [We must] stop talking among ourselves and start asking for these answers directly from those that have the power to make immediate changes.” Staring the consequences of the music industry’s backdoor politics in the face, 2020 became the year Black and Brown creatives highlighted ugly truths once tucked between the underbellies of corporate structures.
“The OGs say, ‘HOV, how high is high enough?’ I said, ‘Till we eye and eye with the higher-ups.’ – JAY-Z
Echoing movements such as those led by Black Lives Matter activists, the formation of new communal initiatives like La Nueva Link, and the Black Music Action Coalition took place among innumerable others. Each — in their own way — persists, dedicated to creating a safe space for industry professionals to break bread and navigate against structural racism, which threatens their livelihood daily. At the same time, a resurgence of callouts for diversity and inclusivity flooded corporate branding universally. All of which included, but was not limited to, streaming service platforms, radio stations, social media entities, and online music outlets.
The fact remains that Black creatives are the alpha and omega of the culture that a pioneering Jamaican DJ gifted the world 47 years ago. Against civil unrest and an ever-growing list of tragedies — a global evolution in the collective’s ethos matured into a series of prejudicial reality checks within professional environments — and the music industry was no exception. In the modern era of professional reckoning, most will acknowledge corporate allies’ newfound donation budgets, and an elevated urgency for representation.
Still, how does one diversify or truly represent a culture they are not ancestrally connected to? Let the record reflect, unlike REVOLT, many of these self-proclaimed culture-shifting platforms are not Black-owned. Since Bad Boy’s formation in 1993, Sean “Puffy” Combs has championed for and been a predecessor to many of the culture’s most iconic Black-owned companies.
Ahead of Combs’ musical contributions were those of Black label founders like Berry Gordy at Motown Records, Vivian Carter Bracken at Vee-Jay Records, Andre Harrell at Uptown Records, Sylvia Robinson at Sugar Hill Records, and Byran “Birdman” Williams at Cash Money Records to name a few. The formation of institutions like LaFace Records and Def Jam Records sonically gifted timeless catalogs, while powerhouses like No Limit Records and Roc-A-Fella Records were born, thereafter offering the same. Additionally, these are Black-owned businesses with a myriad of Brown entrepreneurs sharing their helm.
Present-day conglomerates may fill most-necessary spaces with enough Black and Brown creatives to save face. However, until they ensure their team’s executive board and decision-makers reflect the brilliance shielding their establishment’s trajectory, they are not nearly doing enough. Despite being at separate independent Black-owned, multi-hyphenate entertainment agencies, Santiago and Bass, are singing from the same songbook.
At present, there is only one Black chairwoman and CEO at a major record label, Sylvia Rhone of Epic Records. Is that not jarring? One can narrowly imagine the corporate blockades she must have overcome ahead of shattering the glass ceiling. Today, music professionals at large are questioning aloud how the industry ever reached a point where the originators of hip hop and R&B alike were offered limited seats at the table. Black and Brown leaders’ hands should not always be forced to create their own. Our predecessors already created the culture. We deserve creative autonomy.
2019 marked the year where on-demand streams accounted for nearly 80 percent of total revenues throughout the music industry, according to a year-end report from The Recording Industry Association of America. Preceding these figures, 2017’s hip hop and R&B consumption surpassed that of rock, validating it as the most popular musical genre, according to Nielsen’s year-end report. In 2018, the Latin recorded music market, which heavily draws inspiration from Jamaican riddims, hip hop culture, and its Black innovators, overall, followed suit numerically. According to The Recording Industry Association of America’s year-end revenue report, “The U.S. Latin music business experienced its second year of double-digit growth in 2018. The Latin market grew 18% in 2018 to $413 million.” All of the aforementioned’s cultural relevance will not dissipate.
Platforms of all sorts must love Black and Brown offerings beyond when they are trending or suitable for any corporate bottom line. Moreover, those commissioned to work on behalf of these musicians and innovators need to be representative of them. For example, if you do not understand a word Bad Bunny says on his latest single, does it make sense for you to dictate how it is narrated to the general market? Yes, everyone may enjoy Latinx music, but the majority may not colonize it. Understand that you are a guest to the overall experience.
“Personally, I think this is an unfortunate situation. I have always felt that way,” interjects Santiago about the current climate. “There should be a voting system to make decisions. We need people in place to create opportunities for other people who are directly connected with the culture. That is why I have been with the same person my whole career. I work with JAY-Z because he is the culture! He is a culture-shifter and changer. I mean this from the music to the deals, his companies, and everything he has created — everything that JAY-Z has put together entrepreneurially. And this is by a Black man. As a man of color, that is where I felt comfortable. That is where I felt safe.”
Visibility is imperative because sometimes seeing yourself makes all the difference. Even so, safety goes beyond that. Black and Brown musicians and their appointed experts need financial security. There are economic factors to consider. How many artists are knowledgeable about their publishing? Does the music industry appropriately credit those behind the scenes for their intellectual property? For example, the writers, the producers, the managers, and the assistants.
Inquiring minds want to know who helps to educate Black and Brown artists ahead of them signing a major label contract? The fear of safety further concerns Black and Brown professionals’ truth-telling with respect to these imbalances within the music industry. For many, speaking out may provoke fear that they will jeopardize their hard-earned seat because, often, when your higher-ups do not look like you, assimilation is the requirement for advancement. And conversing on my behalf exclusively, beyond notions of titles or appearing powerful, some of us want to keep our souls.
Besides, safety means taking care of music lovers’ physical well-being in new ways, too. There is an ongoing pandemic halting much of the music businesses’ anticipated funds from artists’ touring. How do these musicians’ teams supplement, while appeasing those who keep the entire industry afloat — the fans — happy? One executive proposes an optimistic take on how to navigate these barriers. Tishawn Gayle, best-known as Ne-Yo’s manager, and the COO of Compound Entertainment — believes we should take matters into our own hands, quite literally.
“There are many culturally unbalanced aspects throughout the inner workings of the industry. Even so, I think music creatives and artists have more access than ever before to become masters of their content. With the advancement of technology and a wide range of apps, content distribution has become more accessible digitally. There are digital platforms that allow creatives of all sorts to build an audience. Now users can scale, monetize their efforts, and keep the lion’s share of what they generate. These developments have forever changed how business is done in the entertainment industry and helped to level the playing field.
“However, there is a common thread that runs across all sectors. There are no shortcuts to success — you must put in the work. For example, I came across a new social music app called LÜM. This app allows artists to upload and promote their content while giving their community on LÜM the opportunity to show appreciation for new content in the form of a note. These notes are worth real money. The content creator can now monetize directly with his or her fanbase,” Gayle explained to REVOLT ahead of the announcement that LÜM closed a $3 million seed II round, while partnering with Ne-Yo.
The direct-to-artist financial structure bypasses the many hands that may be in the pot at any given record label, while independently ensuring profitability despite the looming threats of COVID-19. Music streaming is king, as radio stations face increased constraints in the digital age. Further, the number of Black-owned stations is vastly lower than white-owned stations. Black people make up approximately 13% of the American population, yet own fewer than 180 of the more than 11,000 commercial radio stations in the U.S. in 2020, reports The National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters.
In response to the dwindling number of Black-owned broadcast stations and its effect on other marginalized groups — Congressman G.K. Butterfield has introduced H.R. 3957: Expanding Broadcast Ownership Opportunities Act of 2019, which proposes to reinstate the tax certificate, as a means of increasing ownership of broadcast stations. Also, this bill advocates for people of color and Black professionals “…to direct the Federal Communications Commission to take certain actions to increase diversity of ownership in the broadcasting industry, and for other purposes.” Prior to his untimely passing, a humanitarian who was educating Black and Brown communities on the importance of independence, fundamental business principles, and maneuvering through these modifications was Nipsey Hussle. The MC and his All Money In Records empire stretched well beyond the music industry, reinvested in developing technologies, and substantiated him as a self-made visionary.
All Hussle advocated for enlightened the next generation of hip hop, particularly with publishing. From television, fashion actualities, commercials, gaming properties to the records themselves — whoever controls an artist’s publishing is likely to eat. And many Black and Brown artists are not in control of their money. “I have worked with Jon ‘Big Jon’ Platt, the chairman and CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, and for him. He is another Black man. He controls the publishing industry and puts people of color in power. These professionals have amazing years of experience, and are the people who are really dictating what is going on,” assesses Santiago.
“Again, they are who shift and shape our culture. This notion is inclusive from fashion to food — from music to film — to everything else that hip hop influences. They will determine the next dope everything. Even L.A. Reid and Kevin Liles were originally producers. They came from making hits. They came from artistry. So, for them to run these companies makes sense.”
His candid sentiments illuminate how the industry’s pressures do not lessen for hip hop’s Black and Brown bosses fighting the good fight, who learn to maneuver and leverage accordingly. With that, Roc Nation’s SVP concludes: “They have been through it. There are higher-up executives that have never produced a record. They never made a record! They have never been on the road or been on tour. We have Black executives whose involvement goes back as far as the Chitlin’ Circuit. Now there are white executives out there who have not done any of those things. Again, how can they really know what we are going through? We dictate the culture!”