Two years ago, in addition to our usual Ones To Watch and prediction lists, we took a minute to shout out the Black British talents working behind the scenes to push the UK music industry into the future. Every one of those names has gone on to do even bigger and better things, carving out their own empires and reaching back to bring the next generation along.
Of course, they themselves stood on the shoulders of music industry giants such as Joe Kentish, Glyn Aikins, Safiya Lambie-Knight, Colin Batsa, Darcus Beese, Austin Daboh, Riki Bleau, Adele White, Alex Boateng, Alec Boateng, Benny Scarrs, Rich Castillo and Amber Davis. Now, there’s a new wave of execs pushing through and making big waves in A&R, management, publishing, PR, event programming, marketing, and all the other aspects that so often get overlooked when it comes to handing out flowers.
In the two years since our last list, a lot has changed. Black music—whether it’s rap, grime, drill, Afrobeats or Amapiano—has an even tighter grip on the charts, Def Jam set up its UK office, and for the first time in history, a Black man—Inflo—won the Brit Award for Best Producer. None of that could have happened without the hard work of the execs we’re highlighting today.
So, with that in mind, get to know 15 more inspirational music industry figures changing the face of British music and culture as a whole in 2022 (and beyond).
Zeon Richards (Head Of Hip-Hop Partnerships, Pollen)
Zeon Richards is someone who has made the progression of Black British art his business. Starting out over a decade ago by managing his childhood friend, the legendary rapper Wretch 32, it wasn’t long before he launched a management house of his own, Renowned, where he worked with the likes of George The Poet, Jacob Banks, Hamzaa and Henrie Kwushue. While running the company, in 2015, Zeon signed on with Polydor as an A&R Consultant—helping with the careers of Stefflon Don, Steel Banglez and Ramz early on—before being tapped by Ministry Of Sound to head up their A&R department to great success. Last year, Zeon decided that it was time for a career change, and ended up joining the live experience platform Pollen as Head Of Hip-Hop Partnerships, where he continues to push the culture forward. “I want to see Black people in the music industry become moguls who can create more opportunities for aspirational youth,” says Zeon. “Let’s be the change that we want to see because we are incredible!” —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson
Shauni Caballero (Founder, The Go 2 Agency)
Few in this world have worked quite as hard to make sure young artists get paid for their music as Shauni Caballero. With her Go 2 Agency, she has single-handedly put money into the pockets of almost the entire UK rap, drill, Afroswing and grime scenes and helped independent artists navigate the tangled web of label contracts, splits, studio fees, royalties, rights, PRS and the rest. What makes Shauni so important to the music industry is how tirelessly she works to improve everyone’s understanding of the game so they can protect their own rights. “We don’t turn anyone away that can benefit from our service,” Shauni tells Complex, “especially since we aim to educate our clients; everyone we work with has to sit through a presentation about music royalties so they can understand the income behind their music.” Possibly even more impressively, she’s built her empire while also raising her son, which has brought one or two difficulties along the way. “I would like to see more support for mothers in the music industry,” she adds. “I’ve worked with people—both men and women—who haven’t been so accommodating around me having a son, and I’m constantly having to remind them that they also came from a mother.” —James Keith
Carl Samuel (Senior A&R Manager, Columbia)
It’s been said that artists make some of the best music execs, and that couldn’t be truer for Carl Samuel. In the late 2000s, Carl went under the moniker MC Versatile and was one of UK funky’s most successful MCs, creating club classics such as “Funky Anthem” and “Tell Me” alongside Katy B. Redirecting his creativity some years later, he would go on to manage the careers of up-and-coming talent—among them Deno & AJ—and achieve platinum and gold status within the first year. But things blew up massively in 2021 when he discovered and developed a rapper by the name of ArrDee, from Brighton, who had four Top 10 singles in the very same year. This led to Carl being headhunted by Columbia for a Senior A&R Manager position—with his first signing being HAZEY, everyone’s new favourite scouse rapper. Looking to the future, Carl tells Complex that he hopes to one day become “president of a major record label that will have management services for the artist and also counselling, because a lot of artists suffer from depression and it’s something that we need to tackle.” —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson
Ebi Sampson (Co-Founder, AUGUST Agency)
If you work in PR or aspire to work in PR, you couldn’t hope for a more ideal career path than Ebi Sampson’s. She cut her teeth in fashion PR, but the music connection was always there. Her first big wins came in the mid-2010s when grime was enjoying its latest boom, working on Skepta’s collab with Nasir Mazhar, A$AP Ferg’s collab with Astrid Andersen, and PLACES+FACES’ first ever exhibition. Naturally, the music side became the dominant force in her life and after six years, she put fashion to one side so she could manage her friends, fellow South Londoners Youngs Teflon and K-Trap. While that was bubbling away, Ebi worked in Atlantic Records’ in-house PR team, handling campaigns for the likes of Nipsey Hussle, Meek Mill and Roddy Richh. Two years later and she founded the AUGUST Agency with James Cunningham, which the pair have since grown to be one of Black British music’s most successful agencies. “We wanted to create an agency that was dedicated to artists we were excited about and that we thought had the ability to inspire the cultural landscape and push boundaries in music,” says Ebi. As with everyone who has a long-term view of success, for Ebi, it’s all about legacy: “I want to be able to provide opportunities for people who want to get into music but wouldn’t traditionally be given the opportunity. And I want to continue helping young artists build lifelong careers for themselves.” —James Keith
Ibrahim Kamara & Jide Adetunji (Founders, GUAP)
GUAP is one of the go-to UK platforms for burgeoning talent in the music and culture sphere. Founded by London creatives Ibrahim Kamara and Jide Adetunji in 2015, GUAP has gone from being the world’s first video magazine to becoming a multi-platform youth media brand, which covers everything from music to art and high fashion. The company produces content—both for print and online, most of which is done in their very own studio space—curates events, and runs a creative agency that has worked with top brands such as Kurt Gieger, Apple, and Coca Cola. “Our aim for the future is to become a global voice for emerging and underrepresented creatives,” says Ibrahim. “We really want to foster a culture that celebrates the wealth of diversity in our industry, ensuring there’s a space for artists who don’t particularly meet the criteria of being ‘mainstream.’” —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson
Oksi Odedina (GM, 5K Records)
One of UK rap’s marketing geniuses, Oksi Odedina recently joined new Sony imprint 5K Records—the label founded by 2K Management’s Moe Bah and Kilo Jalloh and super-producer JAE5—as General Manager, overseeing marketing and creative for their roster which currently includes Lotto Ash, King Promise, Zakhar, Zaire and Robin Knightz. Oksi’s star-making journey began three years ago at Warner Records, where she worked on out-the-box campaigns for the likes of Mist, Ghetts, OVO Sound and, most notably, Nines on his No. 1 LP, Crabs In A Bucket. Not to mention helping to introduce a young Pa Salieu to the world. As for what she would like to see happen in the UK music industry, Oksi says that “people in positions of power need to continue to check themselves and properly support, upskill, teach, mentor and be open to learning from those coming through the door after them.” —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson
Joel Borquaye (Music Editor/Exec Producer, Spotify UK)
If the man on the street were to be believed, Spotify’s playlists are all curated by an all-knowing, all-seeing algorithm with tendrils extended into every genre and sub-genre of music imaginable. The truth is, it’s actual people like Joel Borquaye—Music Editor for Spotify UK and Ireland—that curate these playlists, keeping his ear to the streets and an eye on what’s about to happen ten steps down the line, specifically in the worlds of R&B, hip-hop, Afrobeats and dancehall. Before Spotify, Joel started out doing A&R for Kobalt/AWAL where he built up a formidable track record by signing Tiana Major9, fwdslxsh and Mr Eazi. After that came a role as producer at BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra, working on The Rap Show with Tiffany Calver and The Grime Show with Sir Spyro. Since starting at Spotify, Joel’s successes have continued to grow with work as an exec producer on the popular Who We Be TALKS podcast, as well as working on the Carnival Sounds project with Notting Hill Carnival. And that seems to be where the future lies for Joel: creating spaces and opportunities for artists, and doing everything in his power to support Black voices and Black creatives. —James Keith
Whitney Boateng (Music Agent, WME)
Starting off as an intern for Renowned, Zeon Richards’ music management company, Whitney Boateng worked with artists like George The Poet, Jacob Banks and Wretch 32, but it was always the live music side of the business that got her fired up—a bug she caught after her first ever live show seeing Kanye West on his Glow In The Dark tour in 2008. After moving to join the Paradigm Coda booking agency, she then moved on to Metropolis Music/Live Nation, where she worked for four years on tours and live shows for everyone from Tion Wayne and Headie One to Megan Thee Stallion. In 2021, things really kicked up a gear when Whitney joined WME as an agent in their Personal Appearance department. Her current client roster includes Nicki Minaj, Summer Walker, NSG, Blxst, Lucky Daye, Tiana Major9, Rema, Cruel Santino and more. One of Whitney-mother-of-one’s biggest successes came in 2019, with the first ever The Ends Festival. It was a small team—five of them in total—but together they brought some huge names to Croydon, including Nas, J Balvin, Wizkid and Damian Marley. Of course, various lockdowns put a follow-up on pause, but who knows, maybe 2022’s the year we get a sequel. —James Keith
Michael Adex (CEO, NQ)
Born in Germany and moving to Manchester at the age of 10, Michael Adex was once on the path to becoming a professional footballer, but instead has spent the last few years laying down the bricks of his Manchester-based talent and entertainment company, NQ (fka Northern Quarterz). “We are definitely pioneers in not just expanding the UK sound, but the infrastructure outside of London,” he says. Founded in 2017, the creative agency boasts the likes of fellow Mancunian Aitch on its roster, whose signing and subsequent success has helped to re-energise their city’s music scene. With Michael at the helm, NQ is already a record label, a publishing house and a talent management stable, with ambitions to expand into other creative fields such as film and TV production. “We want to build regionally in the Northwest,” he adds, “and push boundaries to compete internationally and bridge that gap between what you see in Manchester and what you see in the States. We want to do things at the highest level possible and to be at the forefront of innovation within the entertainment industry, all while retaining that Manchester attitude of doing things differently.” —Aaron Bishop
Davina Merchant (A&R Manager, Downtown Music Publishing)
Davina Merchant’s entry into the music business began as an entertainment journalist, but she soon realised that she was more interested in where, what, and how music was being created for the masses. She went on to work for label services before joining Downtown Music Publishing’s London office at the start of 2018. Since then, she’s gone from strength to strength, building an impressive portfolio of signings including Tiana Major9, Mae Muller, Tion Wayne, Hamzaa, Jaz Karis and Moelogo, to name but a few. Not resting on her laurels, Davina is also one of the early team members of 8BARS, a new mobile platform for musical talent to be discovered, giving power to the fans. Backed by a top group of entertainment investors, including Nines, and associations with Scooter Braun and Spotify, Ms. Merchant is diligently positioning herself as a distinguished figure within the UK scene. “The main aim is to continue spearheading artist development and create great songs,” she says, adding that her desire is to see “more Black women in senior positions across the music industry, especially A&R.” —Aaron Bishop
David & Jojo Sonubi (Founders, No Signal Radio)
They say you shouldn’t mix family with business, but said mix has proved nothing but successful for brothers David and Jojo Sonubi. The London-based creatives, both still in their early 20s, had already built a solid reputation in the UK music scene from their popular club night, RECESS (as well as David’s role as an A&R Manager at Island Records) before launching No Signal Radio, the newest Black-owned, Black-fronted music radio station dedicated to Black music from around the world. Rising to greatness during the pandemic in 2020, No Signal became a solace to many across the UK and beyond, and today—with a growing number of presenting and DJ stars on their roster—stands as a vital platform for showcasing new and established talent. —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson
Stephanie Achigbu (Marketing Director, AWAL)
Having worked on campaigns for heavyweights such as Drake, Nicki Minaj and Eminem, as well as closer to home with Nines, JD Sports and Harlem Spartans, Stephanie Achigbu has come a long way from her start as an Events Intern at Acoustic Live UK. One of her early positions in music was working in Universal’s central curation team— which she joined in 2016—where she executed their top two best-performing digital campaigns of 2017, and generated over 53 million streams from the playlists she managed before then becoming Marketing Manager at Warner Records. And how many of you remember the drilly viral sensation that was Poundz’s “Opp Thot” from 2019? The track peaked at No. 35 in the UK singles chart, becoming Disturbing London’s first Top 40 hit in two years and, you guessed it: Stephanie was part of the team working there at the time. Two years on, she’s now Marketing Director at distribution company AWAL (“Artists Without A Label”), who are coming off the back of Little Simz’s biggest album of her career—2021’s Sometimes I Might Be Introvert—which hit No. 4 in the albums chart and saw her win a slew of awards. Stephanie stays on the winning side. —Aaron Bishop
Glenn Sonko (A&R Manager, 0207 Def Jam/Artist Manager)
Glenn Sonko knows a star when he sees one. As the current co-manager of Tion Wayne—the chart-topping UK rapper who scored drill’s first No. 1 hit with “Body” last year—and rising UK R&B queen Bellah, Glenn picked up most of his tricks of the trade from his formative years working at Warner imprint 2Tone and then at Atlantic, where he assisted with Stormzy’s second No. 1 album, 2019’s Heavy Is The Head, and Tion Wayne and M24’s Top 40 track, “London”. Taking his talents to 0207 Def Jam last year, Glenn was instrumental in the signing of UK rap vet Potter Payper, whose first project on the label—a mixtape entitled Thanks For Waiting—entered the UK albums chart at No. 8. As platinum plaques continue to roll in, Glenn Sonko has proven that his ear is indeed a trusted one. —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson
Taponeswa Mavunga (Director Of Africa, Sony Music UK)
Taponeswa Mavunga rose through Atlantic’s ranks to become one of the most experienced and respected major label PR’s in the UK. Championing Afrobeats long before the current zeitgeist, her passion was recognised when—following a stint working in Johannesburg—“Tappy” became Head Of Publicity for Columbia UK, before landing a first: Director Of Africa, Sony Music UK. In her role, she oversees Sony’s amplification of UK artists across Africa, as well as supporting artists within Africa to develop relationships, identify opportunities and increase visibility within the UK. Also a member of the Executive Steering Committee for Power Up—an initiative aimed at Black music creators and industry professionals tackling racism in the UK music industry—Tappy continues to work with the Black Music Coalition, whose main aim is to help eradicate structural racism and to establish equality and equity for Black executives. —Chantelle Fiddy