Buck the System: 8 Black Leaders Reshaping the Music Industry's Future

Black executives and leaders in the music business share their frustrations, hopes, and advice.

Black execs in music
Image by Sho Hanafusa
Black execs in music

When we look back at 2020, we’ll remember it as a year of reckoning for the music industry. In the midst of a pandemic, social unrest, digital revolutions, governors suing mayors, and watching pro athletes making millions inside of “bubbles,” the music world is dealing with its own issues.

One of the obvious and most glaring is the lack of Black representation in executive and leadership positions. It’s not a secret that in an industry where people of color create the content they’re also being left out of the major decisions that directly affect their careers and livelihood. Between Black leaders calling for Black Out Tuesday, Ray Daniels’ impassioned essay, “Dear White Music Executives,” and the formation of the Black Music Action Coalition, there have been a lot of tough talks about breaking the racist systems that have been in place for decades.

Even with those challenges, there are success stories. There are leaders—execs, managers, artists, attorneys—who are trying to push the industry forward. Change for the future means acknowledging the past, the present situation, and what needs to be done for the generations to come. We spoke with Black leaders in the industry about what they’ve learned, how they see the landscape, and advice for other professionals looking to find their place in the business.

Katina Bynum, VP of East Coast Labels, Universal Music Enterprises

Navigating the boys club that is the music industry is nothing new for Katina Bynum. Before she landed her current gig with Universal Music Ent (UMe) she was on the ground floor of building Cash Money Records. Katina and the team helped break and guide artists including Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Juvenile. For Bynum, the decrease in networking opportunities, something already happening pre-Covid, is what really hurts Black professionals in the business.

Bynum: "When I came into the business, there were so many conferences that don't happen anymore. Back then, you had the Urban Network. You had Jack the Rapper. At least four times a year you would get together with your peers and you could talk and confer. There were conferences, and things that were important to us were brought up.

"I started something at UMe, which I had at Republic. It was called First Thursdays at Republic, and now it's called Throwback Thursdays at UMe. That is something that I would give in the lobby at Universal Records on Broadway in New York. I invited everybody to come, not just music people, but also brand people, athletes, athletes' representatives, just so people can get in the room, see each other, and make contact. I think that's huge, especially for the generation coming up now. How are they going to meet each other and throw ideas back and forth with each other without really knowing, like, ‘Who's at Mercury? Who are the product managers at Mercury?’ 

"I used to know everybody, and when they got rid of the Black music departments it was more broad, and we're just called a ‘marketing department,’ and you didn't know who to reach out to. I thought everybody knew that I represented Cash Money Records, and then people would come in or call the office and say, ‘Who's handling Lil Wayne?’ I realized that's really missing. There need to be a conferences for the next generation so that they get to know everybody, and the strong ties that I have with my peers are the same ones that are being passed on for the future.”

Bosco, Artist, Founder of Slug Records

In this current age of information overload Bosco believes one thing remains constant: content is king. That’s why in 2016 she launched Slug, an agency and collective focused on Black musicians, artists and people of color, providing them opportunities to work with brands and sponsors. Earlier this year, she announced the launch of Slug Records, a label working under the same mission as the agency. The artist, owner, and mother opened up about the voids she hopes Slug will fill for Black creatives in the business.

Bosco: “For me it was important because I feel like the only way for Black people to lead is to have ownership. And I wanted to start from the foundations of that and build my way up. I think when I first came out I was so naive and just wanted to be on and to be accepted. So you would just take anything and just go with it. But I think with experience and maturity in my field, I realized that for me to really have longevity in what I'm doing, I needed to create my table and have seats and invite the homeless to eat with me.

"Once I really got that concept, people really started paying more attention because it was my own home. I brought intellectual property into the systems, into the music, into the art, art world, culture world. It’s having those types of conversations like, 'Hey, these are my list of demands, these are the people that I represent, this is what we want to do.' Having that sense of ownership came respect and with respect comes the money.

"I would encourage other artists, other creatives, to figure out what that niche is or what that lane is for you. Try and just invite people into your table instead of always trying to sit at their table. But you'll know when it's time to make that pivot. Not saying don't sit at other people's table, but knowing when to turn the plate over and start your own thing.”

Ray Daniels, Senior VP A&R, Warner Records, CEO of RAYDAR Management

Ray Daniels is the first millionaire in his family, and that’s not so much a flex as it is a hard-earned fact. Since 2005, his company RAYDAR Entertainment has been a vehicle to drive the careers of artists in hip-hop and R&B without dealing with industry red tape. Daniels' work with his own business has led to gigs at Universal, Interscope, and Epic. He is now the senior vice president of A&R at Warner Records.

Daniels: “I remember as a Black man thinking, ‘Obama's not going to win. There's no chance, no way in hell he's going to win.’ Then when he won, it was like, ‘Oh my God.’ For me, that's how it feels. I want the music industry to feel like the day that Obama won for Black people. I want it to feel like, ‘Y'all really going to give us our shit? Y'all really going to allow us to have something that's ours?’

"My OG Al Haymon called me yesterday. He's the person that took Michael Jackson on the Bad tour. He was like, ‘Are there any Black guys that can cut a check to a Black artist without permission from somebody white?’ I was like, ‘The only one is Big Jon [chairman and CEO of Sony/ATV Jon Platt].’ That's on the publishing side, but there's no Black guy that could walk into a club, see the next Jay-Z and give him a deal without having to go to somebody white and convince them that he wants to do it.

"We are a joke in the music industry because Hollywood don't play like this. We don't have the fucking balls that Hollywood has. Those guys are fucking writers, producers from the nicest backgrounds, and they was out in the open like, ‘Oscars so white. Fuck y'all. Y'all don't get it.’ That's incredible to me. In rap, it's like, ‘Hey, as long as y'all paying us, we don't mind being n****s.’ I’m just ready for that shit to be over with. We just need to start talking about what that looks like. Don't be quiet, man. I'm tired of being in a position where all we're doing is giving each other advice. I want to give dudes that look like me a fucking check. I want to give dudes that look like me an opportunity.”

Zekiel Nicholson, Co-Founder/Director of A&R, Since The 80s

When the industry closes doors on Black professionals others find ways to build their own. That’s the case for Zekiel Nicholson and the team who started Since The 80s, a Black-owned label and management company. Along with Kei Henderson and Barry Johnson, Nicholson has been instrumental in the careers of acts like EarthGang, J.I.D, and 21 Savage. 

Nicholson: “In regards to the Black community,  it's important that we continue to salvage infrastructure. There's a visual artist out of Chicago named Theaster Gates. Long story short, he has manifested so many things it's in the South Side of Chicago and his biggest thing was figuring out ways to create infrastructure and preserve Black and African communities within the city of Chicago. And so for me, it's like about Black agencies, things that are ran by us and really hold our traditions, our music. It's important for us to be able to represent ourselves in the way that we deem correct. It's important to be able to have that power and hold that power in a marketplace such as entertainment.

"We should focus on having our own infrastructure and being able to provide for our communities. Because honestly, when we're talking about building and creating Black wealth and circulating Black dollars, you have to be approximate to the people you're speaking of, you know what I mean? So even when we're talking about our neighborhoods and schools and education, it's easy to speak from afar or speak from a space of privilege about making it out of poverty or getting on your feet, but we must always be close in proximity to problems in order to figure out how to fix them.

"There's been a newfound energy. I love the conversation, but I really want to be a part of things that are actually actionable. When you make it open to people aspiring to be execs and things of that nature, who are really coming in under a pretense of how they want to do in the industry, that is where the change happens.”

Carron Mitchell, Attorney

The lack of Black representation in the music business isn’t confined to just the labels. On the legal side of things, attorneys deal with it on a daily basis. Carron Mitchell, who has worked with everyone from Childish Gambino and Vince Staples to Brent Faiyaz and EarthGang. She also represents songwriters, producers, managers, and small businesses within the music and entertainment industry. Mitchell talks about excelling in her career and having to overcome gender and racial bias in her industry.

Mitchell: "It's almost like you can count the amount of Black attorneys, or attorneys of color on your hands and your toes in this industry. And when you look at all the top firms, they may have one Black attorney, if that. A lot of them don't even have a single Black attorney, or a single attorney of color. And it always shocks me because they're representing this diverse group of talent, but there's no diversity on the other end. There's a lot of attorneys of color that have small practices or solo practitioners. Sometimes it's hard to get into the bigger firms, so it's definitely a problem.

"I think there is this stereotype in my part of the industry where some artists think that they need to be represented by a white Jewish male lawyer. There are other attorneys that are just as experienced, just as qualified, and could possibly even represent you better. I think it's more about looking for the person that's going to have your best interests at heart and fight the hardest for you, as opposed to the person that just has a certain name. Sometimes people that have a certain name might not necessarily have the time for you, or the interest to really, really be able to educate you on a deal, and make sure that you're understanding of all your rights.

"Power really lies within these artists, and them empowering attorneys of color, or business managers of color. If you represent the top artists in the industry you're going to be empowered. However, if attorneys of color aren't given the opportunity to even work with these talents, then that's where the issues lie, where they'll never be able to play on an even playing ground with some of the other attorneys.”

Tunde Balogun, Co-Founder/President, LVRN

With the rise of Black-owned label/agency hybrids become the industry norm? Tunde Balogun hopes so. The president and co-founder of LVRN—along with four other Black men—has found success running his own business within music after being denied countless opportunities by major labels coming up.

Balogun: “When we first got our deal three, four years ago, our deal wasn't crazy. You have to be real with yourself. Black guys, young, from Atlanta. Yeah, we make good music, but n****s don't respect the business sometimes from Atlanta. We know you're already looking at us like we don't know what we're doing. We'll be able to get a building, get an office, we're going to do everything you all think we're not going to do, because it's already in our minds, but it's like we had a vision. When you see us coming, you're not going to really be able to poke too many holes in it because we really studied history.

"I think there will be more LVRN, Since The 80s, Dreamvilles, as there should be. I think it's great for Black executives, for new talent. Some of the most successful artists are the ones that are really nurtured by executives who protect them and who don't let them get eaten up by things.

"Sometimes it's things that people may not realize, and it's important to have that protection around you and the artists, which is why we do need more Black executives in the buildings. But not just in the C-suite. It's important that the assistant who wants to be a chairwoman or chairman one day feels like there is a path there, and feels like the VP to SVP to EVP actually cares about them and their come-up, because that's the future. I think we need to be careful not to think of now, and more of the future. So I hope there's more of us. I hope there's a 22, 23-year-old person with their homies who are like, ‘I want us to be next LVRN.’"

Aishah White, Senior Vice President of Media and Strategic Development, Warner Records

If you followed the rise of acts like Ty Dolla $ign, XXXtentacion or Lil Pump you should know that the publicist working countless houses behind the scenes was Aishah White. After leaving Def Jam in 2010, the Los Angeles native started her own firm, AKW Public Relations. Her track record was the resume that landed her in a senior VP role with Warner Records. She didn’t know she wanted to work in PR until she met a mentor who looked like her.

White: “Honestly, I did not see any Black women in positions of power at that company until I met Kita Williams at Def Jam. And not that she was a senior level executive, but she was an executive and she was in the building and she carried herself with such grace and sophistication and she was such a professional. But she was also real as fuck and down to earth, and was someone who saw me. It wasn't like she was just treating me like any old intern. She really took the time to get to know me and teach me things and show me what publicity was and how to navigate the industry no matter what department I worked in.

"These are conversations that have been going around for years. And I did read Ray's piece and it was very enlightening for a lot of people. But for a lot of us it's very regular and it just hasn't been said. That goes back to the fear of not shining your light and speaking your truth and showing who you are. We absolutely have to do more. We do need more people of color in positions of power. We do need systems in place that give people of color an advantage within the music industry, because we have always had a disadvantage and we are carrying the culture forward. We are bringing in the dollars.”

Steven “Stevo” Dingle, Manager, Founder of Stay Lowe 

When it comes to his job, Steven “Stevo” Dingle jokes that he’s like Doug Stamper. Though he’s not concocting nefarious power plays like the “House of Cards” character, Dingle thrives at being the guy behind the scenes getting shit done. He’s a fixer, leader, and guide, and has been for artists like OG Maco, Miloh Smith, Kollision and producers such as OG Parker and Romano. Before the pandemic hit, he and his business partner launched their own management, production, and publishing company, Stay Lowe Entertainment.

Dingle: “The goal was always to get into the building. That was my goal. Forming a company and boasting that I’m a CEO—that's not a dream, but I did it out of necessity. If I'm not going to get a job anywhere I'll just make my own. To me, it's really just about access to resources. We can all go back to the beginning of time when somebody sees Cadillac Records and sees how Chess started his label. Muddy Waters, he didn't have the resources, but you know, white guys would kind of go start the label, and then he had access to those resources. And that's how a lot of major labels started. The white folks had the resources. So they created it and then the artists needed the resources to be a successful musician. So they go to where the resources are. 

"In modern day, especially in Atlanta, it's like you have these Black kids who know every artist that's about to pop. They can get into any studio. They know all these producers, but they never get the opportunity. On the flip side, there are kids who might've gone to college, and who can afford to then intern for their major label job because the parents can afford to allow them not to work for two years. They get the internship but they don't know anybody or anything about the culture. They get to work in whatever department they want to be in, and then they later get the executive job. You just have to understand it's the resources and the access that we're really lacking. I mean, you can say opportunity too, but I'm the type of person where if the opportunity doesn't come, create your own.”