Photo by Andrew H. Walker. When you look to next year, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities for change, particularly as it relates to underrepresented groups in the music business and the glaring lack of diversity in the top ranks?
The biggest challenge is the system becoming hyper-aware of its purposeful blockages and making things more equitable for all people. We need more advocates and allies. Those things seem so obvious, but it doesn’t to a lot of people because a fish doesn’t know it’s wet. It requires extreme self-awareness, an extreme level of empathy, to say, “OK, that’s not so nice.”
What motivated you to launch Black Ambition, a nonprofit initiative to help Black and Latinx entrepreneurs gain access to capital and resources?
We are underrepresented in our nation and the world, and that’s because we don’t have enough ownership. If we have more African American and people-of-color ownership, then we have more of a voice when it comes to disproportionate access to education, disproportionate access to health care and disproportionate access to representation in legislation. Those three pillars, those boxes get checked, when we have more ownership by people of color.When there’s a community of entrepreneurs, you know that the kids of those families are definitely going to get greater education, greater access to health care and medicine. That’s what we want.
Speaking of the importance of ownership, isn’t this precisely the same message you’ve been advocating as it relates to artists’ rights and the imperative for musicians to own their original recordings?
It is. There’s no other industry out there in the world where a start-up gets off the ground and doesn’t own the trademark — it just doesn’t make sense. It may be legal, but it’s still a crime. If a bank walks away with ownership of a company and the trademark, how much should a creator really be participating? The artist should always have the lion’s share of their creation.
What’s your view of Taylor Swift’s feud with Scooter Braun and the fact that she is now having to rerecord all of her music so she can have ownership of her masters going forward?
It’s really unfortunate, you know. There was room for him to make his acquisition because that’s just the way the business is, and I felt for her and not being able to be in control of it. There’s a system in place that’s just all wrong. He’s a businessman and he also represents artists, so from his point of view he’s just making an acquisition of something that he felt would be a good investment. But the artist should have the opportunity [to retain ownership], and I don’t know whether she did or she didn’t. I just know that the system is wired in ways that is oftentimes not always fair to the creator. I think it should be the norm that the creators retain their rights.
You negotiated a landmark deal with Columbia Records giving you ownership of your master recordings. How were you able to achieve what most musicians have not been able to?
It was a huge milestone, but it shouldn’t be, and we shouldn’t be celebrating that because I shouldn’t be one of let’s call it dozens of people who own their original recordings. A master recording is the original, and every other copy is the slave. We got them to take that out of their language in all the contracts for the Sony companies. It’s all over the place — you know, master bedroom — so there’s a lot of language that we need to change.
Earlier this year you called the governor of your home state of Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam [who was accused of appearing in blackface], and told him that though you hadn’t traveled in five months because of the pandemic you’d get on a plane if he’d agree to sign an executive order making Juneteenth a state holiday. That was bold.
I was very grateful for him to reach beyond what his norm was, what our state’s norm was, and get into that uncomfortable place of just standing up for what’s right. Yes, and we should probably call the third Thursday of November Family Indigenous Reflection Day, of course, but we call it something completely different and celebrate this narrative that the founders came to the country and were really nice to these people.
Speaking of Virginia, that’s where the first Yellow studio is scheduled to open in 2021. Tell me about Yellow, the nonprofit organization that you founded to improve learning situations for youth at school, home, online and in the community.
Yellow is an effort to even the odds because the odds are usually stacked against us. We want to look at things like assessment programs to understand how children process information and create curriculums that are especially catered to the way that the child learns, whether they’re an auditory learner or a visual learner. Sensory-based learning is something we’re very interested in. The system is broken, and it’s not because we don’t have amazing educators. It’s not because we don’t have really good curriculums. I just think that the curriculums are wired for one type of mind for the most part. And we should work to eradicate the term “remedial.” Everybody learns differently.
How has your work been impacted by the pandemic?
I remain grateful to be able to work, and I work my butt off for Black Ambition and Yellow, and I do as much as I can and I’m able to.
What are the three things you’d like to see emphasized in the new year?
Empathy, humility, gratitude.