In our latest Black History Month Spotlight, we sit down with Yaw Owusu, music, culture and creative consultant, Executive Manager of The Playmaker Group and Senior Manager of PRS Foundation’s Power Up initiative. With fingers in so many pies, we wanted to find out more about what Yaw is working on at the minute and how his D&I advocacy within the music industry has been influenced by his own personal experiences as a “major minority”. We get a sneak preview into his ambitious 2022 plans and find out what Yaw believes needs to be done to make the UK music industry a fairer and more diverse space.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
Yaw: Power Up is an initiative which has been set up and managed by PRS Foundation and essentially, tackles anti-Black racism and racial disparities within the UK music industry. It pushes for greater equality, inclusion and equity for Black music creators and Black industry professionals. Through the power of the Participant Programme, it supports exceptional individuals who are hitting glass ceilings in their field, helping through grants of up to £15,000, practice development, networking, mentoring and mental health first aid training. Every year Power Up are taking on 20 music creators and 20 industry professionals, with the aim to power them up within their fields, across the whole of the UK.
The other side of the Power Up, is the movement – where the focus is on looking at the systems and infrastructures in place that are creating some of the inequality. We plan to help organisations set goals around their engagement and treatment of Black music professionals and for the organisations to hold themselves accountable to these goals.
I started working with Power Up as a consultant carrying out R&D but since December, I’ve been the Senior Manager, working across not just that programme but PRS Foundation generally to ensure that the work we’re doing is not in a silo but actually informs the activity the Foundation is doing.
I am also a partner in an organisation called The Playmaker Group, which is a music and entertainment production and consultancy company, actively working within the music industry, at quite a high level. We cover everything for Content Production to Event Production to Creative Consultancy. We’re a Black owned-led organisation and we are very passionate about representation, equity and independence in these spaces.
What is it about working in the D&I space within the music industry that sets your soul on fire?
Yaw: I’ve always been about change and professionally, I’ve always been involved in designing and directing projects that are about change. A lot of my fire comes from seeing certain groups being underrepresented, underpaid and undervalued for years and I tend to lean into them – working with music creators or on projects for those people that don’t normally get a shot, for example.
Music has the ability to unite but it’s also a time capsule. Music allows you to look at what society was like at a particular time and I’ve always seen it as cultural, not just entertainment. To work in this niche space, where music is educating and uniting and inspiring is what ignites me and that’s come from my background, growing up in a mishmash of cultures.
I work across the whole UK, but in particular a lot of the work I do up north in Liverpool is working with the council, around live events and music educational strategies and programmes. Stuff like that excites me – things like Power Up and other leading initiatives that touch on so many of those things I’ve had experience with over the years. It comes back to my core – this is hand-in-hand with what I’ve lived and what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen. D&I is something very close to my heart.
So, how have your own personal experiences influenced your work?
Yaw: I’m dual heritage – my dad is from Ghana, my mum is from Jamaica and I was born here. I’m first generation in the UK and I grew up being a major minority where I lived -and was raised. Going into a professional situation, I really felt the harsh reality of racism, the class system, and prejudice and discrimination, both systematic and personal. All of the things we all openly talking now where right there in my face.
I’ve always worked with artists and organisation and brands that have had a need or a desire to make change and use music as a change agent. They’re the projects I’ve always been drawn to and because of my own background, I’ve always been very keen on balancing opportunities and making sure I’m doing what I can to make it better for others.
My sense of pride and identity and how I was brought up has allowed me to feel very comfortable with anyone and in any space. I’m being able to articulate who I am and what I’m about and feeling like I deserve equality and equity in what I do and where ever I am.
How do you think the BLM movement has influenced the music industry?
Yaw: I think the Black Lives Matter movement has forced the hand of some platforms that may have not really been aware of how non-inclusive and invisible Black creators, curators, producers and creatives have been. The influence of Black music creators and culture has always been way bigger than the opportunities available. When we think about the biggest movements in culture and society and all the cultural movements that Black people lead, they’ve always been bigger than the opportunities. So I feel like what we’re getting now is a more equal shot at being able to express it on some of the larger platforms and being visible. But there’s still so much work to be done – so so much work still to be done.
What do you believe needs to be done next to make the music industry fairer and more diverse?
Yaw: A combination of things. I think it’s programmes like Power Up, that get to the crux of it, and a lot more of the industry backing these types of programmes and initiatives. Second, I’d say more of a joined up approach – there’s loads of great work getting done but I think it’s about coming together and working out how we can feel like one collective voice more, even though we know everyone’s going to have their own individual take. Everyone being on the same page just makes it easier.
I think people and organisations have got to be committed to this for the long haul too. I think sometimes, it feels like it’s a sprint to do stuff and then box it off and tick it off. But this is not a task – racial equality, equity and freedom are not open and close things. Movements are verbs.
Also, I think it’s about the right types of people being put in the right positions – diverse people from diverse backgrounds, people who understand and respect diversity, people who’ve represented and shown that they grasp it and believe in it. With Power Up, for instance, we’re trying to power up these individuals so they can be leaders in their field – I think that’s very important because it changes the conversations in boardrooms, at strategic levels, whether in or outside corporations. It’s also incredibly important that those people feel empowered in those situations or spaces, to have difficult conversations and be themselves unapologetically.
Independence is a big part of it too. If you look at some organisations that have been really successful when it comes to equality and empowerment in the past, a lot of it is about saying, “we need to do it for ourselves”. I think, sometimes, that’s what’s lacking here in the UK.
As an activist, what do you have in the pipeline for 2022?
Yaw: In 2022 I’ve got quite a lot on so far. There’s Power Up and then the continued work I’m doing with The Playmaker Group across content and consultancy. Some of the projects we are doing are really, really important projects around Black music and Black culture generally. So, just being able to be seen in places that we believe we should be – but being able to still deliver excellence there and break through a lot of the stereotypes that may be there when you come across a Black led company is important.
I’m doing quite a lot of strategic work in the Liverpool City Region, around music generally, but also around Black music specifically. Equality and diversity and inclusion runs through all of that. I think for me, 2022 is going to be a massive challenge year in terms of the level of things that I’ll be working on and the challenges there. But I’m more than ready and I’m more than excited. I’m committed to making sure I deliver on my part of these movements.