a long talk

Tuma Basa Changed Spotify With a Playlist. YouTube’s Next.

The veteran music exec on trying to make the industry’s gatekeeping obsolete.

Photo: Michael Brandy
Photo: Michael Brandy

You may recognize Tuma Basa as the creator of Spotify’s popular RapCaviar playlist or in his current position as Director of Black Music and Culture at YouTube or in any of the many roles he has occupied at media organizations like MTV and BET as the digital revolution has changed the way we encounter and interact with music. The pathways to success have shifted. In February, he helped launch the #YouTubeBlackVoices Fund, a grant program honoring over 130 gifted Black creators internationally; it was borne out of last summer’s racial reckoning, when YouTube revealed a $100 million fund dedicated to nurturing greater variety and creating more opportunities for its users. Basa speaks of the big picture in the optimistic terms you might expect to hear from a music-media fixture who has had speaking engagements around the world, but when you break through that and into his backstory — born in Congo in the ’70s, he split his formative years between Zimbabwe and America’s Midwest, where his dream of becoming a rapper was complicated by the fact that these areas hadn’t yet built the necessary hip-hop industry infrastructure to make such a thing very easy — he seems less like an optimist and more like someone who’s now using his pull to smooth and pave roads that weren’t open to him in his youth. His excitement about the future is infectious, though I can’t help feeling as though we’ll eventually bungle it.

Over the last 20 years you’ve worked at BET, MTV, Revolt, Spotify, and now YouTube. In that span of time, Black music has pushed its way to the forefront of American pop culture. In what ways do you feel that the music business has gotten better about handling Black artists and their careers, and what improvements do you think are still necessary?
The music business has invested more money in Black artists. They know Black artists’ value at the crossover level with the mainstream audience way more now than they did before. Before, [success] was dependent upon gatekeepers, especially at radio stations. Now it’s all measurable. They can’t deny it. Numbers don’t lie. We’re past that moment where people used to wonder if the Negro League would do just as well [as the Major League]. When there’s a level playing field and equal amount of time or energy or attention or commitment, you can’t deny us, you know?

In the past, there was always a question about whether you could turn a profit on a Black film with a Black cast and a Black writer and director, when all it took was just the chance to get to make those blockbusters for them to flourish.
Technology leveled the playing field. I don’t know if you remember this guy, Thomas Friedman, from the New York Times. He wrote the book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century. This was in the 2000s. I had made an argument at that time that southern music, because of the CD-ROM, burning CDs, and people able to sell CDs from the back of the trunk…

Down in Louisiana, where Master P and everyone came up …
Too $hort was doing the same thing. That innovation allowed a more level playing field because in the South, artists were able to sell their own music. The decade between 2000 and 2010 was a decade of disruption, from mixtapes to ringtones to the blogosphere. YouTube was born in that decade; social media emerged in that decade. Anyone could upload their music videos, lyric videos, visualizers, and behind-the-scenes content. They can tell their story in short form or long form. You can dig deep. From a Black music perspective, it has all happened on YouTube. At a time when social media was blowing up, and people were doing the Superman dance, it was happening on YouTube.

But with playlists, TikTok, and YouTube all these avenues of internet visibility we didn’t have 20 years ago there are opportunities to disrupt the industry, but I think we’re finding that what rises to the top of the charts isn’t necessarily more eclectic than it was before. We use new tech to repeat old patterns of behavior. How do we break out of that?
I don’t think human beings ever just break out of what they’re familiar or comfortable with, what they recognize, or what their parents did. All these new dance challenges and stuff … I’m 45 years old. I’ve seen dances come and go so many millions of times. I’ve seen this movie 30, 40 times. I can memorize the timing. The thing is: I don’t know how we break those patterns. That’s a question for a psychologist.

Last June, we saw the beginnings of a reckoning as far as opening up more and better opportunities for Black creatives, but there was worry that momentum wouldn’t hold past the end of the summer. It’s good to see YouTube putting its money where its mouth is. What was the genesis of the #YouTubeBlackVoices artist class? What is its central motivation?
We wanted to make sure that the different spectrums of the Black experience were represented. From a global perspective, we have Afro-Brazilian punk, Sho Madjozi in South Africa, Brent Faiyaz (who’s from Maryland), Serpentwithfeet (who’s very musically open about his sexuality and his relationships and even his preference for Black men), Tkay Maidza (who’s from Zimbabwe but Australian and who now lives overseas). We’re not overlooking the nuance of the Black experience. We’re talking about practicing diversity even within the Black community.

I appreciate the global perspective, because a lot of talk about diversity in music can get landlocked in America, and there are other countries that deserve attention. That said, I wish you’d included a few Americana artists. I don’t know if you’re following that industry, but right now there’s Black artists whose upward mobility is essentially at the mercy of white executives and program directors who often just don’t pay them any mind.
I’m not going to pretend like I am. But we do have Joy Oladokun, who’s like country. Here’s the deal: This is a long-term thing. So anything we missed in one cohort, we will pay attention to in the next cohort. Because it’s about that shot. It’s about the opportunity.

Stateside, we’re seeing artists like Bad Bunny pulling off impressive feats on the charts without having to adapt their music or their lyrics for English-speaking audiences. At the same time, we have artists who are internationally known, like WizKid and Burna Boy, who have enough footing in North America to work on projects with Drake and Beyoncé but who aren’t enjoying as much traction here as solo artists. What’s the disconnect?
I don’t think there’s a disconnect. It’s timing. I’ll give you an example. Right now, there’s so much Black music coming out of Canada — The Weeknd, Tory Lanez, Drake, PartyNextDoor, Daniel Caesar. But do you remember Kardinal Offishall? Jelleestone? Choclair, K-os, the old-timers? These people knocked the barriers down and helped with delineation and absorbed the learning costs. And the next generation really benefits from those learnings. [You saw this with] Drake working with Young Money and that being his primary identity in the early days. This is a movement. Movements have different places in the graph. There’s certain experiences, musical pallets that needed to be whet and tuned a little bit to groove with it.

I was born in 1975, and I wanted to rap. I lived in Zimbabwe all my teenage years. I came to the States in ’94, but I lived in America when I was a little kid, ages 5 to 13. I tried to rap in Zimbabwe [under the name] B Tuma B. I stopped, and the reason was the physical distance. I wasn’t in L.A. or New York or Atlanta where you had access. When I came to America, I was in Utah and Iowa, and in those days you didn’t blow up in Utah and Iowa. They didn’t have critical radio markets. You didn’t have access to A&Rs to send demo tapes. There was no access to magazine editors, to [The Source’s] Unsigned Hype. B Tuma B gave up that dream. I was like, Fuck that shit. It’s not worth it. It was expensive at that time to get CDs made and distributed and to get retailers to put your shit in their store or even to get coverage, to go to the TV stations, radio stations. If I was born in 1995, I [could’ve eventually] use[d] YouTube. I would be Lil Tuma B. I’d go find a beat on YouTube, rap over it, make a song, upload it. I’d go make visuals. I’d build an audience. I’d go live. I’d have a whole world. It’s literal world-building. So the difference between B Tuma B who was born 1975 and Lil Tuma B in 1995 is that opportunities are leveled by places like YouTube. We’re making Black history right now, through globalization. It’s a reunion. Caribbean fans and American fans and Nigerian fans and Kenyan fans and YouTube fans are all getting to discover each other and reconnect. The ancestors are seeing their descendants reunite through music and technology. So when you talk about the connect, it’s a timing thing. These things take time.

I agree that tastes are really starting to open up. I was listening to Kelly Rowland’s new EP last night. She had Afrobeat samples and urbano beats mixed with more traditional American R&B sounds. Those songs wouldn’t live on the same tape even ten years ago.
[Michelle Williams] had the song, “When Jesus say yes, nobody can say no.” [2014’s “Say Yes” featuring Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland]. That’s a Nigerian gospel song. Harmony Samuels, a Nigerian, produced that. You see what I’m saying? This stuff has been happening. When African music used to pop in America, it had to be co-signed by a very popular white performer, like a Peter Gabriel or a Paul Simon. But now, it’s the youth that are connecting. Careers aren’t reliant on gatekeeping. So that’s another part of technology, that direct, artist-to-artist or artist-to-fan connection. It doesn’t depend on whether Paul Simon likes your music or not. I don’t want to knock what they did, but …

Graceland is iconic, but it’s also kinda … Black music made by a white guy for a white audience.
From a self-empowerment perspective, we’re in a different space where we’re like, Oh, that’s what they fucked with? COVID hurts because there was a lot of travel going on. A lot of people going to Ghana for the Afrochella and Afro Nation festivals …

We’ve seen a lot of changes to the way we operate as a result of COVID, including experiences that weren’t necessarily ever digital-first becoming digital-only, like films, concerts, live shows, and festivals. I saw a few Sundance films in bed last month. Do you think that we snap back to normal when things settle down, or is this kind of an egg we don’t uncrack?
It’ll be hybrid in-person. IRL is going to come back. There are some places where IRL events didn’t even stop.

We’ve seen footage. So, back in your Spotify days, you created RapCaviar, which is one of the more successful hip-hop playlists today. I wonder whether you’re aware of the criticisms of RapCaviar? Some people feel like the playlist economy is just a replication of radio. With RapCaviar, there’s the feeling that it’s less about breaking artists and more about collecting the most notable music, which can shut out underground artists. Is this new initiative an attempt to address that?
Yeah, I can’t comment on that. I think I signed something somewhere.

For the sake of the conversation, let’s say I’m a gifted up-and-coming artist struggling to find my national audience. How would I get on your radar? Or is that even something an artist should be interested in?
Build an audience. People will notice. There’s no shortcut anymore. The traffic jam is just much more packed and cluttered.

The idea being that that, now that it’s easier to get in the door, there’s more people in the room?
Building your audience is not necessarily caring what people like me think. We’ll get to you. If you build your audience, and you have enough engagement, we’ll find you.

Do you have that faith in the system the way it is now?
I think it’s much fairer than it was in the B Tuma B days.

I mean, with hope, if a person is doing good enough work, eventually they reach a point where they can’t be denied anymore. I just don’t know how easy or fair it is anymore.
It’s not easy.

There’s kind of a luck element.
It’s not luck. It’s how you differentiate yourself and how you create a distinct, authentic identity — a sonic, visual, attitudinal, experiential identity. How do you curate that and break out from everyone else? When I do public speaking, Craig, and I do a lot of public speaking, I have a mantra that I tell myself. Even before speaking to you, I was like, Just be you. No one can be you better than you. And then your truth will come out. It’ll come out your mouth. It’ll come out in your actions. The artists that I believe do that in their music and even their digital strategy. It’s not enough to just work hard. When I spoke in Australia, I told the people, “Working hard is not enough for success. It’s a lie. You have to work smart, and you have to work hard.” Working hard means being artful, unique, and original. That rigor connects; it’s transformational. A person playing your song or watching the video, they feel when you’re working on that level. But not everybody’s going to get it, and not at the same time. That’s why the whole timing thing that we were talking about earlier is so important. It’s a process, and there are going to be people who will make sacrifices on behalf of others. And there are some people who will continue things. It’s a big part of how YouTube adapts. The waves come, and we surf. That’s all we do.

That’s fair. I think that we’re on two different sides of the business. You have to have faith and trust in the advancement of tech and the goodness of that. But as a critic, I have to have healthy suspicion. When it works good, it works good, but it’s not inherently good.
I’m not saying I have faith and trust in—

That’s not what I mean. You’re more optimistic about this stuff by nature of what you’re working on. What I work on is picking that up and turning it around to see if it’s good.
By default, I’m an OG. I’ve been getting paid for this for 24 years now. Part of being an OG is cultural leadership, positivity, and giving some type of insight into the future. So I’m bringing more of an optimism because I’m seeing the trend of more opportunities opening up as a result of technology.

On the contrary, I observe patterns, and I see similarities to the past. I see playlists with formats that resemble radio. I see very specific kinds of artists topping the charts with very specific sounds. And so while I am optimistic about the opportunities we have now, and I wouldn’t even be sitting here if it weren’t for the internet, I also see the downsides.
There’s a dark side, but I’d like to focus on the upside. The pie is getting bigger. The barriers are being removed.

I feel there’s just more slices being carved out of the same pie, i.e. less pie for everyone.
I didn’t think what has happened so far was going to happen in my lifetime. When I hear records in the clubs like Burna Boy’s “Ye ye ye … ” I’m like, Is this really happening? I can tell you the first time I heard certain stuff in America, like, Oh my gosh, this is happening while I’m alive. It’s not my children’s generation. So that’s why I’m so optimistic.

I can respect that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tuma Basa Changed Spotify With a Playlist. YouTube’s Next.