Urban One's Cathy Hughes on the Importance of 'Creating Your Own Table'

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Urban One Inc. founder/chairperson Cathy Hughes, with co-emcee Dyana Williams, after receiving the Rhapsody & Rhythm Award at the National Museum of African American Music’s 2016 Legends Luncheon. 

Cathy Hughes broke the glass ceiling in 1980 when she founded the media company Radio One, starting with Washington, D.C. AM talk outlet WOL. Nearly 40 years later, Hughes presides as chairperson of Urban One Inc., the umbrella entity for Radio One (now the largest African American-owned-and-operated radio chain), sister television network TV One and Reach Media, among other divisions.

As Black Music Month 2018 comes to a close, Hughes reflects on lessons learned during her game-changing entrepreneurial journey and paying it forward to the next generation of African American music industry executives and entrepreneurs. "Among the many lessons that I have learned,” writes Hughes, “none is as poignant and relevant as the importance of creating your own table. It is critical.”

Black Music Month is an annual reminder of the power and impact of black people on the international music scene. It is our way of heralding not only our accomplishments but also the men and women who have created a space and place for black music around the world. I was just starting my company, Radio One, when the inaugural Black Music Month was celebrated in 1979, thanks to the efforts of co-founders Dyana Williams, Kenny Gamble and Ed Wright. 

At that time, black music had a place on the airwaves. However, we had limited seats at the table and little to no decision-making power about how our music would be programmed. That is why “The Quiet Storm,” a new radio format that I developed during my tenure as general manager at WHUR at Howard University in Washington, D.C., was such a defining moment in my career and our history. The format, which featured R&B ballads and aired on over 480 stations nationwide, not only demonstrated that we support our own but also that decision-makers who looked like us could create dynamic change in the music and radio industries.

Among the many lessons that I have learned throughout my career, none is as poignant and relevant as the importance of creating your own table. It is critical in order for African-American music, culture and perspectives to get the honor they deserve -- authentically and without time constraints. It is necessary not only to ensure the creation and curation of our myriad art forms but also to provide opportunities to raise the next generation of skilled entrepreneurs and business leaders who are prepared to move our industries forward. The ability of black artists to produce new genres of music, shape culture, define eras and earn billions of dollars is undeniable. With nearly 15 years on the BMI board, I know firsthand that R&B and hip-hop are the top-selling genres in America.

I began my company as the only black person and only female in many corporate settings. More than 35 years later, I still see few-to-no seats available for African Americans and women. We cannot wait for the industry to change. We must be the change, as we have been so many times in the past.  We must exhibit the entrepreneurial spirit of our ancestors and not only be music innovators but also industry makers. Our profitable music should continue to offshoot new companies, non-profits, technology and other entities led for us and by us.

I am a big proponent of visionaries who dare to think big and innovatively about framing the black narrative. That is why I was proud to see high-profile branding executive Bozoma Saint John assume the role of chief marketing officer for the media giant Endeavor. Her decision to help shape stories about diversity and inclusion is a step in the right direction. Saint John, best known as the branding guru behind Apple Music and, most recently, fixer for Uber’s tarnished image, is committed to creating a pulse on pop culture where people of color and women are integral players and not marginalized.

I am also proud of organizations like the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) that are also shaping the narrative of black music. Set to open in Nashville in 2019, NMAAM (http://www.NMAAM.org) is dedicating nearly 30,000 square feet of exhibit space (within a 56,000 total sq. ft. project) to telling our story. We need key cultural institutions that are telling the story and impact of African-American culture through music. 

Though not exclusively, it is through African-American music that people of different walks of life can gain a deeper understanding of black culture -- our history, shared experiences, diversity and outlook for the future. Yet inclusivity and authenticity will only take place when African-American men and women stand at the helm of their own businesses, telling their own stories, framing their own narratives and creating spaces to do so. For far too long, we have entrusted other cultures to preserve and tell the story of our music.