But, as Manda said best, even as LVRN’s roster grows and its artists hit new career highs, what remains most compelling is the success of the men behind the label. All five are first-generation immigrants with roots in Jamaica, Trinidad, Ghana and Nigeria. And though their parents were reluctantly supportive, not knowing if music was the most financially sound decision for their sons, they’ve more than proved themselves. [My mom] didn’t understand it until I brought home a [platinum] plaque for Rihanna’s ‘Loveeeeeee Song,’” says Balogun [he was managing producers of the 2013 single at the time]. “She finally got bragging rights that she could tell her friends about.”
Running a record label as five young black men is a daunting responsibility in an often-cutthroat and whitewashed music industry. But the co-founders feel that despite an increasingly tense political climate, the music industry, at least, has been forced to open up: “There seems to be a way to treat ‘urban’ acts, from what kind of deals they’re given, how venues treat them, says Baiden. “But you can’t lie to us anymore and tell us that we’re not popping. You’re gonna respect Lil Uzi Vert as much as you do Kacey Musgraves. Now that we all know that, the best thing is to figure out how to devise a plan to make sure we maintain control and equity in everything that we do -- because we can easily get robbed.”
With its artists on an upward climb, LVRN is now turning its attention on itself. Recently, the co-founders have transformed LVRN’s flagship Atlanta office into a hub that offers local creatives a free space to take meetings. Next? They plan to go Hollywood. They are consulting on films and developing an untitled scripted TV series that they hope to sell to a major network, which Manda is all for. “They're responsible business owners [and understand] they have a big responsibility to artists day in and day out because this is their livelihood. They’re not spending the money on Ferraris and yachts in the Mediterranean.”
But, amidst so much change, the team’s big-picture goal remains the same: Advancing black industry executives. “We’re a united front,” Balogun explains. “The greatest things to happen to black music is the Music Modernization Act and streaming. You can’t deny [our impact] or force-feed people shit anymore.”
That “you,” the co-founders say, largely falls on the media, including Billboard. “Billboard is doing what everyone else is, and that’s sectioning [us],” Baiden says. Adds Balogun, “It’s crazy that you see the same people over and over again [on The Power 100]. The president of a label should get recognized, but if 75 percent of your label’s market share came from black artists, don’t you think your urban department should be on the Power 100 with you? I get why these executives are up at the top, but who’s really doing the work?” [Editor’s note: Joie Manda, who also heads Interscope's urban department, was on 2019’s The Power 100].
Even so, such racial disparities only drive LVRN even more. “If there were five white boys doing what we’re doing, they’d be getting more money, more recognition and they’d have a Billboard cover,” says Balogun. “It’s not right when our culture is doing everything. But we’re not going to complain -- we just have to work harder and show everybody what’s up.
A version of this article originally ran in the March 2 issue of Billboard.