Opportunities in Hip-Hop, R&B & Gospel Take Center Stage at the 2018 Billboard Live Music Summit

'Investing in Hip-Hop, R&B & Gospel' panel
Willy Sanjuan/PictureGroup

'Investing in Hip-Hop, R&B & Gospel' panel during the 2018 Billboard Live Music Summit + Awards at the Montage Beverly Hills on Nov. 14, 2018 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Panelists included Jonathan Azu from Red Light Management, Live Nation Urban's Shawn Gee, Marcus Allen of Broccoli City and 12-time Grammy-winning gospel singer & CEO of Fo Yo Soul Entertainment Kirk Franklin.

"The biggest investment is in people," said Red Light Management senior executive Jonathan Azu, at the top of the appropriately-titled Investing in Hip-Hop, R&B, & Gospel panel at the 2018 Billboard Live Music Summit on Wednesday (Nov. 14). That sentiment was echoed throughout the conversation, moderated by Billboard's Gail Mitchell, which focused on empowering and building up the black music community and its live industry sector at a time when the mainstream has taken particular interest in the rise and domination of hip-hop and R&B during the streaming era.

Joining Azu on the panel were Shawn Gee, president of Live Nation Urban; 12-time Grammy-winning gospel singer & CEO of Fo Yo Soul Entertainment Kirk Franklin; and Marcus Allen, co-founder of Washington D.C.-based music festival Broccoli City. And despite the focus on hip-hop and R&B in the broader music business, Franklin set out a compelling case for gospel music to not be forgotten.

"To be able to have this cohesive conversation about black music, gospel music must be included in the conversation because of how it continues to birth all the musicians in it," he said. "If you go to a Justin Timberlake concert, his whole band is church boys. If you go to a Beyoncé concert, the whole band is church boys... So it's very important, and wise, for the business community to tap in and see the value of the foundational sounds that continue to fuel what we call pop music."

Gee, who launched Live Nation Urban (LNU) just 18 months ago, has played a central role in bringing the infrastructure of the world's biggest promoter to events that specifically cater to these genres. The first deal LNU made was with Broccoli City, which helped the festival grow from 12,000 attendees to 35,000 in the past year. He also partnered with Franklin to create a gospel music festival called Exodus Music & Artist, which Franklin hosted for the first time this year.

"The narrative is we're solely about hip-hop, R&B and gospel. We have blinders on. And we want artists to incubate ideas within that," Gee said, noting that he invests in entrepreneurs. He said he sees his role as helping those artists and entrepreneurs to realize their vision, rather than take a controlling interest and, as Azu put it, "Apply this lacquer and paint over it." LNU, each panelist agreed, takes an opposite approach.

"I said, 'Kirk, you are the JAY-Z of this genre. Why isn't there a true festival in this space?'" Gee said about his conversations with Franklin that led to the creation of Exodus. "The problem was, there were no outlets for them to leave the church."

"What I sold him on was, 'I want to curate hope.' And he understood that concept," Franklin added. He mentioned Aretha Franklin's funeral, calling that effectively a gospel festival: "Because that community is so under-served, they'll get it any way they can. Even if that's tuning into a funeral."

Still, there are obstacles, especially in a genre that is seen as en vogue at the moment. "When things are white-hot, everybody wants to be around them," Azu said. "And you find people entering the room who ... when you distill it down, are only there for monetary reasons. We're about building careers, not building moments."

Gee agreed. "We're a trend in the eyes of many people," he said. "Part of the problem is that, in many aspects of entertainment, we're not in a position to greenlight our own culture. So no matter how great an idea is, someone else has to say yes. That's why I invest in entrepreneurs."

Allen said that one of the biggest obstacles for Broccoli City was gatekeepers who, when considering investing in the festival, weren't sold on the growth potential -- and that Gee and LNU helped ease those issues. "You have to really know where the money is," he said. Referencing the influence of LNU, he added, "You talk about sports teams -- one great player could change the whole dynamic."

And while so much of the conversation is focused on hip-hop, the panelists stressed that R&B's bright young stars are continuing a tradition that never went away, even if the mainstream stopped paying attention. And gospel still influences music in ways that many don't always recognize right away. Franklin mentioned Chance The Rapper's Coloring Book, which won a Grammy for best rap album and yet was entirely infused by gospel themes and sounds, including Franklin himself, as well as his own appearance at Pitchfork Festival, where he said he was surprised at how many kids knew his music.

"All of these pop artists glean from gospel music," he said. "Everyone since Elvis, The Rolling Stones ... from Kanye on, it's a very musical space, that now with LN we're getting a chance to shine the light on what is going on." (Azu's take: "The reason people are showing up is because gospel/R&B singers are the best. Just being real -- technically, the best.")

Gee returned again a few times to the point about gatekeepers and the fact that black entrepreneurs still often need someone from outside the culture to greenlight projects, due to the lack of an infrastructure specifically designed for that music and culture. "At the executive level, we need to reach down, pull up, teach and incubate that next generation of executives," he said, noting the lack of prominent African-American executives in the live music space. "At the end of the day it's systemic, but we as a group have to change that."


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