This story is part of Billboard‘s annual Women in Music list, which spotlights more than 200 female executives and activists changing the industry.
The day a multibillion-dollar industry stood still: That’s how June 2, 2020, will always be remembered by those in the music business, thanks to the fearless impulse of two young Black female executives. After Minneapolis police suffocated George Floyd in late May, protests against racial injustice erupted nationwide, and friends Brianna Agyemang, 32, and Jamila Thomas, 35, considered taking a day away from work to vent their own frustration and anger. Instead, the New York natives turned their proposed time off into a movement. Calling for a day of widespread reckoning — dubbed Blackout Tuesday by some supporters — Agyemang, who is the senior artist campaign manager at Apple’s Platoon division, and Thomas, the senior director of marketing at Atlantic Records, took the entire industry to task for fostering systemic bias while historically profiting from Black music. #TheShowMustBePaused was launched.
“Once we sent our graphic out through social media [on May 31] and it went viral, we didn’t flinch,” recalls Agyemang. “We knew what we had to do. And it was time to get it done.” Shared over 700,000 times on Instagram, their hashtag appeared at the bottom of a black square against which the duo’s mission was explained in stark white letters: “To hold the music industry accountable and transparent in its practices across representation, social responsibility and holistic compensation as it pertains to its Black artists, partners and staff.”
On June 2, Agyemang and Thomas hosted three discussion groups joined by 1,500 invitees from the Black music community. Meanwhile, Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and other companies suspended normal operations to organize workshops and conversations for their employees. Spotify and Apple Music, as well as numerous radio stations, offered playlists and other programming focused on Black music and artists.
As companies established in-house task forces to address diversity, inclusion and equity issues and created funds to donate millions of dollars in support of racial justice organizations, Agyemang and Thomas spent the next 90 days galvanizing their organization’s membership and developing an action plan. On Sept. 2, #TheShowMustBePaused shifted into phase two as its founders wrote an op-ed for Billboard with a list of demands for music companies, calling for “radical activism [in] restructuring the organization within music industry companies to gain more room for growth opportunities for Black people.”
“Change has to come,” says Thomas. “It has been amazing to see so many people offering their help and support, wanting to talk about what they’re doing on their side and how we can work together for the greater cause and the greater good.”
Those who know Agyemang and Thomas weren’t surprised to see how their passion powered #TheShowMustBePaused. Pointing to Agyemang’s “gracious, humble and fighting spirit,” Platoon co-founder/CEO Denzyl Feigelson says that she and Thomas “seized the moment with clarity, trusted their deepest intuitions and acted on the frustrations of their generation and those prior. Their courageous leap of faith has given a voice to those who need it — which is why the initiative will continue to be a pivotal, long-lasting change campaign in our industry.”
Katina Bynum’s relationship with mentee Thomas dates back several years, including when Bynum, then senior vp of marketing at Cash Money/Young Money/Republic, hired the young woman as a coordinator in 2014. Bynum — now executive vp East Coast labels, urban for Universal Music Enterprises — remembers Thomas as inquisitive from the get-go.
“We’ve had lots of discussions about how to break artists and how to advance at the labels,” says Bynum. “Jamila always wanted to grow and know the good, the bad and the ugly about the music industry. She cares about her peers as well. I’d tell her and her friends that they are the next generation — that it’s on them to keep the flame going.”
Turning the #TheShowMustBePaused movement into sustainable change will take longer than the nearly seven months that have elapsed since Floyd’s death. But Agyemang and Thomas say they already see some progress, with the major-label groups and other music companies promoting and hiring more Black C-suite executives and diversity officers; supporting inhouse task forces to address compensation and other inequities; and fostering outreach to the Black community at large through educational and philanthropic initiatives.
As for how their own lives have changed, both women say #TheShowMustBePaused empowered them to take ownership of their self-worth. “Black women are never credited for our work, always hiding how we feel,” says Agyemang. “That’s part of the reason why we had to step to the forefront. This needed to be done: trailblazing a new path for our generation and beyond in the industry.”
Breaking artists is still Thomas’ passion, “but now I’ve also found confidence and purpose as a change-maker,” she says. “I would love for companies to keep the same public and boastful energy we saw during Blackout [Tuesday]. So Brianna and I are tied at the hip as we continue to hold the music industry accountable. The fight isn’t over.”