When Spotify’s Frequency initiative for amplifying Black creators hosted a songwriting camp last month, Grammy-nominated producer Tommy “TBHits” Brown found himself spending a lot of time in the kitchen instead of the studio. “Everybody came in the kitchen,” he recalls. “Some people have had big careers, some people haven’t had big careers, but it’s the place where everybody could communicate and that’s an important place. The studio is a place where we go to throw pain and be creative and figure it out. But it’s always the kitchen where the relationships are built, where the magic is made — where you break bread, like Jesus did.”
From Nov. 8-11, around 25 seasoned and sapling Black artists, producers and songwriters — such as Amorphous, James Fauntleroy, Ant Clemons, Saba, Teddy Walton, Jean Deaux and Amindi — cooked up songs together at Frequency’s first-ever Song Shop at Santa Monica’s Windmark Recording studios. They congregated and created in a space Sydney Lopes, Spotify’s head of hip-hop and R&B, artist and label partnerships, describes as “comfortable and warm and welcoming,” and involving “creative discussion, dancing, musical output, collaboration, singing.”
Lopes was part of a group of eight Black playlist editors, marketing leads and producers at Spotify who figured out how to consistently roll out content and programs that kept subscribers’ eyes peeled and ears to the ground for Black artists, long after the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 brought new attention to them.
Last summer, digital and streaming providers (DSPs) rushed to curate and rebrand playlists that reflected the blues the nation felt as a whole. After creating its Black Lives Matter playlist in 2015 following the death of Sandra Bland, Spotify saw its subscribers grow 1000% on June 2, which was referred to as “Blackout Tuesday” by many after music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang co-founded #TheShowMustBePaused racial equality movement in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Apple Music also suspended its Beats 1 radio schedule that day and redirected users to #TheShowMustBePaused stream that gave Black music the singular spotlight as well as a “For Us, By Us” playlist.
But as months passed after major streaming services made these grand gestures — which also included pledging millions of dollars to various racial equality programs — many seemed to go back to regularly scheduled programming. The commitment to Black lives and art seemed to be limited to time, with seasonal catalysts during Black History Month in February and Black Music Month in June.
But in May of this year, Spotify officially launched Frequency, a global initiative for Black music, entertainment and culture to live and flourish on and off the platform year-round. While Spotify’s ongoing Black History is Happening Now hub celebrates the rich history and legacy of Black artists, Frequency focuses on amplifying the voices of today’s emerging and established Black artists who are pushing the culture forward, together. And the creators behind Frequency are giving them the right platform to do so.
Its first wave involved the creation of four main playlist hubs: “This is Frequency,” the flagship playlist showcasing new releases from Black artists of all mainstream and niche genres; “Ripple Effect,” which breaks undiscovered artists and highlights hometown heroes based on various U.S. regions; “House Party,” which amplifies Black music made for nightlife; and “Heard You,” a guest-curated list of podcast episodes that ensure Black voices are heard.
“The biggest thing we’ve identified is that the Black experience is a very wide spectrum of things – genres, topics, cultures and traditions. It’s really layered, and that’s what makes it really beautiful,” Lopes tells Billboard. “My hope is that we continue to tell more stories, break down stereotypes, and then find ways to push the narrative and open doors for more Black creators to be able to enter the industry.”
The initiative’s second wave includes the new Raising the Frequency Ambassador Program, which recently selected its first cohort of Frequency Ambassadors: multi-platinum producer Brown, who’s worked with pop and hip-hop’s biggest stars such as Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Megan Thee Stallion, 2 Chainz, Meghan Trainor, and many more; Archie Davis, CEO of Six Course Inc. and co-founder of Proximity Media who helped oversee the soundtracks for the Fred Hampton biopic Judas and the Black Messiah and the 2021 sequel Space Jam: A New Legacy; Monique Blake, Swizz Beatz’s longtime manager who helped bring her client and Timbaland’s Verzuz battles to the big screen with its Apple Music partnership; and Eve Fairley-Chickwe, director of A&R at AWAL who’s previously signed Little Simz, Koffee, Frank Ocean’s collaborator Vegyn, and more.
“We wanted to pick key stakeholders in the industry who exemplify the ways in which we would like to partner with artists, just based on their portfolios of work,” says Lopes, adding that the inclusion of U.K.-based Fairley-Chickwe to the program allows the streaming giant to explore “another lane of Black culture.” “Our hope is to give them their flowers and then allow them to consult us in ways we could be better with Black creatives. Overall, I feel like it’s win-win in that we all learn from each other and then we build these really strong relationships that, hopefully in the future, inform our creative strategies and how we partner with artists.”
“The really dope part about all of these initiatives is that they’re so collaborative, and we were able to get honest feedback from the ambassadors, which is what makes this program so special and authentic,” adds Kimmy Summers, Spotify’s hip-hop and R&B manager, artist and label partnerships, about the ethos of Frequency’s Ambassador program.
Brown, Davis, Blake and Fairley-Chickwe attended and helped select the attendees of Frequency’s Song Shop earlier last month, which had an estimated total of 100 people (including the camp’s partners, Spotify staffers and music industry folk) and was co-hosted by Spotify’s Noteable division for songwriters, producers and publishers. “Masego wasn’t part of the sessions, but he came through and was just playing his guitar. It was a testament of the vibe that we all created there,” says Summers. “We also kept in mind the people that we supported throughout the years. During [Frequency’s] launch, we supported Amorphous and we wanted to invite him back and have a good check-in with him. We supported Saba and Jean Deaux with billboards in their hometowns, so we definitely wanted to invite them and show love. It’s about that steady support of these artists.”
For Davis, “setting these vibes” in the studio and connecting with people on the same frequency, “down to the heartbeat,” was key to making the experience magical and therapeutic. “Coming off of this pandemic, finding a place for people to congregate and be able to be free creatively was cool,” he said. He’s played an instrumental role in putting the best people for the job all on the same project, from mixing rap newcomers Nardo Wick and Pooh Shiesty with genre veterans Rakim and Jay-Z on the Judas and the Black Messiah soundtrack, to recruiting an all-star pop and hip-hop team including the Jonas Brothers and Salt-N-Pepa for the Space Jam: A New Legacy soundtrack.
Such collaborative efforts have certainly paid off for Davis: A standout from the Judas soundtrack, H.E.R.’s “Fight For You,” went on to win an Oscar for best original song this year and has earned three 2022 Grammy nominations, including song of the year. “From my first conversation that I had with H.E.R., it was like, ‘Archie, I really feel like I could deliver a masterpiece,'” he recalls. “And she did that.
When real-life stories about Black leaders like Chairman Hampton are scarcely taught in U.S. school curriculums, music can adopt the role as educator and act, as Davis puts it, “an entry point to a story that they may not know.” Black music becomes the textbook kids don’t have access to, with their favorite artists narrating the history of how the people who look like them left a mark on this country. And Spotify’s Frequency team is giving Black creators the space to tell and share their stories on a bigger platform – even if the platform itself doesn’t have roots in Black culture or on U.S. soil.
While Lopes notes that the Song Shop was “Black from top to bottom,” the Swedish-based audio company doesn’t reflect that picture. According to its 2020 Sustainability, Equity and Impact Report, only 8.3% of Spotify’s U.S.-based employees are Black, and people of color account for only 23% of those in leadership within its U.S. division. Being the world’s most popular audio streaming subscription service, with 381 million users across 184 markets, Spotify heard the Frequency team’s pitch on creating a brand to connect with its Black audiences around the world and supported it.
“We all learned very quickly how important it is to actually be on the ground with artists, songwriters, producers so that they see that there are Black employees at Spotify that reflect them and hope to support them in ways that Spotify hasn’t before,” says Lopes. “My hope is that we can continue to do some of that groundwork more as we move forward.”
Brown also sees the ambassadorship as “a starting place to build the bridge between writers and producers and Spotify. There’s no doubt that there’s friction there.” Last December, Spotify showed how it was trying to minimize that friction by introducing the Songwriters Hub, where users can explore songwriters and producers’ expansive portfolios via Songwriter Pages, which features their credits, and Written By playlists, which showcases their work.
Brown’s Songwriter Page, for example, highlights the 125 songs he’s co-written that are available on the streaming service, most of which come from Grande’s six studio albums. But its public-facing measures didn’t shield Spotify’s legal battle with songwriters and publishers after the company appealed the Copyright Royalty Board’s decision in 2018 to substantially increase rates for songwriters, publishers and performance rights organizations (PROs) by more than 40% over five years. For Brown, rehabilitating those relationships between streaming companies and songwriters and producers starts by being in the same room together and speaking the same language when it comes to creators fighting for their proper compensation.
“Before you go in — everybody fights for something, which I understand — you have to be able to speak all the languages of the people in the room,” Brown explains. “So if you can’t speak all the languages, you can’t be the translator. So there needs to be a person that sits in between the hostility and everything else to be like, ‘OK, what’s the objective? What’s the goal? This is how we get there.’ You can go and say, ‘I need my bag, I need my coin.’ But you also need to know how to do it. It’s about learning, hearing and understanding. And a key word that I learned is empathy.”
Some songwriting camps have a specific outlet for the songs that come out of it already in mind. For example, Issa Rae’s Raedio label hosted one this past spring in L.A., where invited artists, songwriters and producers collaborated on records that could be featured on the fifth and final season of Rae’s hit HBO series Insecure, with lucrative synch placements being the camp’s enticing factor. For Frequency’s Song Shop, it was all about providing the space and resources for Black creators to work together on music that deserves a bigger platform — and placements on Spotify playlists aren’t off the table.
“We recognize that there’s a lot we can do with the music that was created,” Lopes explains. “We have the entire Frequency hub, there’s a number of placements that we could put the music once it does come out. Our hope is that everyone who participated reach back out to us, that we know when [the songs are] coming, and we figure out how to tell that story.”
The third wave of the Frequency program includes a $100,000 scholarship fund, which Spotify’s internal diversity and inclusion team helped solidify the funds for and partner with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). Eight Black college students aspiring to break into the music industry will benefit from the scholarship, which will be open in spring 2022. And Summers says the Frequency Ambassadors will have a hand in picking those recipients. “That’s another way that we wanted to give back to the community,” she adds. “How can we support young Black students? How can we support the community and offer these resources that Spotify has?”
The Frequency team hopes that next year as the program nears its first anniversary, it will continue building on the local work it’s been doing, from “highlighting regional playlists, which separates us from some of the other DSPs,” Lopes says of their “Ripple Effect” playlists, to “sponsoring different parties from Everyday People to DLT [Days Like This] in the U.K.,” says Summers about their “House Party” in-person initiative. “Being on the ground and seeing the community that they’re bringing together is incredibly important for us,” she adds.