Lena Waithe, Issa Rae and Kenya Barris Define a New Golden Age of Black Music With Major-Label Deals

Lena Waithe Issa Rae Kenya Barris
Waithe: Joe Pugliese; Barris: Matt Sayles/Netflix; Rae: Merie W. Wallace/HBO

Lena Waithe is on a mission to return Black music to its glory days. The multitalent, whose résumé includes hot shows like “Master of None,” “The Chi” and “Twenties,” has added head of Hillman Grad Records to her many roles, and she’s looking to vintage Black superstars from the ’90s for inspiration.

“I’m young enough to remember Toni Braxton, hearing her song [‘Love Shoulda Brought You Home’] in ‘Boomerang’ for the first time and going, ‘Who is that?,’ and then watching her career pick up and flourish,” recalls Waithe, 37, who executive produces the BET TV series based on the 1992 film. “I remember seeing Brandy’s first music video, the first episode of ‘Moesha.’ I like to watch artists evolve over time. A big thing I’m looking for is longevity.”

Her new label is a joint venture with Def Jam Recordings, home to Kanye West, LL Cool J and Jhené Aiko, and she works alongside Tebs Maqubela, head of A&R, and Albert Cooke, general manager. The trio aims to discard the ephemeral mentality prevalent in contemporary R&B and hip-hop and focus on developing artists with potential to still be vibrant and relevant in 25 years. “It’s about finding somebody with raw talent and making them pop,” Waithe says over the phone, in her first joint interview with her two top executives. “We are looking for people that haven’t popped yet but have the possibility to really be a part of the culture.”

She’s talking about Black culture, and she’s not alone in her quest to define its new golden age through music. In 2020, Issa Rae, creator, writer, producer and star of the Emmy-nominated HBO series “Insecure,” signed a deal with Atlantic Records. The legendary label that has launched stars from Aretha Franklin to Lizzo has put its industry clout behind Raedio, the label Rae founded in 2019. Meanwhile, “Black-ish” creator, writer and producer Kenya Barris is developing his own label venture with Interscope Records, whose roster includes Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga and Billie Eilish. Barris also has a deal in place with Universal Music Publishing Group.

“I think it only makes sense,” Waithe says of this expansion of Black TV and film creators into the music sphere. “Issa has been breaking artists through ‘Insecure.’ Kenya is a big music guy. He’s working on that TV show with Kid Cudi [the forthcoming animated Netflix series ‘Entergalactic’]. It’s always hand in hand. We’ve always been bumping shoulders at these parties. Music artists are fascinated by us, and we are fascinated by them. When we come together, it’s always magic.”

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Massimiliano di Lauro for Variety

Perhaps the most significant aspect of these modern-day Motown labels is the impact they will have on contemporary Black culture and the financial rewards Black performers will reap. “We feel like Black and brown artists have really been mistreated, not given their due for their music, so that was something I was going to bring upfront,” Waithe says of her initial conversations with Def Jam. “I don’t want to have artists sign deals that aren’t fair to them — and [Def Jam] agreed.”

Jeff Harleston, General Counsel and Executive Vice President of Business & Legal Affairs, Universal Music Group; Interim Chairman & CEO, Def Jam Recordings, calls it a “significant moment in Black culture expressing itself artistically.” He adds: “You have three people who have primarily achieved success in film and TV, and these deals are empowering them in ways they have not necessarily been empowered before.”

Similar to how Motown billed itself as “the sound of young America,” these labels will be driven by Black youth culture while driving it. “The majors are smart to bring on the Lenas and Issas of the world to attract kids because nowadays they watch movies as fluently as they listen to music,” says Hillman Grad’s Maqubela. “Why not create a company that can capture all that value simultaneously?”

In that sense, these aren’t mere boutique labels. Benoni Tagoe, president of Raedio, describes it as an “audio content company,” but these groundbreaking enterprises are also talent incubators that blur the line separating visual and audio arts. “Over the last 20 years, the sync community has become a more and more important part of the process of breaking artists,” says Karen Lamberton, RCA Records’ executive VP of music licensing and soundtracks, who shepherded the deal for the label to release the soundtracks for the first three seasons of “Insecure.” “The world is all about content, and all content is better with music. So the opportunities for the sync community for placing music against visuals are absolutely endless.”

From her end, Rae says the merger with Atlantic was a no-brainer: “They had such a strong belief in us and what we were capable of — for me, that’s what made the difference. When you have someone rooting for you at the very top [Atlantic chairwoman and chief operating officer Julie Greenwald], who makes herself accessible and puts forward all the resources and the best team members to set you up for success? It was an easy yes.”

These ventures aren’t meant to be vanity labels that will boost the egos of the content creators running them and help the majors look hipper by association: Instead, they are intended to be a fertile grooming ground for promising talent who will have prime placement options in TV shows and movies created by the power players at the helm. And they won’t need to build massive YouTube or TikTok followings or spend years on the road praying for a big break either. A quick drive-by in “Insecure” or “The Chi” can spike a baby act’s profile and consumption numbers — which is partly why nonmusic people like Rae, Waithe and Barris are so appealing to VIPs at the majors.

“The way Issa uses music in ‘Insecure’ has been just brilliant,” says Lanre Gaba, Atlantic Records general manager and exec VP of A&R, who helped shepherd the deal with Raedio. “Even before we partnered with her, we were able to see some of our acts, like Lizzo, have big opportunities from being featured in the show.” RCA Records Lamberton concurs: She made the deal for the label to release the soundtracks for the first three seasons of “Insecure,” and although RCA didn’t end up collaborating further with Raedio, Lamberton cites RCA recording artist SiR as a direct beneficiary of “Insecure” exposure: His songs “You Can’t Save Me” and “Mood” enjoyed streaming boosts of 50% after he appeared as a festival performer in a 2020 Season 4 episode.

Although these are fresh enterprises, they aren’t the first labels created by masters of the TV and movie mediums to get backing from the majors. For years, “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet” director Baz Luhrmann has been releasing soundtracks for his films and TV projects through RCA on his House of Iona Records. But unlike Iona, these labels are not just about putting out creative addenda. Much like traditional labels, they’re deeply invested in finding talent, shaping it and breaking it. They’ll also create unprecedented opportunities for hip-hop artists commensurate with hip-hop’s status as the most popular music genre in the U.S., while giving them the TLC major labels tend to lavish on white artists over Black ones.

Def Jam was one of the few labels after Motown to dedicate its efforts almost exclusively to Black talent, and Harleston praises Waithe for the way she uses standout music by Black artists nobody has heard of (yet), citing the 2019 film “Queen & Slim,” which she wrote and produced, as an example. “She’s been courageous and against the grain,” says Harleston. “That’s consistent with the history of Def Jam, signing artists like Public Enemy. They’re icons now, but at the time they were iconoclasts. We looked at Lena and Hillman Grad and thought they were very much on brand with Def Jam’s history and what we hope to continue going into the future.”

Waithe intends to hold up her end of the deal by continuing to be daring and allowing the artists she signs to do the same. “I don’t mind putting stuff out that doesn’t always land because I’d rather take the plane than not,” she says. “It’s all a gamble, but if you’re gonna bet, at least bet the house. Don’t just put two chips out there.”

But will these arrangements produce game changers on par with Public Enemy and LL Cool J? We’ll have to wait and see. Raedio’s releases have included the fourth-season soundtrack for “Insecure” and albums by Haitian American singer TeaMarrr and singer-rapper Yung Baby Tate, the 25-year-old daughter of former Arrested Development member Dionne Farris. (Raedio has signed four artists so far.) Hillman Grad is still developing its roster, and although Waithe and company will focus primarily on breaking new Black talent, including queer artists, they’ll also offer a relaunching pad to vintage artists looking for a recording reboot. (Hello, Anita Baker?) “It’s really important for us to support artists of color that have paved the way for us previously,” says Cooke. “If the Rolling Stones needed a recording home, every executive that loved the Rolling Stones growing up would figure out a way to help them because they understand the importance of the Rolling Stones and culture. I feel like when it comes to Black artists and Black creatives, we should also have the same opportunity to support the artists that paved the way for us to be able to get here.”

Of course, given that this is the music business, it’s ultimately about success, not charity. These quid pro quo mashups give major labels access to taste-making TV shows and films for their unknown artists, while the TV moguls-turned-music bigwigs gain access to industry expertise as well as vast catalogs of classic tunes. “Having a relationship with Atlantic definitely makes things easier because [their library] is just one phone call away,” says Tagoe, the former Jonas Brothers manager, whose working relationship with Rae dates back more than a decade. “We’re also able to get access to [Atlantic Records] music early, before it’s released.”

It’s not just about tunes. The labels will help acts break into other areas while building their musical followings. TeaMarrr, Raedio’s flagship signee, has already reaped the benefits of “Insecure” exposure, and she’s plotting world domination with Raedio. “They’re like the Marvel universe,” says the singer-songwriter billed as the First Lady of Raedio. “They have a whole bunch of little universes within them. They do radio, film, TV and soundtracks. I would love it if they helped me get into scoring music for movies and screenplay writing. I also want to open swim schools in inner cities to teach kids how to swim, because 71% of the Earth is water, and not a lot of kids my complexion know how to swim.”

Despite the promise of a new golden era for Black creativity, not all artists are so eager to take a leap of faith by jumping into bed with the majors. Before signing with Raedio, TeaMarrr turned down several offers from other labels for fear of losing creative control. That’s precisely why Malcolm Spellman, the veteran TV writer and producer (“Empire,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”), who started the Oakland-based Storefront Records about six years ago under the name Blackball Universe, remains defiantly indie. Storefront’s focus act, roots artist Fantastic Negrito, has won Grammys for all three albums he has released on the label, and he’s received an endorsement from Mick Jagger, who tweeted about Negrito’s brilliance after his third-best contemporary blues album win. Spellman says one major “approached with the attitude of ‘Here’s what we can do for you.’ And it was all in the wrong direction. It was all about reshaping and ‘rebranding’ and partnerships with artists who no one at our label would ever really want to be partnered with.”

If there are any control issues with Raedio and Hillman Grad (Barris’ Interscope venture is somewhat of a mystery, seemingly even for those working at the label), none of the parties involved acknowledges them. “When it comes to signing artists, marketing artists and distributing projects, we work in lockstep with Atlantic,” Tagoe says. “They’ve been great partners on that.” Maqubela describes a similar dynamic with Def Jam. “Sometimes we set the vision, and they enhance it. Sometimes Def Jam comes with a great idea, and we expand from there. It allows us both to be in the driver’s seat of decision-making instead of being something that is unilateral.”

It’s all about great partners, and although Rae recently revealed to Rolling Stone that she feels a bit like a fish out of water in the music business, she’s starting to get the hang of it, thanks to her collaborators. “I am confident in what I bring to the table for any business, but I also know my limits,” she says. “I also knew I’d be very transparent with our partners, execs, artists, etc., about what we’d be learning along the way, and if they felt comfortable coming along for the ride, we’d be good.”

Waithe, meanwhile, is eager to deep dive further into the uncharted waters of a new industry. “It’s definitely a different space for [me],” she confesses. “But there are similarities as well. Ultimately, artists relate to artists. It’s been a wonderful experience to hear from everybody and learn as much as I can. I love music, and I love this world.”