I represent the culture”: uniting music scenes with YouTube’s Tuma Basa

When Octavian met Burna Boy: an all-star Excellence Brunch shows how the video platform is bridging the gaps between artists, audiences and wider music communities around the world.

A wet and windy Sunday afternoon in the midst of what feels like storm season 2020 couldn’t stop a legion of UK artists parlaying and partaying at in the name of black British distinction.

Music industry events for artists and insiders, of course, are nothing new. But there was admittedly something a bit special about YouTube’s Excellence Brunch, which took place at London’s 14 Hills restaurant in celebration of the strides made in black British music and culture. 

The brunch was timely, too, given the triumph that was the BRIT Awards, which took place two days later. Not only did Stormzy and Dave win British Male and British Album of The Year respectively, they wowed the nation’s living room with performances for the ages. Dave’s no-holds-barred critique of British society spoke volumes to communities encountering racism, prejudice and injustice on a daily basis. Stormzy, clad in all black, employed black people of all shapes and sizes to celebrate the glory of the African motherland and diaspora. 

Two sides of the same coin of black Britishness, its hardships and its prosperity.

At the Sunday YouTube meet-up, seeing artists such as Jorja Smith, Ms Banks, AJ Tracey and Octavian break bread with Julie Adenuga, DJ Target, Twin B and other ascendant industry figures was a sight to behold. Reuniting with UK drill kings Skengdo x AM months after our initial meeting for The Face, the feeling of bewilderment was mutual. This was a moment, and overwhelmed only just begins to describe it. 

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For Tuma Basa, YouTube’s Director of Urban Music, the brunch was symbolic of his M.O. since joining the streaming giant in June 2018: to connect the dots between cultures, to nurture artists, to aid their growth. 

With a CV including spells at BET, MTV, Revolt and Spotify, New York-based Basa – who devised the immensely influential Rap Caviar playlist (with some nine million followers) brought his skills and connections to YouTube Music. Reporting to industry veteran Lyor Cohen, the company’s Global Head of Music, Basa’s expertise filters into his role of programming content to further engage with the urban music community. And it’s a community Basa knows better than most: the 44-year-old has worked with – and boosted the careers of – Rae Sremmurd, Migos, Lil Uzi Vert, Wizkid, Burna Boy and countless others.

His appointment 18 months ago coincided with the increasing prominence of a number of company-wide YouTube initiatives, set on building the artists of the past, present and future. Artist Spotlight Stories chronicle the journeys of musicians on the rise. The Foundry serves as YouTube Music’s international artist development program, encompassing a number of workshops aimed at giving artists the tools to boost their presence on the platform. Meanwhile, the introduction of their vast playlist ecosystem keeps them on the pulse of all popular music. 

With these tools and more, Basa is leading the platform towards the fluid music community he envisions. The Face spoke to him during his short stay in London over BRITs week about his come up, the future of YouTube Music and the trajectory of global music.

You have quite an interesting background: born to Rwandan parents and a childhood spent between Zimbabwe and America… 

Without those experiences, a lot of the things I’m able to accomplish now, I wouldn’t have been able to. When I’m mentoring young people, I talk to them about their cross-cultural capacity and intra-cultural competence. Every day, you’re connecting with different cultures. It’s not a prerequisite to have this movement, but it prepared me to be able to do what I do.

Has music always been a big part of your life?

My father is much more passionate about music than I am, he just never had the opportunities I had – otherwise he’d be doing better than me. He grew up in the Congo which, at the time, was the epicentre for African music, especially in the Francophone world. He loved reggae, James Brown, Michael Jackson, The Beatles especially as he went to America for his Masters. He loved Fela Kuti but I always thought his songs were too long! Like, when is it going to end? [laughs] Then the whole family moved to the States in the 80s and we watched nothing but music videos on MTV all day. Eurythmics, Human League, that was our reality.

How and when did you first encounter rap?

That was such a coincidence because I went to private school in Zimbabwe in 1988. [I was] coming from Iowa in the States [and] I was coming from more of a pop background. So, I only really knew about the Fat Boys where everyone was bumping LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow. I didn’t know shit! So, I left the States as the culture was shifting towards rap and I had to play catch up.

You wanted to rap as well, right?

Yeah, I was B Tuma B in the 90s. But in Zimbabwe at that time it was really difficult – like, how am I getting this demo tape to an A&R? How am I getting in touch with a magazine editor? Especially if you don’t have money. In 2020 B Tuma B would probably be Lil Tuma B, and he has YouTube and social media to brand himself, monetise and build. He is very aware he has the choice and avenues available to do it, [to] dig deeper in curating himself and keeping it going. In Zimbabwe, he would be Kanye or Drake right now!

That’s quite a big statement.

People take YouTube for granted, it’s part of their everyday life so much they forget how much it contributes. There are a lot of underappreciated people with dope cultures that weren’t getting the spotlight they deserved before but now are because of the way they’ve utilised [YouTube], in the same way rock stars used the radio back in the day. 

How does your acceptance of these cultures and these artists translate into championing them via YouTube?

[In] our Foundry workshops, our Artist Relations department, working with artists on marketing, investments. YouTube and Rema worked together recently on a Foundry, hence his big billboard in Times Square. Now the rest of the world wants to know who this guy is at a very early stage of his career. We have our playlist ecosystem – we just launched On Everything in the States – and other programmes with people like Mr Eazi, giving them the task of developing artists from scratch. Our spotlight on Burna let a lot of people know that he is the guy!

YouTube showed not only Megan Thee Stallion’s personality but her creativity too. Brittany Lewis, from our Artist Relations team, worked closely with Megan and her team to showcase that, by building with her and listening to what her ideas were. It resulted in a scripted series on YouTube called Hottieween, where she’s a private investigator in a horror.

At the crux of it all, what does YouTube offer artists that the other streaming platforms don’t?

We have so many territories, active users. We’ve built an ecosystem that people can use to live out their lives, whether they’re cooking or gaming, whatever. We’re taking advantage of our already existing usership. It’s the global reach. If I’m in Milwaukee, now I can find out who Aitch or Mahalia is, and you don’t have to know where they come from. I can now dig deeper into their catalogue and what they’re about, the commentary around them. Taking them in now becomes a deeper experience for the user. Lyor is really big on that as well.

Do you feel that, these days, when global artists start to blow up, it aids the infrastructure of the music scene in that region?

Absolutely, because it allows for exposure, for monetisation, for artists to make money at shows. There are now new ways to succeed. Koffee doesn’t have to go to a radio station and hope they play Toast, for example, because there are now new resources and attention paid to a new generation via YouTube.

What’s it like working with Lyor Cohen?

He’s really fun. He shares a lot of his experiences through anecdotes and philosophies and there is never a dull day. He knows a lot of interesting people so there’s always someone popping by. It’s challenging – he’s always pushing you, and he’s a very honest guy, he doesn’t hold back. He’ll tell you that you’re slipping and that you need to step up a level, pay attention to these details, et cetera. He wants to see us win, and that’s a comforting feeling from a psychological perspective: having someone like that so secure in themselves wanting to see you grow.

What do you think of the UK’s music scene?

It’s funny because before the brunch I was at the barbers and we were listening to D‑Block Europe and Octavian. His shit is good, and the context is important. His story and come up makes me more appreciative of his music. In the States we know about the Skeptas and Stormzys. But when you come here and dig deeper you realise there is so much to like. It still feels really early to me in terms of how far [the scene] can go, and it feels like there is a history that’s being lived right now. 

Which global musicians are you feeling at the moment?

I love Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Diamond Platinumz out in Tanzania. When I was over there last December, all I was hearing was his song Yope, it was like a frenzy. He’s doing Michael Jackson moves in the video as well!

Speaking of videos, who do you believe is the new super music video director, in the vein of a Hype Williams?

Cole Bennett is the Hype Williams of this new young generation. It’s not only artists and music industry folks that know his work, it’s also fans watching videos on his Lyrical Lemonade page. Cole Bennett’s ear is as good as his eyes, too. A lot of the songs that he chooses to direct become hits.

What are the next natural steps in growth for global hip-hop and urban music?

I see the disconnection between cultures getting addressed. There’s a lot of pollination happening right now, but the centrality isn’t happening. 

That’s where artists like Burna Boy are important for bridging that cultural gap.

They’re critical, especially in the English-speaking world. In the Francophone world there’s a lot more fluidity between music and cultures – something spreads rapidly across France, Senegal, Mali… 

I feel like in Britain that we’re a lot more accepting of other sounds than are Americans.

The problem with America is there is too much choice. It’s so competitive and such a big, self-sustaining market, so the need” to accept something else isn’t there as much. You need to understand that the majority of Americans don’t live anywhere near a border, like Europe or Africa. It’s such a big country and you might have minimal experiences dealing with other cultures. 

Meanwhile in other places, like the Spanish community in America, reggaeton is blowing up at the same time. K‑Pop is happening at the same time, and they’re all so clued up on YouTube. That’s the reality of it. But 70 per cent of African music consumption on YouTube comes from outside of Africa. That’s a huge export of sounds. Everyone has their own little worlds ultimately.

What were your thoughts on Tyler, the Creator’s post-Grammys comments about the use of the word urban”?

Maybe Tyler’s right. Maybe it’s time to redefine or rename music of black origin. No one person can pull that off. That’s up to the culture.

What are some of the long-term plans for YouTube Music?

[We have] ongoing activity with the playlists, sponsorships, growing subscriptions, a lot of content being produced for YouTube Originals. I’m also working on a few things… There is a lot going on!

How has joining YouTube impacted on you personally?

I’m learning so much about leadership. In my previous experiences, all I did was rise and I was always a subject-matter specialist, like music programming. Now, I’m kind of in a hub where a lot of cultures exist. I’m working with so many different departments within YouTube. I’m learning how to add value to all of these departments as an ambassador of the culture, of Africa, the diaspora, underground hip-hop, mainstream… I represent the culture for the company and the company for the culture.


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