Music

BMAC’s Willie ‘Prophet’ Stiggers on DEI Layoffs & the Music Industry’s ‘False Promises’

When the Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC) releases its annual Music Industry Action Report Card, co-founder and president/CEO Willie “Prophet” Stiggers says a barrage of distressed phone calls from executives inevitably follows. The assessments grade music companies on how well they’ve kept promises made in 2020 to diversify their executive ranks, among other measures; the executives call, he explains, to complain that the grades affect their bottom lines.

“That’s what we want to do,” says Stiggers, who is also the CEO of artist and brand management company 50/50 Music Group Management. “You can’t continue to operate with false promises after saying that you stand in solidarity with your Black brothers and sisters and then don’t promote the Black executive and don’t ensure that a woman is in an environment where she is protected and her vision is executed.”

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BMAC was established in June 2020 following the movement #TheShowMustBePaused to advance racial diversity, equity and inclusion in the music business. But this year’s mass industry layoffs, which included many DEI executives, has “unrolled some of the progress we were making,” Stiggers says.

As a result, BMAC will present a new version of its report before its fourth annual gala in September. The organization has sent a link to executives that asks them to anonymously indicate whether they have seen true change, what has worsened and what still needs to be addressed.

The early results, Stiggers says, are “almost a slap in the face — a ‘whitelash,’ if you will, to the commitments that were made in 2020. The question has become, Was this s— really performative or not?”

From the Desk of Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, FTDO, Market
The National Action Network Award that Stiggers received this year — “a 360 moment for me because my activism began with [NAN founder and president] Al Sharpton. I created and led [the organization’s] youth division.”

Why are there fewer Black executives in the music industry now than in 2019? 

The major labels, I’m sure, would tell you AI [artificial intelligence]. The uncertainty of that realm has caused them to tighten up. But my suspicions are, there’s a bit of that, but these positions [for Black and women executives] were not permanent. A lot of the people were put in these positions in 2020 — managers became senior-level directors, for example — and then in 2024, they have been asked to go back to that lower position or exit altogether. When you have the RIAA report record-breaking revenue that the industry generated in 2023, it’s a little lost on me how that translates to the lack of employment.

What are your thoughts on the DEI positions that have been eliminated since 2020? 

The reality is that a lot of these commitments from the labels were three-year commitments. That seemed to be the hot number where they thought maybe at the end of the three years this s— would go away or we would be on to something else. Seemingly, the contracts that these DEI executives had were three-year deals. Once they were up, [the labels were] like, “We did that. We checked the box. Now let’s go back to business as usual.” There was so much potential for us to set this thing on the right course. So for us to go backward is really embarrassing, and history is going to reflect this.

How are you counseling these companies to elevate people of color and women?

A lot of our conversations with these labels, we do confidentially. Here’s what I can say about it. We bring all kinds of stats to prove how profitable diversity is; how profitable it is when you let women lead; how profitable historically it has been when people of color — those who make the product, who consume the product — lead [in terms of] how that product is distributed. This is not even a moral conversation at this point. I’m telling you how it impacts your bottom line.

From the Desk of Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, FTDO, Market
The prototype of the first BMAC Award, which was given in September 2021 to The Weeknd at the first gala. “He said, ‘This is the greatest award I ever received.’ ”

What do you think of the Recording Academy’s attempts to diversify the voting membership for the Grammy Awards?

Racism is a 450-year-old issue. It is not going to be solved in three or four years. What we can do is talk about the progress that has been made. We have, for the first time, a Black CEO of the Recording Academy. That’s progress. We watched new categories get introduced [like] best song for social change. That didn’t exist prior to Harvey Mason jr. as CEO. He’s up against decades of systems that we are slowly chipping away at. The mere fact that there is a Black Music Collective. The fact that Jay-Z stood on the stage and held a Grammy named after Dr. Dre. We’re not going to act like that is the liberation of our people, but we’re not going to act like that’s not change.

You say BMAC has moved from protest to policy. How?

In 2022, it came to our attention that there were over 500 cases of Black men that were locked up for lyrics. That became a problem for us. So BMAC created the federal legislation called the RAP Act. The work that we did on that federal level created all these statewide bills like what Gov. [Gavin] Newsom signed in California last year. That was a direct result of our work. We are working with the group around Fix the Tix and are working with the groups around AI protection. Our work around legislative policy is as loud, as real and as meaningful as the work we’re doing with pipeline programs.

What are some of those pipeline programs?

Three years ago, we partnered with the RIAA and Tennessee State University and [Nashville Music Equity’s] Brian Sexton, who is an alumnus there, to bring a unique commercial business school to young people who want to get into the industry. We bring in executives and artists from all over the industry. They get paid internships that come out of that every year. We’ve had several people get gainfully employed at record labels and music studios. Most recently, Live Nation hired one of the participants. Tri Star [Sports & Entertainment] hired a young woman from this year’s classes.

From the Desk of Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, FTDO, Market
A portrait of Stiggers; his wife of 29 years, Fatima; and three of their children, from left: Zaira, Nailah and Willie III. They have since been joined by daughter Safra-Cree. “We met in high school and started [our] family young, which defined my greater purpose,” he says.

That’s not your only Nashville-related initiative.

BMAC also put out a report in 2022 called Three Chords and the Actual Truth: The Manufactured Myth of Country Music and White America. When we released that report, there was a call to action for the music world to join us in addressing the structural racism on Music Row in Nashville and creating access. We were inspired by a guy named Michael Tubbs from Stockton, Calif. He created Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and got mayors from all over the country to create these pilot programs where they would give [citizens of their city] guaranteed income of up to $2,000 a month. He got the qualitative and quantitative data needed to show the positive effects of small increments of money going to people directly.

We felt we could bring the same concept to the music industry and creators. The Academy of Country Music was the first to raise their hand and join us. A year to the date of that report, 20 young Black kids [in the music community] started receiving $1,000 a month, plus mentorship and [other] services.

BMAC is also working with the live industry.

We did a partnership with Live Nation and created BMAC Live, a 10-day intensive program in California as part of Live Nation’s School of Live. They allowed BMAC to come in and carve out a program specifically geared toward young Black non-college-bound students who have a desire to be in the live space. We’ve had 3,000 applicants already, and we are going to pick 20 of the best of that group and fly them out to Los Angeles for a full week. Each of those young people will go to their respective cities and receive a paid internship from Live Nation for six months. [Then] they will be eligible for the Live Nation apprenticeship program. That’s another six months that will then lead to employment. That’s the type of access and training we talked about, and that program will scale and grow annually.

From the Desk of Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, FTDO, Market
A plaque commemorating the first Music Business Accelerator Program created by BMAC in partnership with the RIAA that started at Tennessee State University in 2021.

Is there anything else you would like to highlight?

We’re working on something really special with Apple Pathways. [We are training young people] around spatial audio, spatial visual and preparing them for the technology of tomorrow. This is where we are going, and if we don’t create the accessibility to the technology, another divide is about to happen. Another shift will take place in which Black America is left out once again.

Is BMAC looking to expand its staff as these programs and initiatives develop?

Yes. We will be expanding and looking at college representatives. Young people are ready. They’re not moving with the same barriers and the same willingness to allow norms to continue to separate people. It’s a different spirit among this generation here.

One thing we realized is that this fight for justice isn’t just here in the U.S. We are in partnerships with organizations in the United Kingdom and Australia, and we are forging a tremendous movement with several key organizations throughout the continent [of Africa]. I’m very concerned about what’s happening with Afrobeats. If we don’t get over there and start working with our African brothers and sisters to understand the industry, the cultural appropriation that took place in hip-hop, blues, rock, country will happen over there. If we do not protect the [intellectual property], it will be cultural colonization all over again.

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