It is now five years since the tragic early death of British music industry lawyer, manager and entrepreneur, Richard Antwi.
Following his passing a group of his friends established the Richard Antwi Scholarship, which champions Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals and is awarded in conjunction with the Music Business Management MA at the University of Westminster. It is supported by all three UK major record labels, music publishers, and several of the top independent music companies and law firms.
Here in the second of three interviews with the graduates from the Scholarship so far, MBW meets Esther Lenda Bokuma – a hotly-tipped artist in her own right (under the name Estée Blu) who is currently working at Universal Music UK’s Brand Partnership, Sync and Production division, Globe…
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how much of a difference the Richard Antwi Scholarship made in terms of providing opportunities?
I’m Esther, also known as Estee Blu, and I’m a London-born R&B, jazz and Afrofusion influenced artist, of Congolese heritage. I also work at Globe in the Brand Partnerships team at Universal and serve as a Sound Connections Trustee, with a focus on building career pathways for young people in the music industry.
In addition, I sit on the recently launched F-List board of directors led by former BASCA CEO Vick Bain (now known as the Ivors Academy). The F-List focuses on gender parity for women and gender minorities in music, with an intersectional approach.
My official journey into the industry was through birthing my artist persona, Estée Blu, around 2015. I have been compared to the likes of SZA and Solange by NME and supported by Help Musicians, the MOBO Awards and the Roundhouse.
I’ve had features on platforms such as Apple Music 1, COLORS, AfroPunk and Sofar Sounds, with nods from Jamz Supernova, Julie Adenuga, Kamilla Rose and Remi Burgz, which has been fabulous as an independent and self-managed artist.
I’d had offers for a few TV talent shows, management and a small independent label, but I’ve always been integral about how I grow my career, the contractual terms and the values of who I partnered with; if it didn’t feel right, I always trusted my intuition.
“It redefined how I saw myself, my talents, my influence and trajectory as an artist.”
So I was happy to fund my own development, learn as much as I could and take things at my own pace. With a bi-lingual background, I qualified as a French teacher to continue to support myself, and then after about 18 months I moved out of formal education and into artist development as a course leader on a music diploma programme, facilitating the learning of other young musicians.
As that drew to a close, I was keen to discover more about career opportunities in the wider music business, and also sharpen my tools as an artist. In the summer of 2019, I saw Twin B [Alec Boateng, Co-President of 0207 Def Jam] post about the Richard Antwi scholarship on Twitter, and did some digging.
That same afternoon, I had a phone call with the Programme Director, Sally-Anne Gross, at the University of Westminster who told me more about the Masters in Music Business Management and the scholarship. I was sold and applied for both!
The Richard Antwi scholarship massively supported me in terms of financing the MA, providing me with a living stipend and also introducing me to the incredible scholarships committee, filled with friends and family who knew and loved Richard.
It redefined how I saw myself, my talents, my influence and trajectory as an artist. It also made me even more aware of the fact that artists are businesses, and it was important for me to expand my skills and integrate all my passions and experiences in building a creative and dynamic career for myself.
I don’t believe in the myth of the starving artist, and with the right resources, talent, work ethic, network and guidance, anything is possible in terms of designing the life that you want.
How did you find the course and what were the most important things you learned?
I’ve always been a naturally curious person – and a bit of a nerd – and as this Masters was actually my third degree and fifth University it definitely exceeded my experiences of higher education.
It felt like the perfect alignment of time and space to nurture my interests, expand my network and accelerate. We covered everything from copyright and intellectual property to A&R, music marketing and new technologies, with several music industry professionals visiting us on a weekly basis as guest speakers.
“It felt like the perfect alignment of time and space to nurture my interests, expand my network and accelerate.”
However, having to do a 10,000 word dissertation last summer was extremely challenging in what seemed like a never ending lockdown, at the height of the Black Lives Matter resurgence, particularly as I had chosen to investigate an intense subject matter, exploring the experiences of darker-skinned Black British women and their dealings with racism, colourism (discrimination against people with a dark skin tone in favour of those with a lighter skin tone from the same race) and sexism in the UK music industry. I also deep dived into Afro-futurism as a potential tool to circumvent inequalities.
Given the climate, that was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, but I believe that it was a timely and necessary piece of work that uncovered the reality of being a dark-skinned Black woman in British music: the dichotomy of being highly influential but equally invisible and looking to independence and entrepreneurship to carve out one’s own sense of freedom.
I learnt that learning is a life-long process, so my research is still ongoing and I hope to be able to publish my thesis in paper or book.
How has your work placement been – and what have you learned from working at Globe?
Like many, I’ve started my role virtually and it’s been strange not having met the team in real life and not being able to go on shoots, which is a big part of the position.
But regardless of that, working at Globe has been a good experience. Individually, everyone is absolutely incredible at their jobs, so it collectively makes a stronger team, who work and deliver at such a high quality and standard.
I’m only about six months in, so I’m still learning, but I guess the main takeaway is the importance of brands in the music space, and how they each have varying objectives when partnering with artists.
That means we have to be meticulous in our research, creative in our offer and tailor things specifically, which means that no deal is the same.
What has your mentoring experience been like?
I’ve been able to virtually shadow almost everyone on the Brands team and learn about their specialist skills as we work on such a broad range and scale of commercial partnerships.
Outside Universal, my other mentors include Sally-Anne Gross, Matt Ross, Paul Heard [ex-M People/MPH Productions] and Will Bloomfield from the Richard Antwi Scholarship committee, and it’s comforting to be able to touch base with them regularly and still have their support beyond graduating last October.
What are your ambitions?
Since childhood, my ambitions have always involved honouring my creativity in whatever way that manifests. I’m not afraid of change, nor am I afraid to fail or start
again, so long as I’m living in my purpose.
I live quite holistically, since having an experience with burnout a few years ago, so having a good work/life balance are key factors for me as I continue in this industry.
Music has always been my first love, and in the next 10 years I’ll definitely fulfill those artistic goals, putting all my years of learning into practice.
“I want to carry on lending my voice, doing the research and internal work, platforming others and also championing the movement towards equity.”
I’m also interested in further developing my youth outreach activity, as I know how hard it can be to navigate this industry when you first start out, have absolutely no clue what you’re doing and have no connections.
I’m going to continue to focus on creating more safe spaces, particularly for Black women in music, across all intersections.
There’s still so much more to unpack in terms of our unique experiences in this industry, which are often related to the combination of inequalities due to gender and race. However, there’s also room to celebrate the contributions of Black British women in wider culture, and I want to carry on lending my voice, doing the research and internal work, platforming others and also championing the movement towards equity.
What’s the one thing that you think really needs fixing in the music business right now?
As mentioned earlier, the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, along with The Show Must Be Paused Blackout Tuesday moment, really put a lot of things in perspective for me.
I did a panel with Mulika Sannie and Keith Harris OBE around that time and it was a very honest conversation about the conditions of Black people within the music industry, both behind the scenes and out front. It was and still is shocking when you start to dissect where power sits, which is disproportionate to the creative, cultural and spiritual contributions of Black people in contemporary music.
“Black women want the same opportunities as everyone else, the chance to economically participate and take up space in the vast musical genres and popular culture they helped build and continue to shape.”
I recognise that a lot of difficult conversations have been had – and are still ongoing. A lot of learning and unlearning has taken place, which is great to see. But one thing that sticks out to me from the research I did on Black British women in music is how Black women are rarely on label rosters, not seen as priority artists and not in positions of seniority across the major and independent labels as well as the music trade bodies.
Black women want the same opportunities as everyone else, the chance to economically participate and take up space in the vast musical genres and popular culture they helped build and continue to shape.
For me, that’s the one thing that music industry leaders and the music business as a whole needs to address and fix right now, with real care and careful consideration.Music Business Worldwide