Record label executive and philanthropist, Head of Artiste and Repertoire for Cinq Music | Red Republic, and CEO of JUMP Africa shares his journey: his experience in music, travel, and fashion.
FOTEMAH MBA: Kwame Nkrumah once said, “I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me.” The heritages of Africa are the very life force that inspires everything I do, especially my sense of self-possession and self-determination as it pertains to being a Black man living in the United States. In luxury publications, the ownership narratives of wealth originating from the continent are seldom attributed to us through our lens, so when Will, Monarch’s CEO, asked, the answer was yes.
MONARCH: You were raised primarily outside of Cameroon in the diplomatic core; your dad was a diplomat and your mother an educator. Where did your interest and ear for music derive?
FOTEMAH MBA: Growing up in African culture, music was not promoted as a means to make a living. My dad was a diplomat, and my mom was an educator. I think it just stems from the fact that even though they were not musicians, they played music a lot around the house, so it was something I could not escape. I watched how my parents entertained and how happy they were when they did so. Being around that rubbed off on me, inspired me. I wanted to be the one doing the entertaining or being a part of the vehicle that made them feel as happy as they looked.
MONARCH: Were your parents supportive of your desire to be in the music business?
FOTEMAH MBA: I think my parents were like, “Wait… what is it you want to do? No, that is not a career; that is a job.” Being African, whether you are Cameroonian, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Senegalese, from the DRC, or other, you are given many options, as mandated by your family, for a career. We are either told to be a lawyer, a doctor, or an educator. Those are the only accepted professions. So things within the liberal arts are not understood or easily accepted.
I persisted, and after a while, they realized that I was not letting go of this. My mom appeared more neutral, seeking to allow me the decision over my life, but was still concerned. She still questions what I do as an actual profession, even to this day. My dad was like, “Okay, do that, but just make sure your grades aren’t poor. Make sure you stay focused.” When he said that, my mom kind of gave him the side-eye. So in short, they did not kill the dream. They allowed me the space and support to create my own life while encouraging me to pursue my education.
MONARCH: When did your journey with music begin?
FOTEMAH MBA: I moved to Atlanta in ’91, and my trajectory started from two places: producer and singer-songwriter Johntá Austin and Akon. You could not be in Atlanta at that time and interested in music without hearing the buzz on them, so I made it my mission to meet them. Both were appearing at the Black Expo, which was this huge event. I caught up to Akon as he was going backstage. He was already bringing the heat of Afrobeat to rap music, and that really spoke to me. That meeting was the beginning. Akon and I kept in touch throughout my studies. When I neared completion, we linked up, and I started at Konvict just as he was launching the label.
Then I met Johntá. We were around the same age, which made conversation easy. At 16, he was already known in the industry for being a young genius in music and television. I told him that I was interested in getting into the business. In return, he introduced me to Chris Young, who became my mentor and, later on, my business partner.
MONARCH: What were the steps leading from Konvict Music to becoming head of A&R at Cinq Records and the general market in Afrobeats?
FOTEMAH MBA: From working with Akon and Johntá over the years, I learned many sides of the music business. Firstly, it is a business. Do not let the bling and fast cars of social media fool you. I worked in artist/producer/song-writer discovery and development, marketing and street team promotion, radio support, audience engagement/ concerts, and even merchandising. At Konvict, we were a music startup akin to what today is associated with technology companies. Your success was determined by the strength of your hustle and ingenuity, so I worked hard.
I liked the “hands in everything” approach and found that aligned well to larger indie labels that were not hindered by large corporations’ politics. When I started thinking what was next after taking a break, Cinq Records synced up so much with that. Within Cinq, I oversee General Market, and through our Red Republic partnership, I am building a strong Afrobeat and Amapiano presence.
Red Republic is like the culmination of experiences and lessons learned because it is about ownership and cultural development. Those are, without a doubt, my two greatest takeaways from Akon and Johntá: Own what you do, and always rep for the cultural heritage that made you. As executives, we have a huge responsibility as to what we champion to society.
MONARCH: What are the origins of Afrobeats? And what’s the difference between Amapiano and Afrobe – ats?
FOTEMAH MBA: Afrobeats comes out of Nigeria, specifically Fela Kuti. He was the originator of this sound: jazz mixed with traditional African rhythms to a melodic, up-tempo beat. That is the sound we hear today taking over the world, from the likes of WizKid, Davido, Tems, and Burna Boy. They are all hybrids, offspring of the Fela sound, whether it’s the guitar, the cadence, or the drum patterns. With Afrobeats, when it comes to the feeling of it, the lyrical content would be the equivalent of how authentic R&B music would make you feel. It evokes emotions, makes you want to dance. It’ll make you want to groove. It’s a vibe.
Amapiano is the equivalent of deep-house or dance music that would be played in Ibiza or back in the day in Chicago with Frankie Knuckles or Larry Levan at Paradise Garage. It takes hold of your body from the inside out and moves you.
MONARCH: You’ve worked with various artists, I believe WizKid, who was one of my favorites. To be exact, he was an artist you worked with who now is internationally known. What star quality specifically did you see in him?
FOTEMAH MBA: Wiz just had that “it” factor. His penmanship was absolutely incredible from day one. And when I say penmanship, Wiz doesn’t write in advance. He gets in the booth, and it’s history. He is like Jay in that way. They both get in the booth and flow off the top. Within 15 minutes, it’s done in one take. Wiz still has it like that. He’s a poet. He’s a strategist. He’s a businessman. He knew exactly where he wanted to go, what it would take to get there. He knew when he wanted to release his record to have maximum impact and even strategized around when other people were releasing their records. So he is very in tune. It’s so good to see him rise.
MONARCH: Several well-known, established artists are now moving to independent labels like Cinq, namely T.I. and Janet Jackson. Tell us why.
FOTEMAH MBA: Bottomline, the initiatives are better. The nature of the business has changed. In the past, the only way you could really climb the charts to awards and financial success was through the major label gatekeepers. They controlled the record supply chain, distribution to consumer. There have always been thousands of artists out there, but only a few get chosen to have their songs in heavy rotation on national radio or get played on BET or MTV.
Well, the terrain has changed. Advancements in technology have democratized the landscape. Artists now have ownership of their fans, whether it’s through Instagram or Face – book. There are different platforms where their fans come to be engaged directly—every day, every minute—and where the fans are the dollar stream directly. Fans follow and watch every move of their favorite artists. No longer do you have to wait to hear your artist on the radio or in an interview to know when they were dropping their record. Artists like T.I. and Janet, after their long careers on a major label, have secured built-in fans, so they go independent when they are about to drop their record. An indie label, in the long run, offers better deals and more flexibility when it comes to monetization, recoupment, and profit participation.
You own your masters. I cannot state how important that is! Just think of all of those artists from the Motown, A&M, and Epic era of the business whose life’s work they have no or little ownership in. This is an exciting time. Soon we will be announcing more high-profile artist partnerships.
MONARCH: It sounds like you have not only a great ear but a great eye for star quality. I want to know, who are some artists that we should look out for currently?
FOTEMAH MBA: I have quite a few that I’m really excited about who I’m currently working with and developing: Sy Ari, the Mind, Scotty Atl, Ye Ali, Poe Leos, Hard Pink, and Ed Staal come to mind. Ed Staal actually comes from London, so my eyes and ears are searching across oceans.
MONARCH: In addition to your success in music, you also operate a very successful non-profit: JUMP Africa, which stands for Join Us in Making Progress. Can you tell us why you got involved and what your mission is?
FOTEMAH MBA: Before I tell you the mission, let me say this: Life is a journey that is to be lived, and it is never a smooth course. That is not the way and experience of seeking to be a fully formed human being. I am still learning that you must be stretched to your highest heights and sometimes lowest depths to find your purposeful mission.
I founded JUMP Africa at what would be considered a low point in my career. In the same way that many tech founders lose it all before finding lasting success, there was a time when the checks stopped coming like they used to come. The phone stops ringing, and your friends who have been to every party, at every concert, with you disappear in absence of those perks. That becomes a low point because you start realizing, oh snap, it’s between me, family, and God right now. That was a low point for me. At that point, I had an epiphany about what I was asking for and what it meant to give: be of service in gratitude. I made a decision to give.
I didn’t have money to give, but I had time to give, so I started volunteering at this organization called Books to Africa. I tapped the quieter, non-industry relationships in my networks and ended up shipping a container of books worth $150,000 to Cameroon.
I knew from the work my mom was doing back there and from remembering the words of my father that this was the greatest need. They were seeking to step in to fill this gap, so I always had them as an example. It wasn’t, however, until this time in my life that I really focused enough to see how I could be an agent of positive change. When I delivered that container to Cameroon, I realized that I hadn’t even scratched the surface of the issues back home when it came to helping in the educational system. So I came back and founded JUMP Africa to help with the educational system in African countries, supplying books and materials to libraries and schools. Doing so temporarily took my focus off music. In devoting myself to JUMP Africa, I needed to be fully in, nearly obsessed, until I felt the organization was starting to make an impact. In the first few years, I could not rationalize how to do both as I do now. One balances out the other, and that gives me a sense of wholeness.
MONARCH: So our readers fully understand, through your leadership, JUMP Africa has built more than 51 libraries, shipped thousands and thousands of books, and provided 1,400-plus health screenings. In one word—amazing!
Dior has selected you to be an ambassador. Tell us about that experience so far.
FOTEMAH MBA: Dior is very exciting. Unbeknownst to me, my friend Derreck Kayongo put my name forward to be one of Dior’s new brand ambassadors. Dior did their research and saw great value in everything I was doing to positively impact education and access to quality healthcare in Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ghana. Dior is committed to merging philanthropy and style. This suits my perfectly. After all, both are part of my personal expression.
MONARCH: This is a testimony to “what you give, you get in return.” Outside of your parents, who are a few of your heroes?
FOTEMAH MBA: My heroes come from the Bible. I’m inspired by David, by Moses, and all those. It is in their journeys to life’s experience that I find the greatest inspiration and fortification. None are perfect physical beings. They are individuals who have had to go through some things, learn some things, be humbled to express grace.
If I am to think about this realm of those who walk among us, I would say my parents, who are also like my best friends; I am inspired by their accomplishments considering the humble beginnings and hardships they went through. I’m inspired by individuals like Sir Emeka Offor. He’s an oil and energy industrialist who does a lot for humanity, not just in Nigeria but throughout the diaspora. Most billionaires do what their tax bracket and laws mandate. Sir Emeka does what his soul and family values tell him. He also has a nice sense of style. I respect that greatly.
Economist Tony Elumelu is another person I draw great inspiration from. Here in the States, Bill Allen, who is building the new Black Wall Street in Atlanta, Georgia, has been a great mentor to me. He introduced me to the legacy of Reginald Lewis, the first Black billionaire on Wall Street. They are rooted in a desire to be of service, specifically to leverage their success and all that they have acquired to improve the lives of others while also living a very full life. My pastor’s sermon on Sundays often speaks to this type of reconciliation of professional and personal to do God’s will.
MONARCH: Everything has a lesson within itself. We can all learn from anything, everyone—inanimate, animate, tangible, intangible things in life. And I have learned so much from speaking with you. Thank you for your time, and please let our readers know where they can connect with you.
FOTEMAH MBA: Yes, follow me at @tmah_jump on IG and Twitter