In the entertainment business, there are a special handful of unicorns behind the scenes who make magic happen. Dyana Williams is in that group.
Once wife to music legend Kenny Gamble, who is responsible for making the sound of Philadelphia famous, she didn’t sit idle behind her well respected husband and play housewife. Well before meeting Gamble, she was a woman on the prowl, determined to make her dreams come true. She continuously paved her own way in an industry that has never valued women, specifically black women, on the same accord as men.
A radio personality who began her career in the early 1970’s, Williams went on to become the first African American/Latina woman rock DJ at the ABC FM affiliate, WRQX-FM. After that, she made the move to television as a contributing reporter and settled in Philadelphia to work at the renowned R&B Soul station, WDAS-FM. Other career highlights include freelance entertainment reporting for Black Entertainment Television (BET), serving as a music consultant and contributing to The Philadelphia Tribune, Billboard Magazine, and The Philadelphia New Observer, just to name a few.
Her career accomplishments alone weren’t satisfying enough. Well after beginning her broadcasting career, in 1997 she achieved a lifelong dream of earning a college degree and graduated cum laude from Temple University with a B.A. in television, radio and film. Ms. Williams was actually the keynote speaker at my 2013 commencement from Temple University’s School of Media & Communications!
Since then, Williams has continued to work to provide black entertainers with quality guidance through her work in artist development. With a resume as impressive as her’s, many still do not give her enough credit for the work she did in not only assisting in constructing the idea of Black Music Month, but making it a nationally proclaimed month of celebration. In honor of the month-long celebration that occurs each June, I spoke with Dyana about her journey to bringing Black Music Month to fruition.
Before Black Music Month came about, you were active in the local and national chapter of the Black Music Association. How did you get involved, what was your role and what was the whole purpose of the group?
My ex-husband and I co-founded the association together. I was active in the Philly chapter and then later nationally, but I was there at the core of its establishment. The inspiration behind the Black Music Association was black entertainer’s advocacy and the desire for the masses to recognize the black music industry as a multibillion dollar industry. Historically, black music, whether that be Gospel, Soul or R&B and at one time Rock-N-Roll before the gentrification of the genre ensued, took up a sizeable amount of revenue and has generally dominated the charts. Even now, if you look at the charts, hip hop music is the top selling genre of music and most pop hits are occupied by black artists in the likes of Rihanna, Beyonce and even mainstream rap artists like Cardi B. Unfortunately, despite the revenue that black music has generated, that profit has never benefited the actual artists or even the songwriters and producers of such hits. The whole idea behind the Black Music Association was always to be a catalyst for change to eventually change the way in which black entertainers were paid, advocate on their behalf and have more of us in positions of power to make such happen.
What were some of the proudest moments of the Black Music Association?
I loved what we did with the Black Music Is Green Campaign, which was a push to make the public, as well as the music industry overall aware that the black music industry is profitable. Out of that came the unification of different parts of the industry coming together for the first time for the celebration of black music. There were artists, record executives, writers, managers, and everyone in between united for the sake of one goal. An annual conference was produced that featured the best of the best, including Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder and that conference went on for 16 years. Gamble was really the leader in this initiative while I supported his efforts. He traveled to Nashville to get an inspirational model and really used the country music industry’s Country Music Association as a template for what great could be done when an industry sticks together. That campaign was the kickoff for the surge of black music divisions within record labels that you saw booming in the late 80s all the way into the early 2000’s that we unfortunately no longer have today in the way that we once did.
It’s unfortunate that the association no longer exists. Is there anything in its place that black artists and music executives have to lean on?
Michael Mauldin, who is the father of Jermaine Dupri, recently joined forces with a few other powerhouses in the industry to form a new coalition of sorts known as BAMA, which is an effort to create unity to address the injustices that have transpired over the years within black music and how it’s impacted artistry, sales and profits at the expense of those it should benefit. At a certain point, white executives in charge of major labels where there were black or urban divisions, got rid of those units because they foolishly believed they could handle it. Slowly but surely, there was a demise of black executives and the destruction of black music with more emphasis on traditional pop. That left very little unity within the black music industry as a whole. There are instances of black folk in power today, but it’s changed drastically.
Before, there were private, black owned labels or major labels that had black divisions run by black executives. Think of Motown, Philadelphia International, or even traveling into later decades with labels such as LaFace, BadBoy, Death Row and SoSo Def. BadBoy in itself was able to create multiple sub labels and divisions under that one umbrella. Now, you have isolated companies who are in partnerships with larger labels versus privately owned black labels managing everything. For example, Jay Z, who owns Rock Nation, is a billionaire now. That’s great. But, he partners with major corporations such as Live Nation as opposed to other black owned entities. We need more black business collaboration.
The concept of Black Music Month was birthed from the association and I know Kenny Gamble had the initial idea. There was a huge event at the White House during Carter’s term and that was the driving force behind getting Black Music Month accepted as a national month-long celebration by Congress. Could you speak to that and why you took on that huge job?
Gamble and I were a couple and our visions aligned in every way. I met him when I was an MC at an OJays concert in DC and once we came together, we were a powerful force with a goal of using music to advance our community.
As a radio host, I was an up close and personal witness to Gamble’s music dominating radio. Philadelphia International was on fire creatively and was an exceptional black business. He had a vision that he shared with me while we were dating to use music for change. He was dedicated to “cleaning up the ghetto” through music and there’s even a song he wrote about it.
Years after the first major event at the While House, I wanted to do something similar again. I wrote Clinton during his term and asked him to host a similar reception. They researched their archives and saw that the event existed but they informed me that Carter hadn’t actually signed a proclamation and they advised that I get legislation involved.
I didn’t know anything about lobbying but I am a talker and a skilled writer so I used those talents. I figured if I got the President’s attention then I could do this. I wrote articles in almost every publication about my dream of making Black Music Month official, spoke publicly about it on the radio and any other chance I could. That enacted the support of a Republican Senator of PA, which was surprising but I knew that was a big deal. From there, I received other political support, including from Congressman Chaka Fattah on the Democratic side. I was in and out of the White House having meetings in the Oval Office with the President to get this done. I would take my supporters, I even once took Ronald Isley of the Isley brothers and his wife Angela Winbush with me. Clinton obliged and the Bush administration followed, as well as Obama and even Trump.
I will never forget the day I found out that Black Music Month was officially accepted. I was sitting in my office in Penn Valley and received a phone call that it would be introduced on the floor for a vote. Eventually, enough votes passed and I got word. I ran back to the White House and showed them, basically to say, “Look, I did what you told me and it’s done!”
From there, the work continued. I formed a delegation of business people who worked in the industry where we would sit and have discussions to put artist and financial advancement of black entertainers in motion. And here we are, 40 years later, with the same goal. June 7 was the 40th anniversary of the day we spent at the White House with artists like Evelyn Champagne King and Chuck Berry and an audience filled with congressional reps, industry execs, publicists etc.
The music industry has changed drastically. In what ways has Black Music Month advanced the black music industry?
One of the things that we have done is advocate for artists and songwriters to have greater rights and control over what they create. 20 years ago, I became very active in the Recording Academy and I’ve been on and off of the Philadelphia Board for 20 years and even served as President at one point. My tenure as President required having national meetings with movers and shakers in the industry and going to Capitol Hill to do real work.
Overall, Black Music Month advocated and educated the masses on the importance of ownership. Back in the day, signing a deal was everything and artists ended up being bound by a contract. I’ve worked with everyone from Rihanna to Justin Beiber and more at various stages of their careers and the artists today who were once eager to sign a contract have changed their minds. Artists, songwriters and producers are more interested in owning their work so that they can not just profit off of it as they should; but also create a legacy in which they can do what they want with the work they create. When you don’t own your work, you have little to no say in where it’s played, who can sample it, what films it can be featured in. Very few artists own their masters, but that is the common thread now.
The internet was the game changer. Had internet been around before, it may have been different. But now, more artists have control over how their music is shared, which is great.
Are you proud of where Black Music Month stands now?
Most major entities have Black Music Month campaigns throughout the month. Comcast, which is an international media company, has a whole dedication to Black Music Month on their various streaming, internet and cable packages, for all genres. There are also campaigns with advertisers and most record labels, including RCA and RCA Inspiration, have campaigns. The awareness may not be as prevalent as Black History Month, but it’s growing and it’s beautiful to be here to witness it. I also get a chance to see the culture and corporate impact when I travel across the country to speak about Black Music Month.
Finally, it’s clear you have a passion for black music. What are your hopes for the industry moving forward and how can we honor Black Music Month now and forever?
My soul is black music. There’s a reason black music resonates and is the top selling. We will never know the pain our people went through in cotton fields, being abused, with little breaks while working for free. But, so much came out of that pain and suffering, one of which is black music as it’s well documented that soul music and negro spirituals is what helped get them through. That’s part of the reason there’s so much depth, pain, triumph and soul in our music. It transcends generations.
In terms of re-establishing black labels and divisions, it’s important for the current generation to change this narrative and become more united. I’ve done my part. This wave of artists and executives have to assume responsibility. My generation was more willing to take risks and what I want the new school of folks to understand is that there’s a great advantage to challenging the system.
We can honor black music daily by supporting our artists in every way. Stream their music, buy their merchandise, attend their concerts; there's a myriad of ways.
My grandson will be with me this summer and I will be playing his grandfather’s music. His grandfather is a living Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and his Nana is responsible for bringing Black Music Month to fruition. It gets no better than that.
To learn more about the history of Black Music Month, read the latest feature in VIBE Magazine